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The planet-friendly food innovations that just bagged a $2 million prize

Words: Sarah Walkley

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The food we eat and the way we produce it has a bigger impact on the planet than perhaps any other human activity. That’s why the world’s biggest environmental prize rewards the innovators transforming our food system. And the reward just got bigger.

What could you do with $1 million? It would go a long way to advancing that game-changing idea. How about $2 million? That’s the amount that has just been handed to Greenwave, a regenerative sea farming project, and B4Plastics, which makes biodegradable fishing nets, in a prize for sustainable food innovations.

The Food Planet Prize, which started out last year, focuses on finding those initiatives that have the potential to revolutionise the way that we produce, process and consume food – including initiatives that, without a timely injection of cash, may never fulfil their real potential. The prize is funded by philanthropist Curt Bergfors, the owner of Swedish burger chain Max.

“The point of the prize is to help those initiatives that have potential to change the world”

Magnus Nilsson, co-chair of the prize judging panel

“Whatever way you look at it – whether it is in terms of climate or biodiversity – food production is incredibly problematic,” says Magnus Nilsson, Michelin starred chef and co-chair of the Food Planet Prize judging panel. “As opposed to other sectors, we can’t just stop eating. We have to feed ourselves. And in the future, there will be more people to feed.”

That’s why the foundation behind the prize has doubled the amount up for grabs, making it the largest prize in sustainability. “The whole point of the Food Planet Prize is to help those initiatives that have true potential to change the world,” stresses Nilsson.

What made Greenwave and B4Plastics stand out from a field of close to 400 entrants? “Greenwave has the potential to touch thousands of people due to its focus on training,” says Nilsson.

Bren Smith is a former fisherman who embraced regenerative farming of seaweed and shellfish. Photo: Greenwave

Kelp is highly nutritious and grows incredibly fast. Photo: Ayşe Gürsöz

Former fisherman turned kelp farmer, Bren Smith, has an ambition to train 10,000 regenerative farmers to grow sea greens and shellfish, while restoring our marine ecosystem. Greenwave has a waiting list of 8,000 people in the US alone. Not all will become farmers. Smith is committed to “taking the energy” of those people, who come from all walks of life, and “finding the best fit for them” in the ocean economy as hatchery technicians, producers of kelp products or farmers who help him to “seed the movement”. “If you can get 10,000 engaged individuals, it creates a life of its own,” says Smith, who is keen to inject that life into deprived or indigenous communities beyond the US, starting in New Zealand and Chile; there is already interest from another 100 countries.

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B4Plastics is also on the verge of scale-up, notes Nilsson. Founded by bio-engineer Stefaan De Wildeman after realising that plastics were “infesting his life”, B4Plastics has a vision to create plastics “with an expiry date”, starting with fishing gear. The company has developed a new biopolymer for use in fishing nets, which won’t fragment into microplastics if lost overboard. Instead, they break down into minerals and virtually disappear. Through research the company is starting to understand how to control that process under different ecological conditions. De Wildeman says: “In the next three to five years, we hope to be able to manipulate the rate of biodegradation.”

Unfortunately, many fishing nets end up lost in the ocean. Photo: Getty Images / Thomas Barwick

Both of this year’s winners happen to be ocean-related, but the prize covers all aspects of food production. Finalists include The Savory Institute, which is helping farmers to introduce a more holistic approach to livestock grazing reversing desertification; ColdHubs, working to reduce food waste in Africa by providing solar-powered cold rooms; and Air Protein, a California-based start-up combining edible microbes and excess CO2 to create protein out of thin air. Sixth finalist Agrisea has used gene-editing to increase rice’s tolerance to salt, allowing it to be grown offshore without soil, fertilisers, or freshwater.

Find out more about ColdHubs in 5’s interview with the founder

“I’d like to look back in five years’ time and see that some of the people we have rewarded have had a global impact”

Magnus Nilsson, co-chair of the prize judging panel

Smith believes there is a dawning realisation of the importance of our oceans. As farming is increasingly pushed out to sea by drought and a decline in soil health, we have to be mindful of how we establish ocean farming in a way that “builds in sustainability and social justice from the bottom up”. De Wildeman commented that we are only just beginning to understand the role our oceans play and “if we destabilise our oceans, then we also further destabilise life on land”.

Already engaged in the search for the 2022 winner, Nilsson and the organisers of the prize are committed to ensuring that doesn’t happen. “I’d like to look back in five years’ time and see that some of the people we have rewarded have had a global impact.”

“Feeling appreciated for doing something positive is a powerful thing”

Stefaan De Wildeman, B4Plastics

Though early days, the prize is delivering on these high ambitions. Last year’s four $1 million prize winners are all scaling up rapidly. Future Feed, which created seaweed-based animal feed that helps cut ruminant emissions from cows, launched its first lower-emission steaks in August. The Land Institute has established new research hubs to deepen knowledge of perennial crops that mimic natural processes and promote healthy soils. Blue Ventures has launched the Transform Bottom Trawling coalition to tackle the destruction that fishing is doing to our oceans.

Beyond the prize money, is the recognition that the Food Planet Prize brings, says De Wildeman. “Feeling appreciated for doing something positive is a powerful thing.”

Help find the next winner

Do you know of an innovation that has the potential to sustainably transform the food system? Nominate it below for the annual Food Planet Prize, and it will be in with a chance for a $2 million boost.

Nominate a project

Main photo of kelp harvest: Imagine China
Stefaan De Wildeman photo courtesy of B4Plastics
Magnus Nilsson photo courtesy of Food Planet Prize