Otago Daily Times

Consumers’ choices drive food innovation

- 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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