Iowa: A “Future of Food” State

June 11, 2020 |

By Mark Laurenzo, Business Development Manager, Iowa Economic Development Authority

Special to The Digest

Once little more than an after-work chore for some or a weekend family outing for others, visits to the grocery store visit now feel a little different in the wake of COVID-19. Said simply, things have changed. Our collective hope is that at some point, we’ll return to some semblance of normalcy where trips to the supermarket don’t call for one-way aisles, social distancing and facemasks. But for all the things that have changed about the consumer’s shopping experience, some things have remained the same:

  • Consumers expect transparency. From ingredients to origin, consumers demand honesty from producers.
  • Consumers expect options. This goes beyond brand allegiance, as some consumers have voluntarily substituted meat in their diet. The availability of suitable alternatives to support lifestyle choices are a must.
  • Consumers expect quality and sustainability. Quality has been the industry’s watchword since its inception. With resources at a premium and carbon footprints a key consideration, companies are still expected to deliver quality, albeit in a demonstrably sustainable fashion.

With these consumer-centric considerations in mind, the state of Iowa’s food production and processing industries have evolved along with the ever-changing needs of the marketplace, innovating new ways to meet shifting consumer demands while supporting domestic and international supply chains. Consider the following:

  • Iowa is first in the U.S. in corn, pork and egg production and second in soybean production.
  • Global food giants, such as Barilla, Kraft Heinz, Quaker Oats and Hormel, all call Iowa home.
  • Precision agriculture stalwarts operating in the state, including Bayer and Corteva Agriscience, allow for a close connection to the supply chain.
  • Iowa-based food and ingredient companies produce nearly $36 billion dollars annually in food products.

Serendipity grants Iowa some inherent advantages (availability of natural resources, central geographic location, nutrient-rich land, abundant wind energy), but other, more intentional factors serve as driving forces behind the state’s position as a leader in today’s food processing industry.

Innovation and Investments

While some consumers have shifted toward a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, others have adopted more of a “flexitarian” diet, choosing to consume meat occasionally or selectively. Even so, the need for protein as a nutrient remains, which is why companies have invested in producing alternative protein sources. For example, PURIS expanded its operations (via a $75 million-dollar investment from Cargill) to include pea protein production at its Oskaloosa, Iowa, facility. Leveraging the state’s natural resources and commitment to innovation, the company was able to increase its worldwide pea protein production, thereby helping to satisfy a global need for an alternate protein source.

There’s another subset of consumers who prefer meat in their diet but want to know where it was sourced. Leveraging that insight, Iowa’s pork producers announced a major investment in blockchain tracking, giving consumers more visibility into the origin of their pork and allowing for transparency, informed decision making, and greater consumer confidence.

Research and Development

Facilities across the state are committed to developing new varieties, processes and ingredients with the goal of offering healthier solutions and new alternatives for consumers, including the production of starches that are resistant to digestive enzymes – a product that would benefit those battling diabetes and obesity. This and other innovations in the pipeline have the potential to improve consumer health in the United States and around the world.

As Iowa-based food manufacturers continue an aggressive push toward new products and technologies, their efforts are complemented by those of Iowa State University’s Food Science and Human Nutrition Department (FSHN) and Nutrition and Wellness Research Center (NWRC). Programs such as these fuel innovation to create products and processes that address the industry’s manufacturing challenges and satisfy the evolving demands of today’s consumer.

Abundant and Adaptable Resources

Iowa’s ample supply of renewable raw materials has positioned the state as a well-known leader in renewable fuel production. However, many companies in the biofuels space and the agricultural supply chain are exploring new ways to leverage these raw materials in a shift toward food production for humans and for the animals who feed us.

For instance, Green Plains, Inc.’s ethanol plant in Shenandoah, Iowa, recently received a $35 million-dollar investment that allows the plant to produce high-protein animal feed created from raw materials harvested in Iowa. In partnership with Fluid Quip Technologies (of Cedar Rapids, Iowa) and Novozymes, the animal feed produced in Shenandoah and other plants in Green Plains’ network will provide high-protein feed for aquaculture, pet food and novel ingredients used in global protein markets.

Business-Friendly Environment

Changing a business model to meet consumer demands requires a certain degree of flexibility, and food production companies operating in Iowa have long benefitted from a business-friendly regulatory environment that incentivizes innovation and exploration. Iowa’s food industry has attracted more than $400 million in investments from companies such as ConAgra Foods, Sara Lee, General Mills and Ajinomoto. These investments lead to innovations which ultimately benefit consumers, as these companies have been able to nimbly pivot to meet the needs of the marketplace.

We’re still learning how to navigate our “new normal,” as are consumers everywhere. I’m sure there are even more changes to come that we haven’t yet considered. But as needs change in the realm of food production, Iowa will do what it’s always done – serve as a hub of excellence for the industry and a place where companies can freely operate to meet the needs of its consumers.

Mark Laurenzo joined the Iowa Economic Development Authority in 2007 and currently serves as one of the organization’s Business Development Managers. Hear more from Mark during ABLC’s digital event, July 8-10, 2020.

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