The future of our food is predicated upon rapidly shifting trends, growing bodies of research, and new technologies which are revolutionizing how we grow, harvest, move, and eat food. In our recent industry report, The Future of Our Food: An Industry in Flux, we isolated a series of trends that industry thought leaders are working within to create a conversation around what this future might look like.1 In this brief follow-up report, we delve deeper into three trends brought forth by industry experts: alternative protein and animal products, the revolutionary capacities of permaculture, and the complicated choke points that can be caused by global supply chains.
Animal Product Alternatives
Myriam Le Cannelier of DSML noted in our earlier trend report that her contacts were estimating up to a 400% increase in demand for meat-alternative products, and this trend is only slated to continue.1 But as explained by MJ Kinney, principal food scientist and food product commercialization expert with FareScience, the plant-based movement faces serious challenges as it attempts to envelope larger market shares. “For example,” Kinney says, “where products are being veganized, they’re often only able to replace one aspect of that animal product.”2 In considering the replacement of chicken eggs, many egg replacers can only perform up to a small handful of the functions that a chicken egg can deliver. “They may be marketed as egg replacers,” Kinney says, “even packaged in the traditional carton, but in reality are only suitable for some baking applications.” But Kinney’s interest lies in the creation of plant-based food products that can perform like the legacy product. “Adding a combination of baking soda, baking powder, baking yeast, and certain types of gums could move the needle in that space of true egg replacement, but isn’t always an ideal path forward while trying to stay true to other consumer demands like simpler labels and nutritional equivalence.”2
But consumers have proven to be distrustful of plant-based food products with unrecognizable ingredients. Le Cannelier noted consumers’ predilection for healthier foods and better diet management during the pandemic;1 for Kinney, this has manifested as a set of parameters to which it can be difficult for food producers to adhere.
“There is data to suggest that customers are looking for simpler labels-in description and listed length”, Kinney says. They want to understand the purpose of every ingredient in that matrix.”
This is a challenge for plant-based producers because inevitably, replacing animal products requires the incorporation of more ingredients. “Where a hamburger would typically be made of one or two ingredients, the replacement product might contain ten. For complete protein claims, replacement products might contain pea protein, rice protein, and mung bean protein as the backbone for just the texturized component of a plant-based meat product.”2. Consumers want plant-based goods to be simple products that they feel are trustworthy—but manufacturing such goods makes this dream largely impossible. What emerges is the need for broad public education initiatives to explain and justify these complicated ingredient matrixes as the plant-based industry continues to grow.
The Revolutionary Capacity of Permaculture
Kinney’s experience in plant-based production has laid plain the implications of food processing. “As an industry, we’re processing the plant ingredients into something far from their inherent characteristics,” Kinney says, “where seeking an 80% protein isolate from a field pea, for example, shuttles byproducts from that plant into waste streams, and generally, into low cost animal feed which in fact bolsters the legacy animal product industry.”2 So how, in the interest of human, animal, and climate health—which consumers signalled were important factors in household decision making—can we revolutionize food production technologies to overhaul these extractive processes? “The only way I can see a real, healing change occurring is through permaculture,” says Charlotte Prud’Homme, founder of Generation Permaculture at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.3 Permaculture refers in part to a sentiment linked with “permanent agriculture,” or, sustainable, regenerative agricultural practices rather than extractive processes which strip nutrients from land. But this practice in fact encompasses a much larger paradigmatic shift towards cultivating food sovereignty, planetary health, and an emphasis on minimally processed and locally produced goods.3
“This is being executed already by several groups worldwide,” Prud’Homme says, “and what these projects all have in common is a desire to reduce the levels of removal between us and our food. In order to do that—grow more local, minimally altered foods—we have to get closer to the actual language of those plants and our environment.”3
Prud’Homme cites, for example, stacking functions and mimicking food forest arrangements. Stacking maximizes growth of food in small spaces, and food forest arrangements create low maintenance, self-mulching sites which yield lush and nutrient rich soil and foliage perfectly conducive to feeding humans.3
Supply Chain Challenges in Food Production
For all of the potential in plant-based goods and permaculture-guided production processes, however, there remains challenges within the supply chain.
“I do see plant-based alternatives taking off in [non-meat] categories,” says Johan De Greef of Best To Market.4 “However, we have seen a reluctance of traditional distributors to new products. There still seems to be a focus on the tried and true products.”4
This hesitance is forcing the hand of innovation, however, and manufacturers of plant-based alternatives and producers outside the mainstream supply chain are working to reach consumers in new ways.
“Many manufacturers are working on circumventing the traditional model and finding new ways to get to the consumer. Companies delivering meal kits or farm produce directly to consumers are adding more new products to their offerings, for example,” De Greef says.
And for these companies, the benefits reach beyond profit and changing consumer habits. “Partnerships with manufacturers allows DTC companies to increase the average basket size while allowing manufacturers direct access to consumers,” says De Greef. “The result is that they also gain a lot of information about their customers that traditional distribution and retail channels don’t have or won’t share.”4
It seems the future of our food is one still very uncertain, where much hangs in the balance. Despite consumer desire for healthier and more environmentally friendly food options, many consumers don’t trust the processes necessitated by our current food production systems. Further, the supply chain itself, especially following the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, is reluctant to embrace new products while the industry is so unstable. If only one thing is certain, it’s clear the technology to develop new food production processes exists—perhaps, it’s only a matter of time.
1 Goldbeck Recruiting. The Future of Our Food: Industry in Flux. June 2020, Canada.
2 Personal communication between Rose Agency and MJ Kinney, August 2020.
3 Personal communication between Rose Agency and Charlotte Prud’Homme, August 2020.
4 Personal communication between Rose Agency and Johan De Greef, August 2020.