By BRAD FABBRI
From fitness trackers to at-home genetics and microbiome tests, consumers are becoming more knowledgeable about the unique factors that keep them, personally, healthy. As people learn more about what they need to feel their best, they are coming to view the food they eat from a whole new perspective.
The trends in preference for locally sourced and organic foods over the past few years show that people are willing to pay a premium for foods they see as better for their health and for the planet. Companies, including McDonald’s, made significant impacts on the supply chain to accommodate a growing consumer preference for cage-free eggs. As gene sequencing and post-farm gate technologies improve lockstep with consumer demand, what’s healthy and sustainable for the consumer will also benefit the entire food supply. For the first time, quality traits are converging with agronomic traits, leading to a renaissance in food selection — and the supply chain itself.
Why hasn’t it happened until now? For decades there has been a disconnect between consumers and the people who breed and grow our crops and food animals. Most Americans couldn’t conveniently seek out information on where their food came from or how it was raised. This disconnect meant that growers were faced with incentives to overlook consumer preferences in favor of growing practices that were best for themselves or for the shippers and grocers directly downstream from them in the supply chain.
Farmers have been focused on developing agronomic traits (like greater yield, herbicide resistance, heat tolerance) rather than finding quality traits (improved taste, greater nutrition, more appealing appearance) for which consumers might pay more. When companies did make moves to breed in quality traits (as Monsanto did when it engineered canola oil to offer the same health benefits and taste of olive oil at a fraction of the price), the time and R&D budget required basically meant that only the biggest ag companies could make those moves, and then only with the most scaleable, high-volume row crops.
Plant breeders, meanwhile, have been breeding produce for shippers, who demand fruits and vegetables that are hard enough to withstand cross-country truck shipment, after which grocers will expect the produce to sit on shelves for weeks without rotting. In fact, a new genome study found that the tomatoes on your grocery shelf have lost a quantifiable amount of the volatile organic compounds that ought to make them delicious. No one deliberately chooses to sell a hard, mealy, flavorless tomato. It’s just that the food supply chain wasn’t prioritizing the customer’s desires.
The good news? Geneticists are working on how to reintroduce those lost volatiles for a tastier tomato. The better news? Smart people from all across the food supply chain are finding ways to grow better food for the consumer on a massive scale.
3 forces behind the food renaissance
So what are some of the key drivers of the movement toward better, more sustainable food at a global scale?
1. Genome sequencing and editing. As the tomato study suggests, there is a growing body of research on the genomes of our most important food staples. That’s because it’s become exponentially cheaper to sequence genes and to make sense of the sequence, and it keeps getting cheaper every year. The rise of gene sequencing and editing tools, such as CRISPR-Cas9, is a renaissance all of its own. As the technology becomes cheaper and more widely available, the barriers to expertise are falling too: now even middle schoolers can learn how to turn genes on and off. In contrast to GMO technologies that a number of consumers prefer to avoid, gene editing methods result in plants that are indistinguishable from varieties selected from spontaneous mutations or via traditional breeding methods.
The food industry, plant breeders and seed companies must decide how they will put these tools to use to the greatest benefit for consumers and the global food supply at large. Consider the frightening possibility that, without intervention, chocolate could go extinct within 40 years due to climate change. In response, breeders are using CRISPR to breed a heartier cacao plant resistant to climate change. There is huge potential for using these plant breeding technologies to develop crop varieties that not only benefit the farmer but have direct benefit to the consumer. This can include fruits and vegetables with improved flavor, nutrition, color and resistance to undesirable issues like browning. The power and ease of use of these technologies have great potential to ‘democratize’ the industry, allowing small companies to participate and compete with large seed companies. This will have the added benefit to promote the improvement of minor (small market) crops that will provide more consumer choice and make feasible improvement of even niche and local crops.
2. Advances in post-farm gate technologies. Another huge drag on the efficiency of the global food supply is waste. Studies estimate that as much as 40% of food gets thrown away. Consumer habits in the developed world have their part to play in this problem, but a bulk of the waste occurs “post-farm gate” –- the stages from harvest to consumer purchase.
Here as well, new technologies are making it easier to prevent this waste. Consider Edipeel, an invisible, all-natural, and edible coating that protects food surfaces from the microbial and chemical processes that cause produce to go bad in transit. Combine advances like these with the sensor-enhanced ability the Internet of Things gives us to monitor and adjust environmental conditions across the entire food supply chain, and we should all be looking at the problem of food waste as something the industry can significantly reduce in the near future.
3. Consumers. Ultimately, however, none of this would be happening without consumers leading the way. As consumers have become more aware of and engaged with the food supply chain, their demands have become an undeniable catalyst of industry change.
In animal husbandry, producers are asking themselves what they can do to increase animal welfare and reduce the use of antibiotics. These practices not only make for a product that sells at a premium, they make for healthier, happier animals that are more ultimately more productive. So, the consumer push toward more humane practices is good for the animals, good for the environment and ultimately good for the growers’ bottom line.
Another emerging factor is personalized nutrition, where an individual’s genetic, metabolic and other biological status can be used to derive a specific and customized nutrition plan designed to promote health and vigor. This is still in an early stage but an example of where the technology is heading is shown in DNAFit that adds onto the consumer-available 23andMe genetic testing service. This new service provides diet and fitness insights, and meal and training plans.
The emerging future of food
All of these advances in response to consumer demand are exciting because they give a clear choice people can make to improve their lives and the future of the planet. Consumer preference is a strong force that drives strategies for seed and livestock genetics producers, farmers and animal producers, retail and restaurant establishments. Consumers, and how they choose to exert their influence, have a large amount of power to effect change. A watch out is that consumer choice can be and is manipulated for reasons that may have nothing to do with their own benefit.
The appropriate use of a varieties of technologies both biological and other have the promise to improve nutrition and quality, reduce waste, improve environmental sustainability and help ensure that our growing world population is fed and has good food choices. The informed consumer already has a broad spectrum of choices, and this will continue to grow.
Brad Fabbri is chief science officer with TechAccel, a venture and technology development organization focused on agriculture and animal health.