Who will invest in sustainable food for the 'real world'?

Netsanet prepares healthy food in her home in Ethiopia. Photo by: Nahom Tesfaye / UNICEF Ethiopia / CC BY-NC-ND

STOCKHOLM — Bugs and fake meat dominated discussions on the future of food at the sixth annual EAT Stockholm Food Forum, a two-day event that kicked off Wednesday — but for solutions to sustainable food in lower-income countries we need to be looking elsewhere, delegates said.

Innovators — and investors — came together to discuss ideas that can push the world toward a healthy diet derived from a sustainable food system, as laid out in the EAT-Lancet Commission report released in January. That report spelled out a reference diet designed to meet most people's nutritional requirements, capable of feeding the world’s projected 10 billion population by 2050, and that can be grown within a food system that minimizes damage to the climate.

“Meat made in a lab is not going to be what most of the people in the real world eat."

— Sofia Condes, program lead for nutritious foods financing, GAIN

This year's Food Forum is geared around how to translate those findings into practice. For people in high-income countries, that diet includes a sharp reduction in protein derived from meat, especially red meat. As the report's recommendations have gained traction globally, the search for more sustainable protein sources has gathered pace among investors.

But those investments are unlikely to impact vast swathes of the globe whose challenges in meeting the EAT-Lancet recommendations center more around limited access to nutritious foods — or food of any kind — rather than overconsumption of red meat.

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"The fact that investors are thinking about the food system is positive," said Sofia Condes, program lead for nutritious foods financing with the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. But investments in innovations such as unique, new protein forms are “not where you're going to change the food system the most. You might change some trends in some high-income countries, but meat made in a lab is not going to be what most of the people in the real world eat."

That's why GAIN is working to build the Nutritious Foods Financing Facility, which would be positioned to support small and medium enterprises in Africa to scale up their production and delivery of healthy foods. According to GAIN’s research, SMEs produce, process, transport, and sell between 70%-90%of all food across low- and middle-income countries. The idea, Condes said, is to launch a blended financing facility worth $50-60 million by the middle of next year. It would initially focus on SMEs in countries where GAIN already has offices — Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique.

"We would be working with companies that are not really at the forefront of highly sophisticated innovation," she said. "But with companies that have a hard time scaling their production and ensuring the quality of what they do."

The facility would be one of the first to prioritize nutrition in its investments. Condes said they would invest primarily in companies that are producing, packaging, and delivering straightforwardly nutritious foods — fruits, vegetables, pulses, and proteins, such as eggs and fish.

The financing would help them to overcome the barriers posed by poor infrastructure and the lack of a cold chain in many rural, low-income settings. The facility would also finance companies that produce processed foods, but only if they meet a set of nutritional standards that will be closely monitored.

"We want to support companies that are producing food of nutritional value ... that will stay in Africa," she said.

Improving access to nutritious foods should then make it easier for communities to meet the reference diet laid out in the EAT-Lancet report. African diets, according to the researchers, skew toward starches and regularly do not include enough fruits and vegetables.

While the facility is geared toward financing companies further along in the production process, the forum also highlighted opportunities for supporting farmers, who need to be positioned at the front end of providing nutritious and sustainable food sources and then supported throughout the process of cultivating and selling.

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, formed in 2006 after former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for an overhaul of African food systems, is in the middle of an effort to improve food security for 30 million farmers on the continent.

"The discussion here is about better food, nutrition, making it available at a better price," Assan Ng'ombe, AGRA's resilience officer, told Devex. "One of the first things that we're doing is to make food available."

That means helping farmers move beyond subsistence farming and increase outputs by improving their knowledge and access to technology — not heavy machinery or computers, but basics such as improved seeds, fertilizers, and practices. But it still comes at a cost, and that is where there is an opportunity for investors and the private sector, Ng'ombe said.

"They have a role to play in ensuring food security, a role to play in ensuring nutrition," he said, alongside governments and donors. "The farmer grows and eats, as well. So the market is there. The time is right. The private sector needs to take the leap."

Investing in seed varieties may not draw the same attention as inventing a new kind of meat, Condes said, but it might be more central to actually achieving the goals of global access to nutritious food, grown sustainably.

This focus area, powered by DSM, is exploring innovative solutions to improve nutrition, tackle malnutrition, and influence policies and funding. Visit the Focus on: Improving Nutrition page for more.

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    Andrew Green

    Andrew Green is a Devex Correspondent based in Berlin. His coverage focuses primarily on health and human rights and he has previously worked as Voice of America's South Sudan bureau chief and the Center for Public Integrity's web editor.