Five years ago, it became clear to Brittany Habben that she was at risk. While she was aware her paternal grandfather had suffered from Type 1 diabetes, it wasn’t until her older sister was diagnosed with the disease that the Colorado native recognized lifestyle changes were needed.
“I wasn’t making healthy food choices and had gained a lot of weight,” Habben recalls.
While the exact cause of Type 1 diabetes remains elusive to researchers, genetics and environmental factors likely play a role. “I know Type 1 cannot be prevented with diet and exercise,” she says. “However, Type 2 can be mitigated through healthy life choices, which is my main goal.”
At 28, Habben began switching her diet and joined a fitness center. Through the Marco Polo app, she also created Britt’s Kitchen to coach others on nutrition, while sharing healthy recipes and cooking practices.
“I am focused on cutting out as much processed food as possible and eating more nutritious whole foods,” Habben says. “I am working toward making more healthy decisions every day to reduce my risk of becoming a diabetic.”
As part of a team of cultural anthropologists that monitor millions of conversations, Ujwal Arkalgud, CEO of MotivBase, listens to what Habben has to say about her lifestyle choices. Using artificial intelligence and big data, the company studies and deciphers the meaning behind virtual discussions and how they shape consumers’ perception of a topic.
Although not mainstream yet, MotivBase has discovered three consumer interests – food miles, hydroponic vertical farms, and cultured meats – gaining traction.
“There are about 30 million American consumers engaging in these topics, but I see that shifting considerably over the next four to five years. The 25- to 34-year-olds, particularly those who are college educated, are really the group at the heart of this,” says Arkalgud, who is also a member of The Center for Food Integrity (CFI) Consumer Trust Insights Council.
Two Distinct Motivators
There are two distinct motivators driving the interests. First, consumers want to make the world a better place through their decisions, small or large. “It is a lingering feeling that is gradually starting to change their behavior,” Arkalgud says.
The definition of what that means is also changing, adds Charlie Arnot. “It used to be, ‘What’s in the environment that can harm the planet?’ Because of the pandemic, a consumer’s perspective has morphed into, ‘What’s in the environment that could harm me or my family?’ ” says Arnot, CEO of CFI. “If it’s better for me and my family, it must be better for the planet.”
Second, consumers don’t just want to live longer, they also want a healthier, more agile lifestyle. “It’s the mind-set that if I eat the right way, then I can be like my 72-year-old neighbor climbing mountains,” Arkalgud says.
Technology poses interesting opportunities to accelerate the three interests, all of which ultimately come back to nutrition. “It is the one area where everything converges,” Arkalgud says. “A growing number of consumers are waking up to this new reality of what their nutritional profile has looked like and what it should look like.”
Simply put, food miles are the distance food travels from where it is grown until it reaches the consumer. Studies estimate that fresh produce logs about 1,500 miles. The longer it takes to get to a consumer, the more freshness declines and the more nutrients are lost.
“Most produce loses 30% of its nutrients three days after harvest. I want to connect consumers with local farmers who can provide produce that is delivered within hours of it being harvested and is truly fresh,” says Rob Reiner, CEO, CropSwap. “Farmers only earn about 15¢ of every dollar a consumer spends on food, so it’s also about putting more money in a farmer’s pocket.”
With a background in computer science, Reiner has been building apps for small start-ups to established companies for more than a decade. Yet he didn’t feel like he was developing something that impacted the world. “My team began working on concepts in the health, wellness, and eco-conscious spaces that we thought had potential to better the world,” Reiner recalls.
That work led him to Daniel McCollister.
“Dan was an urban gardener who sold produce to his California neighbors. He introduced me to local food, what it meant, and how powerful it was,” Reiner recalls. “Essentially he was an encyclopedia of how to grow your own food.”
Combining their expertise, the pair built CropSwap, an app geared toward farmers and the growing community. “I loved Dan’s mission, but we weren’t connecting with the consumer who really needed to become healthier,” he says.
Taking over the company in 2019, Reiner began rebuilding CropSwap. In March 2020, a second version of the app was launched. It enables users to customize the contents, amount, and frequency of their subscription. Once ready, the box can be picked up or delivered.
“The biggest gap between local growers and consumers is that consumers don’t think local growers can meet their demands, and local growers don’t think consumers are interested in their produce. CropSwap solves this with a weekly or monthly subscription that holds growers to specific deliveries, so consumers see reliability in the local market,” Reiner says, adding that a box filled with 40 to 50 pounds of produce is $50 a month delivered.
While COVID-19 disrupted grocery store deliveries, it was business as usual for CropSwap. “A grower knew how much produce he had to deliver, and his routes were set. Nothing changed. I believe this is a model that will carry humanity forward,” he says.
Today, CropSwap includes about 30 growers who offer more than 120 products, with a focus on farms employing regenerative practices. “We have around 500-plus subscribers and are growing every day to connect more consumers with their local food economy,” Reiner says.
Hydroponic Vertical Farms
Every day is a perfect day inside a sealed, climate-controlled room at Crop One. Using the company’s hydroponic technology and indoor growing platform, its FreshBox Farms produce is grown vertically on shelves in an environment where roots sit in filtered, circulating water rich in nutrients. Depending on the crop, one of its modular grow units can yield 17 times more harvests than conventional farmland, using 95% less water. In addition, no chemical herbicide or pest control products are needed.
“A vertical farm using a hydroponic system checks all of the boxes for the consumer, because it allows a grower to create a fresh, local, and safe product,” says Craig Ratajczyk, CEO, Crop One.
Operational since 2015, the Millis, Massachusetts, company is one of an increasing number of businesses creating a soilless system to grow perfect produce. While Crop One has tested dozens of cultivars, FreshBox Farms raises six of its leafy green products, serving 30 supermarkets in the Boston metro area. On average, FreshBox Farms delivers produce within 24 hours of packing.
“A hydroponic vertical farm gives consumers what they want from a health and nutrition standpoint,” Arnot says. “Since it also shortens the supply chain, they believe it’s better for the planet and is a solution they can support.”
In the coming years, several market research firms are projecting significant growth in the vertical farming market. Because the industry is facing some big challenges, Michael Dent says IDTechEx is less optimistic than others.
“Maintaining a controlled environment 24/7 is extremely power intensive, and the everyday running of a vertical farm can require a lot of manual labor, often in environments not designed for growing crops. PodPonics and FarmedHere, once operators of the largest vertical farms in the world, closed their doors in 2016 after struggling with spiraling power and labor costs and organizational complexities,” says Dent, IDTechEx senior technology analyst.
Thanks to advancements in areas like lighting, sensors, and automation, Dent says costs are decreasing, making large-scale, urban food production a reality.
“As science, engineering, and computer algorithms have evolved, our cost of production has decreased while the quality of our products has increased,” Ratajczyk says.
For more than 40 years, Hydrofarm has been a manufacturer and distributor of hydroponic equipment and supplies. While there are a number of exciting and interesting variations for indoor farming, Bill Toler doesn’t believe any of them are what he would call a simple, repeatable model.
“We’re just not there yet in controlled environment agriculture,” says Toler, chairman and CEO of Hydrofarm. “As a supplier of the components, I believe we should be the one to pull it all together, so consumers have a more secure, sustainable food source.”
By 2040, cultured meat will make up 35% of meat consumed worldwide, while plant-based alternatives will comprise 25%, according to a 2019 report by consulting firm Kearney. The report also says, “Cultured meat will win in the long run. However, novel vegan meat replacements (e.g., Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger) will be essential in the transition.”
Cattle geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam isn’t convinced. “Creating cultured meat requires collecting stem cells from living animals and then multiplying their numbers exponentially in a bioreactor. These living cells must be given nutrients in a suitable growth medium, which contains food-grade components that are effective and efficient in supporting and promoting muscle cell growth,” says Van Eenennaam, Cooperative Extension specialist at University of California-Davis. “The process has several technically challenging aspects.”
One of the biggest problems this industry faces, Arkalgud believes, is its ability to deliver a product that is nutritionally equivalent to real protein. Cultured meat will also have to replicate the taste and texture of meat from animals, and it has to be done in a way that is cost competitive.
“If these boxes can be checked, cultured meat could redefine the meat industry,” Arnot says.
It’s a possibility some in ag aren’t willing to concede. Yet if we are to meet the growing global demand for protein, Van Eenennaam says it will take all of us working together.
“If we use the same scare tactics to denigrate cultured meat as activists use to denigrate agriculture, we better be prepared to own that. Cultured meat shouldn’t be demonized as being unnatural or use tactics that preclude innovation in agriculture. And the founder of a company that develops plant-based substitutes for meat should not be making claims that one company will eliminate animals from the food system by 2035,” she says. “Animals are more than hamburgers in a global food system. They are fundamental to the diet and livelihood of close to a billion livestock keepers. We need all options on the table to meet the nutritional needs of global consumers, now and in the future.”
While several start-ups have developed cultured meat prototypes, only one has commercialized a product. In December 2020, the Singapore Food Agency approved the sale of Good Meat Cultured Chicken Bites by California-based Eat Just. The chicken is featured in two dishes and sold as one item at the city-state’s 1880 restaurant for $23, which is similar to what a guest would pay for a conventional chicken entrée on the menu.
Company co-founder and CEO Josh Tetrick says as Eat Just brings this and other products to market, it wants to be completely open with consumers about what they are and what they are not.
Arnot says, “Transparency is a basic expectation, and it is the most effective strategy in building trust. If you are not transparent, it implies you have something to hide. Those in the food system must engage early and often in conversations about how technology benefits people, animals, and our planet.”
Cultured meat’s environmental and social impacts remain to be seen. “The narrative is that cultured meat is going to have lower greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s going to be easy to take to scale. Neither of those is a given, and there is currently little data to suggest either is true,” Van Eenennaam says, adding that the pros and cons of a disruptive innovation like cultured meat compared with an existing system must also be considered. “There will always be trade-offs – some good, some bad.”
As the conversation continues to grow, cultured meat is a topic that shows the most volatility. “This suggests consumers are still quite hesitant about consuming meat produced in a lab,” Arkalgud says.