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Highlights from Future Food Asia 2021

The 5th Future Food Asia conference was held virtually on 7 to 11 June 2021. As we gear up to deal with the impact of climate change, decision makers from leading agriculture and food corporations, influential investors, rising innovators and other key ecosystem players come together to generate new approaches to building the future of food.

As climate change becomes more pertinent, Future Food Asia 2021 takes a closer look at AgriFood Tech, how things have developed in the sector, and how to build a more sustainable food system.

Future Food Asia is a platform that aims to accelerate open innovation in AgriTech and FoodTech across Asia-Pacific, with the goal to catalyse and align an ecosystem to cope with the challenges of food. In line with this year’s theme of Agrifoodtech 2.0, Future Food Asia 2021 presents us with a hope for the future.

In this five-day-long conference, we have heard a multitude of voices from leading agriculture and food corporations to influential investors and rising innovators. In this article, we revisit some of the key points made in the conference, which include discussing the role of capitalism, exploring the alternative protein space, recommending a more sustainable food system, and looking to the future.

Capitalism for Good

When we talk about capitalism, it is often said with a sense of animosity as capitalism can be seen as the cause of our debilitating environment, among other global problems. Yet, in this conversation with David Lee of AppHarvest and Sarah Nolet of Tenacious Ventures, we see how, in some cases, capitalism can be used as a force of good.

Here, Lee highlighted the role of capitalism and consumerism, and how it is the fastest path to change for good. “Let the consumer choose the future (and the consumer always does, by the way), just create a better product,” Lee said.

He further highlights the importance of maintaining transparency. “If you are transparent and you have a better product, and you can compete on the same playing field, you can compete for every dollar of capital from all the investors and you can give a better return, that’s good old fashion capitalism.”

Lee and Nolet also discussed how the evolution of the public and private markets are easing the path for technology adoption in the agrifoodtech sector, where five years ago was only a very small endeavour. Now, Asia and the Middle East are one of the greatest contributors to food technology. “Food security used to be an idea and now it’s a pragmatic requirement,” said Lee.

When asked about the future challenges of agrifoodtech that we can expect, Lee replied that the hardest challenge would be acknowledging that technology has always been a part of food and that it needs to be a bigger part of it. Lee reiterated, “The magnitude of the problems [is], again to be pragmatic, we simply cannot make enough food […] we simply don’t have enough resources to do so, which requires new technology.”

As we draw down on our resources, capitalism will drive companies to innovate. This leads to the development of new technology, which we will have to confront in the coming years.

Navigating the Alternative Protein Space

One of such technology heavily discussed at Future Food Asia 2021 is alternative proteins. As we have transitioned from hunter-gatherers to manufacturing food at unprecedented speeds in the Industrial Revolution, so now we begin our transition into alternative proteins, a food revolution unseen by humans.

In a discussion by Jeyakumar Henry, Senior Advisor of Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation, A*STAR and Meera Vasudevan, Co-Founder of C-SAW, they rightly pointed out how nutrition would be a guide for what we choose to put into our bodies.

People, especially Millennials, are becoming more proactive when it comes to taking care of their health. “We are no longer living in a time where food is just for sustenance; health is also equally important,” said Henry. Here, he pointed out that alternative proteins need to lean into the concern of consumers (i.e. nutrition) if they want to be relevant. As such, companies will have to make wellness a part of their DNA and also make that wellness affordable.

To address that affordability, Change Foods (Australia), a food tech company, has been re-creating real dairy foods without animals. Through precision fermentation, they utilise microbes to produce real dairy proteins and turn them into dairy products. This process uses less water, land, energy, and feedstock, effectively making the method cheaper and more efficient than using real cows.

Apart from making alternative proteins affordable, in a separate dialogue, Nick Hazell, CEO and Founder of v2food and Doris Lee, General Manager of GFI Consultancy added how alternative proteins had to work with dishes that individuals of different cultures like to eat. He cited that in China, the preferred meat is pork and so, alternative meat will have to complement Chinese dishes as real pork does. Hazell also mentioned the importance of accessibility – alternative meat had to be available where one would usually find meat.

This increasing affordability and availability of alternative proteins only hint at the urgency of revamping our food system.

Building a More Sustainable Food System

At Future Food Asia 2021, many speakers have acknowledged how the way we consume food today poses a threat to nature. In this segment, the speakers call for a need to transform our current food system, advocating for research and innovation as a way forward.

“STEM education is going to be increasingly important to address the alternative protein opportunity. Corporations like DSM are going to play a key role to make sure these opportunities are well known,” said Anand Sundaresan, Regional Vice President, APAC – DSM Nutritional Products.

To aid our endeavour towards a more balanced food system, we heard from Claire Pribula, Managing Director, The Yield Lab Asia Pacific and Mark Rottman, CEO, iCell Sustainable on the innovations in the domain of aquaculture, particularly iCell’s integrated aquaculture solution that utilises wastewater and converts it into feed ingredient that can be fed into the aquaculture again, thereby recycling water and nutrients.

As demand for food increases with an increasing global population, the loss of arable land is not our only concern. The ocean, too, has a limit to what it can produce. “In the next 30 years, this is going to have to be the way forward,” said Rottman.

Looking to the Future

On the last day of the conference, we consider our future. With the emergence of Big Data, Amol Deshpanda, CEO at Farmers’ Business Network, Sebastien Pascual, Director of Food & Agribusiness, Temasek, and Rhishi Pethe, Produce Manager at Mineral [X, the moonshot factory] discuss the transformative role data has had in the entire agricultural value chain.

Such transformative role can be seen in Fasal, a full stack low-cost IoT powered, AI-SaaS platform utilising data to provide farm level and crop-specific actionable intelligence to horticulture farmers, thereby removing a lot of the guesswork involved in farming, and making profits a certainty rather than a lottery.

From Fasal, we see how data can improve productivity, however, such smart farming is only beneficial if farmers are taught how best to apply these data-based solutions, and even then, might still face some obstacles that regulation creates.

Gearing away from optimising the supply chain, we note that technology can only take us so far. In a discussion between John Wood of Purpose, Inc. and David Yeung of Green Monday, they pointed out the difficulty in achieving international unity as people have a resistance to change. “Change may happen in some place more progressive, but it does not mean that another state or country will have that ripple effect. You still need to respect each culture and know that this is not going to be easy work,” said Yeung.

While influencing individual tastes and preferences have proven to be a challenge, change will be inevitable. With mounting pressure from environmental agencies and activists groups, the alternative protein industry is projected to grow a hundred times by 2050. We will have to learn to embrace it when it comes.

Concluding Remarks

At Future Food Asia 2021, we were made to confront our present reality – the unsustainability of our actions and the fear of what this means for us in the years to come, but we also hold on to the promises of our future – the hope that human ingenuity would turn the tide.

Over the five days, we heard from various start-ups with innovative ideas on how they plan to build a sustainable food system. From Bondi Bio’s use of cyanobacteria to produce high-value natural products to RE:harvest’s upcycled flour from beer byproducts, these rising innovators are breaking new ground in the agrifoodtech space. We have also embarked on conversations with influential investors and key players in agrifoodtech on how we can rebalance our food system to address environmental challenges, encouraging us to look forward with optimism. [APBN]