Re-building the global food economy - IMD Business School
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Re-building the global food economy

Will the emerging FoodTech industry bring about the change we need?
November 2018

Changes are coming to our food economy. They will be found at every point along the food economy value chain from production to delivery, distribution, and point of sale. Whether Infarm’s strides in vertical farming, Impossible Foods’ effort to develop plant-based meat, or Nestle’s focus on innovations within its product line, hundreds of companies are trying to sort through how to feed 2.4 billion people by 2020. And their efforts are not going unsupported: from January to May 2018, investors had already propped up the industry to the tune of $1.8 billion. But will this collection of FoodTech initiatives help to bring about the scale of change we so desperately need? If we have 10 years to implement as much food economy change as in the last 50, is FoodTech the answer?

As it currently stands, FoodTech companies are primarily focused on consumers in the developed world. While a smart business move, considering that it is a potential $250 billion market by 2022, the focus is niche. If the first order of business is to put systems in place to feed the next billion people in an environmentally, socially, operationally, and financially sustainable way, we need coalitions and companies to think holistically: how do we redesign our food economy in a way that the developing world’s place in the value chain (often food production) is more closely harmonized with that of the developed world? How do we stitch together the global food players so that we arrive at the best solution? We can’t simply propose to “deliver more food” as the answer to feed the next 2 billion people when agriculture produces 20% of the globe’s greenhouse gas emissions and farming is an industry with a myriad of systemic problems; workforce being one (less than 1% of the US population are farmers). What this means is that we need to think creatively: standing up a truly sustainable, successful, high-quality food economy will be dependent on more than just FoodTech.

Currently, non-profits, foundations, and impact investment funds are the major players stressing the need for food innovation primarily for humanitarian and environmental concerns, not solely for a share of consumers’ wallets. Considering the financial limitations of non-profits and the relatively “slow to move” nature of foundations, will their most altruistic ambitions for overhauling our nutrition production, transportation, and delivery mechanisms in the context of 21st century challenges come to light in time? And does this mean that we as a society can only rely on impact investment funds to bring about the type of change we need?

Not necessarily. Large scale corporate venture capital divisions have an interesting role to play in this conversation as well. While yes, corporate venture development arms (such as those in Danone and Maersk) reside under the umbrella of their parent company (and therefore have a strong incentive to align with consumer and shareholder preferences), there are some very real reasons why we should take their role in transforming our food economy seriously:

  1. They have global reach, incentives and aspirations
  2. They can leverage and deploy significant financial & human resources on initiatives
  3. Because they are typically not a core function of the parent company, Corporate VC arms have comparatively more freedom to explore, take risks, and place big bets on ideas than other divisions within the parent company.
  4. As a stand-alone entity within the parent company, Corporate VC arms are typically much quicker to move, execute, and iterate internally than their counterparts within the parent company.
  5. They are encouraged to produce results that look, feel, and truly are good in the public eye. Initiatives that generate lasting goodwill with the public and help to build positive brand imaging for the parent company are given extra leeway even if those initiatives are risky, ambiguous, or non-profit generating.

Taking the above into account, it is starting to become clear that global food economy transformations may prove to hinge, in part, on the effectiveness of large scale Corporate VCs. Specifically, if we are to consider food production, trade, delivery, and consumption niches (to name only a few) as areas in which we desperately need radical innovation at scale, we can easily name several international heavy weights; the challenge now will be a unified Call to Action to knit all of their incentives, goals, and implementation plans together.

And who, might you ask, would have a strong understanding of and opinion about which players within the food economy can deliver humanitarian and environmentally focused solutions? Impact investment funds.

What all this means is that if we are to meaningfully change the course of our food economy to be more sustainable (across all dimensions: operationally, environmentally, socially, financially) we might consider partnering Corporate VCs and Impact Investment Funds more closely. In this way, the aspirational hope for a more equitable and sustainable food economy might actually get some firm, tangible firepower behind it.

By Nancy Phelps, MBA class of 2018, former executive at Facebook, and Stanford Master and Bachelor program graduate.