Finding the food of the future
How technology is transforming our food systems
The ready supply of food is frequently taken for granted in the developed world – but not everywhere can afford to be so complacent.
Eradicating global hunger was announced as a key UN Sustainable Development Goal (Goal 2) back in 2015’s Sustainable Development Agenda, looking towards 2030, but skip forward several years and the reality is starkly different.
Upwards of 720 million people faced hunger in 2020, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), as global demand for food continued to grow despite COVID-hit yields and escalating environmental pressures.
In 2020, according to the FAO, 57 million more people in Asia, 46 million more people in Africa, and 14 million more people in Latin America and the Caribbean were affected by hunger than in 2019.
This year, 2022 has heralded fresh gloom for food markets as the ongoing situation in Ukraine threatens harvests in a region known as one of the world’s major ‘bread-baskets’. The World Bank is predicting a crippling 37% rise in food prices, with soaring numbers of people forced into poverty and lower nutrition.
“Unless immediate action is taken, it is increasingly clear that there is an impending global food emergency that could have long-term impacts on hundreds of millions of children and adults,” warned UN Secretary General, António Guterres – noting that the world stands on the brink of its worst food crisis in half a century.
From a demand perspective, the problem is unlikely to diminish any time soon.
Global population levels are expected to reach an unprecedented 10 billion by 2050, some 2 billion more than inhabit the Earth today, with the population of sub-Saharan Africa potentially doubling during that period.
The potential of the climate crisis to exacerbate world hunger is already evident. Rising ocean acidity is killing scallops and oysters, cyclones and droughts are ruining crops, and rice fields are being flooded with saltwater. Research shows that if current trends continue unabated, maize yields could fall 28% by the end of the century, wheat by 22%, soya bean by 12% and rice by 11%.
The solutions are easy to identify, rather harder to implement.
Within the global food system, we need more food; of greater nutritional value; more economically and efficiently produced, and more equitably distributed.
Previous advances in food production have taken the form of mechanical enhancements of machinery, and later, genetic evolutions of hardier seeds and more potent fertilizers. While developments continue in these areas, newly emerging technologies, often in the realms of digitization and connectivity, can help illuminate a pathway to greater food security.
From raw data to robotics
With farms globally enduring more frequent bouts of severe weather, and conflict increasing in poverty-hit agricultural areas, technology will prove a vital weapon in the quest to encourage rural resilience and maximize nutritional yields.
Against this backdrop, the World Economic Forum has identified several of the most promising technological strategies at varying stages of development.
As emerging economies gain greater access to mobile networks, a new generation of apps are being rolled out to enable farmers to record and share agricultural data, synch with markets, and access financial services. All of which means a more efficient food chain, from planting, to fertilization, to harvest, to eventual sale.
How might such data-sharing take shape? It already exists, albeit in embryonic form.
In Africa, for instance, vegetable farmers in Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are already receiving real-time weather data to help stay one step ahead of the fluctuating climate. In Asia, meanwhile, pastoral farmers in Mongolia are being alerted to disease outbreaks to help keep their herds healthy. And throughout the global south, farmers are increasingly joining SMS networks offering advice on which new crops to plant and which growing techniques to favor.
This revolutionary connectivity is allowing farmers to coordinate transport logistics, exchange perishable goods such as animal feed, secure seeds and fertilizer for harvests, and optimize herd sizes for future environmental conditions.
The technological evolution of agriculture goes beyond mere data-sharing and super-fast connectivity.
“Artificial intelligence, analytics, connected sensors, and other emerging technologies could further increase yields, improve the efficiency of water and other inputs, and build sustainability and resilience across crop cultivation and animal husbandry,” predict researchers from global consultancy firm McKinsey.
Next-generation machinery could have a radical impact on food cultivation across a range of disciplines:
- Drone farming: Drone surveillance and remote image analysis, coupled with on-the-ground sensor monitoring, will help manage large-scale arable areas, triggering automatic interventions to increase yields and reduce the impact of common hazards, such as pests.
- Smart livestock monitoring: Body sensor data and movement tracking technology will help reduce illness among herds while also designing personalized feed and medicine combinations to maximize growth.
- Autonomous farming machinery: Crops and animals alike will in future benefit from targeted interventions by self-operating machinery and robots, their decisions determined by a combination of sensor data, GPS information and advanced image analysis.
- Smart building and equipment management: Optimized maintenance programs and real-time environmental adjustments will improve the performance, and lengthen the lifespan, of costly farm infrastructure and machinery.
Several firms globally have already progressed their technologies beyond proof-of-concept stage.
With solar traction and its interchangeable batteries, ecoRobotix AVO can treat up to 10 hectares per day, using up to 95% less weedkillers. (Photo Credit © ecoRobotix).
In Switzerland, for example, ecoRobotix is developing autonomous weeding robots which can potentially reduce the amount of fertilizers and pesticides required on the land by 95%, while simultaneously cutting production costs by more than 40%. Gamaya provides drones equipped with hyper-spectral cameras to enable digital agronomy. SenseFly likewise produces drones, in this case to collect geospatial data to help refine agricultural strategies. Cleangreens, meanwhile, manufactures mobile aeroponics systems to produce more economic and environmentally efficient crops.
Innovative thinking could help in other, less obvious, ways too. Packaging is presently being developed that fights bacteria using a special nanoparticle coating. This could not only extend the shelf life of the products inside but also help combat the scourge of food waste, a problem which causes up to 40% of food in the USA to be thrown away annually.
Lending evolution a helping hand
Gene editing – a group of technologies empowering scientists to add, remove or alter an organism’s DNA – are already being used to produce hardier, more nutritious crops.
Staple oilseed and horticultural crops are being improved (with far greater efficiency than traditional breeding) via tools such as mega-nucleases, zinc finger nucleases, transcription activator-like effector nucleases and Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) systems. CRISPR has, in recent years, emerged as particularly versatile and cost-effective.
Together, these technologies can not only increase the amount of food landing on global plates, but also improve its nutritional value, increase disease resistance and counteract allergens. By exerting greater control over soil and plant biomes – so-called micro-treatments – we have the potential to transform food production while reducing reliance on environmentally-questionable chemicals.
Developments in agricultural biotechnology are beginning to shine a light on microbes, specifically how particular kinds of bacteria, fungi and algae can be used to manipulate the microbiome, or growing environment.
It has already been demonstrated how microbes can transform nitrogen from the air into soluble nitrates to serve as natural fertilizers. Resultant seed treatments help produce crops able to withstand inclement climates or more arid conditions, with obvious benefits for sustainable production.
Studies are still ongoing, albeit at an accelerating pace thanks to the growth of ‘rapid-sequencing’ technologies. Fresh avenues of exploration include synthetic biomes, new diagnostics and biomarkers to regulate the health of soil and water resources, and improvements to both soil structure and nutrient availability.
As an evolving technology, more research is yet needed to improve our analysis of ecological conditions, and in understanding the molecular communication mechanisms of microbes and plants. Support at government level is promising, however, with the EU Commission’s International Bioeconomy Forum promoting microbiomes for food and nutritional security, and the USA’s 2016, National Microbiome Initiative boosting innovation within crop and soil technologies.
Lab-grown meats: a culture shift
Protein is a key component of all human diets, responsible for growth and development, and vital for the body’s ability to build and repair tissue. Typically, animal meat has been one of our main sources of protein, but this has become a contentious issue as its environmental footprint has become more apparent.
Research has shown that methane emissions, an inevitable byproduct of livestock production, are up to 34 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide. Beef is the major culprit, with 100g of protein generating around 50kg of greenhouse gases. By some estimates, total emissions from global livestock amount to 7.1 gigatons of CO2-equivalent per year, or 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
Alternative sources of protein are gaining in popularity, most notably via plant protein (soy, pea, rapeseed), insects (crickets, grasshoppers and mealworm for the feed industry) and mycoprotein (fungal biomass). However, with population pressures likely to deepen in coming decades, much investment is currently focused on cultured or lab-grown meats.
Cultured meat has been in development since 2013, when the world’s first lab-grown burger hit the headlines. In 2020, the number of investments and deals in cultivated meat research reached a record high of 49, totaling some US$ 366 million in value – up from just six deals totaling US$ 6 million in value as recently as 2016.
Lab-grown meat, in layman’s terms, uses advanced tissue culture techniques to breed animal cells in vitro from a parent stock, creating theoretically endless supplies of muscle tissue with an identical protein value.
At a more technical level, it begins with muscle cells being taken from animals via biopsy for isolation and culture in a lab. These cells are then nurtured within bioreactors (the cells themselves suspended in a network of fibers) where they are bathed in a special nutrient blend which acts as a growth media. Finally, they are processed into a type of tissue comprising muscle, fat and other digestible products, ready for forming into end products such as mince or burgers.
It is a growth industry in more ways than one.
Currently, more than 60 startups around the world are dedicated to honing lab-grown meat techniques. Much of this research is directed at devising the most efficient growth media, from constituent elements including salts, sugars, micronutrients and amino acids. Growth media costs hundreds of dollars per liter at the moment. It will need to hit a price point nearer one dollar per liter to achieve true scalability.
With many challenges remaining to design a food pipeline fit for the future, the pressure is mounting on governments and the private sector to make the smart investments today.
Public and private sectors share common purpose
I’m immensely proud that the Abdul Latif Jameel Water & Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS), co-founded in 2014, by Community Jameel and MIT and based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is helping to support breakthrough food-tech research in the quest to feed the planet in a more equitable and sustainable way.
Several of its ongoing research projects demonstrate the scope of this vital mission. These include ground-breaking projects on:
- Triggering genetic variations in crop plants by altering gene copy numbers and activating mobile DNA, to identify variants that are more resistant to heat shock or increased salinity.
- Detecting foodborne pathogens at processing sites before contaminated food reaches consumers, cutting down on food recalls and disease outbreaks.
- Meeting the increasing demand for protein-rich seafood by enhancing the performance of vaccines in aquaculture.
- Using hybrid evaporative and radiative cooling technologies to extend the shelf-life of foods within off-grid areas.
- Converting dairy industry waste into food and feed ingredients via metabolic engineering.
- Developing spectroscopic sensors to enable efficient crop management for smallholder farmers by reducing nitrogen fertilizer use while preserving crop yields.
Yet, research labs and private investors cannot achieve food security alone. Governments around the world can help usher in a future of universal nutrition by laying the foundations without delay for prudent research and investment.
Experts in the field suggest a range of complementary strategies.
Legislators must join with scientists and investors to scale-up food technologies and overcome hurdles such as vested interests, lack of venture capital, inadequate infrastructure and regulatory burdens.
At the same time, greater focus should be placed on the potential of ‘connectivity’ to revolutionize agriculture and food technology. Even in the US, generally deemed a connectivity pacesetter, only a quarter of farms currently exploit the possibilities offered by data sharing. With hardware and software prices falling constantly, Internet of Things (IoT) technologies offer advanced crops and livestock monitoring that could provide a ‘Year One’ return on investment.
Maximizing future harvests, however, will require the widespread embrace of next-generation analytics applications, which will in turn require the kind of low-latency high-bandwidth connectivity only offered by cutting edge technologies like LPWAN, 5G, and LEO satellites.
Deploying technology to transform our food systems is a mission that stretches all the way from the field to the laboratory. Investing in the right technologies now will prevent society from paying a much higher price later, when urgency might force our hand.
For millions of people around the world food security is intertwined with some of our other major challenges – human health, environmental sustainability, economic resilience and population pressures. It is the duty of public and private sectors to seize the invaluable opportunities offered by technology to transform our global food systems, with the same vigor and coordination we are already dedicating to revolutionizing our energy systems worldwide.