- The future of affordable nutrition is the subject of a report released last week from the Institute for the Future and commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "Good Food is Good Business" takes a look at forces that will drive opportunities to create more affordable, accessible, appealing and nutritious foods for lower-income consumers during the next decade.
- The 59-page report focuses on national and regional food and beverage companies, multinational food and beverage companies, innovators and input suppliers to the industry. Technological approaches such as artificial intelligence and blockchain are addressed, along with biological ones such as cellular agriculture, the microbiome and cultural zones of innovation.
- Low- and middle-income countries rarely show up on the radar of large multinational food companies, so innovation, R&D and business development aren't often looking at affordable nutrition, the report says. "For those few companies who develop nutritious foods for low- and middle-income markets and survive, their impact remains limited and their scale small. Providing healthier, more nutritious and more affordable foods to lower-income consumers is therefore a grand challenge, shouldered mostly by food aid organizations along with some private-sector actors," it states.
Low-income consumers sometimes find it difficult to get healthy and nutritious food, and those living in urban population centers are often in "food deserts" where access to fresh fruit and vegetables is limited. This report takes a look at some of the solutions to making nutritious food more available and also profitable — and it makes specific recommendations about how to implement them.
Organized under five areas of innovation, the report suggests using artificial intelligence can help food companies better understand consumer needs, and "algorithmic persuasion" can help lower-income consumers make healthier and thriftier purchasing decisions. Nestlé has developed a personalized nutrition program in Japan using AI, DNA testing and meal analysis to collect consumer data on diet and health. It then tailors food products to meet those specifications.
Not all the report's recommendations are high-tech, however. Incorporating time-honored nutritional knowledge about food ingredients and preparation is another valuable approach, the report states. "This traditional knowledge will be open, accessible, and actionable by any consumer or producer, anywhere in the world," it predicts.
The third area involves developing microbe-friendly diets to enhance health for low- and middle-income consumers. The microbiome's connection with human health is becoming better understood, the report says, so business opportunities with products offering better taste and nourishment and that also resist spoilage will be more important. Dannon has been active in funding research into the microbiome as part of its involvement in the National Microbiome Initiative.
Reinventing animal-based products at the cellular level is the fourth area. The report suggests products developed through cell cultures may more cheaply and sustainably scale nutritious foods in growing market categories while avoiding negative environmental impacts of animal agriculture. This is the approach being adopted by cell-based meat and poultry companies such as Memphis Meats, Future Meats and JUST — and cell-based firms have attracted significant investment to help get their products to the marketplace.
The fifth area recommends using transporting, transacting and tracking systems for a more efficient market.
"Food companies will be able to leverage cryptocoupons, smart contracts, and utility tokens managed on blockchains to track food cheaply as it moves from farms to tables. The same systems will optimize organizational functions, enhance food safety at lower costs, and incentivize the consumption of a nutritious food basket," the report says.
Some of this is already happening, but shifting the industry as a whole in this futuristic direction could take significant incentives. Manufacturers who can't easily see the benefits to their revenue picture aren't likely to jump on board, especially if there are a lot of upfront costs.
There are other approaches to making healthy food available year-round to low-income consumers. These include vertical farming in indoor urban greenhouses. These facilities bring fresh produce closer to retailers and provide it at relatively low cost — as they also save space and water and grow high yields without soil.
Manufacturers might be slow to get on the bandwagon when it comes to reaching low-income markets with healthy food, but it's important to be thinking about the future of food production and ways to make it profitable and do good at the same time.