Burger made from animal cells with potatoes grown by a grower in a nearby town of fewer than 100 people, all bought online and shipped home in zero-waste packaging made from algae. It may seem futuristic, but the debate about what and how we will eat in the coming years points to certain trends (technification, sustainability, zero waste and proximity) that seem to be here to stay. To others that have been better known for years (from the development of vegetable proteins to make meat or the incorporation of new foods into our diets to how to make shipments with weekly purchases more sustainable and intelligent) These other challenges have been added to it that, as a society, the experts stress that we must achieve so that in half a century our planet continues to be an ideal place for life: “In the coming years, the food sector is going to be marked by three main axes: the well-being of people, that the consumer can feel more energetic with these foods; reducing the environmental impact of food production; and the use of new technologies, which will develop more sustainable products, such as new alternative plant-based proteins”, says Beatriz Jacoste, director of the KM ZERO Food Innovation Hub, an initiative dedicated to supporting and promoting startup and innovative projects in the agri-food sector.
The direction of the change in the consumption model indicated by Jacoste is confirmed in the latest data on shipments related to food. According to the logistics operator Correos, the trend today is the massive use of electronic commerce for the purchase, especially of healthy products and, to a certain extent, with a preference for local products. The company, one of the largest parcel distribution companies, has gone from moving 52.3 million packages to 208.9 million in five years. Data from IAB Spain indicate that 48% of all online purchases in Spain referred to food products. In addition, two years ago it created a platform for the sale of proximity products, baptized as Correos Market, which has not stopped growing. A reflection of the social demand for these products. And neither do the producers that are part of it today: more than 1,200 and with more than 17,000 products.
Promoting this last point, say specialists such as Vicente Domingo, director of the Valencia World Center for Sustainable Urban Food (Cemas), can be decisive not only to satisfy the growing boom in consuming local products in large cities, but also to create a fairer trade: “The food of the future must be extremely local. It must capitalize on small producers and the quality of their product”, explains Domingo in the report. Fooduristic 22, a document prepared by the KM Zero Food Innovation Hub where more than 50 experts in food, agrotechnology, digitization, logistics and the environment participate. Taking into account all the variables exposed (proximity, digitization, sustainability…), all of them respond to the most frequent question that most citizens ask themselves: what food will be on my plate and how will it reach me along the way? of the next decade? These are the three pillars of that near future.
A superfood from a Malaga town
The advances that most surprise citizens are the new ways of processing food, especially those focused on creating it artificially: for example, through the cultivation of animal cells to produce healthy meat, thus avoiding animal sacrifice. That is what the company from Gipuzkoa Biotech Food does: they collect cellular tissues from an animal sample and multiply them in a biological environment controlled by humans to multiply those tissues and, with this, produce artificial meat (so called meat created in the laboratory and in plant-based occasions). Eating some meatballs from this Basque company is not only safe, but it is also less polluting, says its CEO, Iñigo Charola.
But not all the products that will reach our plates, the experts of the aforementioned report point out, will remind us of science fiction movies. The vast majority will come from the rural world. Crop researcher Ido Gola points out that a common factor will be the reintroduction of new foods produced in the field and away from intensive agriculture, which will be beneficial for our diets and also for rural populations. Salvador Rodríguez’s business, Moringa Spain, represents this concept advanced by Golan. Rodríguez cultivates, transforms and distributes moringa leaves from Torre de Bengalbón (Málaga, 8,233 inhabitants). This plant, which is sold in various formats (dry leaves, powder, infusions or ecological capsules), is a natural food supplement with multiple properties: three grams of this product are equivalent to the recommended amount of vegetable protein per day: “ FAO [Organización de las Naciones Unidas para la Alimentación y la Agricultura] refers to moringa as a food to be taken into account to combat famine,” says Rodríguez.
When this farmer from Malaga started his business six years ago, moringa was a completely unknown food that was difficult for him to sell in health food stores. “My product was superior to what [esas tiendas] they bought from countries like India. I couldn’t sell it any cheaper and I jumped on the internet. Now I distribute throughout Spain, but clients from Germany, France, Finland and Norway also buy from me in bulk”, he says. One of its channels is Correos Market, where it has included new products, such as digestive liqueur with moringa. In six years, he admits, he has gone from cultivating two plots that he rented in his town to harvesting between 25,000 and 30,000 kilos of dehydrated leaves in several farms that add up to five hectares of land. “In the end, the town also benefits from the new jobs,” she says.
Algae that can replace plastic
The new consumption model also carries one of the greatest challenges facing future generations: the excessive use of plastics. Commercial packaging represents a high percentage of the carbon footprint generated by a purchase, especially online. Through this channel, in fact, there are studies that indicate that plastic is present in up to 45% of said packaging, according to study data Electronic commerce based on the closed supply chain for plastic recycling, published in 2020 by researcher Saikat Banerjee for the scientific journal of the American Chemical Society. Hence, a large part of the efforts of the agri-food and logistics sector are aimed at reducing this material.
One of these initiatives is what is being developed by Notpla, a company based in London but founded by the Spaniard Rodrigo García. In recent years they have managed to manufacture sustainable biodegradable packaging using algae as raw material. From ketchup bags to boxes for storing solid foods, the products sold by this young company can also be an alternative to polluting packaging: “We like to think that we design membranes for products in the same way that nature creates skins for fruits” Garcia compares.
Parallel to the packaging of the product, there is also logistics management to bring the food closer to the final buyer. In this sense, some delivery companies offer a delivery service green to the growing demand of its customers. In these services, the packaging It is made from recycled cardboard and with little ink, non-polluting vehicles are used and delivery times are more spaced with the aim of consolidating packages and thus reducing the number of journeys and emissions. Some companies favor the consumption of these services with ecological initiatives. “We have been with this project for 20 years. We apply eco-design criteria with recycled materials and water-based inks”, explains Elena Fernández, deputy director of the Department of Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability of Correos. Through this plan, baptized as Forest Line, almost 100,000 trees have been planted and 273 hectares reforested.
New technologies to curb waste
Another condition has been added to the demand for sustainable packaging: that they preserve the food they protect for longer and in optimal sanitary conditions. Solveiga Pakštaitė, co-founder of the London-based ecological packaging company Mimica, relates the current way of packaging food and establishing its expiration date to the main cause of food waste. In Spain, the FAO estimates that more than 7.7 million tons of food are thrown away. To avoid this problem, the company from Pakštaitė has created a label, called Mimica Touch, which, when placed in contact with a food, indicates whether it can be consumed or not. When the label feels rough to the touch, the product is in poor condition. “This sticker also offers the security that the foods that carry it have been stored correctly and are safe. Since the label is temperature sensitive, it will show if the food is fresh,” says Pakštaitė. The company claims that this type of technology can reduce household food waste by up to 63%.
This type of technological projects focused on the agri-food sector (known in English as agritech and foodtech) have captured the eyes of thousands of investors in the last two years: it is estimated that more than 20,000 million euros have been allocated worldwide to develop initiatives in this field. From packaging models to new delivery vehicles, through the application of robotics or artificial intelligence in organic farming. Some examples are cultivation in vertical farms (which require fewer natural resources for their maintenance and emit less gases), the creation of programs that generate more profitable and sustainable distribution routes in real time, or the use of robots capable of recognizing pests and reducing the use of herbicides.