Editor’s Note: This is a condensed version of a commentary published by the Global Food Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on May 2, 2019.
Food tech innovators claim to be social entrepreneurs, disrupting technology with droves of new products thanks to a tripling of investments over the past five years. Despite their ingenuity and a commendable focus on sustainability and food loss, entrepreneurs are missing a huge opportunity by not prioritizing nutrition. More than 3 billion people worldwide are plagued by malnutrition; undernourishment and obesity rates are rising at alarming rates. If food innovations better-integrated nutrition, we could be one step closer to providing optimal nutrition for all. The world needs much more than plant-based burgers and non-dairy yogurts to reduce the devastating outcomes of food and nutrition insecurity. The world needs food entrepreneurs to consider the nutritional quality of their products and how to scale up and adopt within specific, at-need global populations.
Now is the time to revolutionize how nutrient-dense food innovations can transform health through food and nutrition security and subsequently economies and livelihoods. Food innovation that improves global nutrition cannot succeed alone—the creative minds of inventors, the strategic drive of industry, the change-making power of policymakers, and the scientific rigor of researchers must work across the food system and collaborate to develop and implement solutions. Social entrepreneurship cannot succeed in a silo.
While food tech innovators are aware of the need for sustainable food and food loss reduction, they may not be as informed about the current state of the triple burden of malnutrition (i.e., undernutrition, overweight or obesity, and micronutrient deficiency) and how transitioning global demographics change diets. Diets are shifting because of a multitude of interacting factors ranging from increasing incomes, expansion of supermarket chains, an abundance of accessible highly processed foods, and urbanization. As incomes rise, so do overweight and obesity rates, and, sequentially, nutrition-related noncommunicable diseases such as heart disease. The Lancet recently published a paper on the health effects of dietary risks and found that poor diets were responsible for 11 million deaths worldwide in 2017. In comparison, tobacco use causes about 7 million deaths yearly. Unsurprisingly, diets high in sodium and low in whole grains and fruits were the primary attributes of these poor diets.
In addition to malnutrition prevalence across the globe, climate change is impacting food and nutrition security. The food system damages the environment because of its use of land and freshwater and production of greenhouse-gas emissions. In turn, climate change increases food and nutrition insecurity through droughts and floods, heatwaves and wildfires, climate-linked disasters, ocean acidification, and decreasing ocean oxygen. The EAT-Lancet Commission defined a “planetary health diet” as optimal caloric intake primarily consisting of diverse plant-based foods, low animal-source foods, unsaturated fats in place of saturated fats, and limited amounts of refined grains, highly processed foods, and added sugars.
If you are a food tech angel investor, you may have salivated (even if just a little) while reading the EAT-Lancet Commission dietary recommendations. The planetary health diet aligns with many of the novel plant-based food and ingredients in development, which sprouted from the global food innovation movement that continues to gain momentum. When looking broadly at agrifood tech investments—including segments ranging from biotechnology to meal kits—annual financing more than tripled from $5.4 billion in 2014 to $16.9 billion in 2018. The United States leads in investments across agrifood tech with $7.9 billion in financing, with China second ($3.5 billion), and India third ($2.4 billion).
Only 3% ($516 million) of that financing supported innovative food, defined as cultured meat, novel ingredients, and plant-based proteins. The largest segment with 23% ($3.9 billion) in investments was in restaurant marketplaces, defined as online technology platforms delivering food. The second largest, 21% ($3.6 billion), supported the eGrocer category, defined as online stores and marketplaces for sale and delivery to consumers. When combined, $7.5 billion (44%) in 2018 was invested in the agrifood tech categories focused on food sales and delivery, and the majority of eGrocery deals were in China and India. These figures beg the question: Do we care more about door-to-door food delivery—that lowers physical activity—than what we are eating?
When analyzing the top 10 innovative food deals, 89% of investments financed plant-based products or ingredients. This move toward supplying alternatives to animal-source protein is one that has many supporters of the EAT-Lancet planetary health diet enthusiastic. Still, the world needs additional nutrition-forward food products that can be adopted in low- and lower-middle-income areas—both rural and urban—to improve global nutrition.
Nutrition is a critical pathway to grow economies, mitigate conflict and pressures to migrate, and support lifelong health. If business models began to include nutrient-dense innovations that have the potential to scale up in underserved locations, a new, forward-thinking form of corporate social responsibility (CSR) could be instituted. Instead of philanthropy toward social causes, which is a core CSR method, industry would be an active participant in crafting and delivering solutions. By including food innovation as an approach to increase food and nutrition security, the U.S. government, academia, and industry can be united collaborators, shared decisionmakers, and effective implementors against the malnutrition scourge.