Food is essential for our survival – it’s not a commodity. We are a little bit naïve about the future of agriculture. It is about the future of nations, cities, and villages. There are five important leverage factors: prevention, biodiversity, waste, land use, meat and dairy products. But the key success factor remains the human. It’s about culture and social acceptance of change. We have to start with the microbiome. What’s the point of healthy humans on a sick planet? We need to change our mindset, toolset and skill set. And we need to put a price tag on all things that matter. Food innovation comes from the social sciences, from research and development, and from technology. The US consumer model as an example to follow is vanishing. The concept of ‘all-you-can-eat’ will be a thing of the past. We need to decommodify food: reimagine and value food much more highly. Will fine-dining set elite trends from above? The era of cheap food must come to an end. Meat will become a luxury product. The hyper-connected consumer is in permanent update-mode. The starting point for all of these issues should be local initiatives.
Humans have 20,000 unique genes. There are more than two million unique genes in our bacteria. We see a huge difference in gut microbiota composition in more traditional societies vs industrialised societies. Why that is the case, we do not yet know. There is a link between microbiota, nutrition, metabolic diseases and health. What we see from research is that microbiome metabolism is influencing our appetite control and impacts the host across the circadian cycle. We are beginning to have some idea about the functions of bacteria that are important for our health.
Changing our food system is essential to responding effectively to the challenge of climate change. I am convinced that we can get to zero emissions by mid-century at very low costs. Humankind can produce abundant cheap zero-carbon energy. It is a question of balancing supply and demand, but here we have improving technology and decreasing costs. Getting emissions down by 50 per cent in 10 years is a much bigger challenge than getting them down to zero by 2050. Agriculture is currently responsible for 13 gigatons of CO2 emissions. Action to reduce agriculture emission is therefore vital. We have to look at three elements of change: 1. Non-radical change to food production, where, for example, nitrogen fertilisers could be used more efficiently. 2. Diet change: nudging and incentivising people (methane taxes) to reduce red meat and dairy consumption. 3. Radical changes in technology of food production: vertical farming, breeding insects, synthetic meat protein production, meat equivalents. We must develop new food production techniques very quickly. The ‘technology’ to grow and exploit a cow is as ineffective as it was years ago; fermentation will be more effective. There are no limits to sustainable food production: knowledge and energy are the only resources which are and will be limitless. Techno-optimism is very important.
We live in times of interlocking crises, climate change being one of them. It’s going to be very difficult to solve all of them simultaneously. When it comes to agriculture, small-scale, local farming could be the answer. However, we should avoid romanticising small-scale farming. We should go back to learning viable, low-impact agriculture. It’s worth looking at social and cultural solutions as well as technological ones. We need to pay more for food, but less for land and housing. The economics of land is beginning to push social realities. As citizens, we need to start asking tougher questions about where our food comes from. People won’t switch naturally to more local food – it will need another shock like Covid-19. The irony in the food system is that nobody wants to farm, yet so many people want to garden. It’s a matter of how we shape this in one direction. The real potential lies in local politicians.
The food production chain from farm to fork is becoming increasingly digital. Digital data in agriculture can be used for decision-making such as smart analysis and planning, sensing and monitoring. Digital data can also be used for food integrity, answering such questions as ‘Where was the food produced?’. The standardisation of data is becoming more important in order to monitor products across the whole value chain. Companies, for example, are still using different names for the same pesticides. Digital food data could also be used for public policies in order to control food safety and to support environmental policies. Data gathered and analysed by artificial intelligence, blockchain, Internet of Things and big data also helps science and delivers individual results for farmers. In order for digital innovation in agriculture to prosper, you have to address technical and organisational issues at the same time: data infrastructure and data analysis, business modelling and governance, and the ethics of data sharing. The approach to digital innovation is via use case projects. There is clear potential in digitalisation for sustainable food systems.
By skipping one chicken family dinner, you could save the water of six months’ worth of showers. It’s only in Switzerland and Germany that meat consumption is gradually going down. In all other countries, that’s not the case. Our planet just isn’t big enough to sustain a meat-centred diet. We need a clean meat revolution. The solution may lie within those animals themselves. Most people want meat, not slaughter. If we can divorce these two, what a better world it would be. How natural are our current methods? Chickens are genetically selected and grow so big, they can’t even walk anymore. Despite current regulations, tech innovations tend to win. The price of cell-based meat has come down by 99.9%, and Beyond Meat claims it will be competitive by 2025.
Plant-based and cultured meat will co-exist. I am 100% certain that there will still be people who are looking for ‘real meat’, but it has to be a ‘cleaner’ version of it, animal-welfare friendly, environmentally friendly. By 2030, we will reach a level where both can co-exist, and cultured meat will reach a market share of 50–60%. Taste and texture, price and ‘natural feel’ have to be right in order for customers to accept cultured meat. Until cultured meat is ready for the mass market, we have time to educate the customer. We also have to educate them about the production process. But we don’t have to convince customers that the new way is better. If you educate the public about meat production today, they are usually shocked. Ten years from now is realistic for cell-based meat to be sold in supermarkets. However, it is not necessary to switch 100% from the conventional way, as long as we do it animal-welfare friendly.
Alternative proteins are a trend that is here to stay. This is indicated by the stakeholders that are coming to the table now, from politics and investors such as pension funds to corporations. The whole system is rallying around this. There might be a correction in valuation, but it’s not a bubble that is going to burst. Food tech coming together with biotech allows us to produce animal proteins that many of us know and love. So nobody is forced to go vegan. It is a matter of lifestyle, health and sustainability. Regulation will decide which country will see mass market penetration first. Alternative protein start-ups need a lot of fixed capital to scale up. The question is: how do they scale up?
Timing is the key uncertainty. We experienced the dotcom bubble, but the internet did not disappear. There is a very strong secular trend towards alternative proteins. The current food ecosystem is completely unsustainable and quite inefficient, and we have a lot of people to feed. Alternative proteins are the solution to a lot of the problems we are facing. Biology and technology coming together is an incredibly powerful combination to make stuff we need more efficiently. Different meat production alternatives will enter the market and succeed one after the other: plant-based protein is here today; fermented products will be next in five to seven years; after that, we will see cell-based alternatives in seven to 10 years. The costs of these alternatives vary greatly. The EU has some really good principles regarding food safety regulation. At the same time, the EU is slow to change. That is why the EU will be behind those changes in food innovation. For now, innovation is happening in the US, in Israel and in parts of Asia. Manufacturers have the problem of scaling up and capacity. These are good problems, but they are still problems.
In the hands of the right chefs, we could really change the world. When we started with a vegan restaurant, there were certainly no investments being made in vegan food those days. Those were challenging times. Crafting the future of food was what we did. Food has to be pretty, has to taste good, has to be craveable.
Farms, Labs and Beyond: Fixing a Broken Food System
– This conference will take place online –