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Plant-Based Food: Is There A New Technology For A Regenerative Future?

Rapid growth in the global population and changes in the way we eat are contributing to a massively imbalanced and unsustainable future for our planet. According to the USDA, the average American consumed 220 pounds of red meat and poultry in 2018, an alarming figure given it was just 167 pounds in 1960 (1). The earth’s ecology can’t support the growing space required for agricultural production, in particular, cattle farms and the crops that feed them. 

We’re facing an increasingly vital issue that affects our collective health: the extensive use of the earth’s natural resources to maintain an animal-based diet. As our population rises, so too, it seems, our concern with getting adequate sources of protein. The dominant paradigm, particularly in developed Western countries, is that our bodies need animal protein. However, more people are discovering that a meat-free diet can provide enough protein to match our body’s requirements. According to one source, the number of US consumers identifying as vegan rose 600% between 2014 and 2017 (2). 

While the same diet won’t work for everyone, a plant-based diet has increased in popularity in recent times. Most notably, in the weeks after COVID-19 erupted across the globe, the demand for vegan meat shot up 264% in just 9 weeks (1). This has caused a shift in industry toward plant-based diets and non-animal proteins. Business Insider reports that the projected compound annual growth rate of the plant based food market is expected to reach $74.2 billion by 2027, a growth of 11.9% (3). For example, “...companies like Beyond Meat Inc., Impossible Foods Inc., and Tofukry Co. are ramping up their production, discounting their plant-based alternative products to appeal to more consumers, expanding into more stores, and partnering with the stakeholders” (3). 

Further, S&P 500 companies like PepsiCo and Tyson Foods are implementing new strategies and products to capitalize on opportunities in the plant-based industry. Just walk into any popular fast food like McDonald’s or Burger King, and plant-based burger alternatives are on permanent offer. 

As an interactive startup enterprise, our job is to build bridges between industry and education to support food-tech companies’ research and development activities as they generate solutions to such critical issues. But first, we have to explore the impact of the plant-based food movement on food-tech companies and understand the challenges they face.

What Does Plant-Based Food Have To Do With Business & Tech?

It’s a big issue, and it impacts the whole world. That’s why food-tech businesses worldwide are seeking ways to create more sustainable agricultural practices and examining the market viability of new plant-based food alternatives. And they’re succeeding!––check out this success story featured in Forbes, which describes how leading Latin-American food-tech company NotCo received $85 million in funding. Another success story features Kite Hill, an almond-based cheese and yogurt maker who won $40 million in new venture capital funding in 2018 (2). 

We cannot separate the vitality of our planet from our own health. More than a third of the global population is obese, according to 2016 statistics––a number that has nearly tripled since 1975 (4). And our planet is sick. The way we eat is an unprecedented, holistic problem that pervades ecological well-being––and it requires more than just our attention. It demands creative resources, a new kind of intelligence, and technologies that transgress old problem-solving mechanisms and positions us on the frontier of a healthier future, one rich in non-animal proteins, solutions for sustainability, and a more vital, regenerative ecology.  

We’ve known for many years now that a plant-based diet is better than an animal-based one in many ways, and food-tech companies are rising to the challenges that a plant-based future presents.

The Challenges Of A Plant-Based Future For Food Tech Companies

Although there is far more confidence in a plant-based future now than ever before, it still faces some challenges. It represents a not just a shift in attitudes, but an entire systems change in the way we grow and produce food. As we know, changing a system is no small task, and an endeavor of this magnitude inevitably faces some obstacles. 

The first obstacle to overcome is a consumer-concerned one: how we think about plant-based meat and dairy. Industry leaders seeking to shift toward plant-based products have the tricky job of educating long-standing meat eaters that “fake meat” is not only better for human and ecological health, it actually tastes good too. There’s a psychological barrier to eating plants that taste like meat. It requires a resocialization of normative eating habits, and that’s never easy. 

Many consumers grasp tightly to their eating preferences. At the most basic level, food provides a sense of security, particularly, the food that has been woven into the fabric of our culture – the food we’ve grown up with. Indeed, many of us belong to a generation that considered Spam “the good meat.” 

Animal proteins have also had a space on the dinner plate because many people believe they provide more viable nutrition. For this reason, the average person consumes far more protein that nutrition experts recommend, and the majority of it comes from animals. Further, as developing countries like China and India gain access to resources they didn’t traditionally have and improve their quality of life, their protein consumption goes up, namely animal protein. 

The three major obstacles that specifically concern food-tech companies face seem to be optimizing the taste, texture, protein content of plant-based alternatives, as well as improving their accessibility. Namely, this involves making them affordable food items that show up in regular supermarkets, rather than boutique luxury food items only a small portion of the population can afford. 

To do that, food-tech companies must find creative ways to produce plant-based food that doesn’t cost consumers a fortune. But how? The increased use of technology to produce plant-based meat alternatives is costly without the use of animal additives. A carefully-designed manufacturing strategy is a major imperative for food-tech companies in light of policy demands for clarity on plant-based claims.

Ingredient functionality, stability, and supply sustainability are, arguably, the greatest issues, and they impact taste, texture, protein-content, and accessibility are wrapped up in. 

Phil Mackie, MD Foods & Beverages, elaborates on these challenges:

"Drawing on a diverse range of plant protein sources is essential from a sustainability perspective. It’s partly about the security of supply. As demand for plant-based products increases, the industry needs to be confident that it can readily obtain protein-rich ingredients. The local versus global debate comes into play here––some crops only grow in certain climates, so manufacturers need a degree of flexibility… naturally, environmental sustainability is high on the agenda too and the plant-based trend is very much aligned with this. Using a wide variety of plant protein sources at an industry level will help avoid intensified pressure on agricultural land” (source).

Food-tech companies must approach this new food revolution slowly, carefully, and strategically with well thought-out campaigns for meeting consumer demands and preferences. They must ensure that the food they manufacture is authentic, transparent, and accurately reflects brand values.

Experience-Based Learning For A Plant-Based Future

A plant-based future isn’t just a matter of cutting back on animal foods and adding more veggies to our plate. This solution is a collective effort that drives not just sustainability but rather

regeneration. It’s the difference between change and transformation. We need to look beyond the enforcement of measures such as crop yields towards how business, technology, and ecology can intersect to create a global paradigmatic shift toward a more effective way of eating and cultivating food.

How do food-tech companies tackle a task of such proportions?

There isn’t one way. We must approach it through a holistic lens and draw on the resources of fertile minds primed for learning, investigating, criticizing, analyzing, and exploring solutions. People who are vying to work with current data, create and contribute ideas, experiment with novel technologies and various brand archetypes, and apply new business concepts toward a solution. 

You may be asking, where do we find such people? Meet the university student...

Small business owners and massive corporations concerned with industrial ecology face a similar challenge: how to continually generate fresh new ideas and solutions to urgent problems and put them into action?

In particular, how can food-tech companies gain the intelligence required to foster creative and sustainable solutions to the problems they currently face?

At TELANTO, we can join food-tech companies with motivated higher-education students to inspire and concretize solutions. Experienced-based learning is an essential component of the higher education experience. And as more and more companies are discovering, it is an attractive and accessible solution for problems both small and large businesses face. 

Also known as action learning, this educational tool is a problem-solving method that drives the collaboration necessary for developing effective solutions to complex inquiries, such as how to create a plant-based future. It has two major outcomes: it solves real problems, and it develops creative leaders. 

In the specific and pressing issue of agricultural production and sustainability, action learning can plant the seeds necessary for transformation by linking relevant businesses with university students who are motivated and personally invested to contribute.

At TELANTO, we collaborate with everyone from small startups to some of the world’s leading businesses and universities to help solve problems like the massive agricultural-ecological one the world is facing now. 

Do you want to learn more about how to use action learning to solve your business problem? We have

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About the Author

Timo Kerzel is Co-Founder of TELANTO - the digital platform to engage and scale university-industry collaboration, counting on a +15 year track record in global marketing, business development and business management in various companies including SAP. He holds an Executive MBA from IESE Business School, Barcelona and his B.A. from the School of Management & Innovation (Steinbeis) in Berlin. Furthermore certified as a Design Thinking Coach from HPI in Potsdam, Timo is passionate about customer and user centric solutions, creating true value for TELANTO's “Academic Business Network” Community.

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