How consumer behaviour has changed and what solutions NX-Food has to offer
Fabio Ziemssen is the head of NX-Food. The mission of NX-Food: to enhance and inspire the food system. METRO’s innovation hub, founded in 2017, is looking for new technologies, impulses and products – in other words, solutions that offer answers to the challenges of the global food system. Together with the innovators, NX-Food works to implement their solutions and helps them successfully enter the market.
We talk to Fabio about the lost appreciation of food, the challenges of feeding the world and the latest food trends and innovations
Fabio, a lot has happened since NX-Food was founded: At the beginning of 2018, you introduced the first wholesale listing for insect-based products in Germany, only 3 months after the new EU regulation on novel foods entered into force. Shortly afterwards you started numerous partnerships. To advance the future of nutrition, NX-Food supports international start-ups in the fields of alternative proteins, vertical farming and more. What direction is NX-Food heading in and what is the long-term goal?
Let’s start with the challenge: As a society, we have lost touch with the origin of food. The gap between the point of production and the point of consumption is enormous. We no longer have a feeling for what is necessary to produce food. At the same time there is a loss of proportionality in relation to food. Food waste has increased, yet the willingness to spend money on food has decreased. NX-Food is looking for solutions that restore the connection to food. An example is the re-localisation of plant resources through vertical or urban farming. Or solutions for the transparent traceability of food, which give buyers insight into production and processing methods.
The year 2019 was marked by huge debates – at least in Europe – about climate change and, in this context, about sustainable lifestyles. What is your experience: Did these discussions give food innovators a boost?
My clear answer: yes. There are many millennials among the minds behind new food technologies and food solutions, which – operating on an intrinsic drive – are bringing products to market that have the ambition to change the status quo. A prominent example is the company Beyond Meat, which received a great deal of attention in 2019 with its successful IPO. This has also led to many imitation products being brought to market because the potential of alternative protein sources or alternative plant-based solutions has become apparent. The discussion about plant-based nutrition, for example, has really fuelled this.
The discussion surrounding the topic of plant-based nutrition is highly emotional. What do you think has been achieved by the debate?
It has gone mainstream. It has long since ceased to be just about animal welfare – it’s also about healthy nutrition, personal well-being and questions of climate protection. These are issues that are of great concern to more and more consumers. The discussion today is thus driven by sustainability on the one hand and the question of the optimal diet for one’s own body on the other. So it’s no wonder that emotions colour the debate on such personal issues.
What food trends can we expect for 2020?
The topic of sustainable packaging is becoming increasingly important. We will also see products that offer vegetarian or vegan alternatives. What we will also see in particular are sugar-free and non-alcoholic products. In other words, alternatives for products that we actually already know – which in this case also take into account the increasing importance of health aspects in our society, but are the same in terms of taste and texture. We are therefore currently monitoring innovations with a functional nature in which health is the central focus. This includes solutions for nutrition that is tailored to one’s own individual needs. Personalised nutrition is therefore also becoming a major area of interest.
How do you turn a trend into a real, long-term alternative?
The alternative product must not be accompanied by finger-wagging. First of all, it must have all the attributes that make the original product successful. Meaning: taste and quality. At such a level, a product can also point a critical finger from time to time. But to really become an alternative, the product must be the better alternative in case of doubt. Ideally, better means not only motivated by sustainability aspects alone, but also by even better taste, better quality or maximum product transparency.
You are also co-founder of BALpro – an association for the promotion of alternative proteins. What drives BALpro?
The Association for Alternative Protein Sources was founded as an interest group. Detached from emotions and ideologies, the members – including start-ups, corporations and investors – discuss what a sustainable food system could look like. What’s important: We do not denounce what went wrong in the past, but focus on the future.
In your opinion, what roles do political institutions and the government play when it comes to establishing innovations that contribute to a sustainable food system?
In my opinion, political decision-makers have the task in this context of creating good overall conditions for this market development. The first step would be to identify future-oriented developments in the market at an early stage and then react accordingly. However, we often see in Germany that political decision-makers underestimate the speed of trends around food innovations and technologies and then fail to react in a timely manner. This is not how we become drivers of innovation in the food sector. There is already a very agile start-up landscape for new products and solutions. However, Germany does not see itself as a figurehead for innovation. One reason for this: We have always regarded German culinary culture more as a history of expansion than of innovation.
This is Fabio
Fabio grew up in the Garden of Eden: His grandfather owned an agricultural business and his mother was a passionate cook with a strong awareness of food. No wonder that food has always been at the centre of Fabio’s life. As a high school student, he earned some extra money by working in the catering industry. After graduating, he completed an apprenticeship at METRO Germany as a wholesale, import and export merchant and studied marketing and communication at the same time. This was followed by a second degree in logistics and e-commerce. As digital development progressed, he wondered: What’s next? “The combination of my interest in technology and my emotional connection to food has led me to the mission of trying to see how in the future we can combine what we love and need so that everyone will be better off in the end.” Since 2017, Fabio has been back at METRO with exactly this mission – as the founder and head of the innovation hub NX-Food.