Foodtech is one of the most relatable topics in my conversations with non-tech enthusiasts. The allure of trying edible insects and exploring vegetarian alternatives resonates widely.
Food production contributes to 25 percent of global greenhouse emissions, with high-yield monocultures causing issues like disease, deforestation, and land exhaustion.
It encompasses everything from optimising supply chains, packaging and delivery to reducing food waste and creating new food categories.
This year, tech startups have been right at the epicentre of the urgent shift toward sustainable and resilient agri-food systems, proving the transformative potential of technology. They will continue to do so in 2024.
Purely for brevity, this article covers just a few topics within the food ecosystem. But let's jump into the biggest trends of the year and what they mean for 2024:
Novel food regulation delays leave many cell-cultivated startups opting for US or Asian markets.
It's breeding and feeding time for cell-cultivated food startups. Every day, I hear of another company emerging from stealth with plans to create chicken nuggets, hamburger patties, fish sashimi or even breast milk.
According to Dr. Marie-Thérèse Buttlar from Earlybird Venture Capital, the USDA approval of GOOD Meat and Upside Foods in June, clearing the first cultivated meat products for sale in the US, was one of the most significant achievements in foodtech in 2023.
This marks a major milestone for cultivated meat previously only approved in Singapore.
However, it's less certain when the consumption of cultivated meat will become an everyday occurrence. First, it must be manufactured at a scale and price point to compete with its animal alternatives in restaurants and supermarkets.
There's also the necessary marketing campaign — I regularly receive correspondence from activist opponents in the US.
Von Buttlar predicts that most European foodtech companies have their sights set on the US or Asia first, noting, "Many of them will likely build up subsidiaries or production capabilities in these regions."
How will things unfold in 2024, considering the challenges of expanding and venturing into new markets with a completely novel food category?
While North America may have given the green light to cultivated meats, the fact is that it's still in the discussion phase, with restaurants keeping it more in the novelty realm.
It's still a long way from customers grabbing cell-cultivated chicken nuggets off the shelves at Walmart or Whole Foods.
Amongst bans and regulatory uncertainty, The Netherlands will become the first place in Europe to eat cultivated meats
Things are cooking in the Netherlands. It is home cell-cultivation heavy weights Meatable and Mosa Meats. This year saw both companies open new factories, and Meatable raised $35 million, bringing its funding to around $97 million.
In addition, Meatable developed the ability to create high-quality cultivated meat in only eight days, a significant reduction in the process, which previously would take three weeks.
In collaboration with cultivated meat producers Meatable and Mosa Meat and sector representative HollandBIO, the Dutch government created a 'code of practice' to make cultivated meat and seafood tastings possible in controlled environments.
This makes the Netherlands the first country in the European Union to make pre-approval tastings of food grown directly from animal cells possible, even before an EU novel food approval.
Von Buttlar shared that:
"Europe is a huge market for meat and fish, and great talent is available from Universities like Wageningen. Additionally, there are signs from the EU that they're getting more acquainted with the topic and getting ready to review dossiers.
So I think we will also see some movement in Europe in the next few years - putting a timestamp on it is really difficult though."
I predict we'll also see movement in the UK, where the government recently announced a £2 billion plan to accelerate biotech innovation, including cell-cultivated and fermented foods. UK company BSF Enterprise, owner of the 3D Bio-Tissues (3DBT) and CellRev have launched a new partnership — 3DBT produced the first cultivated steak in the UK made from pork cells and recently received grant money from EIT Food to solve the biggest barriers to cultivating meat at scale.
The UK also launched a new £12m cellular ag hub this month, the largest investment the UK government has made to date in sustainable proteins.
On the downside, we can expect controversy to continue. Italy and Romania have banned the sale of cell-cultivated meat, a move which is likely to breach Europe's single market regulations. In France, Les Républicains party has also submitted a proposal to ban cultivated meat in the country.
According to GFI Europe, anyone selling or marketing cultivated meat could be fined up to €60,000 in Italy. It's a huge blow for local R&D – for example, researcher Nike Schiavo, previously at Universita Di Trento, had partnered with other academics to create cultivated meats from cells attained by patting a (live) chicken's feathers.
I interviewed researcher Stefano Lattanzi, CEO of Italian cultivated meat company Bruno Cell, on stage earlier this year. The company's work is on hiatus.
I reached out to Alice Ravenscroft, head of policy at GFI Europe, who told me:
"In the face of bans on cultivated meat in Italy and Romania, Europe stands at a crossroads.
The EU should strategically invest, provide robust support, and ensure the regulatory process is transparent to avoid falling behind Asia and the United States on plant-based foods, cultivated meat and fermentation.
Creating a supportive environment for cultivated meat companies is paramount, enabling diversification in protein production to mitigate climate change and feed a growing population.
Europe has the necessary expertise and resources to emerge as a leader in alternative proteins, creating future-proof jobs and contributing to a more resilient and sustainable food system."
Europe is committed to alternative protein — and supermarket price parity on plant-based product to rise
Investors are going all in on plant-based alternatives, but getting to market will continue to be challenging.
It's been a year of advancement in novel foods.There's an ever-expanding number of European companies getting funding to produce mycelium-based meat substitutes and plant alternatives.
Manufacturing enough goods at a competitive price point will continue to be a challenge for many startups.
This week, the EU announced it will invest €50 million next year in helping startups and small businesses scale up the production of alternative proteins via funding facilitated through the European Innovation Council (EIC) Work Programme 2024.
But an equally massive challenge will be for startups to win over investors and retailers in the increasingly crowded market. We'll likely see some mergers, if not for financial reasons but for the challenge new market entrants face competing with stalwarts like The Vegetarian Butcher and Impossible Burger, already stocked in supermarkets.
Unfortunately, this year's cost of living crisis will continue, meaning people are looking for cheaper food.
This year has seen supermarkets like Lidl, Aldi and Penny in Germany intentionally reduce the price of meat-free products and expand their ranges to attract new customers.
The Dutch supermarket chain Jumbo, and Billa in Austria have dropped the prices of its private-label plant-based meat range to match the price of similar animal products.
I predict other retailers will follow suit.
Upcycling and side-stream goods will continue to benefit food manufacturing
The surge in consumer demand, coupled with inflation and a heightened focus on sustainability goals, prompts food manufacturers to reassess their ingredient list.
This year has seen great things from startups turning byproducts into food ingredients.
In Estonia, Äio produces edible fats and oils from agricultural and wood industry side-streams to replace palm oil and animal fats in manufacturing bakeries.
In Denmark, Reduced turns recycled raw materials such as apple kernels, used hens, beach crabs, legs, bran, cracked rice and lentils into umami flavours and stock powders for use in manufacturing and as stand-alone products for hotels, restaurants, the canteen and catering.
In the UK, Toast Brewing is making beer from leftover bread.
In the Netherlands, Greencovery turns parmesan rinds into Natural Parmesan extract and soy pulp into Upcycled Okara Fiber, which is perfect for usage in bakery and culinary applications and plant-based meat alternatives.
As manufacturers commit to meeting industry climate goals, startups will continue to innovate, confident of a captive market. But, as with cell-cultivated meats, delays in novel food regulations mean, in the case of companies like Äio, other countries will reap the benefits first.
Companies to watch
Angry Camel (Sweden)
Angry Camel is creating chickpea protein from various materials, including using novel extraction methods that make them cheaper than many vegan alternatives. The chickpea protein is an alternative to eggs in baking and dairy ingredients for the food manufacturing industry.
Kynda develops plug and play biotechnology that allows food producers to easily ferment mycelium themselves at a commercial scale, using low-cost proprietary bioreactors.
I can't think of anything worse than foie gras. But fortunately, Gourmey is working on a slaughter-free version through cell cultivation. The company raised €48 million in Series A in 2022 to build a manufacturing factory.
FoodDocs solves one of the biggest problems in the food industry: managing food safety management systems, including creating a food safety plan. It helps business owners easily comply with food safety standards and pass inspections.
Melt& Marble (Sweden)
I didn't have the space to talk about fats and oils in any great detail but there's a huge push to move away from palm oil and animal fats.
Melt&Marble uses fermentation to create flavourable fats with the structural and sensory characteristics of animal fats.
Fermentful serves up fermented probiotic drinks made from buckwheat to take care of gut health daily.
Torg has developed an AI-powered B2B marketplace, simplifying ingredient and material sourcing through a tendering tool and a database of over 50,000 food and beverage suppliers powered with AI. It helps buyers such as wholesalers and white-label manufacturers connect with thousands of suppliers and do product requests and tenders. They've helped buyers save up to 30% on COGS.
Lead image: Cultivated meat by Bruno Cell. Photo: uncredited.