With our planet’s growing population, rapidly decreasing land availability and increasingly unpredictable climate, we need to take a closer look at how we feed ourselves. Are we making the most of the space we have? Are we growing food that’s water-efficient and low in waste? Are we getting as much nutritional bang for our buck as possible?
These questions have led a range of innovators to look for sustainable solutions, transforming the way we view, grow and consume food. Here are four LAUNCH Food innovators who are changing the face of nutrition at home and abroad – Entomo Farms, CoffeeFlour, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), and HarvestPlus.
Have you heard the buzz about an incredible new superfood on the market? It’s high in protein, vitamins and minerals, and it’s much more environmentally friendly than a lot of the foods you currently eat. It’s a flour you can mix into cakes, breads, smoothies, burgers, salads, and curries to make them pack an extra nutritional punch, and it won’t even affect the flavour. Sounds great, right? So why aren’t we fully embracing it?
Kelly Hagen, COO of Entomo Farms, is heavily involved in the production of the protein the flour is milled from: crickets.
“Our ancestors ate bugs, and two billion people around the world today still eat insects as part of their everyday diet. It makes sense – crickets are good for us and good for the planet,” Kelly says, although she’s aware of the challenges her product faces in the current marketplace.
“I admit, eating bugs takes some wrapping your head around at first! But that’s what makes my role so much more creative – we need to find ways to help people get over the ‘yuck’ factor and enable them to incorporate crickets into their diet. It’s something I feel very strongly about, and can really see the benefits of.”
The company has grown from humble beginnings as a cricket farm for the reptile industry to America’s first human-grade cricket farm. With 60,000 square feet of space, they produce around 5,000 pounds of crickets each week, which is supplied to more than 60 companies across Australia, New Zealand, the UK, the US and Canada. Some of the crickets are sold whole to be eaten as snacks or thrown through salads, but the vast majority are turned into powder.
“One of the best ways we’ve found of encouraging people to eat unfamiliar foods is to put them into foods they are familiar with. Powder is one of the best options as it means crickets can be added to pasta, protein bars, cakes and breads without the consumer even tasting it.”
“We have a highly-refined process of raising the crickets and producing our flour. Cricket eggs have an incubation period of 10 days, and then they live for seven weeks in a farm environment. In the farm, there are rows of cardboard partitions that look a bit like wine boxes, which are stacked 15ft high and 30ft long,” Kelly explains. “We need to provide them with feed and water, just like any other animal. Crickets will eat pretty much anything, but as they’re for human consumption we feed them the same sort of grain as chickens and pigs eat.”
“The crickets are free to roam the entire room and eat and drink whenever they want to. Shortly before the end of their natural life, we euthanise them using CO2 gas. It’s a quick and humane process, and they’re then taken straight to the kitchen area to be processed,” says Kelly. “First we rinse them, before dehydrating them and grinding them into a powder. We use the whole cricket, which means you get the chitin of the exoskeleton, which has wonderful antioxidant properties. It also means there’s next to zero waste. Even the insects’ manure, known as frass, is an incredible fertiliser.”
“Because insects are such a nutritious and sustainable food source, there’s no demographic consistency in terms of the people who buy from us. We’re still quite a long way from normalising eating insects, but the more we see these products on our shelves and are encouraged to try them in our food, the more accepted it will be.”
Most of us enjoy a cup of coffee to start the day, and each year, billions of coffee beans are used to produce the flat whites, long blacks, and triple-shot cappuccinos we all know and love. But what about the stuff that doesn’t end up in our cup?
The beans are harvested by extracting them from the fruit of the coffee plant, but that fruit is then discarded. It gets dumped in rivers and left to rot in heaps, polluting waterways and taking up valuable land space. Coffee Flour, the brainchild of CEO Dan Belliveau, is an innovative company seeking to address this environmental problem.
“The pulp of the coffee cherry is more than a nuisance: it’s an environmental hazard. There’s no use for it in the coffee-making process, so often farmers or millers truck it out to landfills or dump it in rivers, where it sits and rots. Most farmers aren’t aware that this can have a catastrophic impact on a river’s ecosystem, killing off plant and animal life,” explains Dipika Matthias, Vice President of Strategic Business Development at Coffee Flour.
“Given coffee pulp comes from a fruit, is actually very nutritionally dense, containing high levels of iron, potassium and calcium, as well as being high in fibre. What we’ve done is redirect the coffee pulp away from the waste pile and turned it into a flour that can be used in cakes, breads, pasta – the list is endless.”
“As well as having a positive impact on the environment, producing flour with coffee cherries means we can deliver more value to small-scale farmers who are at the end of the value chain. Whenever you buy a cup of coffee, only 4% ends up in their pockets. The flour is another income stream for those farmers. Not only that, but it’s a product that can be sold locally, integrating it into the local food supply to bridge micronutrient deficiencies in people’s diets,” Dipika adds.
“That’s not just in the interests of the farmers themselves, but works in favour of the parties involved the whole way up the production line. Small-scale farmers provide up to 80% of the coffee a company like Starbucks sells, so ensuring the economic and physical well-being of those at the lower end of the supply chain has ramifications the whole way up.”
“One of the most common questions I’m asked is ‘does coffee flour taste like coffee?’. Not at all! It actually tastes more like dried fruit, with a delicious earthy, roasted flavour. If I were to compare it to a flavour you might be familiar with, it’s a bit like fig paste,” says Dipika. “We’re selling it primarily to food producers, who are using it in baked goods such as brownies, cakes and granola bars, as well as restaurants and cafes. However, we also work with a number of retailers, particularly in the organic natural food space. Most of our clients are based in the USA, but we have a big market in Brazil, one of the largest coffee producing countries. We’re looking to work with other big coffee producing nations, such as Mexico, Vietnam, and countries in Africa. One of the benefits for the industry in those countries will be retaining some of the coffee flour for their internal markets.”
“That’s one of the reasons we see ourselves as a social business. What we’re doing is taking waste that occurs as part of the coffee-making process and turning it into a viable secondary product. We want to create long-lasting, sustainable change within the coffee industry, and the impetus should come from the private sector.”
Many people associate the word ‘millet’ with bird seed, the pale, straw-like grain we feed to pet budgies and parrots. What gets forgotten is that it’s also a key component in the diets of millions around the world, and has seen its popularity boom in recent years.
One of the advocates for millet as an alternative to more common grains such as wheat is the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT),which has launched its Smart Food initiative to help bring millet and other ‘smart foods’ back into the mainstream.
“We say a food is a ‘smart food’ if it meets three criteria: good for you, good for the planet, and good for the farmer,” says Joanna Kane-Potaka, coordinator of the Smart Food initiative and Strategic Marketing and Communications Director at ICRISAT. “10 years ago, food security was one of the most challenging questions we were facing, but now we’ve expanded on that discussion to include the environmental and nutritional benefits of the food we grow.”
“At ICRISAT we work with farmers working in very arid environments, where people experience high levels of malnutrition and are more likely to be adversely affected by climate change. It became very obvious to us very quickly that the crops that are most suitable for growing in dry soils get the least funding. Instead, we see funding dedicated to growing crops such as rice or maize, which is lacking in terms of nutritional value, leading to a movement away from crops that have traditionally been grown in those areas, which are far more nutritious. This has led to communities in semi-arid tropics growing foods which are less suitable for the environment and lead to a less diverse diet for the local population.”
“We conducted research into traditional crops such as sorghum and millet, and found that not only are they easier to grow in arid conditions, which leads to increased food security, but they are also more nutritionally valuable than other staple crops.”
“Pearl millet is high in zinc, folic acid, and iron – in fact, the only food that is higher in iron are oysters. It’s such an important micronutrient, especially for women and girls who are at higher risks of developing anemia, which can affect their performance at work and school. Finger millet contains three times as much calcium as the equivalent amount of milk, so can be used as a weaning product for babies. It can also help young people and the elderly to develop strong and healthy bones.”
“Not only that, but it’s extremely versatile. It can be made into a flour and used to bake cakes, biscuits and pizza dough. Left in its grain form, it’s a great addition to soups, or can be eaten in the same way as rice or couscous. You can even use it in porridge, as a replacement for rolled oats, or instead of rice in rice pudding.”
“However, crops like millet have a bit of a PR problem: not only are they underfunded, making them less commercially viable for farmers to grow, they’re seen as a ‘poor person’s food’.”
“What we’ve been working on is changing the image of millet, collaborating with food manufacturers to create convenience products that are more accessible to a broader market. Having seen how popular other traditional grains such as quinoa have become in recent years, there’s no reason why millet might not be the next big thing!”
“The benefits of bringing crops such as millet and sorghum back into the mainstream won’t only be felt in developing countries; there will be huge benefits for people living in other countries that experience a dry climate, such as Australia. With the trend towards ancient grains and superfoods, I think the appetite for smart foods such as millet around the world will continue to grow.”
For some LAUNCH Food innovators, the focus isn’t on widening the range of foods people consume or bringing new foods into the mainstream, but rather on improving the nutritional value of staple foods that people are already eating.
One such innovator, HarvestPlus, has been working at the intersection of nutrition and agriculture in order to raise the vitamin and mineral content of staple foods. Through the unique process called “biofortification,” HarvestPlus uses conventional breeding methods to increase the density of vitamins and minerals in a crop. When eaten regularly, such crops generate measurable improvement in the nutritional status of people suffering from common micronutrient deficiencies.
Deficiencies in zinc, iron and vitamin A can cause profound and irreparable damage to the body, such as a compromised immune system, blindness, stunted growth, and low work capacity. The effect of such deficiencies is particularly detrimental during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, i.e., from conception to the age of two.
Over two billion people worldwide are affected by micronutrient deficiencies, or “hidden hunger.” Hidden hunger is a condition in which a person lacks essential vitamins and minerals despite eating a full plate of food. The “full plate” of food may give the feeling of a full stomach but does not sufficiently nourish the body with necessary micronutrients. The problem of hidden hunger is particularly acute in some developing countries. The diets of many people in these countries usually consist of very high amounts of staple cereal foods (maize, cassava, sweet potato, wheat, rice, etc.) but few micronutrient-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, and animal or fish products.
HarvestPlus and its partners have developed new and more nutritious varieties of crops like vitamin A sweet potatoes and maize, iron beans and pearl millet, and zinc wheat and rice. These improved varieties provide higher amounts of vitamin A, iron, and zinc — the three micronutrients identified by the World Health Organization as most lacking in diets globally.
“Billions of people still rely on starch-based staple crops for their only meal of the day. They are getting enough, but just eating plates of rice, sweet potatoes, or beans. So while there is enough to eat, a plate full of food does not ensure enough nutrition for good health, life, or growth.” says, Bev Postma, CEO, HarvestPlus.
Many studies have confirmed that the micronutrient-rich biofortified crops that HarvestPlus and its partners promote are providing better nutrition and health to consumers. Biofortified foods have shown significant health benefits including improved vision, reduction of anemia, and prevalence and duration of diarrhea. They have the potential to deliver many other dramatic improvements in health and productivity.
“Biofortification is incredibly beneficial to vulnerable groups in rural farming communities, especially women and children. We are already reaching millions of people with biofortified crops, but with support from LAUNCH, we hope to expand our operations into Southeast Asia, specifically Indonesia, where a staggering one in three children have stunted growth due to a lack of sufficient nutrition,” said Postma.
Biofortification is increasingly gaining traction as an important strategy for delivering critical vitamins and minerals to the poorer, rural households that depend on staple food crops for sustenance.
HarvestPlus aims to reach one billion people with biofortified crops by the year 2030. With a number of varieties now available or pending release in 55 countries, biofortified crops are poised to reach hundreds of millions.