The response of the agro-food sector to a fast changing world

Key messages

  • In the last decade, the agri-food sector has witnessed intense changes as a result of various political, economic, sociocultural, technological, legal, and environmental factors.
  • These huge challenges the industry is facing today, offer interesting opportunities throughout the entire food value chain.
  • New entrants are challenging incumbents when it comes to accommodating to new consumer tastes, preferences and demand for personalization
  • Entrepreneurs that are looking how to exploit new food functionalities, new food products and new ingredients are joining forces or relying on third parties. This has resulted in a strong convergence between food & beverage and other industries such as cosmetics and health care.

Ripe for disruption

The agri-food sector, traditionally seen as a slow adopter of change, is witnessing a phase of rapid and intense transformations. The pace at which new food trends, food technologies and business models are launched seems to be ever increasing, as evidenced by the multitude of reports describing the future of food and the agri-food industry. These reports, as well as the high number of new entrants and high level of investments indicate that the sector, or at least parts of its value chain, are ripe for disruption. The huge challenges the industry is facing today, such as food supply, food security, and food waste, offer interesting opportunities throughout the entire food value chain.

The range, diversity and speed of these changes are, however, overwhelming. Not only for aspirant entrepreneurs, but also for incumbents. The complexity of these dynamics makes it challenging to spot and seize the best opportunities. On top of that, the different players within the agro-food value chain are impacted differently. It is, therefore, essential to create the proper framework to capture these trends and challenges (data analysis), translate them into actionable insights for the company (insights and knowledge building), and define the best-fitting growth opportunities.

This blog post sheds light on several innovation challenges that players in the food industry are currently facing. The challenges are illustrated with cases from specific players within the food value chain.


Continuous need for innovation

Food has long been regarded exclusively as a primary human need. The way people look at food and food consumption has remained fairly consistent over the past five decades. However, this perspective has become much too restrictive and no longer reflects how modern society views nutrition in its totality. Furthermore, several political, economic, socio-cultural, technological, legal and environmental factors have intensified this evolution and the entire agri-food sector, from agricultural production, through food processing and distribution, to retail has been disrupted as a result (Figure 1). And very recently, the global pandemic has exposed unexpected weaknesses in our food supply chain as well.

Figure 1. Some megatrends affecting the agri-food sector

The agri-food industry, which for a long time was only using low-tech equipment, has quite rapidly adopted numerous technologies and scientific breakthroughs in response to this. Innovation was introduced at several fronts, with digital and biotechnological developments leading the way. Within agriculture, predominantly Industry 4.0 technologies have brought radical changes. More downstream in the food value chain, the actors that transform, convert and package food have already addressed quite some pain points, introducing technological innovations. But serious growth is still expected during the next years. The biggest adopters of technologies are undeniably the retail and transportation sector (see our Future of Mobility report).

By 2050, a 50% increase in food production is required to feed an additional 2.3 billion people. Given the projected increase in per capita income and the associated shifts in diet, significant increases in crop and livestock production will be necessary. According to a recent EU study, the latter is a serious challenge. In fact, land used for farming already accounts for 80% of all agricultural land. It is perhaps unrealistic to expect that the entire world will drastically switch to a sustainable diet. Nevertheless, radical changes in agricultural methods and food production seem inevitable. In addition, stepping up the fight against food waste is also important. Currently about 50% of the food produced from farm to fork is wasted.

It is perhaps unrealistic to expect that the entire world will drastically switch to a sustainable diet

And finally, sustainability, health and freshness (short go2market time) have become key decision factors for consumers to buy food products. All these elements together put significant pressure on the food industry to innovate and also shorten the go-to-market time.

For each of these issues, technology has a role to play. The agri-food chain will have to continue its efforts to meet the demand challenge of increasing food consumption while addressing other indirect challenges such as sustainability and health. No easy task, as each player in the value chain must overcome its own challenges to also remain competitive in local, regional, national or global markets. This requires a high degree of flexibility and agility.

The playing field

The playing field in the agri-food industry has changed radically. In the past, large players dominated the industry and competition was battled by, for example, keeping production costs as low as possible. Despite growth across the industry, the large established companies have faced declining sales. A major reason for this is the intensified competition from new entrants. Newcomers, usually smaller companies, are very skilled at adapting to new tastes and personal preferences of consumers, allowing them to capture a significant share of the market. Moreover, the new companies also effectively steer and redefine consumer expectations through their offerings of differentiating value propositions.

But the disruption also comes from an unexpected side: veterans from technology and finance have invested heavily in food and agricultural technologies in recent years. This battle for the food market is not new, but the pace and number of disruptors is unseen. And this is reflected in the fact that growth in the food sector in recent years has come mostly from companies outside the top 20.

Impact on the value chain

Consumers eventually drive the market and their food behavior. Different players in the value chain all have a role to play to meet those fast changing needs. This is not always orchestrated. Monitoring of trends and technological changes has therefore become an indispensable part of the current innovation management of food companies. Detecting trends is not the difficult part though. Understanding how different trends relate to their specific business is. Not only do companies have a hard time differentiating between long-term consumer trends and short-term fads, such as certain diets, many also struggle to successfully identify the trends that offer the greatest opportunity for their business. Some companies react prematurely to trends so as not to lose track of submarkets or food categories. Other food companies prefer to take a more cautious approach to avoid spending human and financial resources on food trends rather than opportunities.

For B2C companies, discovering the (future) needs of their customers allows them to make strategic decisions about their product portfolio. But there may be multiple drivers at play. As an example, the growing success of plant-based meat and dairy substitutes can be attributed to multiple driving forces. Namely the widespread recognition of the need for sustainable protein sources -to address the problems of climate change and population growth (exogenous shocks)- and the increased awareness of environmental pollution and animal welfare (change in demand). In addition, technological opportunities in biotechnology and process technology (change in supply) stimulate companies to actually realize these innovations.

Figure 2. The opportunity space Interpreted from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41538-019-0039-7

In a B2B context, there is an additional level of complexity. For example, the increased health awareness of consumers, together with recent developments in nutrigenomics and nutrigenetics, is not only providing opportunities for converters, but for suppliers and manufacturers of functional ingredients as well. Every player has it’s own interests and strategies. Having a transparent view of supply chain dynamics, i.e. how do the different actors react to trends and to each other, is therefore no superfluous luxury when it comes to finding solid motivations for your short-, medium- and long-term business strategy.

The entrepreneurial opportunity space

Somewhat a decade ago, people may have wondered whether plant-based nutrition would be a long-term trend. Now, 10 years later, plant-based alternatives to e.g. meat are a rapidly growing market segment. Early believers have taken advantage, but newcomers to the field are wondering how to successfully hitch a ride on this success. There is always risk involved in the choices a company makes, especially when it comes to longer-term strategy.

Whether your company is a leader or (smart) follower, we find it essential to spot interesting opportunities through an unbiased impact-probability framework (Figure 3). Impact reflects the disruptive effect of a technology in an (application) domain, while the probability that a technology will enter this domain is determined both by the probability and the speed of the trend. Both of these variables are most effectively captured by the objective interpretation of data, and trends therein, from a variety of complementary sources. This combination of sources such as papers, patents, VC flows, start-up databases, market reports, etc. reflect the diffusion of technology from research, through development to commercialization.

The resulting framework not only allows for a clear prioritization, but also a clustering of opportunities under different future scenarios. In this way, a company can confidently shape their innovation strategy and portfolio, balancing a reactive and a proactive approach, both in the short, medium and long term.

Figure 3. Unbiased impact-probability framework for opportunity selection, dots represent technologies or applications, colors refer to impacting megatrends, upper right opportunities are interesting to further explore, lower left opportunities are less interesting

Innovate with the world

The agro-food sector is also starting to be open to find inspirations from other sectors and even join forces. Several players in the agro-food sector have converged with other industries to develop disruptive innovative products with success. New product categories such as nutricosmetics, cosmeceuticals, nutraceuticals are emerging as a result of a convergence between the food & beverage industry and the cosmetics & health sector. Another example is seen in pet food. Food trends for people are being adopted to pet food at an increasing rate as they are driven by the growing interest of people who really care more about what their pets eat. It should come as no surprise, then, that nutraceuticals have become available in both conventional pet foods and individual supplements. When it comes to digestive health, the pet food industry has led the way by developing and applying various pre- and probiotic supplements.

Some bioactive components are known to have beneficial effects in multiple areas ranging from health, wellness, nutrition to cosmetics. Ingredients containing such bioactive compounds (e.g., spices and botanicals) can thus find applications in multiple industries, opening up prospects for ingredient companies looking to diversify their channels.

How?

Innovation requires companies to be agile. Rigid organizational structures and outdated food products and technologies are preventing several industry giants from staying ahead and adapting to new industry structures. If large companies want to catch up and build a lead, a fresh look at new technological solutions and business models is essential. These could be technologies for personalization, food safety, traceability, integration of digital tools, or new business models such as e.g. subscriptions or alternative delivery options.

But there is a shift going on. More and more companies are moving towards open innovation models leading to significant changes in the entrepreneurial behavior of the food industry. In addition, a growing dialogue between academia and food industry is seen. And finally, food industry players are more readily open to mergers and acquisitions. Companies benefit from access to new skills and profit from the sharing of costs and risks associated with the innovation process, and this reflects in a reduction of time to market.

Open innovation models lead to significant changes in the entrepreneurial behavior of the food industry

Knowing all this, how can a company know how to respond to the political, economic, socio-cultural, technological, ecological and legal (PESTEL) drivers that will affect them in one way or another? The answer lays in the combination of outside-in (data-driven) research with inside knowledge of experts. It is a challenge to get an unbiased and comprehensive view of the dynamics in a playing field. It requires the profound analysis of complementary data sources. In an ideal situation, market info, patents & scientific literature, VC funding & startup databases, consumer blog posts, etc. are combined to reveal basic human needs, megatrends, future fore-sighting, consumer, food and culinary trends. As such an extensive view on the entrepreneurial opportunity space in today’s and future agri-food industry is obtained.

Curious how we helped our clients to identify entrepreneurial opportunities in the food value chain? Discover here below four cases in which Creax helped its clients, all located at the different stages of the food value chain, with defining answers for their short-, mid- and long-term strategic roadmaps.

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