The food sector is a hot. Investors of all stripes are piling capital onto the startups they think will be the next big thing. A small cadre of startups is drawing a large proportion of the funding: Blue Apron’s raised nearly $200M at a $2BN valuation. Impossible Foods raised $183M at an $800M valuation. Juicero raised $86.5M at a $270M valuation. The list goes on.
Some of these high profile startups are solving real problems in our food system. Others are going after opportunities, which don’t always correlate with solving a real food system problem. The problem in food is that there’s a shortage of companies that are looking to solve worthy problems and too many chasing after mere opportunities.
I recognize that parsing a problem versus an opportunity is a question of semantics and where we draw the line between a real problem and less-real problem is highly subjective. So for sake of argument here’s a very abridged list of things that I consider to be real problems in our food system…
Hunger: Some 795 million people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life. That’s about one in nine people on earth. [http://bit.ly/2jqXgKL]
Food Waste: Every year, consumers in industrialized countries waste almost as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (222 million vs. 230 million tons) [http://bit.ly/2jqNdFs]
Biodiversity: 75 percent of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants & 5 animal species. [http://bit.ly/1qeEDMb]
Climate Change: The 10 warmest years in the 136-year record all have occurred since 2000, with the exception of 1998. The year 2015 ranks as the warmest on record. [http://go.nasa.gov/2jqSUTS]
The above Problems (and many more) represent the “99 percent virgin territory” that Larry Page talks about in tech, except for food. Now contrast the magnitude of the above Problems with some of these problems:
Juicing: There’s a lack of good ways to make cold pressed juices at home from scratch - Solved.
Meal Delivery: It’s difficult to get a meal delivered to me in Manhattan in about 20 minutes - Solved.
Hydration: I need my water to make a statement about who I am - Solved.
It’s perfectly reasonable and commendable that the latter three companies will go on to be wildly successful and create great jobs for many people. They’re going after good market opportunities. And building a business is tough no matter what, so I’m not going to diminish what they’re doing as being easy or totally superfluous.
But if you’re going to the trouble of building an entire food organization of really smart people working long hours and burning investor capital, shouldn’t there be a moral obligation to make sure you’re pushing the system forward for the sake of planet and people? Food companies leave especially deep footprints and have the power to affect both our health and the planet deeply. That puts food companies on an especially influential plane where they can meaningfully change the well-being of our world while turning a profit. This is the Holy Trinity of what the future of food entrepreneurship is about: improving people, planet, and profit.
The developed world has climbed so high up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that we sometimes forget about the parts of the world where they’re still clinging to the bottom layers of the Heirarchy. What’s more problematic is that so much of the investment capital going into food and food-tech is feeding companies that serve unique 1st world problems. There’s got to be a better way to earn a solid return while serving more noble causes for the planet and society.
How might we incentivize more investors and entrepreneurs to go after the more basic, devastating problems like hunger, food waste, climate change, and biodiversity? How do we create a system where climate change startups proliferate at a rate where we’ll gather at food conferences and collectively groan, “oh man, yet another climate change startup?”
I hope we can get to the point where we see as many climate change (or hunger, or food waste, etc.) startups popping up as we see food delivery startups. That’s the day we’ll know the food industry is chasing after as many problems as they are opportunities.