Agricultural innovation and exponential growth will be necessary to meet environmental and consumer-driven market needs, according to Nourish Marketing Network’s 2023 Trends Report.
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In the past year, climate change came to the forefront, food inflation reached historic heights and consumers demanded action from brands, said Jo-Ann McArthur, Nourish Food Marketing president and lead author of the report.
“(Locally produced food is) a part of food system resiliency as we enter a period of global unrest, logistic constraints and shifting economic partners, all coupled with climate change,” said McArthur. “It will take outside-the-box thinking to solve the food crisis.”
Why it matters: Societal trends will affect farmers whether they like it or not, so have a proactive response can be helpful.
Much like the pandemic accelerated online food and grocery order adoption, climate change moved from emphasis on individual actions to a coordinated approach.
McArthur said if COP27 is any indication, food production, systems, security, sovereignty and regenerative agriculture practice will be under increased government and societal scrutiny.
Report contributor Rhett Hawkins, president of agriculture-focused marketing agency Kahntact, said government regulations are a global challenge facing producers. There are two options to address it: wait for regulation to happen; or take an active role in crafting it.
He said the best course of action is to get a seat at the table and participate in incorporating technology to sustain the industry.
“Do we want to control it, learn to implement these technologies on our terms and have the ultimate freedom to operate and meet everyone’s needs?” he asked. “Or do we want to wait until somebody else tells us what we must do when it might not be the best thing?”
Farmers face increased pressure to innovate sustainable farming practices and cultivate a food-secure future while battling rising input costs, labour shortages, increased regulatory pressure, drought and extreme weather.
“It will take a coordinated effort across the food supply chain to meet climate emission goals as we need to produce more with less environmental impact,” said McArthur. “Reducing food loss and waste will become a bigger focus, and garbage will be repurposed and upcycled into an asset.”
California is making strides after a historic drought sparked approvals for a desalinization plant to make sea water and other waste water acceptable for drinking.
Hawkins said he is optimistic the influx of innovative non-farmers interested in developing technology to serve the sector will help it reach its sustainability goals.
“That’s exciting because it gets people thinking about our industry,” he said. “We might not like all the ideas, but I guarantee you there’s going to be concepts we’ve never thought of that will help push us forward.”
The pandemic brought Canada’s supply chain dependency and weakness into sharp focus, said Hawkins, especially as world events, droughts, transportation woes and computer chip shortages brought industries to a halt.
He pointed to the Weston Family Foundation’s $33 million Homegrown Innovation Challenge as a catalyst to spark leading-edge technology focused on sustainable Canadian food production.
“Their program is an engine, a mechanism, to create Canadian innovation around producing sustainable food and improve local growing capacity,” Hawkins said.
Weston’s program promotes the development, scalability and retention of Canadian entrepreneurs and keeps the technology here, he added.
Hawkins suggested the government could also help entrepreneurs by connecting them with private industry investment to scale up innovative technology.
“A lot of private firms are looking for good opportunities to ultimately make money, yes, but also meet their mission of being sustainable from a global perspective,” he said. “Why not help do that?”
Innovative food production systems, like vertical farming, can help solve food supply issues exacerbated by the pandemic, said Hawkins.
Consumer demand for local, sustainable food production is robust and the system could circumvent future supply chain challenges.
“Ultimately, it all comes back to feeding the world. There’s always going to be a place for connecting small niche types of technology or markets like vertical and organic farming,” Hawkins said. “But we’re still going to need mass production broadacre farms to feed the world.”
Technology can reduce waste
Gene editing using CRISPR improves products by reducing browning, lowering allergen levels and extending shelf life by making subtle but rapid changes to naturally occurring plant genomes.
“Innovation in crop technologies such as gene editing will be critical as we seek to feed the growing population in a harsher environment,” said McArthur. “As farmers continue to adapt new practices and technologies to grow our food, it translates into how shoppers evaluate their food choices.”
When it comes to gene editing, it’s critical to communicate how the technology works, how other industries employ it, and the benefit it provides to consumers and farmers, said Hawkins.
The industry learned how consumer engagement could affect agriculture and agri-food innovation through objections to genetically modified organisms and support for plant-based meat. With GMOs, only farmers were at the table. With faux meat, consumers had a voice, said Hawkins.
“By remembering who’s going to buy these end products and making sure they have a seat at the table to communicate will ultimately bring it back to what we’re all about, which is leaving things in a better place for the country.”
Climate change and animal welfare concerns have propelled consumers away from a carnivore diet toward what McArthur calls reductarianism – blending animal and vegetable proteins into a more affordable budget.
“But they’re not willing to compromise on taste. Instead, they will trade down on the protein scale to reduce climate impact, with high inflation accelerating that reduction.”
A 2021 global online study showed a five per cent drop in carnivore diets, a two per cent rise in omnivore diets and a three per cent rise in flexitarian diets. Pescatarian, vegetarian and vegan remained steady at two, three and one per cent, respectively.
McArthur said the intention versus action gap also drives consumers who want to do the right thing, but only if it doesn’t require significant change or a sacrifice to cost or taste.
Food sovereignty concerns increase
Food sovereignty is vital in land-poor countries like Singapore and Israel, which lead in food tech innovation, including cell-based agriculture.
In December 2020, Singapore was the first country to approve commercial sales of cell-based chicken. The U.S. followed suit in November, green lighting a cultured meat product for consumer consumption.
McArthur wonders if this signals plant protein and cell-based agriculture industries’ potential to gain market position, especially as regulatory and price hurdles lower and global protein demand outpaces protein production in traditional agriculture.
“Lab-grown or cultured meat allows consumers to enjoy the taste of meat without any guilt about animal welfare or carbon emissions,” McArthur said. “To really take hold, though, it will need a great marketing strategy potentially with a better name, perhaps slaughter-free.”
Mike von Massow of the University of Guelph said cellular agriculture would provide the system with another source of food, ingredients and economic activity, and it isn’t an existential threat to conventional agriculture.
“By no means do I think this is apocalypse cow,” he said. “I think there will remain a strong place for traditional agriculture and a strong demand for those products.”
He suggested traditional agriculture could provide feedstocks for fermentation tanks and bioreactors while innovating and discovering practices that lower the emission footprint of conventional food production.
Germany’s The Cultivated B recently invested in a three-storey bioreactor, cellular agriculture production, and innovation hub in Burlington for plant- and cell-based alternative proteins.
“(The) fermentation products aren’t going to be fulsome food products. We’re going to be growing ingredients, and we’ll be able to ship those ingredients or incorporate them into products that we’re manufacturing here in Canada,” von Massow said. “(And) we’ll be looking at export markets for us to thrive.”
Even without approval for sales within Canada, von Massow said proximity to the U.S. and Asian markets make Ontario primed for export and an attractive place to invest in cellular ag.
“I expect the regulatory environment will loosen as we move forward (and) we’ll see progress reflected relatively quickly. But I also think we’re not dependent on Canadian approvals to build this market here in Ontario.”
While there is potential to grow traditional production, von Massow said there will come a time when that’s constrained and alternative food sources will be necessary.
“In the context of what is coming from a demand perspective, there’s a real opportunity for traditional livestock agriculture to innovate, to tell its story, to continue to remind people why they eat, consume and buy these products and reinforce their preferences.”
Livestock production isn’t the only sector in the crosshairs of sustainable and regenerative practices.
“Sustainability is now clearly entrenched in the lexicon of connected Canadian agriculture, shaped by the need to feed a growing domestic and global population on an ever-shrinking land base while finding ways to reduce the environmental impacts of modern farming practices,” McArthur said.
One area of rapid innovation is biological input products as a substitute or complement to synthetic inputs.
“Biological products are in development that support soil health, fight against harmful insects and diseases and create more fertile soil,” said McArthur.
Corteva Agriscience estimates biological products could represent 20 to 25 per cent of the crop protection market, according to the Nourish report. That shows the category is ripe for growth.