On the heels of Future Food-Tech San Francisco a couple weeks ago, I’m feeling energized by connections with colleagues old and new, the companies launching some truly novel innovations, and the willingness of stakeholders across the ecosystem—from startups and brands to retailers and investors—to collaborate in novel ways to reshape our food system.
I was honored to moderate a main-stage panel on “What’s on the Consumer’s Plate”, a lively discussion with AI Palette, Sprouts Farmers Market, Motif Foodworks, Upside Foods, and Pairwise that reminded us of a crucial point: all innovation in food is only valuable if people want to eat it (more on that below).
Good Food Advisors identified three key themes from the conference:
1. The next generation of food technology is here: CRISPR produce, cultivated meat, and animal-free dairy will be hitting the shelves in 2023.
CRISPR produce: Pairwise will launch the first CRISPR-edited produce in the US under its Conscious Greens brand in mid-2023, following FDA approval in 2021. Its packaged salad contains mustard greens with the “bitter gene” removed - which the company hopes will encourage more people to eat the nutrition-packed lettuce variety. (We tried it, and it was in fact delicious.) The company is also growing new varieties of seedless berries and pitless cherries which it plans to bring to market following the launch of Conscious Greens.
Cultivated meat: Last November, Upside Foods became the first company to receive FDA approval for its cultivated chicken, which is grown directly from animal cells in a lab - and just this month, GOOD Meat followed suit. Both companies are among dozens producing meat, chicken and seafood without the need to raise and slaughter animals, which is an attractive proposition from the standpoint of animal welfare and climate impact. The taste is identical, since as one founder pointed out, “it is real meat - just without the animal.”
Animal-free dairy: Animal-free dairy, which replicates the taste of traditional dairy but as its name suggests, is not derived from animals, instead uses the process of precision fermentation to produce proteins like whey or casein (the same proteins found in animals). The FDA first approved precision fermentation technology for food applications in 1990, and today fermented proteins are used to produce a variety of products from bread to fruit juice. We met various companies bringing dairy products to market this year, under their own consumer-facing brands or as an ingredient (Perfect Day is one such company already in-market with a dual approach). In addition to animal welfare and sustainability benefits, producers also cite a nutritional upside, as their products contain no cholesterol or lactose.
2. Controlled-environment agriculture and plant-based meat alternatives have hit the Trough of Disillusionment, but we see them taking divergent paths.
We love the Gartner Hype Cycle as a framework to think about the adoption and maturity of new technologies. CEA agriculture and plant-based meat alternatives are two that are coming down from the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” and entering the “Trough of Disillusionment”, where interest wanes as implementations fail to deliver.
Both categories have lost favor with investors over the past year, as sales of plant-based meat have struggled to meet expectations and CEA companies struggle to turn a profit. Both categories are at an inflection point, and as Gartner notes, investments will continue only if surviving providers improve their products to the satisfaction of early adopters. This is where we see the two paths diverging.
We fear that plant-based meat may have a more limited market than originally anticipated. One point we heard repeatedly during Future Food Tech was that new categories need to go beyond mimicry or they will always be second best. We fear that plant-based meat may suffer this fate. With cultured meat solving for some of the animal welfare and climate concerns of livestock production, and retailers speaking of giving veggies and legumes “center plate in their own right”, plant-based meat may always be relegated to second place for meat-lovers and plant-based eaters alike.
On the other hand, controlled-environment agriculture solves for some real pain points in produce production and consumption. It uses 90% less water than traditional farms, eliminates or reduces the needs for pesticides and fertilizers, shortens supply chains and adds resiliency - all points which will become more salient in the face of climate change, extreme weather and supply shocks. Consistently optimized flavor and texture is good for consumers, as is the “locally grown” ethos and freshness benefits. CEA has yet to prove its unit economics, but we believe that its benefits will drive sufficient innovation to do so over time.
3. “Consumer is king, queen and everything in between”
At a technology conference, there is always a risk of getting excited about new technology and adopting a supply-driven mindset. But the reality is that if consumers don’t like a food or what’s in it, even the most innovative technologies will fall flat.
So what do consumers care about? To a large extent, the same thing they’ve always cared about: the eating experience, primarily taste and texture (“It’s the taste, stupid”). But also the emotional connection and the cultural relevance - what one panelist called “the Ratatouille moment”. Additionally, consumers consider affordability, convenience and nutrition. Importantly, we heard over and over again that brands can’t lead with sustainability. Yes, consumers may care, but nothing can compensate for a poor eating experience.
We heard calls for deeper collaboration across the ecosystem. Entrepreneurs developing new products can tap into retailers’ deep knowledge of their customers; retailers are happy to lend their insights in service of introducing offerings that they know will delight. And consumers themselves are increasingly part of the co-creation process via active focus groups, crowdsourced product development, interactive marketing campaigns, and pop-up tasting labs - thus evolving from passive shoppers to active participants in the journey to transform the food landscape.
The days of working in silos are gone. New technology is developing rapidly, and diverse fields from biotechnology to artificial intelligence are directly and increasingly impacting the food space. The future of food is here, and we must work together - across organizations, across stakeholder groups, and even across industries - to make sure we shape a system that is both sustainable and delicious.
Note: We’ve chosen to discuss the investment landscape in a separate post. The gist? We’ll see a rationalization of the industry, but good companies are still getting funded. Stay tuned!