In recent years new ideas about regenerative farming, upcycling ingredients to reduce waste, sustainable packaging alternatives and new material solutions have begun to gain traction, but pioneers in this space have encounter skepticism and resistance that have limited access to funding and mentorship.
But with COVID-19 laying bare many of the challenges these solutions address, there is a new sense of urgency to turbo-charge innovation in these areas – and among those answering this call to action are the US-based non-profit and accelerator program Food System 6 and the global food packaging supplier Huhtamaki, which together are launching the Huhtamaki Circular Economy Startup Program by Food System 6 to help accelerate companies working for a more sustainable future.
In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts Podcast, Food System 6’s chief executive officer Caesaré Assad shares how the pandemic has shifted industry’s perspective on sustainability and how the Huhtamaki Circular Economy Startup Program by Food System 6 can help entrepreneurs fill an unmet need in the space. Early movers in the space, including Renewal Mill and the Central Grazing Co. also share their experiences as pioneers in the space and where else they see room for innovation.
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Bespoke program seeks to ‘create a stronger, resilient and equitable world’
As an impact-focused accelerator focused on early-stage founders and CEOs, Food System 6 has ushered five cohorts of food and agriculture entrepreneurs through its two-year program, but with the introduction last month of the new Hahtamaki Circular Economy Startup Program the non-profit hopes to help even more young and promising companies.
More narrowly focused than FS6’s accelerator program, Assad explains that the Circular Economy Startup Program is offering $300,000 in equity-free grants and mentorship to eight companies that are offering solutions to support regeneration and circularity across agriculture and food distribution and production “to create a stronger, resilient and equitable world.”
She adds that the “bespoke” program will be tailored based on participating companies’ needs but with an eye towards navigating the due-diligence process and making connections with those who can help fuel companies’ growth.
‘COVID has really taken the veneer off … the food system’
The program is well-timed to help the industry face many challenges in the food system revealed by the ongoing pandemic, according to Assad.
“COVID has really just taken the veneer off what has been the food system,” which has been largely built to improve yield but at the cost of the health of the planet, workers and animals, Assad said.
At the same time, she added, the pandemic “is also showing that those who are producing food in a regenerative way are seeing resilience with their business models and the demand for production from regenerative producing companies has vastly outstripped the ability for them to provide supply.”
With that in mind, she said FS6 seeks to foster businesses that offer cooperative ownership and generate wealth in communities, packaging solutions that account for agriculture production to support material production, and that value circular solutions.
Tackling animal agriculture
How animals are raised, slaughtered and processed is one of the major weaknesses in the food system exposed by the coronavirus and where alternative approaches already are being explored by innovative entrepreneurs, including the Central Grazing Company, which is part of FS6’s current cohort.
When Jacqueline Smith co-founded Central Grazing Company in Kansas in 2015 it was to raise sheep responsibly to not only support her family, but also her community and the planet.
“Being in the Midwest I was able to see first hand how the industrial food system has changed our community. It wasn’t that long ago that rural communities were really vibrant and farmers grew very diverse fields but as soon as they started moving to monoculture crops and saw a breakdown of the local regional food system … the small towns that once thrived became kind of ghost towns and opportunities left,” she said.
She explained that when she began tending sheep she did so as naturally and regeneratively as possible to create a sustainable ecosystem, and she quickly realized the same principles she applied with her flock could apply to her business and community to create a more sustainable local economy.
She noted that the pandemic has both tested and tempered her belief that to strengthen the US food system farmers, ranchers and food manufacturers need to work together to create a more diversified, regional approach that supports players up and down the supply chain and the communities in which they live and operate.
Finding a balance between demand and waste
The delicate balance between sufficient food supply and minimizing food waste is another area in urgent need of solutions, which has been highlighted by the pandemic, according to Assad. Luckily, she added, several entrepreneurs already are testing solutions, including FS6 portfolio member Renewal Mill, which upcycles undervalued byproduct streams from current food production to create nutrient-dense products with its optimized drying technology.
Renewal Mill CEO and co-founder Clair Schlemme explains that the idea of upcycling isn’t new, and in fact was on the rise before the coronavirus outbreak occurred in the US. But, she said, the difficulty that consumers and manufacturers have had securing ingredients and products they want during the pandemic has helped highlight the need for and benefits of upcycling.
Renewal Mill tries to ease this friction by using byproducts from popular foods and beverages to create new high-value and versatile ingredients, like its Okara flour, which is made from the leftover soybean pulp when soy milk is made.
“By using Okara flour as an additional product, we can now use 100% of soybeans that come into the soybean plant” to make soy milk, she said.
While the pandemic has elevated the importance of not wasting food, Renewal Mill’s chief operating officer Caroline Cotto added, general awareness of the terms and benefits of upcycling and circular economy are still low, which is why Renewal Mills last October helped form the Upcycle Food Association.
Schlemme added that manufacturers can also help expand awareness, creation and use of upcycled ingredients by looking at their production process to identify where there is potential to turn a byproduct into a useful ingredient. Simultaneously, she encourages manufacturers and brands to choose upcycled ingredients to not only drive awareness and improve their sustainability but also to offer nutrient-dense, unique products that consumers want.
Room for improvement
While companies like Renewal Mill, Central Grazing Company and many others already are improving sustainability, Assad said there is still more work to be done and plenty of white space for innovation.
Which is why she is eager to welcome the inaugural class of the Huhtamaki Circular Economy Startup Program, and encourages those who are interested to learn more about the program at https://www.foodsystem6.org/circular_economy.html and apply by Aug. 15.