A Spanish recipe for a Sustainable Future
Spain is one of the gastronomic capitals of the world. Bold and vivid colours blend with punchy smoky flavours like chorizo and pimentón, enjoyed everywhere from the lively Las Ramblas to the rural Basque country. Influenced over the centuries by the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans and the Moors, and of course the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus, Spanish cuisine has returned the favour. It influences cuisine in countries around the world, both in terms of flavours, techniques and ingredients, as well as becoming one of the top exporters in the world. And it has a huge focus on innovation and foodtech.
As recent months have demonstrated, there is very little Spain can do about extreme weather and the effect it can have on a harmonious supply chain, but Spain is leading the way in terms of a tech-filled sustainable approach to producing food and drink. Spanish producers, manufacturers, retailers and start-ups are at the vanguard of food-related technology in pursuit of its sustainable development goals, and it’s gone from Spain Food Nation to Spain FoodTech Nation in the process.
Spain is one of the main agricultural markets in the world. It’s the leading exporter of olive oil, with 60% of the EU’s production and 45% of the global supply, and it ranks third in the world of fruit and vegetables and wine. Exports are positive, hitting 14.7 million tonnes in 2021, nudging the historical maximum in 2019, and worth over €17.6m.
Food is also important for the prosperity of the country, with the Spanish agri-food sector contributing 10% of national GDP and generates over 2.8 million jobs, directly and indirectly. It helps towards Spain’s ranking of the world’s 14th largest economy and the fourth largest economy in the EU.
Its restaurants, from the legendary El Bulli (which closed in 2011 but is set to reopen in June 2023 as a gastronomic museum) to the tiniest tapas bar, have helped make Spain the number two tourist destination in the world, with over 80 million visitors a year spending over 90 million euros enjoying Spanish food and drink.
In short, Spanish food is in a very tasty place. And though globally the food and drink industry is facing a series of sustainable challenges, Spain is tackling them with the same passion it usually reserves for debating the one true authentic recipe for paella.
As the latest Spain Foodtech Nation 2022 Report: Addressing new challenges across the food value chain shows, Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAPA) is focused on improving sustainability in three areas: economic, environmental, and social, which amounts to a holistic approach. More than 30,000 companies are involved in the transition, alongside more than 50 universities and 20 tech centres. And Spain has a prolific ecosystem of foodtech entrepreneurship, with over 400 start-ups spread across agri-tech, production, distribution and retail, and restaurants. Two core strengths are in deploying the latest technology, and progress in alternative proteins, and the latter has seen investment rocket.
Spanish alternative protein companies raised 42,91 million euros in 2022, up from 0.49 million euros in 2020 and 26 million euros in 2021. From 2021, the total amount of start-ups funding at Series A gradually increased, going from 23% to 27.5%. Overall, 2022 saw a total investment of €268M, up 9.38% on 2021, not including the high-profile deal between Delivery Hero and Glovo.
Which leaves the question of where all this effort and investment is having the most impact. And like the best tapas menus, it’s a long list with plenty of highlights.
Perhaps most impressive of all is its work on alternative proteins. A wide range of alternative proteins in the meat and dairy sectors are developed and listed in retail and foodservice, supported by new infrastructure to enable the all-important scalability.
Alongside this, increasingly sustainable ingredients are being developed utilising nanotechnology to micro-encapsulate bioactive ingredients, or by extracting the molecules responsible for the beneficial effects of broccoli, like sulforaphane and glucosinolate, and incorporating them into products.
Spain is also driving a more efficient and sustainable agriculture, incorporating the latest advances in vertical farming and artificial intelligence to deliver ‘smart’ agriculture, producing predictive tools for pest and disease control, and productivity forecast in decision farming systems. Food safety has also been enhanced by working with blockchain technology.
If that’s the shiny new end of the tech on show, some existing evergreen sustainability-related issues remain, like food waste and packaging. But Spain has applied the same tech-heavy approach, such as creating innovative 100% natural edible coatings for fruit and vegetables that extends shelf life.
Another industry trend is to make use of by-products, typically from manufacturing. For instance, Spanish start-ups like Byproductplace, a digital platform for the commercial exchange of by-products and waste, or Ingredalia, which develops natural functional ingredients using vegetable by-products from agri-food companies, or Cutiply, which uses fermentation as a tool to revalue by-products.
They serve as micro-examples of the macro-effect that Spain is having when it comes to sustainability and food and drink, leading the way with an abundance of futuristic solutions to an age-old problem, bringing together companies, industries, institutions, and technology centres with a common goal; to promote the circular economy and move towards a more sustainable world.
For the global food and drink industry, Spain is a beacon in terms of sustainability.
Yet despite the advanced approach to tackling the wide range of sustainability issues that the global food and drink industry faces, from production, to manufacturing, to packaging and retailing, Spain has retained what may be the most important ingredient of all when it comes to food and drink – passion.
Spain is passionate about quality food, about caring for the planet, and the sociable role food plays in friendliness, kindness and the wider community. Spanish food has always been about all these things and more, the evidence is served up on millions of plates every single day. It’s famous for its simple and respectful approach to ingredients, with dishes often featuring just one or two flavours, with liberal use of fresh and delicious ingredients like olive oil, tomatoes, peppers, rice and seafood. And of course Spanish wine, like Rioja, is among the most popular in the world.
Yet beneath the surface, the Spanish food and drink industry has evolved into a technologically advanced agri-food powerhouse. For hundreds of years the rest of the world has benefitted from Spain’s recipes, its techniques and the food it produces. Now it can benefit from the sustainable progress it’s making behind the scenes as well.
ICEX Spain Trade and Investment promote exports of Spanish products to Spain’s priority markets, working with Spanish producers, exporters, exporters associations and foreign importers and distributors to introduce new products and developing the market for more established ones. ICEX is the International Partner for the Sustainable Food Forum, here is everything you need to know about the event, and how to attend.