Why the future of food is ‘invisible innovation’

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When you hear “the future of food,” what comes to mind? Star Trek-like food synthesisers, pills to replace your lunch, lab-grown meat, and insects for protein? Yes, the future of food might contain those things. However, it will also be a lot less… strange. 

That is according to Beatriz Jacoste Lozano, the director of the KM ZERO Food Innovation Hub. TNW caught up with her during last week’s Valencia Digital Summit, to learn more about the crucial work of transforming the way we source our food, while still catering to the emotional connection we have to what we eat. 

“If we want a product to work in the market, it needs to be aligned with cultural identity,” Jacoste Lozano says. “Food is something very close to our identity, our memories, our desires. So it has to also be delicious, right, and that is our first requirement for a novel food. That being said, there is a lot that needs to change — our food system is broken.” 

How our food systems are failing

And a broken system it is indeed. The food industry is largely dominated by multinational corporations that encourage unsustainable and unhealthy patterns of production and consumption. It is also the primary driver of biodiversity loss on the planet. In fact, agriculture alone is the identified threat to 24,000 of the 28,000 (86%) species at risk of extinction. 

It is also responsible for 30% of global carbon dioxide emissions, and 80% of global deforestation is a result of agricultural expansion. And still, the system has not managed to eradicate hunger and starvation. “Our food system is also failing when it comes to providing nourishment to people,” Jacoste Lozano states. “900 million people are still hungry.” 

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By 2050, it faces the enormous task of having to feed 9.8 billion people. Furthermore, diet-related diseases are one of the top three causes of death worldwide, putting public healthcare systems under enormous pressure, and at great cost to society. 

Reforming the way we produce and consume food is absolutely essential for the health of the planet — and humanity. 

Not all food tech is high tech

KM ZERO is looking to facilitate and accelerate that change through open innovation and investment. The hub analyses the needs of the food industry, which mainly take the form of sustainability challenges. These can be related to packaging, water usage, carbon emissions, soil quality, etc. But it doesn’t stop there, and it’s not all high tech.  

“We think sustainability is not enough — we are now talking about regeneration and restoration,” Jacoste Lozano says. “We don’t believe all innovation has to be digital and technological, we also believe in looking back at regenerative practices.” 

Beatriz Lozano in front of presentation screen on stage
Lozano says we need to accelerate change in all parts of our food system. Credit: KM ZERO

Essentially, what KM ZERO does is scout for solutions from startups that are putting forward novel materials and products, and connect them with investors, the food industry, and retailers so that they can scale their ideas. 

“We have 20 associated VCs that specialise in food — so they are smart money. And together, they have got more than €3,000,000,000 to invest in food tech. So we believe we can be a catalyser and speed up the change that is needed.” 

Combating food waste by changing perceptions

One of the reasons we have lost our way when it comes to nutrition is how removed we have become from how we source our food. A lack of understanding of and connection to what it takes to produce it also contributes to the massive amounts of food wasted. Every year, around one-third of all food goes to waste

Remember the nearly 1 million people still going hungry? Or the 30% of greenhouse gas emissions arising from food production? That means that 10% of all global emissions come from food that never reaches anyone’s stomach. 

KM ZERO also works with education. Through its initiative Gastro Genius Lab, the organisation gives kids the chance to change their relationship to food, and perhaps learn to love a vegetable or two in the process.

“We want to give children a chance to reflect on these challenges. But also, when cooking, they are more willing to eat, for example, broccoli, or other foods they usually don’t love,” Jacoste Lozano explains. “So that also changes the perception. And in terms of waste — if you put a lot of effort into something or if you realise that someone has put in effort, you tend to shift your behaviour.” 

A group of people on a stage in front of a colourful display
KM ZERO also hosts a food tech event called ftalks Food Summit. Credit: KM ZERO

One example of a startup looking to do its bit to reduce food waste is London-based Mimica. The company has developed a temperature-sensitive tag to put on food packaging to help discern when a product has actually gone bad, as opposed to relying on an often overly conservative best-before date. When the food starts to go bad, the sticker, called Bump, will go from a smooth to a bumpy texture. 

Another company is Trazable, which is putting blockchain technology to good use with software that digitalises food supply traceability records. Contaminated food can thus be traced back to its source within seconds, speeding up response times to alerts, and lets suppliers control the lifecycle of a product in-house or through the whole farm-to-fork value chain. 

New protein 

Many startups look to workdirectly with the food itself, such as Mimic Seafood and MOA Foodtech. The latter combines biotechnology and AI to transform by-products of the agri-food industry through fermentation into a “next-generation protein” containing all nine essential amino acids. This powder can then be added to almost any product to enhance nutritional value. 

While many meat substitutes have failed to capitalise on the initial enthusiasm, often due to lack of nutrition or disappointing textures, new technologies are showing promise in converting more plant-based sceptic parts of the population. 

“In the area of new proteins, we are seeing how we can use mycelium or algae and transform it through high-precision fermentation to make high quality protein that tastes good and that has the texture that makes products that people will actually want to eat,” Jacoste Lozano says. 

These technologies, using, for instance, bioreactors, have long been deployed in the pharmaceutical industry. Now it is a matter of bringing them to the right level of scale so that the economics behind them makes sense for the food industry. And to get the right investors who understand that things might take a little longer than their usual exit strategy would dictate. 

Invisible food tech innovation

Meanwhile, there is also a lot of innovation happening in the ecosystem around food production. For instance, in September this year, 40% of Spain was under drought alert or in “drought emergency.” This causes a decrease in production of foods such as grains and tomatoes.

“This means we need to import much of that food, and this means the price will rise and this will affect food access,” Jacoste Lozano says. “So, we are looking, for example, into regenerative agriculture. Because soil that is healthy needs much less water. In fact, we can reduce water demand by 75% if the soil is healthy. So we need these very ‘unsexy’ innovations as well.” 

Another area ripe for disruption is the use of plastic. The fact that we all consume one credit card worth of microplastics in a week is a particularly sobering detail from our conversation. Another London-based startup, Notpla, is making seaweed-based packages for food, drinks, and care products that are entirely compostable.

“I think the press many times doesn’t do a very good job in speaking about the future of food in more natural terms, because they highlight what leads to clicks, right?” Jacoste Lozano states. “So normally, you find that the future food is going to be eating insects, so people are taken aback. That’s why we really emphasise that the future of food does not have to be strange. And that we are going to see a lot of invisible innovation.”