As the world works to bring climate change under control, there is a growing awareness of the negative ramifications of many forms of food production. As a result, some foodstuffs with smaller carbon footprints are gaining traction, creating opportunities for emerging markets. The production and consumption of food accounts for over 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions and more than 90% of freshwater consumption, highlighting the importance of fostering food-production systems that consume fewer resources and are more resilient to climate change.
Appetite for Change
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted how fragile the world’s supply chains are, many leading global bodies had been calling for a major change in how food is grown, processed and consumed. Several of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are related to food security. SDG 2, Zero Hunger, argues for “a profound change of the global food and agriculture system” through “increasing agricultural productivity and sustainable food production”.
The COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in November 2021 saw the release of a joint statement underlining that “socio-economic and food security dimensions are critical when dealing with climate change in agriculture and food systems”. This reflects the growing realisation that consumers in both emerging and mature economies will need to make radical changes to their diets. Key to this will be the local production of crops and foodstuffs that have a limited carbon footprint but high nutritional value. In this vein, a range of alternative food products are garnering attention, with three categories in particular standing out: plant-based meats; edible insects; and seaweed.
The pandemic has significantly accelerated the growth of the global plant-based meat industry. At the end of 2021 Statista estimated that the global market revenue of plant-based meat was $7.7bn, up from $6.7bn in 2020 and more than double the figure in 2016. By 2026 the industry is projected to generate $16.7bn in revenue, while Credit Suisse forecasts that the broader market for alternative meat and dairy could reach $1.4trn by 2050. Emerging markets are, in some cases, at the forefront of this growth.
In 2016 the Chinese government announced that it aimed to halve domestic meat consumption by 2030 – an initiative that is opening doors for alternative products. In Thailand NR Instant Produce listed on the country’s stock exchange in 2020 following success with its jackfruit-derived faux-pork product. Another region that is tipped to see a boom in plant-based meat is Latin America. Chile’s NotCo – the most prominent of a batch of regional start-ups, among them Brazil’s Fazenda Futuron – has become one of the leading food-tech companies in the world, bringing in $235m in Series D financing in July 2021. While innovation in plant-based meat has been well documented in recent years, two other low-carbon foodstuffs are just beginning to attract international attention.
Insects have long been used as a source of protein around the world. In parts of Mexico, for example, chapulines, or grasshoppers, are a popular snack, while in Israel locusts are eaten deep fried. It is estimated that nearly 2m people regularly eat insects, and that around 1trn individual insects are farmed annually for food and feed. These numbers are growing: the value of the global insect farming industry is expected to top $1.2bn in 2023.
As with plant-based meat, the industry is characterised by considerable technological innovation. In February 2021 Canada’s Aspire Food Group began work on a $72m cricket farm in London. The farm will be the world’s largest fully automated edible cricket production plant, deploying technologies such as robotics, the internet of things and deep learning. Many of the crickets produced at the farm will be used in a high-protein powder that is an ingredient in energy bars marketed by their consumer brand Exo. The facility is forecast to make around 10,000 tonnes of the powder annually.
Insect farming also has significant potential in developing markets. Producing 1 kg of insect protein requires 10% of the water, energy and space used to produce the equivalent quantity of beef, while generating as little as 1% of the greenhouse gas. Insects also remove the need for the import of expensive feed or complex technological equipment.
Insect cultivation could pay social dividends as well – for example, by empowering smallholder farmers. In Kenya the cultivation of the black soldier fly (BSF) for use as livestock feed – in place of fishmeal – resulted in robust livestock performance, as well as higher return on investment due to lower production costs. It also benefitted food security by reducing the need for imports. Similarly, in Thailand more than 20,000 family farms cultivate insects for food and feed. This gives them a solid position in the country’s agricultural value chain, enhancing their collective bargaining power. In Colombia it has been suggested that subsidising BSF production could cut down on the illegal cultivation of coca leaves for cocaine production, while also offering a route for former militants to reintegrate into society.
Another low-carbon foodstuff that is emerging as an attractive agricultural solution to climate change is seaweed – a term that covers a variety of sea vegetables, ranging from algae to marine plants. Like insects, seaweed has a long history of human consumption, most notably in Asia, contains many nutrients and has a low environmental impact. It is also relatively easy to produce, as it does not require complex technology. The industry is already well established, with some 30m tonnes produced globally each year, overwhelmingly concentrated in Asia. This is more than double the total recorded in 2005, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation: in an indication of the industry’s growing prominence.
Meanwhile, a number of international bodies are exploring how seaweed can be grown and processed in developing countries. The Seaweed Solution project from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), announced in mid-2020, explores how seaweed farming has the potential “to revolutionise how we think about ocean health, climate mitigation and food security”. The WWF believes that the global seaweed aquaculture industry could grow by 12% per year. The fund has highlighted its potential for adoption among coastal communities, particularly where fisheries have been exhausted or species have begun to migrate due to warming waters.
An example of this principle in action is Kelp Blue, a Dutch start-up that aims to plant sweeping forests of kelp off the coast of Namibia. Operations got under way in mid-2021, with Kelp Blue estimating that it will generate an additional 400 direct and 2000 indirect jobs, as well as capture 200m-500m tonnes of CO per year by 2050. India’s Sea6 Energy, for its part, is focused on scaling up and mechanising tropical seaweed farming using its SeaCombine, a fully mechanised harvesting and seeding catamaran. As these and other projects suggest, the vast potential of seaweed – like that of edible insects – has only begun to be tapped.