At the rate we are going, the world may no longer have fertile topsoil – essential for growing crops- within 60 years. If that wasn’t petrifying enough, by 2050 there will be an estimated 10 billion people living on the planet, and if we continue with our unsustainable food production practises, we will not be able to feed them all. These are undoubtedly terrifying thoughts. The good news? There is already a cohort of talented researchers and scientists from across the planet working on the future of alternative food production, and each one has a fascinating story to tell. Three of them will be sharing their insights at Retail Connected. But for now, here is a list of the most exciting food and drink research and development that is giving us a more hopeful outlook on the future:

  1. Novel proteins: Finnish start-up Solar Foods is working on the cutting edge of creating – and commercialising – a novel protein, Solein, which is ‘made from air’. Specifically, the protein is made from CO2, air and electricity and is 100 times more climate-friendly than any animal or plant-based alternative. What, we hear you ask, does C02, air and electricity taste like though? Well, in the same way that soy, algae or other proteins are, Solein is a richly nutritious ingredient that ‘disappears’ into meals, therefore is an important building block for food rather than a taste component in its own right. The exciting thing is that, as CEO of Solar Food states, the future of food is not a utopia, it is happening now. The company has already created 20 different kinds of food products that use Solein, and have many more exciting plans in store.
  2. Vertical farming: There are some incredible innovations in growing fruit and vegetables, and in the USA, Plenty Unlimited is an example of a retailer who is doing just that; using indoor vertical farms, which create the perfect environment for plants and reduce the unpredictability of changing climates, to grow their own GMO, pesticide and bleach-free food. Indian company UrbanKisaan is also innovating new technologies in this space, and are building technology-enabled vertical farms in India and selling their produce via a subscription-based app. Vertical farming pushes away reliance on weather, skilled labor, and high soil fertility and water consumption, and is a market projected to grow from $4.4 billion (2019) to $15.7 billion by 2025.
  3. Meat substitutes (Cellular agriculture) – Meat alternatives, for example Mycoprotein (lab-grown protein that is in products like Quorn) have been around for many years, and brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are developing modern-day iterations of plant-based meat substitutes which are in some cases indistinguishable from the real thing. Cellular agriculture, the most well-known of which is cultured meat, is also being developed quickly and by more and more startups around the world, and this year Singapore became the first country to allow the commercialised sales of lab-produced meat. Memphis Meats, Mosa Meats, Meatable and Shiok Meats are exciting companies to watch here!
  4. Reintroducing ancient foodstuffs – Eating insects is nothing new, and have long been used by communities in Asia, Africa, Mexico and South America as cheap and sustainable sources of protein. Grasshoppers, for instance, were one of the main sources of protein in Aztac and Mayan diets (side note: I tried some when I was in Mexico and have to say they were quite tasty!) People have been looking to reintroduce these alternative proteins to our diets during the last decade, and companies – such as EntoCube in Finland – are using new and innovative ways to farm them. Founded in 2014, EntoCube specialises in building technology for edible-insect farming. It also produces a series of edible-insect products, including chilli flavoured cricket “nuts”, cricket granola and cricket powder, which can be added to dishes to improve nutritional value and flavour. They are repurposing a 60 year-old mine in Finland to farm crickets sustainably, benefitting from the 28-degree geothermal-heated bedrock. With big plans for expansion, it might not be long until you see EntoCube products where you are!
  5. Packaging that is also food – Companies like Notpla are creating a material from seaweed and plants, and are using it to create edible packaging which is completely biodegradable. Apeel Science is a company creating plant-based protection that helps protect and prolong the shelf life of produce. These are two examples of incredible innovations which can both reduce the amount of plastic and other unsustainable food packaging, as well as, by keeping produce fresh for longer, cutting down the amount of food waste.
  6. Personalised nutrition – Science-led personalised nutrition is still nascent. Yet it is slowly gaining ground, particularly in areas like gut health. Where most personalisation in the food and drink space has typically focused on delivery and format, there is now a shift towards personalised products; yet the challenge with this is how do you transform a system that was built to mass produce food in a cheap way and at scale, to accommodate a future that is personalised? Companies are already moving towards this future though, for example Nestle and their personalised nutrition programme, where they ask users to upload pictures of their food in an app, and submit blood and DNA samples which identify their susceptibility to future diseases. Users then receive lifestyle recommendations and personalised supplements tailored to them.

There is loads of really exciting work going on behind the scenes; and much more still to come. Lots of this innovation will come as a result of great partnerships, as well as well as more advanced technologies. We are very happy to be putting some of these amazing businesses mentioned here on our Retail Connected programme, and we look forward to you joining us to learn more from them on how they are forging the future of food.

By Rebecca Morrison