Feeding Tomorrow: Exploring the Next Frontier in Food
How can smart farming and biotechnology can help us feed the people of tomorrow?
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Climate change and a growing global population are putting our planet under immense pressure. Our current food systems, the activities related to producing and consuming food and their economic, health and environmental effects are pushing us toward the planetary boundaries.
"Our food system is at a pivotal moment; there is enormous potential for innovation to unlock more healthy, accessible and sustainable diets for all, but we are simultaneously facing huge global challenges,” says Richard Zaltzman, chief impact officer at EIT Food, a pan-European organization working to build an innovative, inclusive and resilient food system. “The decisions we make now, from across policy and investment to lifestyle and behavior, will have a significant impact on our future food system.”
The food industry is already a major contributor to climate change, with emissions from worldwide agriculture and livestock activity reaching 9.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (Gt CO2eq) in 2018, and unless something changes, emissions could increase by 15 to 20% by 2050.
To mitigate the negative impacts of increased production and ensure future food supplies, the food industry must establish a sustainable food system from farm to fork, protect resources and use them efficiently and effectively. As consumers, our relationship with food – how we grow, produce and eat it, must change in response to increased demand and warming conditions. But how can this be achieved?
The United Nations expects the global population to rise to 9.7 billion within the next 30 years. As food production increases to keep up, more land will be needed for livestock and crops, generating increased greenhouse gas emissions. Feeding a growing population in a changing climate, with limited land and finite resources, is a difficult task. The additional space needed for farming will compete with that required for housing needs, and just as housing developers are building up, farmers will have to consider farming upwards to make the most of the space available.
Vertical farming involves growing crops like tomatoes, mushrooms and strawberries in stacked layers, typically in factory-style situations, often without soil and sunlight.
Such farms utilize low-value land that might not otherwise be used for food production, and have even been adopted outside of Earth’s atmosphere. Additionally, 1 acre of vertical farm is capable of producing the equivalent of between 10 to 20 acres of conventional farming. Because the method is highly controlled, crops that are less vulnerable to the climate, pests and pathogens can be grown all year round, regardless of the season.
To ensure future food security, farmers must also ensure their crops are robust enough to survive under changing conditions. Biotechnological solutions – those using biological systems, living organisms or parts of them to develop different products– could be key.
Precision breeding, or gene editing, allows plant and animal breeders to precisely modify DNA by removing or altering genes at a specific location to create an organism with desirable genetic traits, such as resistance to pests or disease, essentially expediting the natural selection process. It’s different from genetic modification, a more controversial technique, which introduces specific genes – often from another species – to the plant or animal’s genome
The technique has shown promise for breeding cacao trees with enhanced resistance to disease; developing barley, rice and tomatoes with increased disease resistance and breeding a type of tomato plant with shortened stems that grows faster and requires less space making it suitable for vertical farming. Scientists have also edited hen DNA so that only female eggs develop when blue light is shone on their fertilized eggsull calves have been genetically edited to produce more male offspring.
Rise of the robot farmers
Agriculture produces 23.7 million tons of food per day, and methods have changed considerably since our ancestors first farmed the land. Mechanization of automated manual labor with machines like tractors and combine harvesters has made industrial farming on large scales possible. A second revolution, which implements agricultural technology and introduces innovative and sustainable practices, can further improve the efficiency and yield of crops and reshape our food systems for the better.
And it starts with seeds; the human eye currently evaluates seedlings, but robots equipped with machine vision and artificial intelligence (AI) could be taught to recognize desirable traits to aid plant breeding, speeding up or even ending the laborious process of sorting seedlings.
“Agriculture is a rapidly growing area for machine learning applications, and we can expect to see more aspects of our food production supported by AI, robotics and automation in the coming years,” says Zaltzman.
Robotic farmers equipped with AI, GPS and machine learning can help farmers care for plants at an individual level. They are employed at all stages of the farming process, from autonomously mapping the land to planting seeds, predicting soil moisture, nutrients and soil carbon, weeding and herbicide distribution and pest and disease detection. Such technology ensures only those plants needing attention receive it, helping to conserve resources and resulting in environmental and financial savings.
Drones can perform similar tasks, including automating the inspection of fields for pest or weed outbreaks, gathering data and measuring the soil humidity, and delivering livestock vaccines to remote areas.
Robots also have a role to play after harvesting to monitor the health of the produce. Engineers have developed a robotic device that “swims” through grain stores using a patented technology and helps to ensure the quality of the stocks and prevent food waste.
And it’s not just on the land; new technologies are trickling into aquaculture too. Farming of aquatic animals and plants could meet up to two-thirds of global seafood consumption by 2030, but it’s inefficient and often results in overexploitation of resources, impacting the environment and aquatic biodiversity. Many fish species are caught as bycatch due to indiscriminate fishing methods. New devices that “tune” fishing nets by emitting light that can attract or repel different species of fish, are helping to support sustainable fishing.
A quarter of food produced for human consumption goes uneaten, with EIT Food estimating that 88 million tons are wasted in Europe alone. It’s time to “reboot the system”, the organization says, in favor of a circular economy that uses resources efficiently to reduce food lost throughout the farming and sorting processes, and beyond.
“We are seeing a growing shift across the supply chain to embed circular principles,” says Zaltzman. Smart technology, including camera, weighing scales and waste bins are being integrated into the food service industry. The approach will “help companies to make more informed choices about food purchasing, to reduce waste,” Zaltzman adds.
During sorting, foods like fruit and vegetables are often discarded because they are considered of sub-standard quality, the wrong shape or color, for example. Sensor-based sorting machines can detect and eject unwanted products from manufacturing and processing lines and redirect them, thus reducing food waste. “Where it’s impossible to reduce waste, entrepreneurs are also looking at innovative ways to give by-products a new life, Zaltzman says. Fruit pits, for example, can be rescued and converted into useful products such as spreads, oils and milk alternatives.
Best before and sell-by dates were introduced in the 1970s as a means of determining the freshness of our foods, often with little scientific basis or uniformity. Roughly 60% of the food wasted in the UK is edible, thrown away by consumers tied to such dates. Extending the shelf life of perishable products could reduce retail waste by 50%, and 63% in the home.
Researchers are working on various means of determining the freshness of our food in real-time, including cellulose-paper-based gas sensors that sense water-based gases like ammonia from spoiled meat and fish, food packaging containing low-cost pH sensors that can tell when foods like fish, fruits, milk and honey have spoiled and colorimetric sensors that detect ethylene, a gas given off when fruit ripens.
Our ever-changing diet and alternative protein sources
As consumers, we also have a role to play. We are more aware than ever that our choices, including what we eat and how we shop, have an impact on the environment and sustainability.
Thanks to our ability to import produce from around the world, we have lost touch with the seasonality of foods. Instead of expecting foods to be available all year round, we should consider eating seasonal produce and look at labels to see how far our food has traveled from farm to fork. “With a global pandemic, climate change and international conflict exposing the fragility of our food system in recent years, we are finding consumers increasingly acknowledging the value of local, seasonal produce,” says Zaltzman. “More effort is needed to embed sustainability throughout our supply chains, from supporting and incentivizing farmers to adopt regenerative farming practices, right through to making sustainable food choices more transparent, affordable and accessible for consumers.”
Our choice of diet – vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian or meat-based – also has an impact, and there are justifications for which is best not only for our health but the health of the planet. “How we eat has a huge impact on our planetary boundaries, and we know farming animals in particular disproportionately contributes to these severe and escalating impacts,” explains Nicola Harris, communications director of Plant Based Treaty, a landmark grassroots campaign that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture. “Farming animals is a leading cause of Amazon deforestation, land-use change, species extinction, water pollution, methane emissions and ocean dead zones. To ensure a safe and livable planet, we need to use our resources wisely to prevent crossing dangerous tipping points.”
We are increasingly seeing a shift towards plant-based diets which is essential if we want to live safely within our planetary boundaries, Harris says: “A plant-based food system would deliver huge cuts to methane emissions, of which a third come from animal farming globally. Global methane cuts of around 45% this decade could prevent a 0.3°C temperature rise by 2045.”
A recent analysis of the diets of 55,000 vegans, vegetarians, fish-eaters and meat-eaters found vegan diets had just 30% of the environmental impact of a high-meat diet, and per unit of food consumed, meat and dairy had between 3 and 100 times the environmental impact of plant-based foods.
“If existing healthy eating and environmental behavior guidelines were updated to promote the benefits of eating plant-based food, we could prevent 45,000 deaths annually and save the NHS £1.2 billion,” Harris adds.
The study suggests that even small changes, like eating less meat or opting for meat alternatives, could have a profound impact. Low meat diets have a much lower impact on the environment compared to high meat diets, with a reduction of 70% across most environmental measures , leading the authors to say: “You don’t have to go full vegan or even vegetarian to make a big difference.”
But reducing meat consumption can also reduce the amount of protein in the diet. Proteins are essential for a number of bodily functions, including in their roles as hormones and enzymes, and therefore need to be supplemented in a low-protein diet. What alternative sources are there?
There are a range of products such as tofu, tempeh, seitan, pulses, algae, seeds, nuts and insects, the aim of which is to mimic the physical and organoleptic properties of our meat staples, using technology to provide similar texture and flavor. Plant-based proteins, like soy, peas, lentils, lupine, chickpeas, rapeseed, canola and rapeseed are considered healthier and more sustainable than meat, and have a lower environmental impact. Due to their presence on supermarket shelves, they are already familiar to consumers and generally well accepted.
Lab-grown meat is produced by growing in animal cell cultures, resulting in a product that resembles traditional meat in texture and appearance. Despite it being more efficient to produce, requiring lower resources per unit of meat, consumers are concerned about its safety because it is artificial. Likewise, insects are rich in proteins and essential amino acids and readily available, but our negative perception often affects our ability to view them as a suitable meat alternative.
Making dietary choices that align with values
Farmers and the food industry are already making strides in the right direction to ensure future food security, by adapting current farming practices or adopting new ones designed to decrease waste, cut greenhouse gas emissions or ensure agricultural land is used as sustainably as possible. There is still much more to be done, and consumers are guiding farmers and industry with their purchasing behavior, opting for sustainability and environmentally friendly options, over inefficiency and wastefulness.
“How consumer behavior will change in the future depends largely on the steps we take right now,” says Zaltzman. “With so many entrepreneurs developing exciting solutions across the supply chain, from sustainable agriculture inputs to circular packaging solutions, we need to find ways to communicate clearly and transparently about the increased choices available to consumers and empower them to make dietary choices that align with their values.”