Agriculture & Food Security -Partnership Development

How to Create a Circular Economy for Food Partnership [Webinar Recap]

Article - June 9, 2021

A sustainable global food system is foundational to a sustainable future. Today, many forward-thinking companies and governments are taking bold leadership and making ambitious sustainability commitments that align with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and The Paris Agreement.

Transforming our global food system by transitioning from extracting, using, and wasting natural resources to a circular economy holds incredible promise for our businesses, communities, and natural world. We can reduce waste and pollution, keep food products and materials in use, and produce foods in ways that regenerate nature. 

In the most recent episode of our new webinar series, Cultivating the Future Through Food, we looked at how two innovative companies are partnering to reduce food loss and waste and engaging local grower and producer communities to help transition to a circular economy for food. On-Demand Webinar - How to create a circular economy for food partnershipIn this episode, we spoke with: 

  • Gregory Belt, the founder and CEO of EverGrain, which uses circular methods to produce healthy, sustainable ingredients from barley. Prior to his current role, Greg led AB InBev’s global sustainability program and the creation of their 2025 sustainability goals.
  • Anna Steffens, who leads social impact initiatives at Apeel Sciences, a technology company that developed edible plant-based protection for longer-lasting produce. She is responsible for identifying opportunities, overseeing the execution, and measuring the impact of programs that can benefit people throughout the food system. 

Together, we discussed how to successfully collaborate with partners to scale circular economy for food solutions to drive greater impact for a sustainable global food system. 

3 Lessons Learned on Partnership Strategies in the Circular Economy for Food

1. Seek to build long-term partnerships with complementary actors who bring the right tools, knowledge, and resources.

Systems change is complex, and no one company or organizations has all the answers or capabilities needed to solve every interlinked challenge. It’s critical to find the right partners, build out the team, and identify appropriate roles that maximize each partner’s potential. For Apeel and EverGrain, both companies have prioritized partnerships to help introduce their technology, learn how it works in real life, and ensure that sustainability impacts are validated. 

As Greg Belt explained, EverGrain—backed by AB InBev—has many partnerships. EverGrain is co-located in AB inBev’s breweries, and the company works with food brands ranging from local startups to multinationals that are interested in delivering healthy and sustainable products to consumers. The University of Cork, in Ireland, has also played a huge role in launching EverGrain. 

Partnerships are a key feature for Apeel’s success and opportunities as well. “Partnerships are critical to our work in a variety of ways,” Anna Steffens notes. “We have values of ingenuity, which is about asking the right questions, teamwork, but also humility, and that’s about learning from different partners. We have scientists and experts in our technology, but we have also had to learn about how our product works in real life scenarios, and our partners are key to this.”

2. Emphasize community engagement, to understand local challenges and pain points. 

As Steffens explained, Apeel thinks a lot about the local communities it works with. The innovative coating that Apeel applies to fruits and vegetables to extend shelf-life gets placed on produce at packing houses in various countries around the world. Apeel’s technical field specialists must work hand-in-hand with their packing house partners. This means that Apeel also must understand the unique challenges the local packing houses and farmers experience and then design solutions to address those problems.

As Steffens explained, in Kenya, food loss can happen when there are delays—for example, when the Suez Canal shut down or when rains wash out roads. Each situation impacts the shelf-life of an avocado, which impacts Apeel’s ability to prolong the produce. Steffens said that the company also strives to connect with and help farmers and producers understand the importance of the technology they offer. “In some cases, the supplier will say that the trashcan is their best friend because the buyer may buy more from them. So, we have to understand and create new systems of thinking,” said Steffens.

“We try to work with our local teams to help them reframe farmers and producers’ perspectives around food waste, which is currently an invisible tax to an invisible savings account that can be utilized in different ways. It’s about showing them that if they have more produce that lasts longer, than it can increase sales.” 

As Steffens shared, the company is currently experimenting to see if a reduction of food loss in transit can create a premium for the exporter, resulting in more value that can be shared as an end-of-the-season bonus to farmers. 

3. Focus on how you can solve the end-user or customer’s problems—not just the global challenge. 

“Every great startup uncovers truths,” said Belt. “We uncovered two: Barley is an amazing source of protein and fiber; and it can be used to solve a consumer problem, which was that people wanted plant-based products to taste better and be healthier.”

As Belt explained, there are many problems in the food value chain, but we cannot just focus on solving for global ones. We must do both—solve for global challenges and for consumers, because ultimately, we need to shift their behavior and demand toward more positive, planetary, and dietary-healthy choices. 

At Apeel, product managers take a similar approach to understand the producer’s standpoint, the importer’s standpoint, the retailer’s standpoint, and the customer’s standpoint. “We know that a lot of waste happens at the consumer standpoint,” said Anna. “We know that Apeel extends the life of produce, but what does that mean for consumers? What’s happening in their personal lives and in their trashcans or compost bins? We’re interested in exploring what our impact is on the consumer who ultimately takes home the produce.”  

A More Promising Food Future

Despite the enormous challenges we face trying to transform the food system, Belt and Steffens remain optimistic. “We’re at the dawn of a revolution of systemic change in our food system and Apeel and EverGrain are capturing and leveraging technology to solve food system challenges in different ways,” said Belt. “There are many startups around the world doing the same. In the next five to 10 years, we will go from a system of extraction to a system of net-positive.” 

Companies like Apeel and EverGrain are betting on cross-sector partnerships and collaborations to help them transform their corners of the food system, oversee growth, and scale impact in exciting and truly transformative ways. 

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