SANDY — Sustainable farming.
Personal produce shoppers.
For decades, Utah farmers and ranchers have produced food for residents and families across the Intermountain West in much the same manner. But consumer demands have changed over the years, and now local food producers and sellers are working together to find new ways to provide the food today's consumers are asking for.
"We're trying to find new markets for our producers," said Dale Newton, CEO of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation. To help in that process, he explained, the federation organized the first Utah Food Innovation Summit — a gathering of local producers aimed at developing ideas that could move the industry in a direction toward continued long-term viability.
"(We want) to help innovate new food products that don't exist now and find new markets. And not just new products to sell in Utah, but all over the world," he said. Eventually, Newton said, the state would develop its own food innovation center as several other states around the country have already done.
"So many of our producers are doing things with new technology and being more productive than ever before," he said. "It's because these people work so hard and produce so many products."
He said having producers collaborate can bring about the creativity and innovation needed to help Utah's food industry prosper in the years to come. He said among the big hurdles to overcome will be to change the thinking on food production.
"It's a challenge for our producers to do things differently," Newton said. "To be more innovative, we have to do things a little differently."
He said some farmers may have to use some of their lands to grow different crops rather than just what they've grown for years. Also, some producers in the food industry are innovating by disrupting the traditional food production system while developing new products with greater potential for broad consumer appeal.
Ethan Brown, CEO of Beyond Meat — a California company that develops plant-based protein products — told the audience gathered at the federation's Sandy headquarters Tuesday that his company is working to create mass-market solutions to replace animal protein with foods made from plant protein.
"The basic idea behind the company is that animals are consuming vegetation and water," he explained. "(Producers are) then using their biology to create something we call meat."
He noted that all the vital nutrients found in meat can also be found in plants.
"So why not get them directly from plants and put them in the architecture of meat?" he queried rhetorically. With that idea in mind, his company developed a sustainable plant-based product with many of the same qualities of meat that is now on sale in grocery stores nationwide, he said.
"We are relentless in the study of what makes meat meat. (People who work for us) need to understand meat better than anybody else," Brown explained. "They need to understand the structure, what drives its flavor and aroma, then we go about finding those same inputs from plants and putting them against that blueprint of meat so the consumer is having the experience of meat that's been grown through an animal."
He said while his company's products have found an audience of consumers, there is still more to be discovered as technology and food science continues to progress. One of the major goals of the company is to figure out ways to partner with U.S. agricultural producers in a collaborative effort to develop new protein products in a long-term, sustainable fashion, he said.
"Why are we importing stuff from Europe (and) Canada? Why aren't we growing it here?" Brown said. "What would that mean for the American farmer?"
He said the company has to continue developing "better and better" products each year, but there should also be efforts made to help farmers and ranchers so they can benefit from the new food innovations that don't rely on animals.
"It could be a massive win for sustainability," he said. "It's much less water use, much less energy use, much less land use and emissions are dramatically lower."
Brown said maintaining the efficiencies that already exist in farming, but without the inefficiency of animals can be a great stride in food production worldwide.
Meanwhile, innovations in how consumers purchase their food are evolving as technology and demand for convenience has grown, explained Bob Harmon, vice president of Utah-based Harmons Grocery that operates 19 stores statewide.
"Innovation for us is trying to buy really high-quality clean foods," he said. Additionally, the company is implementing more "to go" and "heat and eat" type foods.Comment on this story
Another technology enhancement has been the advent of "e-shopping" in which customers can create lists and have their items selected by personal shoppers to be picked up curbside rather than having to go into the store.
Because individuals and families are more pressed for time and are unable to do all the food preparation themselves, grocers are having to develop alternatives that allow consumers to continue patronizing stores, but in sometimes less traditional ways, he said.
"Make it easier — because that seems to be where we live today," he said.