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12 Sustainable Food Trends to Watch in 2022

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By Mark Driscoll

· 11 min read

2021 has been quite a seminal year for our food systems. The recent climate change summit (COP26), the UN Food System Summit (held in September) and the ongoing focus on the health impacts of our food (driving the triple burden of malnutrition – hunger (820 million), malnutrition (1 billion) and obesity (over 1 billion)) have highlighted the urgency and need to transform our food system to meet the planetary and human health challenges of the 21st century. As we move to a new normal in the wake of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the world continues to change at a phenomenal and often breath-taking pace. The complexity of our food systems means that events seemingly far away from sectors unrelated to food are likely to set the scene for some of the most significant sustainable food trends in 2022 and beyond. Increasing citizen awareness, investor pressure and government action around the health, environmental, social, and animal welfare impacts of our food systems, means that in 2022 the chorus to translate words into actions, to transform a food system many consider not fit for purpose, is only going to accelerate.

The identification of key trends is not an exact science – they are based on a mixture of research, insights gleaned from ongoing discussions with actors working across the food system (farmers, civil society organisations, businesses, policy makers and others) and intuition. Trends are driven by a complex range of cultural, political, technological, economic, environmental, and behavioural factors all of which come together to influence the behaviours and decision making of each one of us.

I set out twelve 2022 trends which are based on my own insights, research, intuition, and recent conversations with a wide range of businesses, farming groups, academics and civil society organisations working on the sustainable food agenda:

1. Deforestation free commodities

During COP26 in Glasgow, major food and agricultural companies committed to halt deforestation by 2030. The ‘Deforestation Pledge’ was supported by over 100 global leaders with CEOs from over 30 financial institutions committing £8.75 billion ($12bn) of public funds to protect and restore forests, alongside £5.3 billion ($7.2 billion) of private investment. We saw the launch of a new $345 million, seven-year program, The Food Systems, Land Use and Restoration Impact Program , which will launch projects in 27 countries, targeting the production and value chains of eight key commodities: beef, cocoa, coffee, maize, palm oil, rice, soy, and wheat. Furthermore, we saw the launch of a new partnership between WWF and five of the UK’s biggest supermarkets who pledged to halve the environmental impact of a weekly food shop by the end of the decade.

With 80% of global deforestation driven by the global trade in tropical commodities, such as soya and palm oil, expect to see increasing pressure, focus and scrutiny on public and private sector policies aimed at addressing deforestation from food commodities. This will include pressure to stop the import of commodities, such a soya, which continue to drive deforestation.

2. Resilience based on local diversity foods

There has been significant attention, scrutiny, and debate on the resilience of our global commodity chains and centralised distribution networks in the light of the pandemic. Already we are witnessing a significant debate about the opportunity Covid-19 provides to decentralise our food systems and produce a greater proportion of our most healthy and nutritious foods, such as fresh produce, locally. In the UK we import 77% of our fresh fruit and vegetables, which predominantly are sold through of highly centralised retail dominated system. Expect to see much more citizen demand for a greater diversity of nutritious, culturally appropriate, and local foods.

A number of food business are starting to explore the use of what I call orphan or forgotten crops. These comprise the multitude of species that are currently largely neglected by major research, funding bodies and global food manufacturers/retailers. They include a variety of ancient cereals, grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and roots. Although these species have long been overlooked, interest is now growing amongst the food industry in their potential to contribute to food and nutritional security and improved livelihood options for subsistence farmers. Today 75% of the global food supply comes from only 12 plant and five animal species. Just three (rice, maize, wheat) make up nearly 60% of calories from plants in the entire human diet – and yet there are over 20,000 species of edible plants in the world, many of which are nutrient rich and may be more suited to changing climatic conditions.

3. Regenerative and agroecological farming

Regenerative agriculture seems to be the new buzz word of the day – but how regenerative agriculture is defined is the million-dollar question – and the term means different things to different people. Expect the ‘buzz’ around regenerative agriculture to continue in 2022 but with a shift from a discussion of principles to outcomes. There are growing concerns about ‘corporate greenwashing’ of regenerative agriculture so expect more scrutiny on organisations delivering results with greater attention on the development of on farm metrics, which will be required to monitor impacts. Expect to see many more initiatives, such as Knorr’s recent announcement for 50 regenerative agriculture projects which are predicted to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water use by an estimated 30% while improving biodiversity, soil health and livelihoods.

Watch out for the rise in agroecology in 2022 – Agroecology builds on the accumulated knowledge and practices which farming cultures have built up over centuries, adapting to their ecological and climatic conditions. It is regenerative in the sense that it gives back to the land and creates a positive cycle within the farming practice. Agroecology is more of a social movement, ensuring farmers have the power to retain the way the grow and market food focussed on issues of food security and sovereignty.

4. Upcycled foods

Upcycling is a relatively recent term for the age-old concept of using low-valued foods or food processing by products to generate new food products. With 30% of all food grown globally going to waste, contributing about 8% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, new market outlets for otherwise wasted products (fruit and vegetable peelings, peelings, spoilt foods etc) makes sense. Much of what’s left over as waste once a food is processed contains valuable nutritional components, even though it’s currently only used for animal feed or just thrown away. Some examples of food brands upcycling products include Renewal Mill which uses flour using by-products from plant-based milks, Toast Ale, which uses beer made from waste bread and Regrained which makes a flour from protein, fibre, and micronutrients discarded after grain is made into beer and incorporates into snack bars.

5. Healthy plant rich diets

In 2021 we witnessed another year of significant growth within the plant-based foods market with innovation focussing on replicating chicken, beef, and cheese. With 8.7 million flexitarians in the UK, with numbers continuing to grow, expect to see more companies investing in and launching new products during 2022, with a focus on seafood, pork, eggs, and chocolate! Research suggest that 56% of food and drink brand owners and manufacturers are most likely to invest their new product development budgets in the development of plant-based products in 2022.

Whilst plant-based foods are overall better from a sustainability perspective, not all plant-based foods, particularly those with significant amounts of sugars, saturated fats, and salts, are necessarily beneficial from a health perspective. Food businesses need to be super careful to ensure that that plant-based foods are less healthy than the meat items they were designed to replace. There are signs that the health credentials of plant-based foods will be increasingly challenged, which in turn will highlight the need for innovation around a diversity of nutrient-rich clean label plant-based foods – such as wholegrains, nuts legumes and fresh fruit and vegetables.

6. Less but better meats

The trends towards more flexitarian diets,), reducing consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs without cutting them out completely, will continue in 2022. With the impacts of industrial forms of factory farming increasingly in the media spotlight, with concerns around the animal welfare, climate, biodiversity, and health impacts of such systems, expect much more discussion with regards to the role of livestock and meat within our food system and what defines ‘better’ meats.

7. A just food transition

A just transition seeks to ensure that the substantial benefits of a green economy transition (including the transformation of food systems) are shared widely, while also supporting those who stand to lose economically – be they countries, regions, industries, communities, workers, or consumers. As pressure mounts to reduce meat consumption and highly processed foods for example, and transition must be done in a way that works for farmers, farmworkers, processors, and disadvantaged citizens; and must provide them with the fiscal incentives, support, safety nets and social protection required to make these shifts. Transition support will need to be provided for farmers who wish to diversify to regenerative or agroecological farming systems, move to horticulture or to silvopastoral systems. With an aging farmer population in some parts of the world, it provides an opportunity to support the younger generation enter the sustainable and humane farming sectors.

8. Antimicrobial Resistance

Antimicrobial resistance is emerging as major global health and development threat and declared one of the top 10 global public health threats facing humanity with at least 700,000 deaths each year due to drug -resistant diseases according to the World Health Organisation. The use of antimicrobial drugs within the food system are widely used within livestock industry as growth promoters and are prophylactically used for maintaining herd health. These antibiotics are then excreted from treated livestock/fisheries and end up in the wider environment contaminating soils, water courses and seas, thereby contributing to the selection of resistant strains of bacteria infecting humans. Pressure is growing internationally to stop the unnecessary prophylactic use of these drugs in agriculture, and with several high-profile events planned for 2022 expect more scrutiny and pressure from animal welfare, NGO’s, and health organisations to address this issue throughout 2022.

9. Health and immunity boosting foods

There is increasing evidence to suggest that a strong immune system helps to keep a person healthy with a strong uptick in demand for food and drink products, sparked by concerns about Covid-19. With a focus on a healthy and balance diet, foods such as broccoli, blueberries, dark chocolate, spinach, ginger, garlic, and red peppers all boost immunity. There is also a large body of evidence highlighting that diets based on more plants, including vegetables, nuts, and wholegrains, combined with lifestyle choices can have an anti-inflammatory effect and can boost immunity.

An increasing body of research is linking what we eat with our mental health and well-being. For example, a Mediterranean-style diet (one with lots of vegetables, seafood, fresh herbs, garlic, olive oil, cereal and grains) can reduce the symptoms of depression. Research has also shown that our gut can reflect how we’re feeling: if we’re stressed, it can speed up or slow down. Healthy gut food includes fruit, vegetables, beans, and probiotics.

10. Traceability and transparency

Transparency is increasingly important to citizens according to latest research, which suggests 81% of shoppers say transparency is important or extremely important to them both online and in-store. The pandemic has highlighted the fragility of global food supply chains with increasing scrutiny and debate on the resilience of our global commodity chains and centralised distribution networks. Expect to see much more citizen demand for more local foods, which ensures freshness, optimal nutrient quality, and reductions in fresh produce waste (fresh produce imported over long distances is highly perishable and results in significant wastage).

Technological innovations to improve traceability of food value chains will continue with greater emphasis on connecting farmer to citizen – Capturing data from Internet-of-Things, sensors and blockchain and the use of Artificial Intelligence will help provide more visibility to worker conditions, health, climate, water, and food waste impacts.

11. Carbon and eco-labelling

UK citizens are used to checking traffic light scores to compare the calorie, fat, sugar or salt content of different foods and there are early signs that we may see many more ‘eco-labels’ on food and drink, both in store and online. In 2022 expect to see much more focus on carbon labelling with many more products placing carbon scores on their products. Launched in 2020, the Foodsteps app allows food firms and restaurants to calculate the carbon dioxide produced by a particular product or dish ‘from farm to fork’. Expect to see several significant launches and innovations in 2022.

Eco labels, which combine carbon rating with a host of other eco rating scores are also likely to take off big time in 2022. Foundation Earth has recently launched a pilot of a ‘enviro score’ based on four measures: carbon, water usage, water pollution, and biodiversity. The label rates food on a sliding scale from A+ (great) to G (not good). Food groups and retailers including Nestlé, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Marks & Spencer are among the big names working with Foundation Earth to explore how environmental labelling can work. On-line start-ups line Sustained are using tools to assess the environmental impacts of food choices through online retail to help make it easier for citizens to understand the story of food and the environmental impacts their choices.

12. Packaging innovation and reductions

More food brands than ever are questioning the sourcing of their packaging materials and there will be continued pressure to do so as plastic waste continue to hit the news headlines. They’re looking for processes that are sustainable and that will help them reduce their carbon footprint. Some companies are turning to more cardboard packaging alternatives whilst others are starting to experiment with bioplastics. In 2022 expect to see a move towards edible packaging options made from rice paper, seaweed, or corn-starch. Watch out for companies such as Notpla who handed our drinks capsules during the 2021 London marathon.

If the pace of change over the last 10 years has been fast, be warned the pace of change is likely to accelerate in the next decade due to increasing pressure from citizens, investors, and governments, in responses to the climate emergency and the impacts of food on our own health and well-being. We all need to be aware of these trends if we are to adapt and thrive to meet future challenges.

This article is also published in Tasting the Future. Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Mark is the Founder and Director of Tasting the Future, a purpose driven not-for-profit sustainable food systems consultancy.

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