The organic food movement was born way back in the early 1900s as a response to the shift towards synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in the early days of industrial agriculture. However, it wasn’t until 1972 when John Battendieri founded Santa Cruz Organics and marketed some of the first packaged organic products. And it wasn’t until 2002 when the USDA adopted national standards for organic products (National Organic Program). This new USDA designation served to usher organic into the mainstream and by the mid-2000s, organic food sales entered a rapid growth phase, increasing by roughly 17-20% per year (compared with 2-3% for conventional food sales). Today, the organic market is a massive 14 billion dollar-a-year industry that continues to grow. Even large corporations such as Wal-Mart are now offering organic choices to their customers.
Ultimately, people wanted to know what was in their food and, more to the point, they wanted to feel good about it. They wanted food to be natural and non-artificial, the way nature intended.
Having satisfied concerns about ‘what’ was in their food, the next question for many of these mainstream consumers became ‘where’ – and quickly, the local food movement exploded. We now see the “local” designation everywhere, from restaurants to grocery stores. Walk into any Sweetgreen, and you’ll see a list of the local farms which have produced all of your salad’s ingredients. And like organic, local is great, the food is fresher and more sustainable.
However, with the ‘what’ and the ‘where’ boxes checked, it’s fair to wonder what the next big question for the more conscious food consumer is going to be. I’m betting it’s ‘how’ — and ‘how’ is about to go mainstream in a very big way.
One of my “aha” moments came during the most recent Super Bowl. Alongside your standard advertisements for new products (GM EV car batteries, 3D Doritos) and tried and true services (Rocket Mortgage, Uber Eats), there was a somewhat unusual yet fascinating ad from Chipotle Mexican Grill. The spot, titled “Can a Burrito Change the World”, featured no new product, and in fact, it barely featured Chipotle at all. In the ad, a young boy asks the question, “What if this [his burrito] could change the world?” The commercial then rapidly tracks the burrito back through the food supply chain, through the planting, watering, growing, shipping stages, and touching on related topics of healthy soil and carbon emissions. The ad ends with the words (notice the “how’s”), “How we grow our food is how we grow our future” — and if that sounds serious, that’s because, well, it is!
The world population is increasing — rapidly. There were 5.4 billion people in 1991, there’s 7.9 billion people currently, and we’re projected to reach 9.9 billion people by 2051. In other words, we’re well on our way to doubling the global population in a period of just 60 years. That’s a lot of mouths to feed, and with the FAO estimating that 1/3 of all food produced globally is lost or goes to waste, it also comes at a huge cost to the planet.
How huge? Roughly 8-10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) comes from food waste. In fact, if food waste were a country, it would be the 3rd largest emitter of GHGs behind only the US and China.
Therefore, reducing food waste and maximizing efficiencies within the food supply chain is not only critical to feeding our expanding global population, but it’s also a key factor in fighting climate change and saving the planet. Which brings us back to the conversation of ‘how’. Or again, as Chipotle posited, “How we grow our food is how we grow our future”.
Thankfully, the ‘how’ conversation now carries some hope thanks to some incredible change and innovation happening across the food world. From modern vertical farming to booming urban agriculture industries, we’re learning how to grow food locally, more efficiently, and more sustainably. The startup company I helped co-found, Hazel Technologies, has developed solutions to safely and effectively extend the shelf life of produce by controlling the atmosphere around the produce during its shipping process. The result? Shoppers get to buy fresher, longer-lasting produce, food growers net bigger profits, and the environment sees less food waste. This year alone Hazel is projected to save over 500 million pounds of wasted produce — and we’re just getting started.
Fresher, longer-lasting produce that also benefits the environment would seemingly be a hit with the same customer base that buys organic and local, and in fact, that’s exactly what we’re starting to see on the marketing front. Some of the largest farming companies in the world like Mission Produce (the world’s largest avocado distributor) and Oppy (Canada’s largest fresh produce distributor) are now promoting the use of Hazel’s technology in their supply chain. These market leaders see Hazel’s benefits as a major selling point for environmentally conscious consumers — or even just for those who want longer-lasting produce.
From grocery store shelves to Super Bowl ads, it’s clear that ‘how’ is emerging as the next big frontier in food marketing. Case in point, this year’s CES conference, the most influential tech event in the world, will offer Food Tech as a featured part of the conference for the first time ever. Conference attendees can expect to see an incredible showcase of innovation with much of it dedicated to ‘how’ topics like growing, production, and sustainability.
Producing enough food to feed a growing population without over-taxing the planet is going to be one of the world’s biggest challenges in the coming years, but through innovation it can be done. It all boils down to ‘how’.
This industry perspective was written by Pat Flynn. Flynn is CMO and cofounder of Hazel Technologies, a food tech startup that develops products that extend the shelf life of produce.