Challenge Opens For $1 Million In Prizes For Food System Innovations

Food & Drink

On June first 2023 the application window opened for the third annual Seeding The Future Global Food System Challenge which provides one million dollars each year in awards to promising food supply innovations. The window is open until August 1. The contest is funded through Seeding The Future Foundation, a family foundation started by Bernhard van Lengerich – a former Chief Science Officer at General Mills
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. Van Lengerich started his career in his family’s multi-generation baking business, studied Food Technology and pursued an extensive and notable career in food and CPG industry in which he was an inventor or co-inventor on more than 150 patents and patent applications. On his return from a trip to Africa to observe a joint project with the NGO “Partners in Food Solutions,” he was overwhelmed by the contrast between the food insecurity for the poor villagers he had just met and the abundance of food in the world he grew up and lives in today. He felt a strong sense of responsibility to find a way to actively support food system innovations, and based on many discussions with previous colleagues and friends he decided to set up a contest with the goal of encouraging a pipeline of highly impactful ideas. He was then able to set up a partnership with the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) which provides the expert panels which screen the applications and choose winners based on probable impact and how well the project fits into the overlapping “space” of three categories shown in the diagram below:

The ideal project from the perspective of The Challenge is one that has high potential impact, creates or makes available safe and nutritious food, is produced/preserved or delivered through highly sustainable practices, and is consumer friendly in the sense that it is affordable, appealing, and trusted. A winning project cannot have negative ramifications in any of the three categories.

The contribution of the prize money is certainly generous, but so is the completely voluntary engagement by the scores of still-working or retired IFT subject matter experts who review all eligible applications and select semi-finalists for each of the award categories. Two additional selection committees, each consisting of 9 globally recognized, national and international domain experts then select and interview finalists to decide on the final winners. In its first two years, the contest received over 1,500 applications from 75 different countries. By a conservative estimate, 700 expert-review hours are contributed in this process.

Not surprisingly the insights and perspective from this assessment process are highly valued by other charitable organizations and potential investors. The IFT does not publish all incoming applications for the prize, but the participants are free to find other uses for the information they submit and the feedback they may receive in the contest process.

The Contest offers three levels of prizes. The first are called “Seed Grants” and eight ideas are awarded $25,000 each to help take early stage projects to a prototype level. Then there are three $100,000 Growth Grant awards for projects that have demonstrated success at the prototype level and which need to demonstrate scalability. Finally, there are two $250,000 Grand Prizes.

One of the things that van Lengerich came to value throughout his career, and which is now imbedded in the selection criteria for the contest, is the importance of the synergy generated by interdisciplinary teams. Great technologies only make a difference if there is alignment between the practical details of the technology, logistics, communication, culture, trust, and economics. To make that happen requires a process that combines diverse perspective and skills.

One thing that distinguishes this program is that it encourages projects that can ultimately develop into self-supporting commercial platforms that not only address food supply issues but are also good for local economies.

Profiles of all the past winners can be viewed online, but the following four examples are described here to give a feel for the range of innovation that benefits from this support.

Low Arsenic Rice

Many soils contain arsenic as part of their natural mineral content and that is particularly an issue in waters that flow from the Himalayas in East Asia. Rice tends to absorb that element and it can reach levels in the grain that are toxic to humans. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) has been working on this issue for some time and has been able to breed rice varieties that exclude arsenic so that the grain is safe to consume. Part of the challenge is then to get this trait incorporated in the seed lines adapted for the various regions where subsistence farmers grow the crop and The Challenge prize from 2021 has now helped with that step. This kind of rice is also of considerable interest for baby food companies in the developed world. According to the IRRI, this innovation will affect the lives of between 40 and 70 million people.

Insect Processing of Food Waste and Byproducts

The larvae of the Black Soldier Fly (BSF) can be raised on just about any kind of food related material and then processed to generate a high protein animal feed ingredient and a fertilizer product. This technology is well established for upcycling food processing waste streams in the developed world, but adaptations were required to make an appropriately scaled version that was well adapted to the available feedstocks available in the developing world. The Chicago-based non-profit, Food Systems for the Future, was working on a BSF system as a way to generate feed for chickens or for aquaculture with the goal of increasing dietary protein in Rawanda. They were a Growth Grant winner in 2021 which helped them to focus further work on market development and then received a Grand Prize in 2022 which has helped them to close in on the milestones needed for a first fundraising round for commercialization. Those include evaluating the roles of their potential feedstocks from food processing (e.g. potato peels and corn cobs) and from post-consumer food residuals. They have been working on the logistical details with a leading BSF technology company, Protix Ltd, and more recently with the global feed/food processing technology company Buhler. Their target is a facility that can generate around 8 metric tons/year of feed and 20 metric tons of a valuable circular-economy fertilizer with an NPK content of 3-2-2 and 7% chitin which could even support crops grown for Rwanda’s export market.

A Solar Powered, Sharable “Cold Chain”

In the developing world, the lack of a cold chain leads to high levels of food waste as well as food safety risks. Solar Freeze, a group working in Kenya, has developed shipping container-housed, transportable units which have their own solar panel to power a refrigeration system. These autonomous units are then offered to farmers/ranchers through an Air-B&B- like model so that they are available at harvest time for many different operators throughout the year. This enables many different kinds of food producers to have the benefits of cold storage without the need for a major capital investment.

Nutrient Dense Fish Powder

An organization called WorldFish developed a homestead aquaculture project to enable small scale actors to raise small, locally adapted fish species that can then be dried and ground into a powder to make a highly nutritious food that does not require refrigeration and which is particularly valuable for children and pregnant and lactating women. They also had USAID funding through the Fish for Livelihoods Project and collaborate with FedWell Foods in Myanmar and SUN CSA Alliance in Zambia.

It will be very interesting to see which projects win in the 2023 Contest.

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