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Unlocking food industry innovation at the farm level

Article-Unlocking food industry innovation at the farm level

Embracing innovation and supporting grassroots startups is vital in driving the sustainable transition of the global food system. Enhancing crop diversity, soil quality, and indigenous knowledge are three key avenues of opportunity, says Christine Gould, founder and CEO of Thought for Food

Food industry innovation is essential, but lagging  

Innovation is key in creating new business opportunities to accelerate the sustainable transformation of the agrifood system. The lack of digitisation, high average age of farmers globally, and consolidation of power in a handful of multinational food and agriculture companies are just several existing barriers to change, Gould said speaking at the recent Future of Nutrition Summit in Frankfurt.

“When you're dealing with something as fundamental as food, you're dealing with people's perceptions of their cultures, with farmer practices that have been operating for generations in certain ways, and with regulatory issues,” said Gould.

“Many of those things mean that we have longer timelines to bring new solutions to market and more money that's required to help break through some of these existing systems.”

As investment in the food industry falters, Gould emphasized the need for a better system to facilitate innovation and open the relatively under ventured food market. This requires a multifaceted approach that transcends traditional boundaries and embraces innovation at every level, she said.

“What happens if we break out of our silos and start talking to new audiences, new sectors, different generations about what could be possible? This is how we can innovate in new ways. Innovation is not just about technology. It's about how we approach this sector in all aspects of what we do,” Gould said.

Several grassroots solutions serving the agrifood industry today, which Gould calls the “menu of opportunity,” have the potential to scale and positively disrupt the food ecosystem.

Unleashing (cr)opportunities

One of these solutions is crop opportunities – the potential to explore over 7,000 studied crops that are currently underutilised in the market.

Canadian startup Rain Fed is exploring the untapped power of millet to create a plant-based milk product that is protein-rich, hypoallergenic, and offers economic and development opportunities to mainly female smallholder farmers in regions such as India.

MicroTERRA, a Mexico-based startup, is adopting principles of circular economy and food science to farm lemna – an aquatic plant able to clean water that would otherwise go to waste, while simultaneously producing valuable ingredients such as pectin and functional fibre. As well as providing an additional income stream to growers, the startup produces nutritious food tech products that can serve alternatives to conventional proteins or sugars.

Tapping into the power of terroir

Terroir, the concept that the taste and nutritional properties of food depend on the quality of the soil its grown in, offers vast opportunities for innovation and ecosystem regeneration.

“Soil is the lifeblood of our food system, and it has huge potential and power to help to regenerate ecosystems as well as be a solution for climate change. Here, we can apply the tools of technology to unleash the concept of terroir for more crops,” Gould said.

Lebanon-based startup Dooda Solutions is scaling vermicomposting – the process of using earthworms to convert biomass into biofertiliser for use in industrial agriculture. Powered by nanotechnology, the company is producing an odourless, nutrient rich, and sterile solid and liquid vermicompost (or, organic fertiliser) rich in beneficial minerals, nutrients, and microorganisms, at commercial scale.

“We have a centralised fertiliser system that recently became very vulnerable due to conflict in Russia and Ukraine. How can we think about more localised production that's more circular? Dooda Solutions is a great example of that coming to life,” Gould said.

Húmica, a Mexican startup, is supporting smallholder farmers in capturing carbon using tailor-made biochar while adopting regenerative farming practices. The charcoal-like substance is formed by burning leftover agricultural organic matter, or biomass, via a process of pyrolysis.

The startup has developed an artificial intelligence (AI) powered platform to analyse soil and make recommendations about the type of biochar to produce. Adopting a holistic approach, Húmica also trains smallholder farmers on the application of biochar in farming processes and helps them to sell products on domestic and international markets for a price premium.

“We need to be looking at these types of solutions in a more holistic way and I think startups can provide a lens into what's possible,” Gould said.

Going back to our roots

The convergence of ancient wisdom and contemporary science is ushering in a new era in food innovation.

“There's a real opportunity to look at our ancient roots and develop new shoots that can take us to new frontiers,” said Gould.

One example is German-based Meli Bees Network, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that works alongside indigenous communities in the so-called ‘ark of deforestation’ in the Brazilian Amazon to develop grassroots solutions and entrepreneurial businesses based on local knowledge such as beekeeping and honey production. Leveraging technology, the organisation bridges indigenous and local communities, as well as researchers and environment advocacy groups globally to drive innovation and positively impact social and environmental change.  

Drawing heavily on ancient wisdom and knowledge, the Live Green Co, a US company that originated in Chile, develops proprietary technology and collaborative business models to accelerate the shift to healthy and sustainable food systems. The startup has developed a database that allows companies to replace synthetic or animal food additives and products with plant-based alternatives. According to Gould, much of the knowledge fuelling the platform is based on knowledge of ancient plant-based medicines, such as those originating from China.

“[The Live Green Co] is bringing scientific understanding to a lot of this ancient wisdom and is then helping to mainstream this information to the food industry through the database,” Gould said.

When the food system fails, all systems fail

As findings from the International Panel on Climate Change report a ‘code red for humanity,’ the urgency to transform the way we produce and consume food has never been greater.

The food system, responsible for over a third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions according to a study published in Nature journal, sits at the heart of the climate crisis. It’s impact, however, extends far beyond the environment, said Gould. 

“When all systems are under threat, this doesn't just mean food and agriculture […] it's also our social systems, our cultural systems, our economic systems, which are on the brink. If we can fix food systems, we create ripple effects through all those other important areas.”