How Europe can lead the food revolution

When coffee came to Europe in the 16th century, there was resistance. The bishops in Italy demonized him. And French winemakers also tried to discredit the new competition – with medical help they sowed health doubts about coffee consumption.

Innovations repeatedly trigger social controversies. Harvard professor Calestous Juma has examined this phenomenon under the title “Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies” using historical examples – including coffee.

Most of the resistance can be traced back to economic motives. But identities and lifestyles, culture and traditions such as the coffee house can also play a role. All of these aspects come together in food. Innovations often have a hard time. The dispute over green genetic engineering or genetically modified fish from aquaculture speaks volumes.

The topic is more topical than ever. One of the greatest global challenges is to provide the growing world population with food, especially protein. Without innovations, this will hardly be possible – mainly because production has to become significantly more sustainable.

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Food production is already responsible for a good third of global greenhouse gas emissions. One of the main reasons: the cravings for meat, especially in the US, Europe and China. It is not just production that causes high emissions. The increasing land requirement for pasture and forage cultivation is also accelerating the deforestation of rainforests, which are important CO2 stores.

The demand for food is increasing enormously

While the world population will grow by around 25 percent by 2050, food demand is likely to rise by around 50 percent over the same period. Since calorie intake usually rises with greater prosperity, experts expect the demand for protein-containing products such as meat and milk to increase by as much as 70 percent. Against this background, two foodtech innovations are of particular interest: plant-based meat substitutes and cultured meat.

While cultured meat is obtained from animal stem cells and grows in bioreactors – an achievement of modern biotechnology – the origin of plant-based meat substitutes goes back to the Middle Ages: The vegetarian Buddhist monks in China invented “fake meat” to feed the meat-loving guests of their monasteries to still be able to offer something.

Plant-based meat substitutes not only require much less space and water than conventional meat. Its production also causes fewer greenhouse gases – around 90 percent less in the case of a plant burger than in the case of a beef burger. In terms of resource requirements and emissions, cultured meat can also be produced more than 75 percent more sustainably than beef. A new market is emerging around these innovations.

Around half of consumers in the USA, Great Britain and Germany already consume plant-based proteins on a regular basis. The market for vegetable meat substitutes, on the other hand, is still young. If it were to reach as high a share as plant-based milk, it would have a market potential of 14 billion dollars in the USA alone. According to experts, the size of the plant-based protein and cultured meat market in the USA will double by the year 2050.

Approval of cultured meat is still pending

The main drivers of innovation are start-ups. The scene raised around 350 million dollars in capital worldwide last year – and the trend is rising. Investors include not only large meat producers and food companies, but also tech investors like Bill Gates and Richard Branson. While plant-based meat substitutes in the form of pea burgers are already finding their way into supermarkets and grill restaurants, the approval of cultured meat in the EU is still pending.

The pioneers of cultured meat are the Dutch company Mosa Meat, whose founder presented the first cell-based burger in 2013, and the Israeli start-up Aleph Farms with the first rib-eye steak from the 3D bio-printer. The Rostock start-up Innocent Meat also wants to get involved in the market soon. After the production costs of cultured meat have already fallen by 99 percent since the first attempts, according to McKinsey it could be as cheap as conventional meat by 2030 – with a global market potential of up to 25 billion dollars.

One of the sticking points with cultured meat will be social acceptance. The technology radar of the German Academy of Engineering Sciences shows that only around a quarter of Germans are convinced of this alternative. I see seven starting points as to how we can force the new food revolution out of Europe and help shape it – not only with meat and meat substitutes, but also beyond.

First: We must continue to strengthen the financing of growth in Europe. Specialized funds that invest in food tech companies have so far been rare. Second: We should promote innovative ecosystems around sustainably produced food and food tech. Europe has world-leading research institutions here. Linking their expertise with the growing start-up scene, industry and venture capitalists holds great potential for innovation.

The new industry suits Europe

Third: Europe should position itself as a leading location for food tech at an early stage. The new industry fits in with our continent, which has an excellent reputation for good cuisine and high-quality food and is already the largest exporter of food. Europe should have the ambition to become a lead market and supplier of sustainable and innovative food.

Fourth: The EU should quickly show with a transparent, science-based approval procedure for cultured meat that ambitious innovation funding and a high level of consumer protection are not contradictions. Singapore was the first country to approve cultured meat. Fifth: Europe should set standards for labels that make it easy to understand and compare the sustainability of food.

Sixth: We should combine the promotion of various future technologies in a targeted manner. For example, so that cultured meat really becomes “clean meat”, production must largely be based on renewable energies. Other innovation accelerators for the new food revolution are biotechnology, artificial intelligence and 3D printing.

Seventh: We need an open social dialogue and a fact-based debate about food tech. For acceptance it will be important to include the established agri-food industry in the innovation process. But there must also be innovation partnerships with emerging and developing countries – so that they can help shape the new technologies themselves and benefit from them.
The author: Ann-Kristin Achleitner is Distinguished Affiliated Professor at the Technical University of Munich, where she held the Chair of Entrepreneurial Finance from 2001 to 2020. In business, she is a member of the supervisory boards of Linde and Munich Re. She is also involved as an investor in young growth companies.

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