4 ways food tech can lead to more resilient and sustainable food systems

By Oliver Morrison contact

- Last updated on GMT

Getty/ipopba
Getty/ipopba

Related tags: Food tech, Food technology, AI, cultured meat

With COVID-19 exposing fragile food chains and putting scrutiny on the ways we consume and produce foods and approach our own health, now is the perfect moment for food tech startups to step up and lead the way, says venture capitalist and entrepreneur Thomas Falk.

The COVID era has created “a new sense of urgency​,” said Falk, who is a General Partner at the US venture capital fund Revel Partners and CEO of eValue, and who primarily invests in European and American companies in the growth phase.

“For instance, to avoid supply chain disruptions, communities are increasing their reliance on local food systems, which has led to an increase in urban gardening and community-supported agriculture programs. Small-scale farmers are innovating to connect with each other, including through new online marketing initiatives. Entrepreneurs are identifying foods that would otherwise be wasted and directing them to food banks. But national governments and supranational bodies are often slow to tackle these issues. Now is the perfect moment for food tech startups to step up and lead the way.”

Thomas_Falk01
'What an exciting moment in time to be a part of,' venture capitalist and entrepreneur Thomas Falk.

Cultured meat

Food tech definitely has the potential to solve many of our most pressing problems around food, stressed the German entrepreneur. Producing enough food to feed the planet, while keeping the environmental impact to a minimum, is one of the greatest challenges facing the food sector.

One solution to this challenge is lab-grown meat. And although a dynamic sector, it is still a nascent one grappling with question marks over scalability, its own potential energy footprint and consumer acceptability.

This technology is now starting to reach maturity, noted Falk. “While early methods involved fetal bovine serum, there are now ways to produce cultured meat that do not depend on it. The sector is hugely dynamic,”​ he said, pointing to KFC’s recent partnership with Russian company 3D Bioprinting Solutions​ to develop bioprinted lab-grown chicken.

Falk acknowledged the criticisms of lab-meat. For example, Prof Jean-Francois Hocquette from the French National Institute for Agricultural Research has claimed that artificial meat may result in a decline of water quality since the process would need to produce huge amounts of chemical and organic molecules, such as hormones and growth factors, to add to the culture medium in order to grow the meat.

Another limiting factor of this technology is its energy consumption: the environmental impact of lab-grown meat therefore largely depends on how this energy is generated. But Falk believes that provided that electricity is supplied using sustainable methods, lab-grown meat will represent a big step towards a more ethical, “green” and scalable meat production.

He reckoned also that meat alternatives and cultured meat offer a solution to the extensive land use – including crops to feed livestock – in traditional agriculture, and can support the movement for a more ethical treatment of animals.

“As such, given that consumers abandon their reservations around these products, cultured lab meat will both ease the conscience of the urban elite and make an actual contribution to healthier ecosystems,”​ he said.

Vertical farming

Vertical farming is another innovation set to assist the food sector in its attempt to discover the most effective ways through which to minimise land use in densely populated areas.

“Apart from buildings, other indoor spaces such as shipping containers, tunnels and abandoned mine shafts have been infused with new purpose through this technology. In addition to maximizing crop yield per land unit, vertical farming can help to lower the carbon footprint of produce by bringing the farming site closer to the consumer​,” claimed Falk.

He pointed to startups such as infarm​, which have built successful businesses around this idea.

Circular agriculture

Food tech is also starting to make agriculture more circular​, he added. There are now ways to turn waste products from the food industry into green fertiliser. For instance, GreenLab Berlin​ sells a natural fertilizer made from cacao. “Concepts of this kind are interesting not just because they use resources that would otherwise go to waste, but because fertilizer has long been one of the greatest threats to clean water,” ​he elaborated. “Bio fertilizer such as this one can help preserve clean water and healthy soil for future generations.”

AI diagnostics

Falk also pointed to AI-driven diagnostics solutions which allow farmers to survey their crops and detect plant diseases early on, while others provide fish diagnosis tools to help reduce fish loss. “The opportunities in this field are manifold, and we can expect to see more innovations and disruption from exciting startups in the years to come,” ​he said.

“Some of the products may ease a hip, urban populations’ conscience about consuming meat or exotic foods with a large carbon footprint, but at the same time they help to improve soil quality, optimize crop yield per area, and actively fight hunger.”

He concluded: “Food tech, in short, is an industry that will continue to change the ways in which we produce, consume and think about what we eat: What an exciting moment in time to be a part of.”

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