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By Kate Langford 21 February 2021 5 min read

How different will the meal of the future look, and how will it be produced?

“A lot of things are shaping what we will eat in the future,” says CSIRO Agriculture and Food Director, Dr Michiel van Lookeren Campagne. “Consumers want healthy, sustainably and ethically produced foods and farms need to remain viable in changing times.”

“If we look at what our research priorities for food and agriculture were 20 years ago, much of our work was in cropping systems, disease control, horticulture improvement and genetic advances for livestock and crops.

“Now, while we continue to improve productivity in these sectors, CSIRO has considerable research focused on growth areas such as alternative proteins, aquaculture, food processing and digital technologies to improve farm decision-making for greater profitability and sustainability.”

What consumers want

A 2019 economic analysis: Growth opportunities for Australian food and agribusiness estimates that the combined market for healthy and sustainable food products could reach $25B by 2030.

Increasingly, consumers are wanting assurances that their food is good for them and good for the planet. One in three Australians now consciously limit their meat consumption, according to a study commissioned by Food Frontier & Life Health Foods. While people’s reasons vary, many are motivated by concerns about the contribution of livestock to climate change and animal welfare.

This extends beyond consumer food preferences. The Strength of Purpose study which surveyed 8,000 consumers worldwide and 75 companies and brands found that global consumers are four to six times more likely to trust and buy from companies with a strong purpose and that align with the values of the consumer.

In recent years there has been a proliferation of farm to fork and paddock to plate restaurants and product sales, as consumers want to know where their food has come from and how it has been produced.

People are also cooking less and seeking convenient meals and snacks they can eat ‘on the go’ but which are also healthy and sustainable. The ready-to-eat/prepared meals market is growing at 5.4 per cent annually in the Asia-Pacific region.

Spot the difference? New alternative protein sources are emerging. Image credit: v2food. ©  Phu Tang

Changing protein preferences

With more people choosing to limit their consumption of animal-based foods, the alternative protein market has grown considerably over the past couple of years. The largest share of this includes meat analogues made from legumes, such as v2food and alternative dairy products.

Insects and algae have not proven as popular for human consumption in Australia but are showing promise as a more sustainable and less expensive source of feed for livestock, including poultry, fish and pigs, and pets.

The increasing global demand for protein has also seen significant growth in aquaculture, currently the fastest-growing protein sector globally (at around 8 per cent per annum) relative to other meat sectors.

What does all this mean for Australian agrifood?

To satisfy customers’ requirement that their food is healthy and ethically and sustainably produced, farming in Australia needs to maintain its social licence to operate, i.e. operations need to be deemed acceptable by the general public.

For farmers, this translates to greater scrutiny of their operations such as treatment of animals, application of chemicals and contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

For food production and manufacturing businesses, the pressure is on to transition to more sustainable processing technologies, reduce waste and utilise fully recyclable packaging.

In 2020, the EU Commission introduced its Farm to Fork policy with proposals to introduce mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labelling and a sustainable food labelling framework. The targets set by the policy include cutting the use of pesticides by 50 per cent and fertilisers by 20 per cent.

“It is only a matter of time before we see a similar approach in Australia,” says Dr van Lookeren Campagne. “Research is key to driving innovation and technologies needed to navigate these changes.”

Between 2018 and 2020 CSIRO released a range of sustainability related apps and technologies, such as the 1622WQ app that helps sugarcane farmers monitor and reduce nitrogen runoff onto the Great Barrier Reef. On the back of these advances, researchers are developing a major collaborative research mission aimed at creating new practices and technologies that reduce the reliance on pesticides and herbicides in agriculture.

Innovations like FutureFeed, a livestock feed additive made from seaweed which drastically reduces methane emissions in cattle, will make it possible for people to enjoy beef and dairy with reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Our changing protein preferences are expected to see expansion in the aquaculture and legume sectors. For instance, pompano has been identified as a new target aquaculture fish species, which could be produced cheaply and efficiently at scale. New opportunities too are emerging for legumes, particularly in northern Australia and in the development of new processing technologies for lupin, chickpeas, soy and various other beans. Such opportunities are driving CSIRO to lead to a coalition of research and development organisations and industry, supported by public and private investment to develop the innovations required to meet our future protein needs.

At the other end of the value chain, food manufacturing companies are focusing on nutrition and sustainability in convenience foods. On example is NutriV, a company that is using CSIRO-patented technologies to turn surplus vegetables into ingredients, products and supplements that retain much of the vegetable’s natural colour and flavour.

Australia’s reputation for high quality food leaves it well placed to capitalise on opportunities in international export markets.

Growing our exports

It’s not just Australian consumers that want to know more about how and where food is produced. Australia’s entry into international markets, especially for premium foods into Asia, demands verification of our ‘clean and green’ credentials.

With different markets demanding different information, from inputs to emissions and more, digital technologies that automate compliance systems and make it possible to trace products from the farm to the supermarket will be essential to meeting the National Farmers Federations goal of agriculture becoming a $100 billion industry by 2030.

“Growing the Australian agrifood sector will mean value adding and creating value here in Australia, transitioning away from just being an exporter of bulk commodities,” says Dr van Lookeren Campagne.

“It will also mean diversifying our markets and retaining and growing our existing markets in the face of threats like non-tariff barriers, declining consumer trust and food fraud.”

So, while eating bugs and vertical farming might be the trends most commonly popularly discussed, the greatest changes we can expect to our diets are a greater diversity of proteins and foods that are produced in less resource-demanding conditions. And we’ll know more than ever before about how and where our food is produced.

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