REVISED – Food for Thought: Unpacking Innovation Trends in Food Security

The food sector is one that has witnessed the most disruptions as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic. From food sources, technology adoption to policy and ethics, businesses have had to change their operation to meet new demands; and consumers have become more sophisticated in their choices of products in terms of price, health and safety. All these have led to expectations which experts have come to agree that technology will play a huge role in bridging this gap so as to ensure sustainability of food security around the world. 

Innovation trends have been the topic of discussion in all sectors as the world grapples with the question of “what next?”. The answer may as well lie in innovative mindsets for consumers, businesses and governments. In a series of webinars by EROE, we have been discussing technology and the future of food security globally. We understand that food security innovation is the most complex subject discussed on the public stage that grew to become a priority in the context of the global pandemic.

In the 3rd part series of our webinars on food security, EROE CEO, Daniel Solomon hosts three industry experts to discuss the food security challenges beyond the borders of the region and also have an in-depth look at sustainable global innovation trends for 2021. On the Panel are Mustafa Y. Koita – Founder and CEO of Koita Foods, Mark Tester – Co-Founder and CSO at Red Sea Farms, as well as Abdulaziz AlMulla – CEO of Madar Farms.

What is Food Security in your own words? 

Though this question has been answered in previous webinars, Daniel poses the question again as he has a different set of panelists. Mark is a Professor of Plant Sciences and has been doing research into plant sciences for many years. He is now enjoying developing saltwater-based agricultural systems in Saudi Arabia and the UAE with Red Sea Farms to improve sustainability of food production. In his own words, “in discussing food security, you need to have accessibility, stability and safety. Food also needs to be produced with a lower environmental footprint. At the moment the food sector takes almost half of all the land through its use. It is also the 2nd largest emitter of greenhouses according to our primary research. In this region, 85% of all the water used is from food. And frankly, not much food is being produced here to be using that amount of water. About a 3rd of all the water used for irrigation for food comes from underground sources, and so we are producing a large amount of our agriculture by mining water. This is unsustainable and so we need to reduce our environmental footprints in the food sector. For instance, doing things like using plant-based milk for dairy is fantastic because emissions from the dairy industry is huge. The water footprint from most of our food production is really shocking. A single date planted in the region uses 50 litres of water in its entire production, and so there is an urgent need to change some of these things. Fantastic opportunities have been given by technology such as engineering, digital and biotech innovations. I am optimistic that we would be able to roll out a number of these innovations for ourselves.”

Ensuring that technology solves access to food as a basic right for everyone 

Food and nutrition safety are considered a basic human right according to the Maslow Hierarchy of needs. In UAE, we may be very lucky to have access to food but the story may not be the same in other countries. Abdulaziz AlMulla is CEO and Founder of Madar Farms, a UAE 

start up focused on tackling food and water security through sustainable local production. His company in particular is focused on indoor farming and uses hydroponics and vertical farming as well as controlled environment to make sure that their plants have what they need all the time to be happy, healthier, all natural with no pesticides or insecticides and most importantly no preservatives. They are looking to decrease use of water resources and to get local production and security up here in the UAE. 

Presenting his thoughts on using technology to solve access to food as a basic right for everyone, he adds that “we are not producing enough and what we are producing is overusing our natural resources. Even though in the UAE, we able to go to the supermarket to buy what we want anytime does not necessarily translate into food security as it is a global issue. The two big words that come to mind is accessibility and opportunity. I have watched the testing process of growth on my farm and we were able to simplify it because it’s been run by computers. I can say the developments of IoT and its integration with agriculture suddenly made it accessible enough for people without agricultural backgrounds to produce. Technology is opening up ways and narrowing the knowledge gap. If we drive accessibility and awareness, then we can drive change and that is when technology brings opportunity. Talking about FoodTech and Agtech is now more about technology, marketing, alternative sources, an entire value chain. Technology on its own is not the change, it is the integration of consumers that enables the change.”

How is the price point of the product determining sustainability of food security in this region in general?

Mustafa is Founder and CEO of Koita Foods, a homegrown Dubai Company which he started seven years ago. They sell three lines of items namely organic dairy milk, lactose free dairy milk, and plant-based/vegan milk ranges like soya, oat, and almond. They are already in eleven countries being a market leader in most of its categories and are very proud to have seen a lot of about the food security business. 

In answering the question, he says that “consumers are very sophisticated, this generation is extremely demanding. They want sustainable, organic, non-GMO and also a price point. The challenge through our primary research is that the consumer wants to eat their cake and have it. UAE does not have arable land so having a price point to mimic the ones with arable lands is challenging. Driving to a consumer-friendly price point is important.” 

All panelists agree that there should be a benefit and cost analysis to strike a balance as consumer demand drives the market share.

Alternative food source growth to be considered for food sustainable 

A very good example of this is on Koita Foods which introduced full plant-based ranges 24 months ago with, oats, almond (which is rich in fibre) and Soya (which is rich in protein). That product range has grown quite rapidly and has cut across geographical barriers. It therefore started investing more in R&D on the plant-based side.

How do we use technology to identify safety of food instead of just focusing on price point? 

Producers need to make food safe and general education needs to be targeted at all stakeholders including consumers. Social Media is a powerful tool in connecting brands directly to interact with their consumers and so it cannot be underestimated. 

Traceability is also important. For instance, adding QR codes to packaging to show information such as nutritional facts will be a big boost in this drive.

Making food innovation attractive 

Agriculture’s image has not really changed globally and it sometimes looks boring and therefore not a career path many consider. So, if the youth for example can be shown that it is possible, achievable, and that it can be done, they would be inspired and attracted. 

Knowing that the UAE government is entrepreneurial at heart and loves to take risks, it is a good country to get investment into the sector. Mark raised a point about one of the things that he finds really wrong in a lot of jurisdictions, not only in the UAE. In his opinion there are way too many subsidies in the system; and rather we should be paying the real price for “what we should be paying the real price”. This is because some of the basic elements of these subsidies are distorting markets and are also very strongly inhibitory of the actual true adoption of real innovations. 

The food sector has one of the biggest challenges the world faces so there is a big piece of the pie for everyone. It is up to industry players to use effective communication and collaboration to inspire consumers, businesses and governments on board so that everyone can have a piece of the pie.

What can we expect to see in making food security innovations more sustainable? 

Moving into 2021, there is a lot to look forward to in terms of innovation in food security. According to Mustafa, “in terms of alternative food sources, taste has been optimized and really improved. Marketing and distribution have also improved.” He expects to see a huge increase in consumers buying directly from the brand, that is a huge shift in ecommerce patterns and also more vegan products. In Abdulaziz’s view, “There has been lot of options on the market and the interventions we need are technology and Marketing Communications to close that gap. Land in the region is less arable and so has the greatest needs. Madar Farms for example is using LED light technology to aid with the growth of tomatoes, and so there is room to grow and disrupt which can be done from a wide space. We therefore need to encourage people to become part of this sector.” Mark concludes that “in addition to technology, consumer education to make more informed decisions is important in terms of their health, safety and being environmentally sustainable.” 

It is obvious that the gains of technology can be harnessed in the food and agriculture sector to bring about innovative solutions that will be beneficial to consumers, entrepreneurs, businesses, governments and the climate as a whole. We need to continue making efforts as stakeholders to continue the drive in bringing out sustainable solutions that will create self-sufficiency in local food production as a means of ensuring global food security.