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  • Monica Sissala

Novel Proteins, Supply Chain, Nutrition and AI: NutrEvent 2021

NutrEvent 2021 brought together 700 participants from 48 countries for a four-day virtual event covering market developments in food and feed. The program included conferences from industry leaders considering innovations and trends in nutrition and health. The seventh edition of NutrEvent, held virtually January 25 - 28 2021, brought together experts for lively panel discussions.

Several panels in particular discussed alternative proteins such as insect proteins, as well as innovative strategies to improve supply chain resilience, especially during times of crisis. Also explored was the use of personalized nutrition to improve the health of vulnerable groups when coupled with AI technology.

Novel proteins helping by-products enter the manufacturing process

The very first panel session of the event was entitled Novel Applications for By-Products and Ingredients Derived from Side-Streams. This conversation dove into the innovative use of by-products to strengthen market resilience. The prime example was the use of insects to close the animal feed loop; by-products from agriculture and livestock can be used to feed insects which are then used as a stable source of protein for future livestock feed. As with all novel applications, this idea has potential as well as drawbacks. As Robert Harwood, Managing Director of CPL Business Consultants pointed out in the panel discussion, only food-grade waste can be used as feed for insects introduced into the human consumption chain. This strategy carries potential risk as it depends on the ready availability of high-grade by-products to feed the insect livestock. How, therefore, can by-products be used to maximise efficiency? The key, as always, is to be solution-oriented. Robert encouraged the audience to think about the by-products available in their respective industries. What is the substance? What is its value? What is the market?

Sometimes these substances may best find a fit in products for mass consumption. However, the shift to incorporating side-stream derivatives for edible products includes certain barriers to be overcome. One of these barriers is the “novel foods” categorization. If a new ingredient has not been previously approved for human consumption, it likely requires EU authorization before it can be included in food products. According to Petr Mensik, Senior Manager of Scientific and Regulator Affairs at the European Consulting Company, this approval can take up to two years.

There is also the long-term issue of supply chain management for foods made with by-products. Martin Wickhman, Food and Drink Investment Specialist at the UK’s Department for International Trade pointed out that as by-products are increasingly assigned to other uses, their scarcity will increase and prices may rise. The nature of sourcing raw materials from side-streams also means that availability will depend on the manufacturing process and market health of the primary product. In the case of insects which are fed agricultural by-products, the availability of feed will depend in part on the demand for the agricultural products themselves. A decreased demand for those products may have the adverse effect of smaller crops, which means that there will be less by-products to redirect for insect raising. Additionally, innovations in agriculture which yield fewer by-products will have an effect on the price and feasibility of the endeavor. Vertical farming or other methods which increase circularity of the agricultural process can inherently affect the availability of side-streams to be redirected to raising insects. In this way, the use of by-products becomes increasingly volatile and dependent on outside forces. Scarcity factors may well make the cost of implementing these innovations prohibitive.

NutrEvent 2018, Credit Nicolas Lee

Applying principles of circularity to enhance supply chain resilience

For this reason, one of the promising trends in the by-product market is the shift towards a more holistic approach of repurposing. Robert explained this new direction: Instead of companies focusing on single products for single markets, they will increasingly focus on using every part of the resources in their supply chain for multiple purposes across multiple markets.

This was echoed in a later panel discussion, Roots of Sustainability from Farm to Fork. Chloe Phan Van Phi, Head of Sales and Marketing at InnovaFeed France, the largest global producer of insects, highlighted how insect raising is indeed circular - every part is used and repurposed, and nothing is wasted. InnovaFeed is also acting on the idea of diversification: the end result is used to create multiple products such as ground fish feed, oil to feed poultry and swine, and land fertilizer.

Farm to Fork panelist Nico van Belzen elaborated on the need for a manufacturing process that mirrors natural processes. “There is no waste in nature . . . Insects in ecosystems play a very important role, and what we should do, in building a resilient, sustainable food system, is to mimic nature in many aspects by having a life cycle with plants, with animals, with humans. Nature is a truly sustainable system.”

And how should the supply chain be strengthened, especially considering our increasingly volatile world? Sean Lestiboudois, Senior Supply Chain Strategy Consultant at Deloitte Nederland demonstrated during a discussion called How to Increase the Resilience of the Supply Chain to Disruptions by Epidemics that the full localization of the global food supply chain has yet to be realized. That makes the market extremely vulnerable to disruption. Innovations that shorten the supply chain may have global implications. Katrina Hayter from UK Research and Innovation remarked in the same panel that as R&D funds are cut across the industry, a new market shift such as novel proteins may help to reimagine the supply chain completely.

NutrEvent 2018, Credit Nicolas Lee

Using tech for manufacturing and personalized health

How can emerging technology be used to not only strengthen supply chains, but improve health and nutrition as well? The answer may lie in artificial intelligence. Mariette Abrahams, CEO and Founder of Qina Consulting, remarked during the panel Applications for Artificial Intelligence in Personalized Nutrition and Diets that AI is most useful when used as a tool coupled with human interpretation to detect patterns and make predictions. These predictions can create value in the form of personalized health suggestions. For example, the variants in individual health can lead to different outcomes or reactions to the same products or behaviors. By using AI to keep track of health progress, individuals can get a better understanding of how their body reacts to new habits to make informed decisions.

The use of AI technology to guide health is not only useful on the individual level, but also has potential to make the whole system more precise. Together with resilient supply chains and new technologies, the food industry is currently posed to use radical and novel solutions and innovations to change the landscape of health and nutrition as we know it.

The future of novel proteins and AI to support nutrition and food security will continue long into the future. NutrEvent 2021 brought together experts and industry leaders to steer systems transformation into a new direction. The 8th edition of NutrEvent will be held in Nantes, France in 2022. Registration is open for anyone interested in joining the conversation about upcoming developments in food, nutrition, and health.

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