Thursday

29th Feb 2024

Interview

Andy Zynga, CEO of EIT Food, talks to EUobserver

  • Andy Zynga: 'There's still work to be done in communicating to the consumer that these options are actually a good source of protein' (Photo: EIT food)
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In 2016, the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) — an independent EU body established in 2006 — founded EIT Food, a Knowledge and Innovation Community (KIC) focused on tackling problems related to food and food production.

The organisation, like all other KICs, brings together stakeholders ranging from industry to civil society to work together on funding projects, companies and individuals that show promise in helping to solve issues like malnutrition, waste and climate change. It's funded in part through the European Commission, and in part through contributions from industry members.

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In 2018, the organisation appointed Andy Zynga as CEO, in his first non-profit gig of his career. EIT Food sees alternative proteins, or 'protein diversification', as Zynga prefers to call it, as a promising avenue to address some of the shortcomings of our current food systems.

EUobserver spoke to Zynga about EIT Food's mission, the promises of protein diversification, and the shortcomings of existing regulation in helping innovation in the EU flourish.

EUobserver: So what brings you to EIT Food, Andy?

I've been in this role for something like four and a half years. After spending my whole career building or turning around businesses in the for profit sector, this is my first time in the non-profit. I'm excited because this role gives me a chance to have an impact on an entire ecosystem plus a whole industry and make doing something that has tangible value for both people and the planet. And I think at this stage, this is really what we need.

Tell me something about EIT Food and its mission

EIT Food is a European Union co-funded non-profit that aims to transform the food system. What we aim to do is to make people and the planet healthier by creating impact in five particular areas; the reduction of the risk of non communicable disease through malnutrition, the reduction of the risk of obesity (with a focus on childhood obesity), reduction in the negative impact of the food system on the environment to focus on greenhouse gas emissions and water, a better circularity of the food system so as to reduce food waste and food loss, and then lastly, improvement in the conditions for better trust of consumers in the food system.

Ambitious.

It's basically the pact we have with the citizens of Europe for the funds that we're getting from the EU Commission. In effect, we identify the challenges in the system that need to be solved across four areas in which we work, one of them being innovation or product development, then also education, business creation and public engagement.

And how has that been going?

In the very beginning, in the original consortium, we had 50 partners. So these are fee-paying members in order to build a trusting relationship across that network. This network of partners has grown to about 100 over the years. We have many different partners, from farming cooperatives, to processors, firms like Pepsi and Danone and DSM to retailers like Colruyt in Belgium. We also work with some consumer organisations and NGOs like the Good Food Institute. We basically assembled all the different actors in the food system that can help us to create that impact that we owe to the citizens of Europe.

Let's talk about alternative proteins, and how EIT Food has seen the space evolve.

We've seen a real surge in interest, particularly by the investor community in alternative proteins. Now, just for information, we like to call it 'protein diversification', because 'alternative' suggests replacing something else. What we believe is that animal meat itself as a protein source will most likely not go away.

Now plant-based proteins, we've seen a very strong investor interest in that. There's also algae, another area that's been growing. And, of course, one of the strong ones now is fungus and such like, so mycoproteins and precision fermentation — everything that's growing in a bioreactor, also looks like a very interesting way to go forward. Then there are also edible insects, and I'm not going to leave them out of the picture.

Although we noticed over the years that while the interest in these sources of protein rose for a while, there's still work to be done in communicating to the consumer that these options are actually a good source of protein.

So we see this development as a diversification of sources, and just by mere fact of more being available at the supermarket, people will try things and through that we believe that the mix of protein sources will actually expand. People try a little bit of this, a little bit of that, so that's what we see now.

What are the main advantages of people moving to diversifying their protein diet?

Protein diversification has several really important knock-on effects that are important to those five impacts that I mentioned in the beginning. One of them is of course climate action. I mentioned we try to avoid water use, and if you look at plant based protein, GFI is saying that plant based protein uses 99 percent less water. So that's one, but secondly, also for human health. If you look at the EAT-Lancet report about planetary health diets, it shows that having more diversity in protein sources helps people's health. Then there's the environment and more diverse crops. If you're not focusing just on those seven or eight main crops, but you're diversifying that as well. And of course, it's also got a very positive impact on the economy, because you have this growth of all these new startups that are trying things.

Can you give me some examples?

Most recently, I saw a company called Cocoon Biosciences, that is growing growth factors for alternative proteins by injecting something in cocoons of some kind of larvae. We see those companies spring up like mushrooms — some of them actually literally working with mushrooms! There's a lot of growth, a lot of interest by the investor community, but also by consumers, importantly, we see they're very interested in protein diversification.

Now one of the limiting factors I've heard from many companies in the alternative protein space is that EU regulation is quite strict or slow-moving when it comes to novel foods. What is EIT Food doing to help innovation there?

We started a think-tank for protein diversification, in which we have a whole group of our partners who, together with non-partners, discuss what are certain of the policies that should be suggested. What are some of the challenges that we should focus on in order to make this industry grow?

Such as?

We have a so-called Policy Advisory Board where we bring together the different DGs that are involved in food and in the food system, all the way from DG AGRI to DG MARE, DG SANTE, DG RTD and DG EAC. Sometimes I think from a policy point of view, the complexity makes it difficult to get a clear handle on the food system as a whole. We try to foster the dialogue, the communication policies and identifying all these different neuralgic spots in the food system that need to be solved in order for it to grow in the right way. In the Policy Advisory Board, we see really good collaboration.

So what would you say are kind of the biggest regulatory challenges when it comes to diversification of proteins?

There are a few. We most recently issued a white paper on protein diversification in which we make a few recommendations. One of them is that the regulatory approval for novel foods could be maybe a little bit faster, or so we hear from startups. I most recently spoke to a startup from Hamburg making a lab-grown seafood alternative. So I asked them if they are doing anything in Germany. And he said, "we'd love to because we're right here, but we cannot because we don't have regulatory approval." So they're going to Singapore, and then they go to the States. Those are the two countries that are actually quite advanced. We're falling behind a little bit, is what I'm trying to say. And I don't know what that means in terms of measures, from where I'm sitting. Maybe the teams in EFSA need to be bolstered?

Secondly, what I also hear is from startups that the EFSA when they submit applications, there are no hearings. And that's what we hear is happening in the US. Startups submit applications, and oftentimes, the complexity of the matter, scientifically-speaking, is such that just looking at the paper is maybe not enough. I have to stress, I don't know if hearings are actually taking place, but if they're not, then maybe they should.

We also think that funding is a little bit behind in this part of the world, so we're certainly talking to some European Union institutions about maybe setting up a fund of funds that we can be involved in for agri-food.

And is there anything else that might help?

The EU legal framework for environmental food labelling. That's a really interesting avenue for Europe because it leads to food majors reconfiguring their supply chains to have less environmental impact. That is one I'm really excited about and all of us here at EIT food. The whole environmental food labelling is an amazingly impactful piece of legislation, that's going to lead to major impacts on the food production side, which will also impact plant-based protein sources.

There's not a lot of time left until 2030. I think there's some real urgency to scale up some of these diversified protein sources to mitigate the impact meat has on the environment. Mind you, the meat producers, they're also working very hard on finding alternatives, reducing methane emissions and stuff like that. But like I say, it's not up to any of these individual little things. It's the whole mix of the whole basket of things.

The one thing that I haven't seen is any kind of larger-scale analysis of the economic impact that having a diversified protein strategy for the EU might have in terms of, let's say, bolstering exports or creating labour.

Right, that's an interesting point, to measure the economic impact of certain of these steps. I think that would probably ease the decision-making in some places and I think the JRC is also looking at that, you know, so I think they're, they're also actually coming up with a few of these impacts.

All in all, where do you see the alt-protein, or protein diversification going in the longer run?

Every couple of years we create a so-called trust report. Tracking the trust of consumers to us is very important, and I think it's important to the rest of the community as well. In the 2021 Trust Report we found that about only about 37 percent of Europeans are going to adopt new innovations, indicating that the food system has a lot more to do in educating consumers in promoting trust in these diverse protein sources.

On the positive side, the GFI found in a little bit of research, in advance of this conversation, they queried 4000 consumers across Europe and 60 percent say, more alternatives to meat products need to be found. There seems to be a very strong interest.

This article first appeared in EUobserver's magazine, Alt-Protein: Eating away climate change?, which you can now read in full online.
Alt-Protein: Eating away climate change?

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