AGRINEWS: Companies using technology to improve sustainability of food product



By Martha Blum

CHICAGO — Food companies are using technology to improve sustainability at every step of the supply chain.

“We’re seeing companies use technology to tackle the protein problem through technologies,” said Beth Conerty, regional innovation officer for the Illinois Fermentation Agriculture Biomanufacturing Tech Hub.

“We’re also seeing companies use technology and biomanufacturing to create packaging,” said Conerty during a panel discussion at the Tomorrow’s Harvest Food and Agriculture Sustainability Forum, hosted by the Chicagoland Food and Beverage Network.

“There are companies looking at sustainability for a world crop perspective like coffee that is a very at-risk climate product or palm oil that is understood to be hard on the environment,” she said. “Companies are using precision fermentation to address that and using technology is important to make the food system sustainable at every step of the process.”

“Sustainability for companies used to be a single department, but now we’re seeing companywide sustainability targets,” said Loula Merkel, chief business officer for Comet Bio Sciences. “Companies are making sustainability decisions for everything they purchase, not just packing and transportation.”

Comet Bio Sciences is commercializing a new upcycled sustainable dietary fiber.

“It not only helps reduce food waste, but also helps Americans and food companies close the fiber gap,” Merkel said.

The company upcycles wheat straw to make the fiber.

“We partner with farmers in Denmark to gather the straw, we extract the fiber and our sister company in Denmark produces ethanol from the rest of the straw,” Merkel said.

“We found certification schemes matter. The upcycle certification gives consumers greater confidence in where the food comes from,” she said.

Comet Bio Sciences did a life-cycle analysis on the product and compared that to similar fibers in the marketplace.

“Our fiber is produced with 70% fewer life-cycle greenhouse gases and most of the impact is because of the raw material,” Merkel said. “We have data to prove we’re reducing carbon dioxide from the food system waste.”

Food companies have sustainability targets and they have options for meeting those goals such as transporting and packaging or ingredient selection.

“An average nutrition bar has 2.5 grams of carbon dioxide per gram of product, and if you change to more sustainable packaging, that gives you a couple percentage points of carbon dioxide reduction,” Merkel said.

“If you swap out just our fiber, you get one gram of reduction,” she said. “That’s over 60% reduction in carbon dioxide by ingredient selection.”

The Gen Z generation has a distrust in large brands and food companies, said Christina Marion, senior vice president and global account director for Ketchum.

“Seventy-three percent of them believe food companies are only focused on profit and unfortunately they feel the same about farmers,” Marion said.

“Our survey found consumers want to make sure animals are taken care of, but when they’re making a decision of what they put on their plates, there’s a gap for a variety of reasons and influences,” she said. “Some of it is price, but they are increasingly conflicted and it’s causing anxiety because they want to do the right thing.”

For Gen Z consumers, the relationship with food is about the joy and experience, Marion said.

“They’re experimenting more with food, cultures and flavors,” she said. “As they do that, they are aligning sustainability expectations, so it’s built in.”

“We come from the perspective that you’re not going to pay more for sustainability, so when we look at what we’re going to invest in, it’s behind technology that enables price parity,” said Ashley Hartman, managing partner with Bluestein Ventures, a venture capital fund.

“For packaging solutions, we want one that can offer no tradeoff between price and sustainable packaging,” she said. “Millennials and Gen Z consumers both consider groceries and food almost like a luxury or their splurge, so I think there’s a little flexibility in what they’ll spend for the right products.”

However, Hartman said, sustainability has to be a benefit built into a business model.

“It’s not a feature that you expect consumers to pay more for,” she said.

The vision of Bluestein Ventures is to transform the food system to be better, healthier and more sustainable.

“We invest in anything from goods on the shelf, how the goods get to the shelf to how goods are made,” Hartman said.

“To drive innovation and product development, we must have talent and a workforce pipeline that’s going to be equipped with the skill sets, understanding, intuition and drive to move our food system to a more sustainable future,” said Tyler Strom, executive director of the Illinois Agri-Food Alliance.

“We’re a pretty unique state when it comes to food and agriculture because we have every aspect of the supply chain represented,” he said. “We are a major production state for corn and soybeans and we also have a vibrant local and regional food system, a lot of specialty crop production, artisan grains and food manufacturing.”

The problem is a workforce shortage across the supply chain.

“We’re working with students and bringing career professionals to them to showcase the diversity of food and agriculture opportunities,” Strom said. “About 90% of jobs are not on the farm and the students do not understand the pathways available to them in engineering or food science.”

With climate change, the executive director said, it is important to have smart individuals to help the food and agriculture industry adapt.

“We live on a finite planet with finite resources, so climate change is going to be one of the most significant impactors in our lifetime,” he said.

For example, 80% of the cocoa comes from West Africa, Strom said.

“They are experiencing one of the worst droughts they’ve seen, which has sent cocoa prices up over 129% since the beginning of the year,” he said. “We’re going to see continued pressure on at-risk ingredients and it will disrupt supply chains.”

Therefore, it is important to discover innovative approaches to address these challenges.

“It’s going to happen to coffee and sugar, so investment is key to build drought tolerance traits into seeds,” Strom said. “We need more investment for research and innovation to have a plethora of solutions.”