Con­sumers’ choices drive food in­no­va­tion

Otago Daily Times - - OPINION - Anna Camp­bell is man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Aba­cusBio Ltd, a Dunedin­based agri­tech­nol­ogy com­pany.

IN­VEST­MENT into in­no­va­tive food com­pa­nies dur­ing the first half of 2020 was greater than the full 2019 fi­nan­cial year. Top­ping the list for in­vest­ment was al­ter­nate pro­tein burger com­pany Im­pos­si­ble Foods, which raised $US500 mil­lion

($NZ751 mil­lion). The top 10 also in­cluded My­coTech­nol­ogy ($US39 mil­lion, de­vel­op­ing pro­teins and in­gre­di­ents from a mush­room­based fer­men­ta­tion process) and Good Catch

($US32 mil­lion, pro­duc­ing plant­based seafood ana­logues).

The only non­US com­pany on the list was YFood

($US17 mil­lion), a Ger­man com­pany pro­duc­ing ‘‘com­plete meal’’ drinks, pow­ders and snacks — Fon­terra is one of YFood’s in­vestors.

It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to read about these com­pa­nies to get a feel for what is go­ing on in food in­no­va­tion and how the com­pa­nies tell their sto­ries. Gen­er­ally, there are “save the planet” and “health” themes in their mar­ket­ing ma­te­rial and like any tra­di­tional food pro­duc­ers, any kinks in their mes­sage will be jumped on by con­sumers.

Oatly is a Swedish com­pany pro­duc­ing oat­based milk prod­ucts high in beta­glu­can, a sol­u­ble di­etary fi­bre linked to im­prov­ing choles­terol lev­els. Oatly raised $US200 mil­lion. How­ever the in­vest­ment group was led by Black­stone, an in­vest­ment com­pany with al­leged ties to de­for­esta­tion in the Ama­zon.

Ac­tivist con­sumers have taken to Twit­ter stat­ing they won’t be buy­ing Oatly prod­ucts and why. Oatly have re­sponded (on their web­site) that sus­tain­able com­pa­nies have only been able to ac­cess a small pro­por­tion of in­vest­ment cap­i­tal and this path leads the way for in­vestors like Black­stone to put more of their dol­lars into sus­tain­able com­pa­nies.

All is not well within the al­ter­nate­pro­tein sec­tor either. There is a war of words go­ing on among Im­pos­si­ble Foods, Be­yond Burger and Lightlife Foods. Lightlife Foods is a rel­a­tive new­comer to the al­ter­nate pro­tein space but have not held back in an open let­ter to The New York Times where their pres­i­dent, Dan Curtin, wrote “Enough with the hy­per­pro­cessed in­gre­di­ents, GMOs, un­nec­es­sary ad­di­tives and fillers, and fake blood . . . . while we want the same things — a greener planet and a more sus­tain­able food sys­tem — at Lightlife, we’ve cho­sen a very dif­fer­ent way to get there. We’re mak­ing a clean break from both of you ‘food tech’ com­pa­nies that at­tempt to mimic meat at any cost.”

An­a­lysts who have dis­sected the plant burg­ers from all three com­pa­nies state they are sim­i­lar from a health per­spec­tive, de­spite Lightlife’s be­lief that be­cause their prod­ucts are less pro­cessed, with fewer in­gre­di­ents, they are more healthy. No won­der con­sumers feel over­whelmed!

There is no doubt that big­food busi­nesses are some of the great­est cul­prits in terms of en­vi­ron­men­tal mis­man­age­ment and neg­a­tive im­pacts on our health. A Food Nav­i­ga­tor re­port on plas­tic pol­lu­tion ac­cuses the big­gest plas­tic pol­lut­ing com­pa­nies, Unilever, Nes­tle, Coca­Cola, Danone, Mars, Pep­siCo and Mon­delez, of hypocrisy for hav­ing plas­tic re­duc­tion com­mit­ments in ge­ogra­phies where it suits them, yet push­ing sin­gle­use plas­tics in coun­tries like In­dia, the Philip­pines and Asia.

I don’t think any com­pany starts off want­ing to pol­lute the planet or ad­versely af­fect peo­ple’s health, but money talks and when in­vestors come into the pic­ture or when com­pa­nies launch on the stock ex­change, prof­its are the pri­mary driver. Per­haps Oatly are right in their po­si­tion and by “danc­ing with the devil” they can lead change — or per­haps that is wish­ful jus­ti­fi­ca­tion on their be­half.

Ul­ti­mately, the great­est chal­lenges lie with us as con­sumers. We need to hold all com­pa­nies to ac­count, the new food com­pa­nies along­side ex­ist­ing play­ers — we must ask for ev­i­dence and not al­low our­selves to be green­washed or car­ried along by hype.

It’s also re­ally im­por­tant those eth­i­cal com­pa­nies gen­uinely mak­ing a dif­fer­ence are given credit. It is hard for these com­pa­nies to com­pete price­wise with com­pa­nies still push­ing cheaply packed, overly pro­cessed food. We need to ask our­selves, at what point are we will­ing to buy fewer prod­ucts, at a higher price to make a mea­sur­able im­pact?

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