Chile's CeTA agency tests innovative food prototypes for startups and firms, helping to curb production costs and pushing for evolution in the context of climate change.
SANTIAGO — Drought in many parts of the world will likely become a recurring problem, and is already fueling not just fires but also debate on food security and sustainable food production.
Latin America is particularly vulnerable to climate change, as seen in Argentina's record-breaking summer heat and violent flooding in Peru, both of which threaten food production.
The future of food production has been of particular interest to neighboring Chile, which created in 2016 the CeTA (Centro Tecnológico para la Innovación Alimentaria), a research and testing center for new foods. This private-public partnership is working to make Chile a world leader in producing evolved, sustainable food products.
In 2014, a joint report by the government and Inter-American Development Bank found that Chile had doubled the value of its food exports in the previous decade, to $16 billion. Jean Paul Veas Flores, the CeTA managing-director, attributes this to expanded cultivation areas and switching to higher-value fruit and vegetables.
A typical example was trading apples, a traditional crop, for cherries destined mainly for China. The problem, Veas says, is that "in the long term this increase in (cultivation) surfaces and change of crops wasn't ... sustainable," mainly because of increased water use in an increasingly parched country.
Food production in Chile, says Veas, is also threatened by rural-to-city migration and a shortage of workers in rural communities. he argues that new technology will be crucial to the country's goal of doubling again the value of farming exports in the next 10-15 years.
CeTA is today jointly owned by four universities (the Catholic, national, La Frontera and Talca universities) and the Chile Foundation, a private-public innovation hub. It also receives some government funding.
Experiments, great and small
CeTA has tested a wide range of potential products, including breakfast cereals that use sustainable ingredients like farming sub-products or plants, as well as crispy sticks from grape residues and potato peel snacks. Its partners and clients are also varied, including multinationals like Nestlé, innovative foodtech firms like NotCo and local businesses.
"Many food tech firms had nowhere to start the production of their innovations, while ... large-scale firms like Nestlé, Agrosuper and others ... found it difficult to interrupt their (production) lines," Veas says. "Developing new products wasn't cost-effective or convenient," which is why food innovations have been "very slow."
CeTA, he says, has provided big firms with 120 pilot teams that track global consumer trends in new food products. Nestlé has in particular sought to develop plant-based proposals and improve some of its existing products.
Fernando Arcos, a Nestlé engineer at its San Fernando plant near the capital, says CeTA is the perfect place to test products at a reasonable price. He said it has allowed firms to link the phases of a product's scientific development with commercial evaluation, thanks to its equipment and scientific staff.
When NotCo needed to test prototypes like a vegan cheese, CeTA carried out small-scale, "representative" processes with RoboQbo (mixing and processing) equipment, to evaluate subsequent upscaling to mass production. Frequent testing allows CeTA and clients to 'fine-tune' products, by tweaking ingredients, reducing salt or sugars or improving taste and aroma.
CeTA also works on boosting circular economics and cutting waste from the crop production and sales chain, says Veas. The UN's food agency believes some 30 to 40% of all produce is lost in the production-to-sale cycle, which also means wastage of contributive resources like water and work hours.
"We've developed about 50 products and about 20% of them have circular-economy concepts, with an important part of their ingredients being leftovers from other industries," says Veas.
Veas broadly categorizes CeTA's food projects as being "plant-based, with minimal processing, a clean label and high plant-protein content," and "trending globally." Its clients, he said, include firms from Argentina and Peru, "because, apart from Brazil, neighboring countries have a shortage of innovation centers and cannot carry out tests at a low cost."
Opening ceremony of a new technological center CETA
Inflation and healthy eating
The climate is just one reason why food prices have risen in recent months. With less money to spend, consumers are buying differently, which itself impels innovation in the industry.
Hopefully the foods of the future will not be dependent on inflation, commodities prices or war in a food-producing region. Veas says countries will have to produce "minimum-level" foods that can replace the cereals or oils that have become scarce since the invasion of Ukraine.
Latin American states, he says, "have in turn had problems of manpower shortage and inefficient farming and use of water resources, all of which has made land more valuable than its output." That, he adds, diverts technology toward extractive activities.
For now, these new foods are not an option pricewise for the average consumer. But CeTA is helping curb production costs with affordable testing and evaluation services.
One day, says Veas, its prototypes could be as cheap as or cheaper than supermarket-brand products: "Big firms want to compete and have more efficient prices. CeTA came to fill this gap."