“I’m a very optimistic person and I believe we will come around, as we always did,” Alexandre Bastos recently said in a conversation with AgFunderNews about the current state of food system.
Having spent more than 20 years working in the food industry, he’s certainly seen what external factors like inflation, war and environmental damage can do to food and ag systems. And as head of open innovation, startups & ventures, taste & wellbeing at flavor/fragrance giant Givaudan, he also knows how technological innovation can address many of the challenges that arise from those factors.
The food system itself has changed a lot over the last 20 years, says Bastos, bringing new challenges and therefore new innovations. At the upcoming ftalks Food Summit 2023 in Valencia, Spain, he’ll be unpacking many of those issues as well as the technological (or not) solutions that could potentially address them.
His recent conversation with AgFunderNews [AFN], arranged by the KM ZERO Food Innovation team, hints at what those things are and, ultimately, why Bastos remains optimistic about the food system and the planet.
AFN: You’ve been working at Givaudan for over 20 years and in their innovation department for more than 7 years. How has the food industry changed in that time and what has the impact of new technologies been?
AB: There are definitely many clear changes if you go back 15-20 years. I want to call out the two main ones from my point of view: naturality [sic] and clean labels.
The interesting thing is that 10-15 years ago, when these discussions emerged, they seemed impossible for the industry to tackle. Today, these are “table stakes.” More recently we have seen the surge of alternative protein and more broadly the importance of sustainability (good for your health, good for communities and kind to the planet).
Finally, one key observation I have is [around] the incredible surge of foodtech and the “democratization” of food innovation. The private and public capital poured in food has expanded the innovation capacity, which in the past was restricted to universities, corporates and the old consortiums — always in very developed markets. Now you see great innovation mushrooming from different places, people and sources.
AFN: Which technologies are you most excited about and which do you think do not really have a place in the food industry?
AB: I am super excited about fermentation in general. It is a vast technology platform going from precision fermentation to biomass and foodstuff fermentation, which can deliver benefits in multiple food applications, providing interesting alternatives to existing products, [making them] eventually safer, more controlled and in some cases less processed.
One specific area within fermentation I am super excited about is animal-based cell culture, but also plant cell culture, given [plants’] ability to create compounds without harming nature.
On the agtech side, I’d pick regenerative agriculture. It is a broad approach, depending on decision makers, government, planning and a set of great technologies. We need it going forward, as I don’t believe it is only the “hi-tech” part which will help the transition to a more sustainable food system.
On the other hand, ANY technology which on its own is not carbon neutral at scale should not be a target for investors and corporate enablement. We must set this as the top KPI.
AFN: What do you think are the 3 biggest challenges facing the food industry today?
AB: One: ever-changing consumer preferences. We have seen [these] for a few years now, but more than ever consumers are more informed (sometimes misinformed) and more active in scrutinizing and advocating for healthier and more sustainable food. They, of course, drive consumption and push governments. The speed at which this is happening now is unprecedented, and it is virtually impossible to follow all renewing brands and portfolios with good quality and safety. How can we operate in a world where, maybe, the “seasonal” products become more and more the new normal?
Two: “Shrinkflation.” Economies around the world are still suffering from high levels of inflation and reduced consumer consumption. This clearly creates a huge issue for the whole value chain since volumes are not really growing and it gives a false perception of health to many. It is probably a way to fight inflation, but it should also push the industry for more innovations around “affordable nutrition,” which could help in moments like this and also expand more to developing countries where many have no full access to proper nutrition.
Three: Geopolitical conflicts, supply chain and food security. The rise of geopolitical conflicts we have seen recently do not help the industry. They ultimately create challenges in the supply chain and end up increasing food insecurity in so many areas around the world. This combined with such an optimized and centralized food production creates a domino effect to source some key materials to key areas of the world. How could we stimulate technologies which drive for more distributed and “close to consumers” ways to get food on the table?
AFN: Are you optimistic about the future?
AB: I’m a very optimistic person and I believe we will come around, as we always did.
Back to my initial point, the rise of innovation from different parts of the world and the rise of purpose-driven hubs will definitely take care of some of these challenges to speed up technology and product development. There is clearly an uprising of executives, investors and innovators who are truly concerned about one thing: the planet. This will certainly help to ease boundaries, make compromises and accelerate innovation.
AFN: What keeps you up at night?
AB: If I take the question literally, nothing really. First because I love sleeping and I know I need it so much. Second, as said by the wisest person ever lived, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Enjoy your sleep and family, and address whatever you need to address in the morning. It will be there and you will have a much better disposition and mind to tackle it.