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Hemp for Victory: Three Disruptive Novel Food Ingredients and their Sustainability Credentials

The start of 2020 has seen an upsurge in attention around the development of several new and exciting novel food ingredients including a protein made from air, a plant often found floating on our on our ponds and the ‘come back’ ingredient, hemp. Novel foods[1] are often touted as key component of a diversified, sustainable and healthy food system. In this blog, I ask how the sustainability credentials of novel foods stack up and why product developers and manufacturers need to assess their sustainability impacts using a systemic approach, looking at addressing impacts across a range of environmental, social, cultural, health and economic criteria.

1) Protein from thin air – A new kid in the block has emerged in recent months in terms of a food company now claiming to be at the forefront of a revolution in the food ingredients market. Solar Foods, a Finnish company, has entered into a partnership with the Fazer Group, to help market and scale up the production and application of an exciting and novel new form of protein powder called  ‘Solein’. It sounds remarkable as product, as according to their own website, they have ‘created a revolutionary way to produce natural protein by using renewable electricity and air,’ which is ‘both natural, and free from the burdens of agriculture and aquaculture’. To make Solein, water is split, using electrolysis to make hydrogen. A fermentation process is then used to combine the hydrogen, carbon dioxide from the air and minerals, which are fed to bacteria, which in turn produce the protein.

The company is reportedly in talks with the European Space Agency Business Incubator to explore the feasibility of producing protein during any future planned Mars space mission. It plans to start marketing the product next year and have a factory completed in 2025, by which time it hopes to be ‘competing with soya’ as a plant-based protein ingredient.

In terms of sustainability Solein sounds very impressive. Claiming to produce just 1% & 10% of the GHG emissions of meat and plant-based proteins respectively, the company says that in terms of land efficiency, it is ten times more efficient than soy.

2) World’ Smallest Vegetable – Often found floating on many a garden pond, Duckweed, also known as the water lentil, is being grown on massive aquafarms by companies such as Parabel, a Florida based business. Duckweed, sometimes referred to as the worlds smallest vegetable, is a small aquatic, free floating plant, that is creating a stir amongst product developers and is vying for credibility as one of the most sustainable, healthy and nutritious plant-based protein ingredients to come to market.  Tasting slightly sweater than normal lentils they are highly nutritious and packed with omega 3 fatty acids fibres and other micro-nutrients. This includes the bioactive form of vitamin B12, often lacking in plants and from the diets of vegans.

The ingredient is now being introduced in meat-alternative products like plant-based burgers and snacks. As it is tasteless and odourless the plant that can be introduced in different composite food applications.

As yet, I have not seen any sustainability analysis of the impacts of duckweed but the fact that it can double its biomass every 36 hours, using a closed loop system which keeps water loss and energy use to minimum is encouraging.

3) Hemp for Victory – We are on the verge of seeing hemp (Cannabis sativa) making a comeback, as a material to replace resource intensive cotton for clothing, a timber replacer, a packaging material to replace plastics and as a new protein superfood. Hemp production is nothing new and it has been around for millennia. In fact, during the second world war the American government produced a video, called Hemp for Victory, encouraging farmers to produce as much as possible, mainly to contribute to production of hemp ropes to help the US war effort. Until very recently, Hemp (which contains very little THC and has no psychoactive effect associated with marijuana) had lost favour due to its associations with its psychoactive cousin.

Hemp seeds (also known as flax seeds) are crunchy, taste nutty and are highly functional food, owing to the presence of alpha-linolenic acid, and omega 3 fatty acids. They are now starting to be used in plant-based burgers, in salads and as an alternative ingredient to flour.

From a sustainability perspective hemp is phenomenal product – It is fast-growing, thrives in a variety of soils and doesn’t require fertilisers or pesticides. It is also what I would term a ‘regenerative crop’ with their long tap roots capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and returning it to the soil. Compared to cotton, which is a highly water intensive crop, often grown in water scarce areas, hemp uses about 50% less water than cotton.

Novel Crops and Sustainability  

On the surface many of these foods could be game changers from an environmental perspective offering some hope for the future. When looking at the environmental impact of these novel foods its vital that companies understand the trade-offs to be able to assess their impacts across a range of environmental indicators – GHG emissions, biodiversity, the circular economy, water quality/quantity, soil health and more. Product life cycle assessments which consider all stages involved in the production of a product or service (sometimes termed “from cradle to grave”, or “field to fork”) will be crucial.

However, sustainability is more than addressing or reducing environmental impacts. Novel food manufacturers need to address and be salient of a broader range of health, social, economic and cultural aspects of sustainability. In many cases these elements are often weak or missing from any company analysis of their products impact.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to many novel foods is cultural and consumer acceptability. No matter how sustainable, consumer trust and therefore transparency and traceability in the production of these ingredients is going to be essential if any of these are to be successfully launched in the market. Consumer research from Edelman suggests only 34% of customers trust most of the brands they buy or use, with the health and sustainability credentials of these products being at the forefront of consumer concerns.

As an advocate of the need to transform our food system, there are other systemic issues which will also need to be considered when looking at the impacts of novel foods. The need to reconnect and engage citizens with the growing, cooking and preparation of food; food literacy; power within the food system and addressing food inequalities are a few of these.

What are your views on the emergence of the novel foods I have outlined? Do you see them as an opportunity or threat?  Do they reinforce the current industrial model which views food as a commodity or do they provide an opportunity to diversify the foods we eat?

[1] Novel food is defined in the EU as food that was not consumed to any significant degree in the EU before 1988 when the first novel food legislation entered into force. Novel food can be newly developed, innovative food or food produced using new technologies and production processes, as well as food traditionally eaten outside of the EU. How the UK will define and legislate for novel foods in a post Brexit world still remains uncertain.