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Generation Next Thinking: Canada's food industry has an appetite for innovation

From AI-powered food waste solutions to lab-grown meat, food-system technologies look to address some of the planet’s big problems
graphic of science and lab icons

Technology is taking over the dinner table, and it’s not about the kids being distracted by cellphones. As the global population rises (it could reach nearly 10 billion people by 2050) and pressure on the Earth’s resources grows, food-tech innovation is becoming more abundant. In Canada and globally, food-tech companies are developing new products, improving processing and extending the shelf life of food to help solve the world’s sustainability challenges. For those working in the sector, these are exciting times indeed.

“It’s a golden age of food science and technology,” says Dana McCauley, chief experience officer at Canadian Food Innovation Network (CFIN). “We’re in a new industrial revolution and my prediction is that 100 years from now, this time will be viewed as an important milestone.” 

For McCauley, part of what’s driving food-tech innovation are today’s digital natives who grew up with the internet and have great business ideas, an understanding of technology’s potential, and a wellspring of creativity. “The maturity and sophistication of this amazing workforce, along with maturing of technology and infrastructure, is driving a lot of innovation,” she says, adding “and then there are the huge societal problems people want to solve.” 

Not every new food technology will make it to the table (consumer response to pulverized crickets was, well, crickets). But several developments are worth watching. Here’s a look at a few food technologies poised to shape dinner plates in the future.

Lab-grown meat

A decade ago, the world’s first lab-grown beef burger grabbed headlines, not least for its US$330,000 price tag. The patty, developed by Dutch scientist Mark Post, was made by growing more than 20,000 small strips of muscle from bovine stem cells. The burger was cooked and eaten at a news conference in London, England, with mixed reviews. But the point was this: meat can be made without slaughtering animals.

Lab-grown meat (also called cell-based, cultivated or cultured meat) has come a long way since then. For starters, companies have been able to reduce production costs by 99%, according to a McKinsey & Company report titled, Cultivated meat: out of the lab, into the frying pan. On the regulatory front, Singapore was the first country to approve the product for retail sale. Last November, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cleared its first-ever cultivated meat product (chicken breast developed by California-based Upside Foods) as safe for human consumption. Mintel estimates cultivated meat will be a US$25 billion global market by 2030.

While eating meat born in a Petri dish may address environmental and ethical issues related to livestock production, one could argue people should just eat less meat. But, as with a lot of things, old habits die hard. 

“I’ve been in food research for 15 years and the one truism is eating habits are tremendously hard to change,” says Joel Gregoire, associate director, food and drink, at Mintel. “I don’t see people globally eating less meat, so the question is how to change the way we produce meat.” 

Gregoire believes cultivated meat can be “a transformative innovation in the food space,” as it helps address sustainability challenges. “Technology has the potential to have a profound impact in making sure we have a reliable food source, without changing a lot of habits people have and having less impact on the planet,” he says.

Promising as it may be, cultivated meat has big barriers to overcome before it hits the mainstream, including technical, regulatory and scale issues. But perhaps the biggest one is the ick factor consumers associate with these products. The Hartman Group’s Food & Technology 2023 report notes that cultured meat “both fascinates and repulses people,” with 45% of U.S. consumers surveyed indicating the top barrier to trying cultured meat products is they don’t taste good.

“There is nothing familiar to consumers about cellular agriculture, and there’s the question: what are these products made from?” says Shelley Balanko, senior vice-president at The Hartman Group. For companies in this space, she adds, communicating that real animal cells are the foundation of cultivated products would be a helpful bridge. 

“Consumers would understand these companies aren’t creating something out of thin air, but rather it does have roots in a real animal, in a natural entity,” Balanko says. “But [cultivated meat] is one of those further-out innovations and it will take a lot of effort on the part of those companies to communicate familiarity and underscore the lack of risk. In addition, it will likely take a lot of third-party certification and assurances around safety for this to be fully embraced.”

Cell-based plants 

Lab-grown meat isn’t the only cell-based product under the microscope: lab-grown plants are another emerging alternative. “It’s not crazy to think there is a time in the foreseeable future when we would be able to make cocoa, vanilla and coffee [in Canada] and not have to import them,” says CFIN’s McCauley. “We could reduce food miles and have a domestic supply of those kinds of foods by using cellular agriculture.” 

Cult Food Science, a B.C.-based investment company focused on cellular agriculture, is an early mover in this space. The company recently launched its Cult Food Division to develop and commercialize cell-based products in collaboration with affiliate companies. Cult Food Division is launching two products: Zero Coffee, a sparkling coffee beverage made with cell-based coffee, and Free Canada, a “performance gummy” made with cell-based collagen. Both products are meant to be sustainable alternatives without negative impacts on animals and the environment. 

“Food is not just being impacted by climate change, it also adds to it,” says Lejjy Gafour, CEO of Cult Food Science. “The way we have produced food historically is now becoming fragile. Zoonotic diseases, loss of land, overuse of water— these are all impacts of increasing environmental effects on our food production. We have to work towards a more resilient food system. And cellular agriculture has the potential to produce food sustainably as we head towards an uncertain future.”

The potential isn’t limited to replicating products, but incorporating cell-based ingredients into other products. “Many products include individual ingredients that are traditionally animal derived that can now be replaced by cell-based components,” explains Gafour. 

While cell-based products won’t hit the mainstream overnight – the industry, overall, is focused on scaling production – Gafour is optimistic about the future of food. “Every 1% of change we can affect by making more sustainable options available for consumers adds up,” he says.

Vertical farms

Another area of progress in the plant world is vertical farming. This indoor farming technology grows crops in vertical layers in controlled environments – and it’s popping up in grocery stores. In 2020, for example, Empire partnered with German-based Infarm to bring in-store farming units to select stores. The partnership was later expanded, with Infarm supplying produce from its own growing centres to more than 1,000 Sobeys stores. 

Infarm’s latest development shows vertical farming’s potential beyond fresh produce. In a recent trial, Infarm says it became the first vertical farm to successfully grow wheat indoors, using no soil, no chemical pesticides and much less water than open field farming. 

Guelph, Ont.-based GoodLeaf Farms recently raised $150 million in capital to fuel its vertical-farm expansion into Eastern and Western Canada. The company plans to build farms in Calgary and Montreal, in addition to its existing fully automated 50,000-sq.-ft. farm in Guelph where it produces microgreens and baby greens year-round. GoodLeaf’s farms are free of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, and use less than 5% of the water required in open field farming, according to the company. 

Jo-Ann McArthur, president of Nourish Food Marketing, believes vertical farms will be a big part of Canada’s food sovereignty. “We still import a lot of produce, especially from California, which faces droughts and floods,” McArthur says. “We need to reduce our reliance on that and vertical farming is definitely starting to fill that hole.”

And, compared to lab-grown meat, vertical farming is more accessible to consumers. “It’s something consumers can get their heads around and are behind,” McArthur says. “Consumers like the fact that it’s local, it’s year round and it’s reliable, so [vertical farms] make sense.” 

The Hartman Group’s Balanko agrees. “Field and kitchen innovations, including vertical farming, tend to be a bit easier to accept because the link between ‘natural,’ conventional food production is that much closer,” she says. “Familiarity is one of the key ways in which consumers are evaluating any new food tech. If it’s familiar or has a direct link to something that is familiar, it’s easier to accept.”

That’s not to say consumers are digging into vertical farms. In The Hartman Group survey, 48% of consumers said the main barrier to trying food and beverages from vertical or hydroponic farms is that they’re too expensive. That was followed by “don’t taste good,” at 45%.

With any food technology, Balanko says, “we have to remember that this is food – and consumers want their food and beverages to taste good.” Products will have to be at least on par in taste and texture, if not superior, for consumers to adopt them. “When consumers are shelling out their hard-earned dollars [for food], it has to taste great, it has to be safe and it has to deliver a personal benefit, like health,” she says. 

Food-waste technologies 

The irony in the conversation about feeding the growing planet is that a whopping one-third of all food produced globally is lost or wasted. That’s not lost on a number of innovative companies that are using technology to help solve the food-waste crisis.

Epic IO, a South Carolina-based tech company specializing in artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT), has developed a biosecurity solution to help extend the shelf life of fresh foods and reduce spoilage. Typically, farmers and food processors rely on refrigeration to inhibit the growth of microbes or use chemicals to kill them in cold storage and transport. Epic IO’s automated solution modifies the atmosphere with carefully timed micro-doses of FDA-approved ozone and ultraviolet irradiation. Fully autonomous, the solution transforms the air into a disinfectant that destroys bacteria, fungi and viruses.

“The benefit of killing that bacteria and fungus early in the process is that you naturally have far less food waste,” says Ken Mills, CEO of Epic IO. He says the company is looking at its solution across the food chain, from the farm to the distribution centre to the grocery store. In a test phase, for example, the company worked with hatcheries to kill harmful E. coli on eggs, as well as with fresh produce suppliers to kill pathogens during transport.

“We want to make sure that a high percentage of quality food makes it to the grocer, and once the grocer receives that food, we want to make sure the health, wellness and longevity is maintained throughout the shelf life before it hits the table,” Mills says. 

Trendi is a Canadian company with an innovative approach to food waste. Based in Burnaby, B.C., the startup’s mission is to rescue “misfit” fruits and vegetables that would otherwise go to waste and upcycle them into shelf-stable products. 

Trendi has developed robotic, mobile processing units that go directly to farms and food processors. The units use various processing technologies to create powders or flakes that can be used as ingredients in a range of applications, including food and beverage, pet food and cosmetics. “We’re thinking about what’s possible and we’re thinking into the future as we work to eliminate food waste at its source,” says Christine Couvelier, president of Trendi, whose 40-year career spans roles as an executive chef, culinary executive and global culinary trendologist. According to Trendi, the powder and flakes are about one-tenth the original weight and size and retain up to 97% of their original nutrients, flavours and colours. “Tomatoes are a great example: When I’m holding the tomato powder, I’m standing in nonna’s garden, without question,” says Couvelier. “It is incredibly colourful, flavourful and vibrant.”

With the powders, manufacturers can reduce their environmental footprint and reduce costs. “You’re shipping truckloads of tomatoes – a perishable product – to your manufacturing facilities, you’re shipping water and you’re shipping weight,” explains Couvelier. In contrast, Trendi powders are lighter, so shipping costs are reduced, and the product is shelf-stable.

Manufacturers can use the powders to create products and communicate that rescued food story to customers. That story, says Couvelier, “can be told on their products, proudly stating the company makes their products from rescued fruits and vegetables that would otherwise go to landfill.”

For Couvelier, too, these are exciting times for food tech, but there’s also a sense of urgency. “We have so much food and yet we can’t feed everyone,” she says. “This is a tipping point. We must make a difference now.” 

Generation Next Thinking is an ongoing series that explores the cutting-edge topics that are impacting grocery retail today and in the future. 

This article was first featured in Canadian Grocer’s February 2023 issue.

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