The Landscape of Sustainable Food: How Can I Eat and Buy Responsibly in the US?
By Arpan Soparkar
Edited by Sachi Koide
Food Needs a Makeover
It took over 200,000 years for the human population to reach 1 billion in 1804. For all of history, our population traditionally grew in tandem with our evolution as a species. That changed with the industrial and technical revolutions, causing growth to explode over the next two hundred years, and in August 2019 the world population reached an estimated 7.726 billion people. It’s only growing from here [1, 2].
Thus the overarching question of our time: How do we support the resources for this many people?
According to a recent report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), humans today use 72% of the planet’s ice-free surface to feed, clothe and support our growing masses . Astonishingly, while there are currently two billion overweight or obese adults, 820 million others still don’t get enough calories. In addition, somehow an entire third of all food produced is currently either lost or wasted .
So with our current food systems, we’re not only still battling the age old problems of rural poverty, social conflict, hunger, and malnutrition, but we’ve stacked on new crises of obesity, food waste, biodiversity loss, soil erosion, and climate change.
There is a clear economic case for fixing this broken system as well. Recent analysis has shown that developing sustainable food and land-use business models could be worth up to US $2.3 trillion and provide over 70 million jobs by 2030 . Thus, developing and applying the latest technological developments to make our food systems more efficient, sustainable and regenerative is not only critical, but beautifully financially savvy.
Now, let’s go deeper into the ecosystem of various players, unique approaches and upcoming trends. These are companies you’ll want to pay attention to as you weave your way through the intricate landscape of food and food production in the US and beyond.
A Spotlight on Sustainable Food Startups: AgTech
Vertical farming takes away the need to extensive swaths of land, as the tech-in-a-box is literally stacked vertically, and makes it possible for individuals and restaurants to grow their own food. Within this sector of agricultural tech, companies are incorporating the latest and greatest technologies to make food the most efficient it’s ever been
AeroFarms is taking indoor farming to a new level of precision and productivity with minimal environmental impact and virtually zero risk. This Certified B Corporation has been named one of the World’s Most Innovative Companies by Fast Company. Maximizing production and efficiency while producing tasty greens, AeroFarms won the 2018 award for UN Global Sustainable Development Goal # 2: Zero Hunger. A similar company, Square Roots, focuses on growing herbs indoors. Additionally, the ‘modern farming’ company Bowery Farming uses the most advanced technologies, including computer vision, to execute eco-friendly ‘precision farming’ to provide the optimal usage of water, light and nutrients.
Verdical was founded by a restaurant manager and offers cubicles that control water, light, and nutrients in order to allow restaurants to grow up to 150 pounds of produce per year with only four square feet of floor space. This gives the kitchens more control over their produce, minimizes food waste, and importantly eliminates the carbon emissions from food transportation .
Kheyti developed a “Greenhouse-in-a-Box” after seeing firsthand the huge production risk that small Indian farmers are exposed to. It’s an affordable modular greenhouse that fits on 2% of a small farmer’s land, protects crops from environmental risks and grows 7 times more food using 90% less water when compared to traditional open cultivation. The team has won numerous awards at business school competitions such as Kellogg, Columbia, Global Social Venture Competition (GSVC), among others.
Indigo Ag has a vision of creating a world where farming is an economically desirable and accessible profession. Indigo works alongside its growers to apply natural approaches, conserve resources for future generations, and grow healthy food for all. Utilizing beneficial plant microbes to improve crop health and productivity, Indigo’s portfolio is focused on cotton, wheat, corn, soybeans, and rice. In June 2019, they announced The Terraton Initiative, to remove one trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Since 2013 the company has offered a full range of services such as the Indigo MarketPlace, Indigo certified Crops, Indigo Transport and more, for growers, buys and consumers.
Granular Ag is one of the first companies to apply Silicon Valley technology expertise to the agriculture industry. Led by a team of experienced entrepreneurs, advisors, and investors, they use software and data science to transform farming, increase transparency, and enable new ways of doing business. From Granular Business (farm management software) to Granular Insights (crunching numbers to offer actionable insights) and AcreValue (Calculate productivity by acre), they offer innovative suit of valuable solutions to industrial farms.
Plant-based foods are the hot trend of 2019, with a number of companies in this wide sector, focusing on alternatives to meats, dairy, and even eggs  and mayonnaise , and the plant protein market is valued to be $11B. These additions and potential replacements in our food systems are critical mitigators of animal cruelty, poor working conditions, environmental impact, and over-extensive land use.
Beyond Meat offers realistic products like chicken strips, burgers, and beef crumbles directly from plants and IPOed in early 2019 with the best-performing public offering from the US in twenty years . Their offerings are similar to their larger (and still-private) domestic competitor, Impossible Foods. With the announcement on August 26th, 2019, KFC became the first nationwide fast food restaurant to test Beyond Meat’s plant-based chicken . Both these companies have been backed by Bill Gates.
Silk is possibly one of the most recognized names in dairy-alternative products, offering a range of delicious products including Soymilk, Almondmilk, Cashewmilk, Oatmilk and dairy-free yogurt alternatives. The brand is owned by Danone North America, the largest B-corporation in the world , which is the American arm of the respected French food giant, Dannon.
Miyoko’s Kitchen and Perfect Day Foods are two smaller companies focusing on niche markets. One of the fastest growing food companies in California, Miyoko’s is revolutionizing the dairy industry by combining proprietary technology with age-old creamery methods to craft cheese, cream cheese and butter from plants. Perfect Day, another California-based company, offers not only vegan cheese, but even ice-cream . It’s a good day for the lactose-free eaters!
Good Dot is a food tech start-up bringing plant-based proteins to India that can be distributed anywhere and bought by everyone, showing that food innovation is certainly not restricted to the US. These new markets pose additional challenges such as extreme price sensitivity, but they also offer much larger potential TAMs (total addressable markets).
Say Goodbye to Food Waste
In the US, the total amount of food wasted annually is 126 billion pounds. As a country, we spend $218 billion — 1.3% of our GDP — growing, processing, transporting, and disposing of food that is never eaten. With this waste, 18% of all US cropland, 21% of agricultural water, and 21% of landfill content is wasted . Various companies are taking a range of approaches to minimize this tremendous food waste while also monetizing these efforts.
Apeel Sciences develops plant-derived solutions to help organic and conventional fresh food providers increase produce quality and reduce food waste. Apeel, their edible coating product, can make avocados, citrus and other types of fruit last twice as long as usual by using a tasteless edible coating made from plant materials.
Imperfect Foods is on a mission to reduce food waste and make healthy food more affordable, accessible, and convenient. They source “imperfect-looking” food directly from farms and producers, which would often otherwise go to waste because of their aesthetics, and deliver it to customers’ doors for an average of 30% less than grocery store prices.
Copia and Replate are both NorCal-based companies started in 2016 that focus on minimizing food waste at urban businesses by transporting that surplus food to communities in need. While Copia has raised more money so far, Replate claims to have recovered almost double the amount of food comparatively.
Other Trends: Lab-grown Meat, Upcycled Flour, and Plastics?
Beyond the three verticals covered above, here are some companies taking very interesting approaches to build businesses on sustainable food technologies.
Memphis Meats is growing food from the ground up. When meat was first grown from cells in a lab back in 2013, a single burger cost around $330,000 . The price has decreased dramatically since then, and current estimates range from $363 to $2,400 per pound, making it still much more expensive than regular meat . This method of producing meat is greatly advantageous for the environment and Memphis Meats has been notably invested in by Bill Gates and Tyson. Hopefully they’ll be on the markets soon!
RISE Products and Renewal Mill are two pioneer companies of a new circular economy of food that reduces waste and delivers affordable nutrition and taste. They upcycle the byproducts of food manufacturing into delicious, high quality ingredients. Renewal Mill focuses on okara flour, made from the byproduct of soymilk manufacturing that has 4x the dietary fiber of traditional whole wheat flour. RISE rescues barley as BSG (Brewer’s Spent Grain), and converts it in flour that has 12x fiber, 2x protein and 1/3 of the carbs compared to all-purpose flour .
ZestBio is a tiny startup that harnesses the power of biology to convert agricultural waste streams into specialty chemicals. Every year, about 150 billion pounds of sugar beet pulp and 22 billion pounds of grape pomace is generated and discarded worldwide by the sugar and wine industries. Their patent-pending conversion technologies allow the ZestBio team to transform these wastes into renewable, eco-friendly products such as household cleaning agents, bio-based plastics and vitamin supplements.
HowGood has the most comprehensive data set on product sustainability in the industry. Empowering customers with transparency and objective metrics, they rate over 1M products from a large number of brands, to help customers make informed choices based on parameters such as technical analysis, social and environmental impacts, and CSR practices. This is a fantastic app to download to get insights into what you’re buying.
Many of these trends are monumental game-changers, and the traditional giants in the space have been paying attention. 100 Accelerator, a $1M startup accelerator program focused on sustainability, was launched by Anheuser-Busch InBev, a global brewing company, in August 2018. Tyson food has invested twice in Beyond Meat. Another backer of Beyond Meat in 2015 was Fund 301, which is the venture arm of General Mills. In 2018, they invested in Urban Remedy and Farmhouse Culture.
PepsiCo stands out as an iconic company that has been transforming itself to closely match the market trends and changing demand, and its 2018 acquisitions of Health Warrior and Bare Snacks are just a couple of recent examples of these repositioning efforts. On August 28th, The Innovation Fund, a program of the Kroger Co. Zero Hunger Zero Waste Foundation, announced a grant of US $1 million to 7 innovators to help end food waste . While these are market-reactive efforts of mainstream giants, some other companies in the space (such as Danone, Patagonia Provisions, Starbucks, and Clif Bar and Company) have long established themselves as proactive thought-leaders and bar-setters.
Invest for Success
Over the past few years, a growing number of investors have been drawn to the rapidly-growing global food market. These include investors of all stripes: Celebrity angel investors like Trevor Noah  and Oprah , corporate ventures like Tyson Ventures  and Google Ventures , non-profit foundations including Open Philanthropy Project , debt and specialty finance entities including Trinity Capital Investment , asset and investment management firms like Filter14  and Vikings Global Investors , public-private partnership firms like Temasek , PE firms like Sailing Capital  and GGV Capital , and even investment banks like JP Morgan Chase  and UBS . Impact-focused venture firms such as Better Ventures and Obvious Ventures invest in a range of sustainable food companies. While some large food companies [32, 33, 34] create their venture arms, some others run incubators  and accelerators  for innovative food startups. A more thorough list can be found here.
A Regenerative Future?
Over past few years, regenerative farming techniques have been acknowledged as the path forward, to address many challenges of current, unsustainable agricultural practices. This approach focuses on topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity, improving the water cycle, enhancing ecosystem services, supporting bio-sequestration, increasing resilience to climate change, and strengthening the health and vitality of farm soil . As defined in a 2015 article in the Guardian ,
“Regenerative agriculture comprises an array of techniques that rebuild soil and, in the process, sequester carbon. Typically, it uses cover crops and perennials so that bare soil is never exposed, and grazes animals in ways that mimic animals in nature. It also offers ecological benefits far beyond carbon storage: it stops soil erosion, remineralizes soil, protects the purity of groundwater and reduces damaging pesticide and fertilizer runoff.”
As alternatives to farmland come into play, some farmers are also constantly improving their efficiency and techniques. It takes all sides to create the systemic change we need to continue thriving.
The challenges of our food systems are immense: the demand is growing quickly and straining our current systems, climate, environment, financial institutions, and nutritional intake. The good news is that thought leaders are continuing bold and drastically-needed innovation. Sustainable food and respective technology space will continue to evolve and come into practicebin coming months and years.
As a responsible consumer, it’s important to be aware of the great technologies out there, buy as responsibly as you can, and spread the word of the changes happening in our food system.
- https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/03/ipcc-land-use-food-production-key-to-climate-crisis- leaked-report
- https://www.asiatimes.com/2019/08/article/world-warned-change-land-use-now-or-endanger-food-and- climate/
- https://www.cnbc.com/2019/08/21/whole-foods-ceo-john-mackey-plant-based-meat-not-good-for-your- health.html
- https://www.triplepundit.com/story/2017/3p-weekend-10-companies-bringing-plant-based-protein- mainstream/204311
- https://www.foodingredientsfirst.com/news/Flora-based-dairy-Perfect-Day-debuts-first-of-its-kind-vegan-ice- cream.html
- https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/lab-grown-beef-taste-test-almost-like-a- burger/2013/08/05/921a5996-fdf4–11e2–96a8-d3b921c0924a_story.html
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- http://www.abladvisor.com/news/16112/jpmorgan-chase-inks-55mm-revolver-for-boutique-whiskey-distiller- whistlepig
- https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/mar/09/we-need-regenerative-farming-not- geoengineering