2023 has been a year of climate extremes with high temperature records tumbling across the world. Human activities, including food production and consumption, are driving these temperature records and the intensity and frequency of climate-induced weather disasters (droughts, heatwaves, wildfires, storms, and flooding) that result. This climate crisis, which comes fast on the heels of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, means that in 2024 and beyond, we are likely to see continued food price volatility and increases in food insecurity and levels of hunger and malnutrition. Furthermore, our food system continues to significantly impact on many other dimensions of planetary health (biodiversity loss, climate change, pollution), with six of the nine boundaries having been transgressed according to the very latest research by the Stockholm Resilience Centre.
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 organisational models. Sourcing, product development, marketing, and consumer engagement strategies 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 below my top 12 sustainable food trends which I think will come to the fore during 2024. These are not exhaustive and are based on my own insights and recent conversations with a wide range of businesses, farming groups, academics and civil society organisations working on sustainable food systems:
- Shifting Mindsets Around Regenerative and Agroecological Farming Systems.
Regenerative agriculture and agroecological farming approaches reflect a rapidly changing shift in mindsets and narratives from ‘doing less harm’ to ‘restoring’ the health of people, planet, and animals – they are key concepts that are gaining traction with businesses and governments for a nature-positive, net zero and resilient world.
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. Two thirds of publicly-listed agrifood companies that have talked publicly about the potential of regenerative agriculture ‘have not put in place any formal quantitative company-wide targets to achieve those ambitions’ according to a new report from investor network FAIRR. In 2024, 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 2024 – 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. Initiatives undertaken by platforms such as the Agroecology Coalition, of which 50 governments are now signatories, are puting agroecology at the centre of food systems discussions.
- The Emergence of Ancient Grains and Forgotten Crops as Key Ingredients
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 crops such as 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 agricultural biodiversity. For too long, governments, policymakers and research organisations have prioritized commodity crops that degrade soils, destroy nature, and leave many farmers and their communities with little income.
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 and ancient grains and other crops include 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.
- More But Better Plants – The Renaissance of Beans, Pulses and Vegetables
Whilst the plant-based markets continue to grow, there has been a slowing and some setbacks within the plant-based meat alternative market – companies such as Meatless Farm and LoveSeitan, have recently gone into administration. Other meat replacement brands have seen a decline in profits in recent months – Beyond Meat, for example, has seen its sales decline by nearly a third in the second quarter of 2023, as citizens opt for more affordable protein sources and the health credentials of plant-based meats (often high in saturated fats, sugars, and salts) are called into question.
Whilst the plant-based market will continue to grow in 2024, I expect to see more emphasis on clean label plant-based products and a surge in interest in beans, wholegrains, beans, and pulses – those plant-based products that are healthier and with high quantities of dietary fibre. These whole plant-based foods are a cornerstone of the transition towards a more sustainable agri-food system with the potential to improve planetary and human health whilst increasing the resilience of local and global food systems. Keep an eye out for initiatives such as Beans is How – A campaign to double global bean consumption for more sustainable diets and food systems with an initial focus on Africa.
- Pressure Grows to Reduce the Consumption of Ultra Processed Foods
The revolution in food science, manufacturing, supermarket retailing and advertising over the last 60 years has led to explosive growth in the consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) across the world. Citizens, civil society organisations and research establishments are now increasingly vocal in their questioning the health impacts of a wide variety of ultra processed foods containing refined sugars, fats and salts. Many governments, civil society organisations and research establishments are now calling for policies to improve populations’ dietary quality and health by reducing demand for and disincentivizing purchase of unhealthy foods and beverages. This includes front of pack warnings, market restrictions, food environment protection measures and a range of other fiscal measures. Looking at this shift, new brands and ventures are being regularly launched promoting healthy snacks with zero trans-fat, low sodium, gluten-free products etc.
In addition, as gut health research advances, there is a surge in foods designed to support and improve the gut microbiome. Probiotic-rich, fermented vegetables and prebiotic-enhanced products will become more popular as citizens seek to optimize their digestive health.
- Traceability for Trust and Transparency
More and more buyers, investors, civil society organisations and cistizens are now looking for suppliers that can provide traceability across their value chains as a way of buying citizen trust and loyalty. At the same time, there is a big effort from regulators to improve traceability as part of the fight against illegal practices and irresponsible production practices. Full traceability and transparency mean that documentation on all the steps of the supply chain is available, and that companies are open and transparent in their communications.
A variety of emerging technologies such as blockchain technology is making end to end traceability across value chains much easier and is facilitating the sharing of data across companies. Blockchain technologies are just one way that companies are trying to ensure better traceability from gate to plate which is garnering a lot of interest. Blockchain technologies cannot be tampered with, and the data can be accessed by everyone along the supply chain, from certification schemes to the final consumer. Because it is digital, decentralised, and updated in real time, a blockchain tag contains valuable information that a physical label never can.
- Greenwashing Crackdown
Greenwashing is the act of making a product, policy or activity appear more sustainable than it really is. There are signs that there could be a crackdown on greenwashing claims made by food and beverage companies over the next few years with civil society organisations and some governments policing the language of sustainability more strictly than ever before. Vague terms like ‘eco-friendly’, ‘green’ and ‘all-natural’ are increasingly being criticised as misleading.
More and more governments are likely to introduce measures to crackdown on greenwashing to restore consumer trust. For example, the incoming EU Green Claims Directive, due to come into force in 2026, will put an onus on any food company marketing in the EU to substantiate environmental claims, with the penalty for non-compliance reaching up to 4% of annual sales. Korea is also taking the lead on the clampdown on greenwashing in Asia as the country is poised to become the first nation in Asia to hand out fines for the practice. Last year (2022), Australia introduced its first fine for greenwashing.
Misinformation and greenwashing pose a threat not only to the credibility and reputation of the food and beverage industry but also to the collective ability of the sector to transition to a sustainable future. Companies need to thoroughly trace the sustainability impact of their products if they are to avoid accusations of greenwashing. Companies need to consider all relevant factors before making claims and need to ensure they have quantifiable data proving any assertion that is made publicly.
- Net Zero and Scope 3 Greenhouse Gas Emissions
To tackle climate change and achieve Net Zero emissions companies are now being expected to tackle scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions. Unlike scope 1 and 2 emissions, which originate from a company’s direct operations, scope 3 emissions are both large (making up 65–95% of most companies’ carbon impact) and indirect, a consequence of a company’s activities outside its direct control (across their supply chain).
To date scope 3 reporting has been mostly voluntary, but the pressure to make it mandatory is growing. For example, the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) and the US Securities and Exchange Commission have all drafted recommendations requiring some disclosure of scope 3 emissions. In addition, a recent survey of 325 investors (representing $14 trillion in assets under management) found that more than one-third of them identified reducing scope 3 emissions as a priority.
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 2024 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.
- Closing the Nutrient Loop and Upcycled Foods
33% of all food produced globally is wasted contributing to 8% of global GHGs. There is now greater pressure on businesses to invest in solutions that focus on circularity ( closing the nutrient loop) as well as the valorisation of food waste and loss into side streams and new resources. According to the Upcycled Foods Association, 62% of consumers are indicating a willingness to pay more for a product that prevents waste.
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. New market outlets for otherwise wasted products (fruit and vegetable peelings, peelings, spoilt foods etc) will continue apace in 2024. 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. One example of upcycling is ReGrained, a company that specializes in upcycling spent grain from the brewing process into snack bars. Spent grain is a byproduct of the brewing process that is typically discarded. ReGrained has developed a process to convert the spent grain into flour that can be used as an ingredient in snack bars.
- Localisation of Value 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 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 the UK we import 77% of our fresh fruit and vegetables, which predominantly are sold through of highly centralised retail dominated system. Expect to see much more citizen demand for more local foods, which 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).
- Plastic Free Packaging Innovation
The world produces 141 million tonnes of plastic packaging a year and around a third of all plastic packaging ends up polluting the ocean and land environment. Sustainable packaging refers to the sourcing, development, and use of packaging solutions that have minimal environmental and social impacts. Packaging design, including minimal and recyclable packaging, is one of the top influences for shoppers concerned with sustainability.
Biodegradable and compostable materials are expected to become increasingly popular as is the use of recyclable materials like paper and cardboard. Plant-based packaging, using materials such as cornstarch, sugarcane, and bamboo, is also a key trend with expected growth well into 2024. More companies are also exploring ways to recycle plastic packaging instead of throwing it into landfill.
More food brands than ever are questioning the sourcing of their packaging materials and there will be continued pressure to do so as plastic waste continue to hit the news headlines. They’re looking for processes that are sustainable and that will help them reduce their carbon footprint. Some companies are turning to more cardboard packaging alternatives whilst others are starting to experiment with bioplastics. In 2024 expect to see a move towards edible packaging options made from rice paper, seaweed, or corn-starch.
- Human and Labour Rights Continue to Take Prominence
Issues such as human rights abuses and labour standards are continuing to rise on political agendas and are gaining traction in the media and, as such, present increasing reputational risks for companies, particularly those with complex supply chains. Heightened awareness by the public and lawmakers is increasingly requiring companies to find solutions to eliminate violations in their value chains.
Companies that tackle human rights issues such as forced labour, human trafficking, discriminatory practices, the use of child labour, poverty wages and hazardous working conditions—whilst cultivating positive relationships with their stakeholders—can help ensure their businesses continued growth and social license to operate.
- The Use of Artificial Intelligence
The food industry is increasingly using artificial intelligence (AI) to develop new products and improve efficiency and sustainability with the numbers of businesses using AI doubling since 2017. Companies such as Olam are using predictive analytics to scan online recipes and restaurant menus to identify emerging food and flavour trends as part of their innovation pipeline. Companies such as Nestlé use AI to identify proteins that enable production of healthy foods.
The food industry is increasingly turning to AI to address key environmental challenges, such as food waste – which results in food company revenue losses in billions of dollars each year. AI can help companies in early detection of factors causing food waste. For example, supermarkets can use AI-powered tools to scan and identify edibility of produce to avoid dumping it away. There will likely be a range of ethical and moral issues with regards to the accountability and reliability of using such technologies which will come to the fore over the next few years.
If you have any comments on this blog, or thoughts on other sustainable food trends that may come to the fore in 2024, then please do not hesitate to drop me a line. In addition, please do not hesitate to contact me if I may be able to assist with trends mapping, horizon scanning or with food systems analysis, within your own organisation.