As communicators focused on helping science-related businesses connect with their audiences, Cobalt is curious about nascent solutions and markets still being shaped by cutting-edge research and development.
What is FoodTech?
A small handful of startups in the FoodTech industry have captured our attention recently, both for the innovative ways they are addressing global challenges facing our food systems and the communications challenges they face as they introduce their products to the market.
This blog will give a taste of some of the ways that innovators are applying technology to increase sustainability across our food systems by boosting efficiency in growing systems, protecting food safety and reducing food waste. We then examine the communications challenges experienced by companies in the FoodTech industry and how well-planned brand messaging and strategic communications, along with best practices in science communication, can help these companies come alive and thrive.
Challenge: Feeding the World Sustainably
Feeding a growing global population while sustaining the planet and its natural resources is a critical challenge. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that the global food industry consumes 30 percent of the energy produced and emits 22 percent of the total greenhouse gasses. At the same time, about 17 percent of all food produced goes to waste. The FAO estimates that eliminating food waste would preserve adequate food to feed 2 billion people, more than twice the number of people who are undernourished globally.
Solution: Alternative Protein
The growing availability of alternative protein — sources of protein that don’t come directly from animals — and the diversity in this expanding market reflect the response of the FoodTech industry to the global need for nutrient-rich, sustainable protein sources. One study estimated that alt proteins may account for 11 percent of total protein sales by 2025. These proteins are created under precisely controlled conditions, optimizing resources such as land, water and energy. Because they can be grown close to population centers, alt proteins have smaller transportation costs compared with conventional animal agriculture. In addition to their smaller carbon footprint, alternative proteins do not contain the pesticides, antibiotics, pollutants or microplastics that people consume in conventionally raised meat and fish. Alternative proteins fall into the following categories:
- Plant-based: Protein is isolated from plants (like soy or peas) and mixed with other ingredients to mimic the taste and texture of traditional meat and dairy products. Tofu, soy milk, and oat milk are common examples.
- Traditional fermentation: Through fermentation, intact live microorganisms modify and process plant products. For example, soybeans are fermented to produce tempeh.
- Biomass fermentation: High-protein fungal strains are fermented in controlled environments to produce a substrate that can be made into a variety of foods.
- Precision fermentation: Microbial hosts serve as “cell factories” to produce enzymes, color and flavor ingredients, vitamins, and fats.
- Cell-based: Also known as cultivated or cultured, these protein sources are generated by growing animal cells in cell culture. Because the same cell types are used as those that exist in animal tissues, cell-based protein products mimic the nutritional content and look and feel of animal-based protein. Companies are pursuing cell-based alternatives to chicken, fish, beef and pork. Research suggests that cell-based meat has a much smaller environmental impact compared to conventional beef production.
Solution: Smart Farming
Growers are becoming increasingly tech-savvy and adopting AgTech applications to optimize inputs, improve yields and efficiency and automate tasks. By increasing growers’ efficiency, systems using AI, machine learning and IoT tools that provide data for algorithmic analysis are transforming traditional farming to increase sustainability. Building vertical farms and smart greenhouses in population centers reduces transportation costs and food waste. Among the growing number of AgTech tools being developed and deployed are the following:
- Sensors and systems to monitor and respond to temperature, moisture, soil conditions, pests and plant health
- Automated vertical farms and greenhouses
- Robotic crop tenders, autonomous tractors and drone crop sprayers
- AI and machine learning programs to optimize factors including crop selection, irrigation and fertilization and plan crops based on yield mapping
Solution: Waste-Based Packaging
In another arm of the FoodTech industry, companies are innovating food packaging to introduce sustainable options as alternatives to conventional petroleum-based plastics and tree-based paper and cardboard. Innovative packaging can increase food safety by preventing contamination, reduce food waste by extending shelf life, cut the production and accumulation of plastics and save natural resources.
Some solutions aim to increase the use of materials that can be recycled or composted and to use plant-based materials instead of petroleum to produce plastic packaging. Bioplastics made from corn starch and sugarcane are examples of the latter. These products are often not biodegradable or home-compostable and end up in landfills or contaminate traditional plastic recycling streams. Growing crops to produce these products also uses valuable land, water, and energy.
Innovators working to further improve packing sustainability are finding ways to process waste material — agricultural waste, food waste, garden waste and wastewater — to produce paper and plastic packaging. For example, Full Cycle Bioplastics in California uses waste from farms, gardens and kitchens to create polyhydroxyalkanoate or PHA, a bioplastic that is used in bags and bottles, containers and cutlery. The products are compostable, safe for marine life and non-toxic.
Solution: Traceability to Increase Food Safety
The CDC estimates that 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness each year. Tracking unsafe food quickly is essential to minimizing risk. With increased data availability, organizations can use AI tools and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors to keep closer track of products moving through the supply chain. The Food and Drug Administration established tech-enabled food traceability as an objective in its New Era of Smarter Food Safety. It has published a proposed Food Traceability Rule to improve traceability and record-keeping for certain high-risk foods. To meet expected U.S. and global regulations, food producers are adopting packaging traceability that can quickly identify and locate products in the supply chain.
For example, Mojix created a web-based software platform, ytem™, (pronounced “item”) that links traceability events and data to generate a completely traceable pathway for individual food items and lots. The FDA recognized the company among 12 winners of the agency’s Low- or No-Cost Tech-Enabled Traceability Challenge. Each item in the system carries a digital ID on a QR code or other electronic tag to which manufacturers, processors, distributors and wholesalers add their specific data. Each stakeholder can access the information along the chain. If an item is recalled, affected products can be quickly located and retail locations can be informed about exactly which items need to be removed from store shelves.
Digital food labels can also bring other benefits directly to consumers. With a smartphone, people will have easy access to information about a food’s origins, allergens and ingredients, nutrients, recipes and tips, and how to recycle the packaging.
Solution: Smart Packaging
Smart packaging can monitor the condition and quality of a product and alert retailers and consumers to potential dangers. Sensors that monitor factors including temperature, gas and humidity trigger changes such as a color change on the package if a product has a leak or spends too long at a risky temperature.
Solution: Active Packaging
Active packaging interacts with the contents to extend shelf life or improve quality by releasing or removing certain substances through filtering, oxygen absorbers, moisture-regulating material or antimicrobial coatings. For example, ethylene absorbers are incorporated into fruit and vegetable packaging in various ways to extend shelf life by taking in the ripening hormone as it is expressed from food over time.
Solution: Innovations That Prevent and Divert Food Waste
Preventing potential food losses has multiple benefits but remains a challenge for food producers, distributors, retailers, restaurants and consumers. Innovative solutions can help. Grocery stores and restaurants can use IoT technology to monitor factors like storage facility temperatures to prevent loss from spoilage and stock levels to manage and predict demand and inform purchasing decisions. At restaurants, the Winnow platform is one example of a solution to collect and analyze detailed food waste data to better predict future needs.
When food waste cannot be prevented, otherwise would-be discards can be rescued from restaurants and grocery stores and diverted from landfills, thanks to mobile apps that link the food to consumers. With apps like Food Rescue US, volunteers sign up to distribute excess food to food pantries, shelters and other non-profits. Other apps notify users of opportunities to buy excess food or nearly expired food at steep discounts from restaurants and stores that would otherwise toss it in the trash.
Challenge: Making the World Understand and Act
While innovative ideas to improve food sustainability continue to bubble up across our food systems, companies in the FoodTech industry must communicate effectively to connect with stakeholders, persuade consumers, and ultimately deliver the potential benefits of their products. Effective marketing and communications strategies — including science writing and design tools that helps people understand complex topics — can help companies with novel products and services overcome the challenges of gaining consumer recognition, acceptance and adoption in this rapidly changing market.
Solution: Brand Messaging
Emerging companies in the FoodTech industry needs to create strong brands that help differentiate them from both innovative competitors and from conventional alternatives. In this active and crowded market, brand messaging is critical for managing consumer perception and acceptance of novel products. It’s therefore important for a FoodTech company to build a solid brand messaging framework and to apply it broadly so that every marketing and communications message carries the brand’s unique flavor.
Solution: Tailored Messages
Innovators in the FoodTech industry want to reach a wide audience but have to tailor their messages for different internal and external groups and audiences, which may include scientists, manufacturers, distributors, investors, employees, partners, and customers. Matching content to a potential audience member starts with research to understand what they already know so that you can provide the correct level of information that will engage them without using unnecessary jargon or oversimplification.
Some stakeholders may have basic questions while others will want to gain a deeper understanding of the science behind an innovative product. As communicators with experience helping science-driven companies craft messages for a variety of audiences, we understand the challenges of providing content that educates at all levels of learning and gives people the answers they seek.
Solution: Make Complex Information Digestible
The tools and tricks of science communication, such as breaking down complicated concepts into chunks, using graphics and illustrations and eliminating jargon, are important strategies for explaining complex information, educating stakeholders and answering their questions. Describing the benefits of a product or process can be simple or layered. Multi-level web pages can provide a path for curious consumers to dig into a topic and can help businesses explain why and how they do things the way they do.
Solution: Be Transparent and Consistent
Establishing trust is essential when communicating about new technologies, especially in the food industry, as any hint of doubt about a product’s safety can leave a long-lasting bitter aftertaste. Details about a product’s origins, safety and sustainability should be easy to find on a company’s website. If not, a potential consumer may suspect the company is intentionally hiding information or they may turn to another source, which could be biased or inaccurate.
Having the right frequency of messaging can help establish trust with your stakeholders. Overwhelming your audience with too many messages, however, may risk turning them off or even making them doubt your sincerity or trustworthiness. Presenting consistent communications — whether on in email, social media or in newsletter — will help build trust and establish your brand’s positive reputation.
Solution: Visual Communication and Video
Photos and videos transport consumers into the fields, factories, greenhouses and other production facilities where innovations are transforming the industry. These tools can engage and excite viewers and include interviews with the people behind the product. Showing measures to enhance food and worker safety also aids in establishing trust and demonstrating transparency.
People connect with businesses and products when they know their stories. This type of messaging — whether in social media, blog posts or on your company’s website — can be especially helpful in the competitive FoodTech landscape. Stories can explain why and how it a product or company was created and where it is going and help people remember and relate to it.
The FoodTech industry and food landscape change quickly. Communication needs to keep pace. Your communication strategy will have to adjust from time to time to changes in the industry and respond to trends, news events and policy changes. Having a strong strategy and plan means also being prepared for and able to respond to change.
Cobalt has years of experience helping companies sort through communications challenges like those faced by businesses in the FoodTech industry. Our experienced team of science writers and designers is ready to produce fresh content to meet your company’s communication needs.