8 Food Sustainability Trends to Watch in 2023

Jan 9, 2023 | 0 comments

During 2022 we witnessed a series of unprecedented events and challenges that had a significant impact across the food and farming sector. The combined and interrelated economic crisis, energy crisis, cost of living crisis, extreme heat and other weather-related events, and the war in Ukraine has seen input prices (e.g., fertilizers) skyrocket and food inflation at all-time highs (reaching 16% in the UK at the end of 2022). This has resulted in a significant rise in food inequality within households across the global North and South and some 43 million people in 38 countries across the globe who are now at risk of falling into famine or a severe hunger crisis. 

Action within the next 10 years is critical if we are to transform our food systems, so they are healthy, sustainable, resilient, and fair. Today, we are a long way off from this goal. We are not on track to deliver the UNs Sustainable Development Goals or keep global greenhouse emissions below the 1.5 degree threshold. For the food sector, including food and drink businesses, the events over the past 12 months should serve as an opportunity to analyse their resiliency to future shocks (such as climate change). Whilst there is a business imperative there is also a moral and ethical imperative to ensure business models and practices support resiliency, build food security, and tackle the systemic barriers and opportunities towards healthy, fair, sustainable, and resilient food systems.

The identification of key trends is not an exact science – they are based on a mixture of research, insights gleaned from ongoing discussions with actors working across the food system (farmers, civil society organisations, businesses, policy makers and others) and intuition. Trends are driven by a complex range of cultural, political, technological, economic, environmental, and behavioural factors all of which come together to influence the behaviours and decision making of each one of us.

Below I set out eight trends which I think will come to the fore during 2023:

  1. More and Better Plants, Less and Better Meats

According to research from Mintel, the number of citizens who considered themselves carnivores dropped 5% from March 2021 to April 2022, while the percentage following a flexitarian diet (consciously consuming less meat and more plants) increased by 5%. This trend towards more flexitarian diets is likely to continue into 2023, although with more of a prominent focus on the health impacts of plant-based meat alternatives. Citizens, investors and civil society organisations are paying more attention to the potential unintended health consequences of plant-based foods which contain high levels of sugars, fats, and salts, which are often used to replicate the taste and texture of their meat counterparts. International organisations, such as the World Health Organisation, are also cautioning citizens on the need to focus on healthier plant based products. For example in a recent highly influential statement they said ‘individuals should preferably choose minimally processed plant-based foods’.

Other plant based related trends to watch out for in 2023 include:

Plant-based seafood – The plant-based seafood market is expected to reach $1.3 billion by 2031. Technological advancements and new products offer new opportunities to overcome high prices and taste challenges which have prevented significant growth in this category to date.

Cultured meats – Cultured meat, otherwise known as cultivated or lab-grown meat, is an emerging technology area that uses animal cells grown in the lab to create meat products without requiring animal slaughter and with the potential to avoiding the environmental problems that hinder conventional agriculture. To date exorbitantly high costs have meant cultured meat has been unable to disrupt the US$1 trillion conventional meat industry. However, technological improvements will continue to drive prices down in 2023 although these products will continue to remain out of reach to all but a few in the next few years.

Plant-based chicken – Plant based chicken is a trend which will see accelerated growth into 2023. Whilst plant based chicken may have been slower to enter markets than beef we are starting to see brands such as KFC enter the plant based market with the launch of their ‘beyond fried chicken‘ range. Given the shear quantities of chickens raised, the environmental and social impacts of chicken (through the deforestation impacts of soya-based chicken feed for example) is coming under greater scrutiny. As a result, initiatives like the Better Chicken Project are aiming to offer buyers more sustainable and welfare friendly chicken products.

  1. Net Zero Food Value Chains (Scope 3 emissions)

In 2019, the UK was the first major economy to pass net zero emissions into law. Net zero is the ambition to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions as much as possible towards zero, and to counter any remaining emissions with carbon-negative solutions, whether nature-based (for example, planting trees or restoring mangroves) or technological (such as direct air capture). In 2023 there will be increasing pressure for many food and drinks businesses to reduce their scope 3 emissions (i.e., indirect emissions by suppliers). Scope 3 typically accounts for most food system emissions, so reducing those that companies have direct control over (scope 1 and 2) can only go so far in reaching net zero.

  1. Nature Positive Commitments and Reporting

At the UN Biodiversity conference COP15 in Montréal, Canada (December 2022) 195 countries signed up to an historic deal to protect 30% of land and water by 2030. Given the food system is the biggest driver of biodiversity loss (food is estimated to cause 70% of total global biodiversity loss) significant pressure will fall on food businesses to deliver the ambitions outlined within this agreement. Only a handful of food companies have comprehensive programs to reduce the biodiversity pressure of their agricultural supply chains. In 2023 food companies will face considerable new pressure from these new requirements. This will include pressure for all large food businesses and financial institutions to assess and disclose their impacts and dependencies on nature by 2030 (forms of mandatory reporting).

  1. Closing the Loop and Upcycled Foods

Upcycling is a relatively recent term for the age-old concept of using low-valued foods or food processing by products to generate new food products. With 30% of all food grown globally going to waste, contributing about 8% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, new market outlets for otherwise wasted products (fruit and vegetable peelings, peelings, spoilt foods etc) will continue apace in 2023.  Much of what’s left over as waste once a food is processed contains valuable nutritional components, even though it’s currently only used for animal feed or just thrown away. Some examples of food brands upcycling products include Renewal Mill which uses flour using by-products from plant-based milks, Toast Ale, which uses beer made from waste bread and Regrained which makes a flour from protein, fibre, and micronutrients discarded after grain is made into beer and incorporates into snack bars.

  1. Food Provenance, Shorter Value Chains and Transparency

The war in Ukraine and ongoing Covid related disruptions has resulted in significant attention, scrutiny, and debate on the resilience of our global commodity chains and centralised distribution networks. We are already starting to witness a significant debate about how to decentralise our food systems and produce a greater proportion of our most healthy and nutritious foods, such as fresh produce, locally. Expect to see much more citizen demand for foods with local provenance, which also ensures freshness, optimal nutrient quality, and reductions in fresh produce waste (fresh produce imported over long distances is highly perishable and results in significant wastage).

In 2023, we’ll see a continued push toward making food and beverage supply chains more transparent. Citizens want to know where their food comes from and how it gets made and that has held true even as a cost of living crisis bites. Whether online or in store, shoppers prefer brands that tell the whole story about their products – how and where food is produced, their environmental impacts and the health/social impacts of the food choices they make. Transparency empowers citizens to cast a vote every time they buy a food or beverage. Technological innovations to improve traceability of food value chains will continue with greater emphasis on connecting farmer to citizen. Capturing data from Internet-of-Things, sensors and blockchain and the use of Artificial Intelligence will help provide more visibility to worker conditions, health, climate, water, and food waste impacts.

  1. Agrobiodiversity

There are over 20,000 species of edible plants in the world yet fewer than 20 species now provide 90% of our food, with these being dominated by rice, maize, wheat, and soybean. With 850 million people still hungry and a further 2 billion people lacking key micro-nutrients, increasing attention will be given to agrobiodiversity. Agricultural biodiversity is the diversity of crops and their wild relatives, trees, animals, microbes, and other species that contribute to agricultural production. This diversity – which results from thousands of years of interactions among people and the environment – is a key component of healthy diets and human health. Food biodiversity is crucial to fight malnutrition and diet-related diseases. Agrobiodiversity includes a wide variety of so called ‘forgotten or orphan crops’ – crops like tef, finger millet, yam, roots and tubers that tend to be regionally important, often highly nutritional and adaptable crops that are not traded around the world. The number of food businesses, chefs and food journalists highlighting the importance of agrobiodiversity has increased significantly in the last 6 months, a trend that will accelerate into 2023.

2023 is also the UN international year of millets which will ensure much more attention is given to this humble grain. Millet, a grain mainly grown and consumed in developing countries such as India, has, until recently, been considered a poor man’s staple. It is however packed with micronutrients and is drought resistant and has an important role to play in the context of climate change.

  1. Regenerative and Agroecological Farming

Regenerative agriculture is a method of food production that restores soil health, biodiversity, and carbon. It is described as a set of agricultural principles (e.g., zero till, complimentary planting, mulching etc) that puts more back into the environment than it takes out. Producers, retailers, investors have recently been paying close attention to regenerative agriculture over the last few years. Companies like Danone, Pepsico and General Mills are investing billions of dollars in rolling out regenerative agricultural practices. However, interest and debate in this space is heating up. There are growing concerns about greenwashing, particularly given the multitude of differing interpretations of what regenerative agriculture means in practice and how you can measure real improvements on the farm ( uncertainty remains about how much carbon can be sequestered for example). In 2023 expect to see more focus and debate on the need of some kind of regenerative agriculture standardisation body and /or logo as a way of countering potential greenwashing.

Watch out for the rise in agroecology in 2023 – Agroecology builds on the accumulated knowledge and practices which farming cultures have built up over centuries, adapting to their ecological and climatic conditions. It is regenerative in the sense that it gives back to the land and creates a positive cycle within the farming practice. Agroecology is more of a social movement, ensuring farmers have the power to retain the way the grow and market food focussed on issues of food security and sovereignty.

  1. Environmental Labelling

Citizens are used to checking traffic light scores to compare the calorie, fat, sugar or salt content of different foods and there are early signs that we may see many more ‘eco-labels’ on food and drink, both in store and online. Many brands will start piloting a number of eco labelling schemes in 2023 measuring carbon, water use, water pollution and biodiversity within a unified label which has to date remained elusive. Schemes such as Eco-Score, touted as the environmental equivalent to Nutri-Score, is being trialled by big European retailers like Lidl. Foundation Earth continues to trail its own ‘Enviroscore’ working with Nestlé, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Marks & Spencer.

37140cookie-check8 Food Sustainability Trends to Watch in 2023

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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