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Leon Kaye headshot

Oddly Enough, COP26 Could Reshape the Global Food Sector

By Leon Kaye

Depending on where one is perched, COP26 has already made notable progress as the Glasgow climate talks reach the halfway point, or to quote an well-known Swedish activist, it’s all a bunch of “blah, blah, blah.”

It’s certainly understandable why youth activists are frustrated by the COP26 proceedings. Face it, they will suffer the most in the long run if climate change continues unchecked. At the same time, herding scores of countries to reach agreement on anything, even if the terms are voluntary and non-binding, is far from an easy feat. That also begs the question if such a mega event is necessary at all.

Furthermore, the cringeworthy optics that marred the first few days of COP26 – including all that private jet travel and menus showcasing meat and fish – has not helped the climate talks’ cause. It’s easy to dismiss the event as a yet another elitist series of confabs that won’t achieve much.

But out of the haggis, er, hubris, of COP26 could come lasting change to how citizens look at the food they eat. Calling out hypocrisy isn’t always productive but it can force people to look inward. Add a few pop culture figures who are making the rounds at COP26, and the dismay over what, or what doesn’t, occur during the Glasgow talks could very well push more citizens to take action on their own.

At the same time, necessity and demand lead to invention and innovation, so what some see as the ashes of COP26 could very well turn out to become gold nuggets for entrepreneurs in the food startup space.

Depending on the source cited, about one-third of the world’s emissions can be traced to the global food sector. That’s a daunting number, but it certainly can be whittled down in size.

And therein lies the power of young people: What they lack in the political power that is denied can be countered by their influence over the choices of their families and peers, and that includes where they shop and what they eat. To that end, watch for these three niche food sectors to thrive in the coming decade.

Plant-based foods still have plenty of room for growth

They’re no longer a trend: Plant-based protein alternatives are here to stay, new choices keep proliferating and they are no longer relegated to high-end restaurants and boujee supermarkets. Supposedly, the menus at COP26 were supposed to be overwhelmingly plant-based in the first place, but many things seemed to have gotten lost in translation.

Let’s remember the very term “plant-based” means different things to different people. Not everyone is enthusiastic about processing ingredients like soy and peas and making something that tastes almost like meat. Many citizens who are cognizant about climate change will argue that plant-based means exactly that: plants. The reality, however, is that for generations who grew up on meat, plant-based protein options are a bridge toward rethinking how we approach our diet as consider the food industry’s impact on the planet.

Cultured, lab-grown meat will win more interest

Going back to the plant-based argument: There’s a case to be made that if fake meat means more land to grow commodities like soy and corn, that isn’t necessarily a viable long-term option. (Peas and peanuts, on the other hand, are generally viewed as beneficial as they are nitrogen “fixers” that can help keep soil healthy.) Bottom line, plant-based foods are an important tool in the climate action toolkit – not the entire toolkit in themselves.

That leaves the door open to food technologies such as lab-grown or “cultured” meat. For several years already, such companies have scored press and venture capital money. So far, lab-grown meat has limited reach, as in Singapore. Two huge hurdles lie in this nascent sector’s path: regulatory approval and winning acceptance from consumers. The U.S. government is moving slowly on this front; across the pond, things aren’t moving much faster.

While at least one study has suggested that lab-grown meat could be as cost-competitive as the “real” thing by 2030, many questions remain unanswered. Think of lab grown meat the way algae-based biofuel factored in the renewable energy sector: Would the amount of energy it needs, not to mention factory space required, make this a viable industry? The flip side to that concern is that much of the planet’s land is currently used to raise livestock. In any event, one company and the financiers backing it have made their answer clear, as an industry-scale factory in northern California is ready to churn out lab grown meat, even though U.S. federal regulators haven’t given their green light yet.

To be clear, “lab-grown” doesn’t pertain only to animal-based protein. Startups milking a lab-grown alternative to what cows produce are making some noise, and at least one company says it’s cracked the shell, and code, on lab-grown eggs.

What if we, and the stores we visit, could 3D print our own food?

You probably will not be 3D printing a veggie lasagna in your kitchen or garage anytime soon, but who’s to say your local grocer wouldn’t? After all, it’s already happening at a few stores, and one Dutch supermarket chain began churning out 3D printed cakes several years ago. Add this additional food for thought: Climate change is already having effects on some commodities such as coffee and chocolate, and startups creating molecular alternatives say their products can deliver quality and taste without any environmental or human rights impacts.

3D printers at individual retailers are not a bonkers idea. The trick at hand in winning consumer acceptance, however, is to focus less on the technology and more on the environmental and health benefits. One group of researchers found that their experiment of 3D printing chocolates resulted in samples that contained less sugar, yet no changes to taste or texture. If that technology can scale up and include more everyday foods, we could see a new definition of what qualifies as a “local” food product – while reducing the amount of ingredients, packaging and of course, emissions from shipping all those boxes across continents.

Image credit: Caroline Attwood via Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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