ore than one billion portions of instant noodles are sold each year. Chris Langwallner married market size to sustainability to show how businesses can lead the way in improving food systems. And he adds some incredible advice for startups.
Tell us about what you’re investing in
Unconsciously I’ve spent 20 years of my career in food systems. And consciously, now the past seven years trying to understand what can be done to bring something positive.
The Nutritional Paradox, our not-for-profit initiative, is our open source platform where we share our experience and what we see in the agri-food world on a global basis with all the devastating data points.
And then we have our hardcore commercial company WhatIf Foods. We are a new kid on the block, and we sell consumer foods.
So what we preach on one side with the Nutritional Paradox, we execute on the other. It’s all about 360 degree sustenance, which stands for our strive to identify crops that are beneficial for human consumption, aiding a diversified diet.
These crops are from degraded land grown in challenged soils, poor soils. We have plenty of land banks available to us that are not productive. By doing so we help a number of smallholder farming communities, make them stronger much more resilient and bring them back into a meaningful life.
In order to live up to the promise you have to put a lot of research work and development into the system. Over the last 150 years all our industries have focused on a few crops and specialised in efficiencies. Probably the smallest change to the supply chain, for a wheat miller, for example is a challenge, so one cannot assume that on a large scale you can actually make use of the other wonderful crops that are out there.
Explain to us how you harnessed the power of instant noodles to create markets for sustainable farming
We thought what if you take the deep fryer out of the factory? What sort of new possibilities can we create? And by thinking that way we understood very early on that if we take the oil out, we save quite a nice amount of frying oil in volume. If you deep fry something it picks up oil – up to 20% in the case of instant noodles.
It’s a significant amount of raw material cost to remove. That saving we then use for the Bambara [sustainably sourced groundnut] crop, for example.
We had to invent a process that is commercially viable and can replace the deep fryer – which is heavy lifting because deepfrying takes you three and a half minutes whereas air drying takes 35 minutes.
For a voluminous product like this, it would mean factories 10 times bigger or you sell for 10 times the capacity, neither of which is economically viable. That is what our research went into. Taking the deep fryer out means that you are changing the possibilities. And it’s very exciting.
That re-design enables you to source alternative oil from degraded land in a more sustainable model that the general CSR approach. Tell us about that.
I grew up on a farm in Austria and I’ve seen what it means to focus on one product on a farm. It means that you are so vulnerable to swings in the market. A farmer today, irrespective of where you are, most unlikely has bargaining power.
So what we are doing is trying to create markets for orphan crops, forgotten crops – we call them future food crops.
We create markets for them so that the action we take with smallholder farmers, in West Africa, is sustainable in the creation of business and demand creation.
That becomes a new ecosystem in its own right and then has that positive snowball effect.
In my experience, approaching the system from a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) point of view more often that not ends up in giving seeds to grow something, and then what – I’ve grown it but where’s the market? Can I grow it again next year? If so, where’s the buyer? Where is the income from?
Several initiatives that I have seen in the past have utterly failed because of missing markets. There’s no price finding mechanism and so on. So we are leading from helping consumers diversify their diets, through products that grow on degraded arable land, so that we help the farming communities.
It’s an end to end to end solution trying to create win-wins on all sorts of fronts and being very mindful of the profitability of the organisation, because unless we give back to the shareholders we won’t be sustainable either.
So there is a philosophy behind how you manage the additional costs in your approach?
There are many profit pool opportunities, as I call them. The crops that we are investigating and work with, such as the Bambara groundnut that grows in West Africa, is rather expensive.
That would exclude the commercial use of this crop to start with, unless you had the liberty to re-design comfort food.
And this is what WhatIf Foods is all about. It’s essentially thinking about what we can do to make convenience food, nutritious. How can we help consumers through the offering that we create, without asking consumers to change their habits?
We’re trying to think, what sort of products can we re-design so that we create new profit pools that allow us to capture money we can use to do good.
We try to be affordable to all, while the compensation to the farming communities is just and fair.
We aim to speak to the farmers as close as we possibly can, even if they are the smallest of the smallest. We eliminate a lot of the supply chain to mediaries and save money on that. But it is not a cheap undertaking. There’s a lot of science and a lot of technology that’s required.
Explain the importance of agriculture to achieving your aims
We are trying to use the power of regenerative agriculture and the selection of what we call future food crops, crops that are beneficial to human consumption that aid a diversified diet, plus crops that grow on this degraded arable land particularly in the small holder farming community context.
This makes work on these farms more meaningful again. The income is more diverse so the entire community becomes more resilient and as a by-product rejuvenates soil quality because you are bringing the farm the ability to rotate crops. Today we live on such few crops it becomes increasingly difficult to find crops with markets that allow rotation cropping.
A re-design was at the centre of the business proposition. What was the motivation?
Sustainability is a very broad term and people define it in several different ways. We looked around us. I’m talking to you from Singapore sandwiched between the two largest palm oil producers in the world, Malaysia and Indonesia and if you go on a road trip from Singapore to KL you will see palm plantation after palm plantation. We started asking, what’s happening here?
Of course we have lost primary forest already, but what is happening now? In that context we started to worry about degraded arable land because intensive agriculture leaves a lot of land unproductive.
2.6 billion people today are still directly connected to agriculture and make a living off it. We tend to forget that in the developed world. 74 per cent of these people are the poorest of the poor, they are living off very small land parcels just a couple of acres and that’s how they have to make ends meet.
52 per cent of arable land today is already degrading or severely degraded. This is degradation on a scale unseen in history before. We are talking about 35 times the recorded degradation of land ever seen in human history.
It’s insane how much arable land we actually lose because it becomes commercially unviable. With it, the top soils get lost and we lose soil species. As a bite size indicator it’s worthwhile remembering that represents 23 soccer fields every minute on a global basis is what we lose of arable soil.
Roughly the same amount, 30 soccer fields, of primary forest gets lost because intensive agriculture is hungry for arable land. To fuel the current system you have to take out the primary forest to make use of the fresh arable land in order to produce what we currently produce today. And that is just insane.
You are cutting down the primary forest, the lungs of our planet, and at the same time you are leaving all this land behind. It doesn’t make sense. In 2050 we have to feed about 10 billion people and if you don’t stop that trend we have to knock down two and a half times the size of India of primary forest in order to feed the population.
By thinking about that, we also know that the way we are producing food is not really healthy because 2.3 billion people today are obese, struggling with diabetes, heart attacks cardio vascular diseases, bowel cance,r colon cancer, you name it, they are all related to the diet we are consuming. But 800 million people are hungry, they starve. It’s a very, very bad figure.
Why should researchers, policy makers and businesses, remember the vital Sustainable Development Goal, SDG17?
I think foremost we all need to recognise that alone we can’t fix it. However hard we try, it is like pushing water uphill continuously and it keeps falling down on you.
So I’m speaking to all stakeholders, be it policy makers, supply chain managers, distributors, consumers. We need to recognise that in order to go about rectifying what is broken, we have to have a system approach.
All of a sudden people in Europe decide that biofuels are bad and they stop subsidising biofuels in the European Union. What happened on this side of the world is that it caused more deforestation. Because if you are a smallholder farmer and you are relying on one income and the subsidies fall away without the opportunity to grow something else to make up for the income, what’s the thing you do? You’ve got rainforest, you burn it down in order to put more palm trees up.
Please start thinking systems through and acknowledge the fact that your action, which might have a good intent, leads to exactly the opposite outcome because you haven’t appreciated the system.
It is very, complex, very, heavy. So many different products in the value chain, so many trades make it very difficult to understand it all.
If I had a wish, it would be embrace SDG 17 [revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development]. It means partnerships and coming together and listening to each other. Not only to be heard, but to build on each other’s knowledge so that the ultimate outcome takes into consideration much more than one dimension.
Because of Covid-19 and the recession we are in, I feel that we’ve come to a grinding halt, simply because we have other things to worry about.
Our wellbeing, our public health, are all connected to the financial market, to the cash reserves of business. That feels much more urgent than thinking about the food system. But as we come out of the recession, hopefully in a couple of years, and come out of Covid-19, we need to go back and think it through with the help of many, many players rather than just trying to do it alone.
Do you have any advice for food startups?
Typically I say to people who want to start a business, try to identify your purposeful advantage. Try to see beyond your competitive advantage, or for researchers try to think beyond intellectual property. Work hard to identify the issue that you are taking on. WhatIf Foods is all about SDG15, life on land. If we don’t figure that out we can’t stop deforestation, we can’t stop the depletion of water tables.
Think about what it is that civil society needs by and large. What is it that we need to do –there’s a good guide with the SDGs. Think about what you have in terms of resources, your own passion.
Try not to be fooled around – ‘I have this idea, I have butterflies in my stomach and I want to do something’. Hang on a second, calm down, relax. If you meet a nice girl you get butterflies. But are these butterflies lasting for an entire generation? Can you marry and be home with your idea for a long, long time? This is something that is very important. I made that mistake with my first venture when I was a young guy because I was making decisions based on the butterflies in my stomach. It didn’t last and I’ve lost money. So, don’t do it.
Appraise your skills, resources, your competitive edge, and marry these to community, social impact, green impact, planet health.
With your passion, marry that with consumer demands.
And once you have identified these areas, there’s an overlapping spot that is your purpose – and run with it.
Identify future businesses based on purposeful advantage. That’s what we have done and honestly it gets me out of bed every morning and go to bed saying I’ve done something today I’m feeling happy about it.
So deciding your purpose before you start a new business is essential?
Especially at the beginning of a business. You have a once in a lifetime opportunity to define your purpose from the start and wire it deeply into the operations of your business. So it doesn’t become a statement it is actually in the DNA of the company.