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Alt-protein, agriculture and AI: Cargill’s CTO unravels macrotrends in human and animal nutrition

March 2, 2024
Consumer Packaged Goods

The drive toward more sustainable food systems requires a multisolution approach that harnesses the power of new technologies like AI to uncover new opportunities, says Florian Schattenmann, Cargill’s CTO and VP of R&D and Innovation.

In this exclusive interview, Schattenmann explains how the global food giant is working to enhance sustainable agriculture and advance alternative proteins. He also shares insights on the proliferation of AI systems and what the humanization of pets means for animal nutrition.

The world’s growing population demands greater access to nutrition, while the environmental crisis means agricultural production must become more sustainable. How does a global food giant like Cargill begin to address these challenges?
Schattenmann: With innovation — basically, you have to think about things differently than you have done before. You take the macrotrends and macronutrients like protein, and you look for ways to broaden that portfolio, so how do we make sure we get more options on the table and make things more sustainable?

We notice a real trend around non-caloric natural sweeteners like stevia. Stevia is grown in big fields, and when you extract it — like you extract tea — you get a lot of compounds that give you that sweet profile, and some of them taste better than others. Two of these molecules — Reb M and Reb D — are 300 times as sweet as sugar. If you could make them selectively, you would have a better product that you could make more sustainably. We use fermentation to make those compounds, so now you have a product that is sweeter than sugar and made in a more sustainable process. That’s where innovation is going — in the past, innovation had to be about making things cheaper or better, or both. Now, you also have to make them more sustainable.

We are also making our supply chains more sustainable. Within Regen Ag (Regenerative Agriculture), we are working with farmers to make practices more regeneratively positive. In 2020, we committed to using 10 million regeneratively positive acres by 2030. We’re closing in on that million acres — 880,000 so far. Within our animal supply chain, we work with farmers on carbon sequestration, grazing techniques and innovative new approaches for feed that are geared toward reducing GHGs by 30%.

We continue to see a lot of movement in the alternative protein space, like plant-based alternatives, insect proteins and cell-based meat. What are Cargill’s key focuses in this area, and what sort of challenges are you working to overcome?
Schattenmann: In all of these alt-protein spaces, you have to solve what I call the trifecta. Number one, you have to have a superior taste that either perfectly mimics meat or is a positive culinary experience. Number two, you have to get the cost right — if it’s more expensive than animal protein, people will try it, but they will not come back long-term. It also has to have a positive nutritional profile.

On the plant protein side, Cargill has a real supply chain advantage, from the crop through to the ingredients, meat processing, final distribution and packaging — we have everything under one roof. We feel very well-positioned to solve a lot of the problems here. We are looking at the ingredients portfolio and adding different ingredients, sometimes via collaboration. For example, we collaborate with Cubiq — its oil portfolio gives you a great mouthfeel with fewer calories. So we’re working on the ingredients side and the final product side, but we also understand that this is not a luxury item, so we’re really trying to drive the cost down.

In the cultivated meat space, we are engaging via strategic investments in companies. We see a potential role as a growth media supplier — those are some of the most expensive parts of that process. Insect protein is more of a focus for our animal nutrition business. There’s not one solution — you have to look broadly, and we still see growth in animal-based proteins.

Animal farming is widely regarded as a major contributor to climate change. Is it possible to balance global demand for animal-based protein with climate change mitigation?
Schattenmann: Protein is the most highly-indexed macronutrient — we expect over the next 25–30 years at least a 70% increase in protein production, and we will need more than one solution. The final consumer has the final say — we can’t force anybody to eat certain things. But we also believe there are still some low-hanging fruit to make the animal protein supply chain more efficient. Through Beef Up, we see multiple ways to get a better sustainability footprint, and our focus is on driving sustainability across the entire supply chain.

Artificial intelligence is increasingly seen as a game changer for the industry. In what ways is Cargill harnessing AI, and to what extent do you think these new technologies could change and transform your operations?
Schattenmann: AI is everywhere right now, but I want to caution because it’s also at the peak of the hype curve. But, there’s no question that R&D science and innovation will be largely affected by AI. So, we see a real productivity gain on the front end of the innovation process — the screening and exploration. AI can help you find unique areas that you can then explore deeper. When it comes to the back end and scaling, it may have some productivity advantages. But, in the end, a process has to work, and you have to demonstrate that in a pilot plant — otherwise, you don’t know how it’s going to work in the real world.

We see some really exciting examples. We have a project called Galleon that allows us to screen the DNA of the microbiome of a chicken flock — so a farmer can get samples of chicken poop from their farm, send it to us, and we run an analysis and tell them how healthy that flock is. The farmer can then adjust the feed to improve the health of the chicken flock. Over time, as we get better data around different chicken farms, we can see there may be a lot of fluctuation in farm A and much more stability in farm B, so we can adjust and predict what the farmer will need. So, the model is learning by getting more data from more samples. A healthy flock will be more productive and have less mortality, and it will be better for the GHG footprint.

In operations, we will see a lot more data-driven decision-making in the agricultural space, where basically, the AI system will tell you what kind of decisions to make based on weather data and market performance data, for example. The other area where we see a lot of promise is computer vision, where the computer basically figures out certain things and optimizes them. We’re in a natural product business — every plant and animal is slightly different — we’re not making cars where every screw is exactly standardized, so the computer can now pick up certain things that have a big advantage for automating, for instance, a meat processing plant.

Global consumers are increasingly concerned about their pets’ nutrition. What is Cargill doing to help advance this space?
Schattenmann: We see an incredible trend of the humanization of pets, and there’s a strong increase in human-grade pet food where basically the pet and the owner can consume the same products. A lot of the things we talked about apply to human and pet nutrition. In fact, from a strategic marketing perspective, we view pets as closer to humans than animals for consumption. The economy of scale that goes with this view gives us a higher chance of driving more cost-effective solutions.

By Joshua Poole


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