How foodtech could create a healthier, more sustainable planet

How foodtech could create a healthier, more sustainable planet

When I was growing up, my mother would say ‘let food be your medicine.’ The problem was, the entire food system seemed designed to achieve the opposite.

In the recently released, Our Future World report, the CSIRO identified food insecurity brought on by climate change as a mega-trend that will affect the globe over the next 30 years. This has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine which is already having a devastating impact on food supply chains in countries already struggling with food insecurity.

Unfortunately, we already see this mega-trend playing out across supermarket aisles across Australia and it is having a domino effect on the state of our nutrition with the rising cost of living forcing households to choose cheaper, less healthy and more processed food to feed families.

The impact of industrialised food production

Historically, the industrialisation of food had been driven more by prioritising low-cost foods to support economic development than consumers’ health and well-being or the planet. 

As a result, 75 per cent of the western diet is now corn-based, and of some 200,000 edible plants, just three - rice, maize and wheat - provide over half of the world’s calories from plants. Besides the environmental impact of industrialised farming, diets high in highly processed grains and oils have been associated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mortality.

Hunter-gatherers, on the other hand, ate about 150 species of plants. 

Industrialised farming has also led to skyrocketing consumption of red meat, with cattle raised primarily on grain diets. This, combined with the resulting grain production, has put a disproportionately high level of pressure on freshwater use, land use, deforestation, and greenhouse gas emissions. 

The impact of sugar

Then there’s the sugar problem. In 1972 British professor of nutrition, John Yudkin, tried to warn us about the impact of sugar on our health, but powerful lobby groups quashed the message and government policy remained silent on sugar’s harmful impact for decades. 

In 1972 a book called Pure, White, and Deadly, he wrote “If only a small fraction of what we know about sugar’s effects of sugar were to be revealed in relation to any other material used as a food additive, that material would promptly be banned.” Regulators did nothing.

Americans now consume more than 300 per cent of the recommended daily amount of added sugar. 

The impact of the low-fat movement

Taking consumers and regulators for fools, the food industry ran rampant. Instead of pumping money into innovation, they directed it into marketing. 

Health agencies declared saturated fat was the enemy. Yet, since the 70s, when the low-fat food movement started, obesity and diet-related chronic diseases have increased at an alarming rate and they continue to rise today. 

With the low-fat movement, food companies started replacing animal and wholefood fats commonly used up to the 1950s and 60s with cheaper, highly processed seed oils and sugar in the form of high-fructose corn syrup

Our relationship with food had become so absurd that in the 70s, a well-known food brand claimed Corn Flakes contained “all the good things Nature puts into corn”, while another took out full-page ads boasting a Big Mac meal contained “a higher level of many vitamins and minerals than the average Australian meal”. And these are not isolated examples. 

That thing that was meant to be our medicine was quietly killing us. 

More recent research has argued that obesity and cardiovascular disease have less to do with fat and more to do with gut inflammation. Gluten, high-protein legumes, sugar and seed oils have all been identified as potential sources of increased inflammation and yet, these make up the majority of our industrialised food production. Today, it’s virtually impossible to find a manufactured food product that does not contain grain, sugar or refined seed oils.

The impact of food on mental health

What you eat has also been shown to contribute to mental health conditions, with diets mixing sugary snacks, starchy foods, and processed meat shown to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

The truth that is even harder to swallow is that the majority of our chronic diseases are entirely preventable.

How foodtech is set to disrupt the food industry for good

Whereas previously technological advancement led to a degradation of food quality, today, what’s driving foodtech innovation is a heightened consumer focus on personal nutrition and the global environment coupled with the industry incumbents’ failure to adequately address those issues.

Foodtech is the convergence of technology with the food and agriculture sector to reshape the future of food, from agricultural methodologies and food production to distribution, consumption and waste management.

As health, wellness and sustainability continue to dominate the global psyche, foodtech is fast becoming one of the most important emerging investment sectors, with hundreds of millions of dollars pouring into foodtech startups every year. 

Foodtech innovation trends

Just last year, dairy alternative startup, Eden Brew received $4 million in funding to develop a better alternative to cow’s milk, with global foodtech unicorn, NotCo revealing plans to open up Australian production facilities for its plant-based milk, beef and chicken products. 

Aquaculture startups are also emerging to address industrialised farming practices (both in the ocean and on land) and provide cost-effective sustainable alternative healthy food sources. 

Plus, sustainable food production solutions such as Invertigro minimise environmental impacts and enable food to be grown at scale anywhere. Farm-to-table platform OurCow offers locally produced, organic and grass-fed meat direct to consumers via a monthly subscription.

Fungi foodtechs are also showing promise as fungi is a zero-waste alternative protein source but can also be used in a range of sustainable products beyond food. And investment in the niche ketogenic/low carb space is still emerging despite keto and low carb being the most googled dietary search terms in the last five years. 

‘Sugar-free’ is another related food movement growing in momentum. Australian foodtech company NEXBA has removed over 5 billion grams of sugar from the world’s diet and has developed a natural proprietary and patented blend that mimics the taste and feel of cane sugar without the nasty side effects.

In 2020, global foodtech startups raised an estimated US$26 billion, which represents a 35 per cent increase on the year before. The COVID-19 pandemic has further increased investment across all segments. Although the Ukraine war has had an impact on foodtech investment in 2022, the global foodtech market is still forecast to grow to US$346 billion by 2027 at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 6 per cent. 

Foodtech is no longer a fringe investment category but very much a new global growth sector, and one that Australia is well positioned as an international centre of excellence. 

As Australia resets its economic compass, we have an opportunity to develop a new industry bringing the future of food to the world and by doing so contribute powerfully to the health and well-being of billions of people. 

VentureCrowd has some of the companies mentioned in this column in its portfolio.

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