Lab to Fork: A Lost Opportunity for Global Nutrition

Food 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 changemaking 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.

The Food and Nutrition Security Challenge

The global food system is complex and will only become more so over time due to population growth. By 2050, the anticipated global population is expected to reach a staggering 10 billion people. Agricultural production needs to increase by 25 to 75 percent to feed this growth. To meet future agricultural demand, the total factor productivity—the gross amount of crop and livestock outputs per inputs of labor, capital, and materials—must increase at a rate of 1.75 percent yearly. The current rate of low-income countries is 0.96 percent. Clearly, the world is not on track to feed the projected global population, let alone nourish.

The protein supply has unique obstacles. Animal-source protein demand is expected to grow by 72 percent by 2050. Considering that livestock and poultry are fed plant-based diets, these animal-source proteins will compete with humans for grain foods and require additional land to produce their feed. China is projected to increase its pork, poultry, and beef output by about 30 percent by 2024. To feed its livestock, China is expected to contribute to a 40 percent rise in global corn trade, while the United States already provides more than 40 percent of China’s soybean imports. That’s a lot of corn and soybeans to only feed the livestock in China.

A host of challenges confront our food system. In addition to global production trends, we must consider whether the available food of the future will be nutrient-dense, affordable, accessible, sustainable, and, ultimately, food people want to eat. Humans have consumed insects like beetles and caterpillars for more than 5 million years, and yet they have only recently gained attention as a sustainable source of protein. How do you feel about adding grasshoppers or termites to your plate? I hesitantly tried a “salt and vinegar” cricket and quickly learned that one cricket was enough, regardless of flavoring. That’s the tricky aspect of behavior change; not all solutions may be accepted at scale by consumers even if early adopters support the innovation.

Global Diets Are Changing . . . and Not for the Better

While food entrepreneurs 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.

This recommended diet caused controversy as recommendations were not based on clinical trials and did not consider potential unintended consequences of a global shift to a predominately plant-based diet. How would this proposed planetary health diet affect economies that rely on livestock? Would plant-based alternatives to animal-source protein truly benefit the environment? And, would the diet cause micronutrient deficiencies with vitamins such as B12 and D? These questions are why no global consensus exists on what comprises a sustainable and/or healthy diet. The nutritional needs of humans change throughout the life cycle, and, because we are biologically heterogeneous, a healthy diet for a pregnant 17-year-old girl in Ghana would be very different from that of a 90-year-old man in the United States. Nevertheless, the EAT-Lancet Commission was innovative and brought much-needed global attention and debate on the issue of diets and climate change.

Food Innovation within Agrifood Tech Investments

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. However, food innovations are just a fraction of a more comprehensive investment category called agrifood tech.

Agrifood tech is a relatively small but mobilized sector of the startup and venture capital space that targets global food and agriculture industries. 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).

In spite of this agrifood tech investment surge, only 3 percent ($516 million) of that financing supported innovative food, defined as cultured meat, novel ingredients, and plant-based proteins. The largest segment with 23 percent ($3.9 billion) in investments was in restaurant marketplaces, defined as online technology platforms delivering food. The second largest, 21 percent ($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 percent) 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 percent 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. Most of these products target niche populations, such as U.S. millennials.

Note: Blue represents plant-based products and/or ingredients and green represents other category; Puris Proteins had two funding rounds in 2018.

The Growing Interest in Food Innovation

Multinational food companies are changing their practices alongside food innovation startups by reformulating current products, acquiring new brands, and investing more in research and development. This move among global food companies is driven by consumer demand for healthier food, as well as widespread public opinion that the food industry is to blame for the growing global obesity crisis. Because of this, some companies are developing “nutrition criteria” or “nutrition profiling” systems that act as guidelines to achieve goals to transform product portfolios to be healthier by reducing sodium, added sugar, and trans and saturated fat.

Food companies also are contributing to food innovation accelerators and incubators. Accelerators are a way for early startups to gain funding and mentorship in exchange for equity of the company. Incubators are on-site mentorship programs with little or no equity required. Companies of all sizes like Chobani and Kraft Heinz have started their own incubators. Nestlé just launched an accelerator, and startup Soylent commenced an innovation lab. Other industries joined the food innovation space too: WeWork, a shared office space company for small businesses and entrepreneurs, created a food lab focused on sustainability.

Academia encourages food innovation by developing coursework and competitions. It’s no surprise that the University of California, Berkley is a strong advocate of technology, given its proximity to Silicon Valley. Big Ideas@Berkeley is a yearly social entrepreneurship contest that provides funding, support, and mentorship to interdisciplinary teams of students across nine categories including food systems and global health. On the opposite coast, the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station recently launched a business incubation and economic development accelerator program focused on food innovation.

The U.S. government funds agricultural innovation and research through 22 Feed the Future Innovation Labs housed at U.S. universities. From developing technology in food processing, fruit and vegetable postharvest practices, and sustainable agricultural productivity, agricultural technology is highly prioritized and funded. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) prioritizes innovation in many disciplines through its U.S. Global Development Lab. Within the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition plays an active domestic role in supporting food technology.

Examples of Food Innovation for Global Food and Nutrition Security

While startup food products can be found across the United States, nutrition-forward innovations that can be adopted in a development context are hard to identify due to the limiting parameters of what constitutes success in low- and lower-middle-income countries. Two examples include Nutriset’s long-standing Plumpy'Nut® and Mars’ recent introduction of GOMO™ Dal Crunchies in India.

Plumpy'Nut® was the first commercially produced Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF), which treats severe acute malnutrition in children older than 6 months. This fortified peanut-based paste was invented by a French pediatrician and inspired by Nutella in 1996. The success of RUTFs is partly because they do not require water, have a multi-year shelf life, and are liked by children who have appetites. UNICEF is the largest global procurer of RUTFs, and some nutritionists compare the impact of RUTFs on saving lives to that of penicillin.

GOMO™ Dal Crunchies is a legume-based innovation that provides protein and additional necessary micronutrients including iron and vitamin A. The lack of these two micronutrients in diets are common deficiencies that cause major health consequences among women, the first 1,000 days (conception to age two), and children. Mars developed a partnership with the Tata Trusts, St. John’s Research Institute in Bangalore, and the University of California, Davis to develop the product to ensure cultural appropriateness, potential for consumer acceptance, and that the product formulation met the unique nutritional gaps of 6- to 18-year-olds in India. Adolescent girls are a critical population for nutrition interventions as adolescence is a time of rapid growth, and adolescent preconception nutrition may have significant impacts on future children.

Both Plumpy'Nut® and GOMO™ Dal Crunchies are plant-based protein innovations that improve specific nutritional needs. Ultimately, healthier food products are not enough to solve the triple burden of malnutrition, but they are a tool that can and should be utilized to improve health and diminish malnutrition.

Industry, Government, and Academia Working Together

The potential to improve global nutrition through food innovation is vast. But to take advantage of this financing impetus and food innovation entrepreneurship, the nutritional quality of new products and ingredients must be prioritized across the private sector, academia, and government.

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.

The U.S. government has an opportunity to provide the support structure for business-enabling environments, adapt or introduce regulations and policy that support nutrition-forward food innovation, and implement the USAID Private-Sector Engagement Policy. As a leader in social entrepreneurship, the U.S. government can forge a new era in food innovation that would serve as a global model to improve health and economies through food. 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.

Amy R. Beaudreault, PhD, is a research fellow with the Global Food Security Project and the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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