What’s good for the planet must also be good for business. As nations around the world grapple with our urgent, shared responsibility to tackle the climate crisis, the businesses we invest in and scale must play a crucial role in redressing the balance between economic success and environmental destruction. The challenges are immense. Consider nutrition as one example. By 2050, the world’s population will hit ten billion people. To feed these people, global food production will have to increase by 50 per cent.
You might think that means we’ll need more of what we eat now. Well, think again. At Mosa Meat, a Dutch food technology startup, they’re busy growing meat in the lab. In the past seven years, the company has brought down the cost of its lab-grown beef burger from an eye-watering €250,000 to just €9. And the price is set to come down even further. In September, Mosa Meat raised €47 million in funding to scale up its operation, taking it from laboratory experiment to production at pre-industrial volumes.
When it comes to meat’s environmental impact, cows are in a league of their own. There are roughly 1.5 billion cows on the planet. Each one requires land, food and water, the total environmental impact of which is enormous. According to one 2014 study, beef production uses 28 times more land and 11 times more water than poultry and pork. During the 1990s, humans deforested an area the size of Portugal every year to make room for cows and cow feed.
“Food security challenges are putting immense pressure on our planet, causing deforestation, loss of biodiversity, water overuse and pollution,” says Mayssa Al Midani, senior investment manager for nutrition at Pictet, a leading wealth and asset management company. Malnutrition alone has an annual economic cost of $2 trillion. As with so many of the crises we face, it risks spiralling out of control.
But what if we could take the cows out of beef? One of Mosa Meat’s key breakthroughs was to make its meatless meat truly meatless. Back in 2013, its bank-breakingly expensive patty still relied on growing cells in fetal bovine serum, a sustenance found in cow fetuses. Each burger required 50 litres of the fluid – and each litre cost up to £700. It wasn’t just economically unsustainable – using the blood of unborn cows was also a marketing disaster. “Ethically and marketing-wise, it’s a very bad story,” says Maarten Bosch, CEO of Mosa Meat. “This was one of the big breakthroughs.” What was once an expensive, animal-based soup is now made entirely from plants, with the serum used to trick cells into growing as if they were still part of an animal.
In the next three years, Bosch hopes to really start scaling his business. “It’s about rolling out the technology. It’s about building factories. And that takes time and requires a lot of capital.” Within a decade, he anticipates that the meatless meat industry will be large enough to have an impact on a global scale. “We will need hundreds and hundreds of factories costing billions of euros to kick a dent in the current meat industry,” says Bosch. “This is a huge field we’re disrupting.”
“We need vast investments and engagement programmes to facilitate the shift to more stable food systems that are beneficial not only for people, but also for the planet,” says Al Midani. For Pictet, that means redefining nutrition. “We don’t just invest in food companies, but also the enablers of sustainable food systems, the companies that are going to help enable us to secure our future food supply and our health whilst mitigating the negative impacts on the planet.” From farm to fork, such a holistic strategy is essential if we are to fix our broken global food supply chain.
Bosch estimates that Mosa Meat can reach price parity with conventional meat producers by around 2026. And, after that, meatless meat can, in theory, keep on getting more and more economically and environmentally sustainable. “Our conversion rate of nutrients into meat is a lot more efficient than a cow,” says Bosch. That conversion rate – essentially how much stuff is required to make a quantity of meat – is crucial for the future of our planet. Make meatless meat more economically and environmentally efficient than meat derived from animals and, suddenly, you don’t have the need for industrial-scale cattle farms.
But it’s not just the food that we eat that’s having a huge environmental impact – it’s the way it moves around the world. To enable our complex, global supply chain we have come to rely on one commodity above all others: plastic, reams and reams of plastic. And when it comes to single-use plastics, by far and away the worst offender is flexible plastic packaging. Plastic bags and wrappers make up a quarter of all UK consumer plastic packaging, yet only four per cent is currently recycled. But it doesn’t have to be this way. As well as everyone reducing how much single-use plastic they consume, companies are also working on technological breakthroughs to create environmentally sustainable alternatives.
“There’s no question that plastic packaging is a vital industry,” says Daphna Nissenbaum, CEO and co-founder of TIPA, an Israeli firm that is leading the field of packaging innovation. Founded in 2010, the company has a simple goal: accept that plastic packaging is necessary and replace it with material that behaves just like organic waste. “Compostable flexible plastics have actually been around for decades with limited capabilities, and therefore limited adoption,” says Nissenbaum. TIPA’s breakthrough has been to make compostable, flexible plastics so good that companies and consumers won’t be able to tell the difference. And, if the technology works, nature won’t even notice we’re here.
“We need new technologies, innovations and solutions that not only tackle the current social and environmental challenges of our food systems but that do so at a viable economic cost,” says Al Midani. She adds that doing so will help incentivise behaviour that is better for both individual and planetary health. From food technology that provides healthier alternatives to agricultural technology while improving crop yields and requiring fewer natural resources, the breakthroughs needed to achieve this have already been made.
In the world of plastic packaging, there are five key traits that any good product needs: it needs to be transparent, durable, flexible, printable and machineable. Nail those tricky attributes with a compostable plastic and, it’s hoped, all the big players in the food distribution industry will start paying attention. “We’ve proven that our technology works as well as conventional plastic, and even better in some cases,” says Nissenbaum. Unlike the current deluge of flexible plastic, most of which will sit in landfill for thousands of years or be incinerated, TIPA’s environmentally sustainable alternative breaks down just like a banana peel – within six months it becomes nutrient-rich soil, and nature goes on undisturbed.
Putting together that engineering puzzle was a major breakthrough for TIPA. Its compostable plastic needs to protect the shelf-life of food while it is packaged, shipped and shelved, but then immediately start to decompose once sent to landfill. To do this, TIPA created new, durable films from compostable polymers. “We have films that are suitable for laminates, standalone films, films that run on different kinds of packaging machinery, and our lab is always working on new solutions to extend shelf-life, increase machinability and more,” Nissenbaum explains. “I think that within five years, compostable packaging will be everywhere.”
Getting to that point will require a lot of different stakeholders working together. But Nissenbaum is confident that the moment for meaningful, large-scale change has arrived. As humanity’s impact on the planet risks passing a tipping point, the urgent need for action has focused minds to elegantly tackle what was once seen as an intractable problem. “People join the journey because they have an opportunity to help change the world – to change the future for our kids,” says Nissenbaum. “When given the opportunity to make a difference, people devote a tremendous amount of energy, as well as our most precious commodity – time – to make a change.”
Pictet is a leading independent asset and wealth management group, with more than CHF570 billion in assets under management, and more than 4,800 staff across 30 global offices. Pictet Group’s Responsible Vision embraces new financial models that are based on solid science and innovative partnerships, and also take account of environmental, social and governance factors in investment decisions and active ownership practices. Find out more here: group.pictet/responsible-vision