It goes without saying that 2020 was a challenging year for the food industry. A worldwide pandemic that wreaked havoc on food supply chains, forced the permanent closure of thousands of restaurants worldwide, and pushed millions of people deeper into food insecurity showed us just how fragile the systems that keep us nourished and fed are.
But it’s also the recognition of this fragility that’s led to an increasing sense of urgency to invest in the future of food. The good news is the timing couldn’t be better. We are at a culmination point in the fields of bioengineering, chemistry and food science where decades of hard work and progress have allowed ideas that once seemed the domain of science fiction to leap into the labs and, now and in the not-to-distant future, onto our plates.
And while 2020 was a year of unprecedented progress across our food system, I expect 2021 to be even more impactful. Below are four predictions for some of what we could see this year.
Cultured Meat Milestones Will Accelerate
Throughout 2020, announcements of milestones for cultured meat flowed with increasing regularity. New prototypes of practically every type of meat ranging from chicken to beef to kangaroo debuted, heads of state and other famous folks got their first tastes of lab-grown meat, and at the end Eat Just announced the first regulatory approval and retail sale of cultured chicken in Singapore.
And we’ll see even more milestones this year. Investment will grow and excitement will build as more companies move out of the labs and into early pilot production facilities for their cultured meat products. Other countries will follow Singapore’s lead and give regulatory green light for the sale of cultured meat. And finally, we’ll see the debut of more cultured meat products in high-end cuisine as chefs look to achieve similar firsts for their restaurants. We may even see the rollout of cultured meat in some select experiential, high-end retail.
Fermentation Powers Growth in Exciting New Consumer-Facing Products
One of the of most exciting areas in the future of food is microbial fermentation. High-volume production of interesting new biomass proteins such as mycelium-based meat replacements and the arrival of animal-free proteins, fats and other compounds created using precision fermentation helped illustrate why the Good Food Institute called fermentation the third leg of the alternative protein market.
Looking forward, you can expect lots of new products to debut powered by precision fermentation in 2021. MeliBio, a maker of bee-free honey, expects to debut their first product in 2021, while Clara Foods plans to release its animal-free egg this year as well, and I expect to see more companies like Brave Robot rise up and offer new products built around precision fermented food platforms created by companies like Perfect Day.
CRISPR and Gene-Edited Food See Accelerated Product Pipelines
There was big news in the CRISPR and gene-edited food realm in December when the USDA proposed a change in the regulatory oversight of gene-edited animals for human consumption. The organization proposed that they take over oversight responsibility for approving gene-edited animal products from the FDA which, in 2018, famously declared that gene-edited animals should be regulated in the same manner as drugs.
Under a new USDA regulatory framework, the organization is proposing a fairly light regulatory approach to animals compared to the previous oversight of the FDA, which in turn could speed up time to market for new products. While there has been lots of focus on CRISPR-derived future food innovation, I expect changes to US regulatory oversight of gene-edited animal products to create a wave of new interest in developing CRISPR-based product lines from both startups and established food product companies.
Finally, the US may not be the only market to see a change in oversight for gene-edited food. The UK is looking to extract itself from the heavier-handed oversight of the EU post-Brexit, and some in Europe are suggesting that the EU’s classification of all gene-edited food as GMO might be overbroad and need adjusting.
3D Food Printing Moves Beyond the Cake
While 3D food printing has largely been relegated to the world of confections and cake decorating, a world with food replicators from the pages of science fiction novels seems to be inching closer to reality.
Companies like Redefine Meat are making high-volume plant-based meat printers and plan to have meat in supermarkets in a year, while others like Meat-Tech are showing off prototypes of cultured meat printers. One of the challenges for food printing will be scaling the technology to make it quicker, something Novameat is working on as it begins to enter commercial rollout phase of its plant-based meat printing technology. On the consumer front, while I don’t expect the food printers to start printing out Jamie Oliver recipes this year, companies like Savoreat are working on commercializing products for the professional space with the end-goal of eventually creating a home consumer food printer like the one you might see in a show like Upload.
Finally, these advances and technologies do not happen in a vacuum. The future of food is reliant on a multitude of new innovations and technologies. CRISPR, precision fermentation and 3D food printing are just some of the tools being interwoven and utilized together to help bring innovative new products to cultured, plant-based and other emerging food markets.
While we don’t know what 2021 will hold for us with any certainty, what we can be certain of is that progress in these important building blocks for the future of food will continue to march forward.