The Conference on Novel Foods and Novel Food Production, held on 10 March 2023, continued the discussions held in 2019, and the subsequent webinar at AUR focused on changes in food diets and their implications for sustainability.
An unparalleled wave of food product innovations is sweeping through the global food system as of the second decade of the new millennium. Prior to this, the dominant players in the food industry had primarily adopted a defensive stance, reacting to pressures from various social movements and public policies in favor of healthier diets and a healthier planet. Since then, however, they are being challenged by a new generation of food start-ups who, with the help of a novel innovation ecosystem, are introducing products that are increasingly independent of their original raw materials. Food security and food sustainability, as the key global challenges of a world that combines continued population growth with accelerating urbanization and rapid depletion of natural resources, are high on the list of motives of these mission-oriented entrepreneurs. The dominant players in the food systems are themselves now investing and exploring these new lines of products.
The central focus is on producing substitutes for the animal protein food/feed chains since these are seen as the principal source of biodiversity loss, climate change, and land utilization by agricultural activities. But it also extends to a whole range of traditional food crops, including coffee and cocoa. These innovations depend heavily on the so-called disruptive technologies of big-data analysis, machine learning, and artificial intelligence for identifying new molecules with precise physical and functional characteristics. They also draw on advances in biotechnology for gene editing, precision fermentation, and cellular cultivation.
A parallel wave of innovation, in the form of controlled environment agriculture (CEA), encompassing a variety of indoor farming systems and vertical farming, aims to free fresh produce production from the risks and rhythms of the natural environment, integrating it into urban life. As natural resources become scarcer or increasingly contaminated and as climatic conditions become harsher, strategies of resistance to the environment (rustic varieties and races) are combined with or replaced by those of protecting from, controlling the, and, at the limit, substituting for, “nature” in varied types of CEA.
We are no longer dealing with the confection of recipes protected through industrial secrets but with advanced technology solutions increasingly protected by patents and other intellectual property options. While the innovation model was initially dominated by U.S. firms and finance capital, it has quickly become a global phenomenon, with a proliferation of high-tech food hubs often stimulated through public policies and funding, especially in countries with abundant capital but limited natural resources.
The regulation of these new processes and products is still in its infancy, and social acceptance remains an open question. The economic, social, and ecological consequences are similarly as yet undecided.
Will we see the emergence of a new generation of “mission-driven” food firms, or will they be absorbed by the “legacy” global players? Will these innovations lead to new levels of economic concentration, or will they offer new possibilities for more decentralized and democratic forms of control? To what extent will they lead to a reconceptualization of town-country relations? How will they affect the labor market in food and agriculture? Will they help ensure food security at different scales? What is their impact on the health and sustainability of diets?