Sustainable Food Trends in 2020: Ten to Watch

Sep 17, 2019 | 3 comments

The world is changing fast. This speed of change is faster than it ever has been in human history.  Growing nationalism in some parts of the world, inequalities, the continued terror threat, migration within and between countries, the growth in the digital economy and signs of more activism by civil society, mean we live in a very different world than we did just ten years ago. The complexity of our food system means that events seemingly far away from sectors unrelated to food are likely to set the scene for some of the most significant sustainable food trends in 2020.  These, combined with consumer awareness around the impacts of food production and consumption, global biodiversity declines, climate heating and global health crisis ( burdens of obesity, hunger and malnutrition), mean that governments and business action (or lack of it) will come under increasing scrutiny as we enter a new decade.

The failure of most governments and business to address these challenges, combined with a recognition that food has to be at the centre of the Sustainable Development Goals, Paris Climate Change Commitments, Convention on Biological Diversity and Decade of Action on Nutrition, is likely to place our food system and its impacts on human and planetary health, at the forefront of civil society/citizen concerns and action.

The identification of key trends, whether these are societal, cultural, technological, behavioural, environmental or economic, are key to the success of any organisation or business. Producers, manufacturers, retailers, investors and civil society organisations need to be salient of these trends, which present both risks and opportunities to their business models. Sourcing, product development, marketing and stakeholder/consumer engagement strategies and ultimately business success will be dependent on these future trends. Responding effectively will require bold leadership, a change of mindsets, significant resources and political will.

I set out ten 2020 trends below which are based on my own insights and recent conversations with a wide range of businesses, farming groups, academics and civil society organisations working on the sustainable food agenda:

Mindful Eaters – Mindful eaters are citizens who want to know much more about where their food comes from and who want to engage with rather than be passive participants of the food system. Although price will continue to drive purchasing decisions, the numbers of citizens who make decisions based on health and sustainability will continue to grow. Signs are that numbers of mindful eaters will continue to grow in Europe/North America, although we will witness more rapid growth of mindful eating in parts of Asia/SE Asia. Provenance and locally sourced ingredients will appeal. Younger people, particularly millennials and generation Z will continue to drive a shift to the regional cuisines of Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, experimenting with new food ingredients and those that improve gut and mental health.

Foodie Activism – 2019 has seen a significant rise in climate activism – Greta Thunberg’s Friday school strikes and Extinction Rebellions use of civil disobedience are two such examples. Expect to see a move towards more foodie focussed activism in 2020 as the impact on food (particularly animal based proteins) on climate, biodiversity (e.g. the links between food and the Amazon forest fires) and human health comes to the fore. In the UK for example, a new sister to Extinction Rebellion, called Animal Rebellion, is planning to focus on direct action on the meat marketing, packaging and processing industries, through direct action. Expect the new global climate strikers to focus attention on the climate impacts of meat too.

Power of Plants……With a Backlash – Demand for plant-based foods will continue to grow rapidly with the market size for plant-based products estimated to reach $140 Bn by 2025. Some estimates suggest that 30% of the core meat market will move to plant-based alternatives over the next few decades. A recent YouGov and Whole Foods Market survey found that 63% of millennials are trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diet. Don’t expect plain sailing though. We are already seeing a backlash in some quarters against plant based and vegan diets. The huge rise on plant-based meat substitutes and claims of both significant health and sustainability benefits will be increasingly challenged. There are some significant questions for which I expect to see more focus in 2020 – Are plant-based meat substitutes with high saturated fats and sugars more healthy just because they are labelled as such? Is almond milk more sustainable than extensive and perhaps regenerative dairy systems? If you are a business moving to more plant-based meat replacements and/or ingredients then expect greater interrogation and scrutiny of your sustainability and health credentials and claims.

Clean Labels – As a result in changing consumer expectations. several food companies have committed to clean labelling in recent months – the use of simple, recognisable and wholesome ingredients free from a multitude of flavourings, preservatives, sugars and GMO based products. We are seeing an explosion of interest in fresh fruit and vegetables in processed foods for example, driven by increased focus by consumers on the effects of food on their health and well-being. Describing foods as ‘healthy’, ‘fresh’ or ‘pure’ with products containing a multitude of ingredients is treated with increasing consumer scepticism and will be increasingly challenged.

Renewed Focus on Transparency – Citizens are going to want to know where food is grown, how food is grown and how much farmers are getting paid for their food. It isn’t just about the end product anymore. 2019 news headlines about climate change, Amazon deforestation and plastic in our seas will mean citizens will increasingly demand great transparency, both around packaging and in foodstuffs. During the last few years increasing focus and attention has been given to technologies such as block chain, which to date has been quite experimental. It is likely to play a more important and significant role in supply chain management moving forward, for example.

Regenerative Agriculture – It’s become a bit of a buzz word of late, but many organisations have plans to focus more on both regenerative and agroecological forms of agricultural production. There is increasing recognition of the need to move away from a ‘do less harm’ mentality to one focussed on ‘giving back more than we take’, restoring ecosystems, communities and livelihoods on which our food system, health and well-being depend. Regenerative principles of no till farming, use of cover cropping, holistic grazing, silviculture composting and manuring will all start to take more prominence within the business models and strategies throughout the 2020s. See my blog on regenerative agriculture for further details

Diversity Foods – There are early tentative signs that we are now starting to consider a wider range of ingredients for human nutrition. We have relied on 12 globally traded crops (rice, maize, wheat, potatoes, soya etc) and five key animals for  80% of our calories and yet there are over 20,000 edible plant species alone –crops such as duckweed, seaweeds, chickpeas and ancient grains such as teff, spelt, millet and freekeh are starting to make a come back. For example, Sodexo recently announced the launch of new menu items based on the Future 50 Foods list, created in partnership with Unilever-owned brand Knorr Professional and the World Wildlife Fund.

Feeding our Food – The food we feed our two legged, four legged and fishy friends will come into sharp focus over the next few years. Consumer research shows a significant spike in consumers understanding of the sustainability impacts of animal feed. Research and innovation focussing on nutritional, health and sustainability impacts of alternative feeds will accelerate with a focus on sustainable alternatives feeds that can reduce reliance on both soya and fishmeal. Expect to see more insect, algal and leguminous protein feeds on the market over the next year or so.

Smart Technology – The rapid growth and development of a whole range of smart technologies will continue to play a role in boosting productivity and food security, while improving farmers resilience and income. The spread and use of smartphone technologies in many parts of the developing world will allow farmers to predict weather patterns (including floods, fires etc). incidences of pests and diseases and allow farmer to share geographical specific knowledge, information and advice on-line, using formats that are user friendly for multiple literacy levels. Expect more technological innovation at the farm level too – Further roll outs of precision farming technology such as lasers to remove individual weeds, drones to be used in the pollination of crops, Artificial Intelligence technologies for automation on the farm and the use of CRISPR technologies.

Food Packaging – The media and consumer interest in the impacts of plastics will continue to drive the debate and innovation in packaging alternatives in 2020. There will be further roll outs of plastic free aisles, natural and compostable packaging materials with further pressure on governments to ban the use of single use plastic products. The e commerce sector has escaped scrutiny to date and as the proportion of food ordered on-line continues to increase (both within the retail and food service sectors) expect greater attention and scrutiny on packaging within this sector too.

If the pace of change over the last 10 years has been fast, be warned the pace of change is likely to accelerate as we enter the 2020s – and oh boy, don’t we need a radical change in direction if we are to address the challenges confronting us today. 2019 has seen no shortage of reports describing the problem, I hope, for the sake of my children, the 2020s will be the dawn for innovation and action which will transform the way we grow, eat and value our food.

For an updated version of emerging 2020 food sustainability trends in the light of Covid-19 please see a more recent blog here

Visit my blog trends in planet based innovation for further information on trends.

5420cookie-checkSustainable Food Trends in 2020: Ten to Watch

Written By Tasting the Future

Mark Driscoll is a freelance sustainable food systems consultant focussing on food systems transformation initiatives. He works with businesses, funders and civil society organisations on a range of food systems projects. This includes research work, strategy & policy development, project management and media work. He is a passionate advocate and champion of food systems transformation which gives citizens access to healthy and nutritious foods within environmental limits.

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  1. Azucena Garza

    This list looks pretty solid, Mark. Thank you for sharing your insights.

  2. Angela

    To me the trend towards vegetarianism and vegan diet is totally wrong nutritionally. Plants do not contain the whole range of amino acids that humans require for healthy growth, maintenance and development. Therefore even if people take to this lifestyle for a while they may need to reintroduce animal products at some stage. To me it’s more important to know where the food you are consuming comes from and how it is grown or produced and make an informed decision on weather to buy or not based on this. Support local farmers and sustainable fishing methods. Also to me packaging is a big problem that needs to be resolved. Fruit and vegetables can easily be available loose with the paper bags or bring your own bags. Dairy there is alternatives with the milk and cream being put into glass bottles, cheese and butter can be packaged in waxed paper or sold lose. Also perhaps the local food shops like butchers and greengrocers can make a comeback with people shopping there rather than at the supermarkets in the big towns/cities. For dry goods rather than buying ready packaged products take your own containers and get what you need from the loose products. People need to become more mindful of where food is coming from not stop eating it.

  3. jet4oliver

    An interesting list pointing in the right direction.
    Smart tech? On the face of it good. But there are many downsides that mean we should not see it all as stars and glitter etc.
    The impact on wildlife, especially insects (which includes vital polinators) is almost certainly negative.
    Using satellites to communicate means launching many which means impact on the upper atmosphere which will further damage climate.
    We will become more controlled, monitored, infested with electosmog etc as a consequence and are being “sold” this on the pretext that we the consumer are going to be beneficiaries.
    I’d prefer to forego the claimed benefits to avoid the negative impacts. Few people are keen to accept there are negatives as they are all reveling in the wonders of the internet age, which is only 25 to 30 or so years old. “We can’t give up our “happy drug” or accept is has a downside!”
    Much as when the first people raised concerns over such as oil use/pollution, certain drugs, various agrochemicals, people went through phases of response from feeling like it was a personal attack on them as users, to their societal or business community feeling victimised to eventual acceptance whilst many sufferers of the downsides languish(ed) in a state of being which seemed like nobody cared for them and their suffering the collateral damage of so-called pogress.
    You asked!!
    Happy New Year!



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