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Changing consumer behaviours and innovations are shaping sustainable food production, both now and in the future. The mindset of 21st century consumers and their needs and values are reforming our food landscape and the approach to sustainability.

About 75 percent of our food comes from just 12 plant and five animal species1 yet, for the consumer, there is an illusion of choice. The average supermarket has 80,000 different products and SKUs1, however we have traded ecological diversity for brand diversity. Historically, this has implied that there is only one way to do agriculture, using these traditional 12 plant and five animal species.

But new ways of feeding people are emerging. The ‘one size fits all’ notion is becoming outdated as consumers increasingly demand personalisation and use food to express themselves. In the very near future, food producers will need to focus on taste and storytelling in order to develop a food system that is better for people, the planet and evolving palates. Catering for diversifying diets, in a landscape of resource scarcity, climate change and globalisation is forcing food producers to adapt.

This combination of consumer demand and ecological adversity has created a market for innovative new products and presenting new opportunities for progressive food producers.

The 21st century consumer

For the first time in decades, teenagers are spending more money on food than clothing. Traditionally clothing has been one of the main ways people express themselves outwardly – now food is taking on this role as well and as food becomes representative of identity – the food system is being disrupted.

Consumers are now seeking that food is ‘instagram-able’ so they can express themselves through their social media feeds. How consumers choose to eat is also a reflection of this desire to communicate their values. A consumer may identify as vegetarian, flexitarian, vegan, paleo – the list goes on, and some food retailers are capitalising on this by connecting to customers’ lifestyle and value systems. For example Thrive Market enables users of their website to filter grocery items based on their dietary choices, lifestyle and what they value.

The 21st century consumer has three demands of their food – health, sustainability and experience – and all at the same time. Some 88 percent of consumers desire healthier foods and they are seeking ways to use food to fortify their bodies1. The market for functional/fortified foods in 2018 was $247 billion1. Worldwide, 66 percent of consumers, and 73 percent of millennial consumers, are willing to pay more for sustainable goods. Yet this must all feed into the experience behind the food – everything from the way it tastes, to how it was discovered, and the story behind it. Worldwide, 77 percent of consumers want transparency in their food1. The process of its production is defining the product itself.

Food of the future is a product which has health benefits and creates an emotional and engaging experience for the consumer, all while being sustainably produced. Tesla created a fast and sexy car that people desire, which is also sustainable – we need to think like this for food. We need to make people want the product for reasons other than sustainability to drive the need to purchase – like the product itself; how it tastes; how it makes you feel.

Take Row 7 Seeds. They are a seed company driving this concept. They bring together chefs and plant breeders to create produce with the focus on taste thereby reducing the need to add flavours at the end of the cooking process.

Alternative choices

The consumer’s desire for more sustainable products, along with the increasing number of people choosing to be vegetarian and vegan has given rise to the alternative product market – meat and dairy products that are produced without animals. V2food is an Australian producer of plant-based meat substitutes; a partnership between Competitive Foods Australia (CFA) and CSIRO.

Jack Cowin of CFA recognised the importance of diversification within large fast-food chains, and utilised the research and capability network of CSIRO to help develop a product that attracts a new line of customers to Hungry Jacks2. Tapping into a market of otherwise unreached consumers, it created new demand for the business. V2food are now working to develop an alternative pork product to access China’s pork market, given the decimation the national pig population has experienced from the African Swine Fever outbreak in 2019.

Currently taste is the number one factor being considered in the production of these products as they seek to transition customers from traditional products to these new alternatives. While the sustainability of the production system and enhanced nutritional value will follow closely behind the importance of taste to consumers2.

Animals and plants feeding the world together

As alternate proteins continue to enter the market, the beef (and red meat) business will not be replaced by these. The way forward is to balance both meat and alternates. Ecologically it is shown that grazing animals are an important part of landscape management, and partnering them carefully across our land is vital to the management of it.

Nutritional value is also an important consideration. As these alternate proteins are currently being developed for taste, they often have higher levels of sodium and salt than their red-meat counterparts. No alternative protein can be sold today as nutritionally superior, though there are some advantages such as no cholesterol.

The long-term vision of the alternate protein market lies in controlling the product’s nutritional mix and managing what goes into it in regards to nutrients and vitamins. We can’t rely on red meat alone to feed the growing global population.

Plants and red meat need to work together to do this – nutritiously and sustainably. Consider how this could look with a simple burger. The meat can come from a cow or plant, and in the future, could be grown in a lab. The cheese can be dairy cheese or a derivative of animal-free milk (i.e. Perfect Day). A burger can be cooked on fire, in the oven, or by a creator (a robot in San Francisco makes burgers). The lettuce can come from a traditional farm, a rooftop farm in a major city, or an indoor farming system that uses aeroponics like Aerofarms. The choices in a simple burger are endless – but with 7.7 billion people in the world, there is room for all these choices.

The future state

We need to tell a new narrative for Australia on the global stage. One that shows that we are in the business of producing nutritional food solutions, not just base commodity ingredients. Key to the continued development of the increasingly diversified food and agricultural industry in Australia is investment.

The current investment attitude of “how can I get out in five years” is not future building. Bridging the gap between the idea and investment confidence is where large scale public and private companies need to step up and take a risk.

Australia needs to change the levers to get more of our money back on shore (i.e. superfunds) and into longer term horizon projects that will look to shape the future of Australian agriculture. We need more investment in food processing, value adding and advanced manufacturing. Government also needs to play a key role – when you see a positive narrative from government, it can make a country seem more privately investable3.

Footnotes

  1. Mike Lee, evokeAG 2020, The Future Market & Alpha Food Labs
  2. Jack Cowin, evokeAG 2020, Competitive Foods Australia 
  3. John Henderson, evokeAG 2020, AirTree