Investing in nutrition leads to impact on both human and planetary health
“Our global food system is at an inflection point,” says Mayssa Al Midani. As a lead investment manager at Pictet Asset Management, focused on nutrition, she makes it her business to track both the macro and micro forces influencing how we feed the world’s population, from farm to fork. So, when she says this system is at an inflection point, it’s not simply a general statement, but one backed up by deep analysis of global trends and market forces.
This pivotal moment, Mayssa continues, is “driven by both environmental and human health crises”, as well as governmental and consumer responses to these crises. The first driver she points to is regulation. For instance, the US and EU have launched a Global Methane Pledge to reduce global methane emissions by 30% from 2020 to 2030. “With agriculture contributing to 37% of methane emissions, it will no doubt be a key area of focus to achieve these objectives,” Mayssa notes. Moreover, the EU has its own strategies targeting lower use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and halving food waste per capita, by 2030. These targets and strategies are already leading to increased government investment in new technologies and solutions, not to mention an increased sense of urgency across the board.
The second factor that has led to our global food system being at this point is Covid-19. According to Mayssa, the pandemic highlighted to both consumers and governments the dangers of obesity and the connection between poor diet and vulnerability to disease. Regulations such as sugar taxes and increased front-of-pack nutrition labelling are going to be likely consequences. At the same time, the pandemic revealed some pre-existing logistical challenges and created new ones entirely. “It has been a stress test for our food system,” says Mayssa. “It has highlighted how we need to have shorter food supply chains, as well as increased food security and safety, given that Covid allegedly originated from our food chain.”
As she notes, global food security was called into question during the pandemic, and the situation has been exacerbated over the past year by geopolitical tensions around the world. We’re now seeing food shortages and significant food inflation like we haven’t witnessed for years, which is creating an urgent need for innovative solutions and ventures tackling everything from food waste to fertiliser overuse.
The next trend Mayssa identifies is shifting consumer behaviour. “Consumers, in particular millennials and Gen-Z, have become more aware of their own health and the environment,” she says. “This trend was already in place but was strengthened during the pandemic.” You can see this in the strong demand for weight-loss solutions, immunity-boosting foods such as probiotics, vitamins and supplements, and plant-based alternatives. Mayssa predicts that we can expect to see “broader-based adoption of foods that are healthier for people and the planet”, partly because they will be “supported by growing public awareness, regulation and innovation.”
That last word – innovation – is the final factor that Mayssa mentions. “We urgently need solutions, and companies that have identified this opportunity are developing a wave of new technologies and solutions that address the challenges of our food systems,” she says. “These companies are emerging across the food value chain, from farm to fork.” This is, of course, an area where Mayssa and her colleagues at Pictet focus their attention.
When it comes to innovation, Mayssa highlights two sectors where she feels some of the most exciting new products and services are emerging: precision farming technologies and food-waste solutions. Looking at farming tech first, according to Mayssa, agriculture has been a laggard over the past decades when it comes to investment and R&D³. “There has been progress in agriculture technology, but the pace has been far behind the curve of other industries,” she explains. “And the opportunity is huge.” Precision farming technologies are one example of this. Broadly, this refers to farming equipment and software that contribute to improving crop yields while using fewer natural resources.
One example of this is so-called “see and spray” technology, which Mayssa describes as “artificial intelligence using computer vision – computers and scanners, coupled with machine learning – to identify weeds among plants and to only target the weeds with pesticides, while only targeting the crop with water.” This technology could enable a reduction of pesticide and freshwater use by up to 80%, which – given that food production accounts for 70% of all freshwater consumption – could have a colossal impact on water scarcity. Other advanced agricultural technologies that Mayssa is watching include drones with remote sensing, automated farm equipment with AI, and connected devices enabling agronomic data analytics.
Food waste is also an area undergoing intense innovation. This is quite understandable, given the scale of the challenge: globally we waste roughly one-third of the food we produce. There are a number of exciting technologies and solutions appearing in this space, Mayssa explains, pointing out again that AI is being applied here as well. She cites AI and sensor-based food-sorting solutions as a particularly exciting example. These can determine when a fruit or vegetable that is about to be wasted can be reworked into a different product or simply used for another purpose (a sauce or juice, for instance). She also points to food cultures and enzymes (the domain of Chr. Hansen, whose CEO we hear from elsewhere in this issue), which can contribute to shelf-life extension and prevent food spoilage.
It might seem incredibly obvious, but one of the most exciting aspects of many of these solutions is that they are able to impact both human and planetary health at the same time. This is important to remember, given the sheer scale of the challenges on both of these formidable fronts. Mayssa says that the central question she and her team ask themselves is: “How will we manage to ensure global food security, feed the world and reduce the disease and mortality burden related to poor nutrition, while also safeguarding our planet?” It’s no mean feat, particularly given that the global population that needs feeding is also projected to mushroom to 10 billion people by 2050. As Mayssa says, “we must do our best to tackle both the social and environmental challenges of our food systems”, and tackle them concurrently.
And yet the scale of the challenge is directly reflected in the scale of the opportunity. Indeed, that’s why Pictet has long engaged in this space through The Pictet Group Foundation, a grant-making foundation established by the bank’s Managing Partners to address challenges where market forces alone cannot solve social and environmental problems. Water and Nutrition is (alongside Education and the Environment) one of the Foundation’s core focus areas, where it partners with entrepreneurial, social and environmental changemakers, and supports projects and solutions that help to build resilient communities and ecosystems.
The opportunity to have impact at scale is also what motivates Mayssa every day to continue her work investing in companies operating in this field. “The nutrition space is unique in that it combines both a social aspect – improving our diets to tackle the burden of malnutrition – as well as an environmental aspect – mitigating the environmental degradation caused by our food systems,” she says. She cites the EAT-Lancet commission on Food, Planet and Health, which notes that food is the strongest lever we have to improve human and planetary health. “Exploring innovative, cutting-edge solutions to these challenges,” she says, “and investing in disruptive and ingenious companies is fascinating.”