The following is a guest post from Rick Hamilton, a Senior Consultant at 4C Associates. Hamilton shares his insights following the International Food & Drink event in London where Charles Banks, co-founder of The Food People explained how emerging technologies might help overcome some of these challenges.
Over the last 90 years, global population and food production have grown exponentially, however total agricultural land has remained static, putting pressure on the food system to produce more food with fewer resources. The demand for food is expected to further increase by 60% by 2050, thus exacerbating the pressure on food production.
But there are five emerging food technologies that could help the world get to where it needs to be to transform the system.
1. Cellular agriculture
New research from think-tank Planet Tracker has shown that the global food system accounts for a third of greenhouse gas emissions and endangers 86% of species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The animal protein sector is a major contributor to this impact. However, emerging food technologies make it possible to cultivate meat without the need for traditional livestock farming.
Cellular agriculture is one such technology, which involves using cell cultures to produce animal products such as meat, milk, and eggs without the need for animals. This process involves taking a small sample of animal cells and using them to grow muscle tissue, which can then be used to produce meat, or milk and egg proteins for dairy and egg products.
The benefits of cellular agriculture are numerous. For one, it can be much more sustainable than traditional agriculture practices. It uses less land, water, and energy, and produces less greenhouse gas emissions, which can help combat climate change. Additionally, it eliminates the need for animal husbandry, making the process far more efficient, and reduces the risks of foodborne illness.
Early adopters of the technology include Perfect Day and their animal-free dairy products, and UPSIDE Foods and Eat Just (GOOD Meat). The latter companies were just fully authorized to sell their chicken products to consumers in the US. Widespread adoption, however, is still some way off. Lab-grown meat is currently more expensive to produce than traditional meat and it will likely take time for costs to fall. Additionally, there are regulatory and social barriers, including concerns about safety and ethical implications of so-called “lab-grown meat.”
Regulators in the US and Singapore are already supporting the production of cultivated meat, with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) giving a ‘no questions’ verdict as to its safety for humans. Governments in the Netherlands, Japan and Norway have also committed significant investment into its research. With continued research and endorsement from regulators it is expected that the technology will become more socially acceptable.
2. Plant-based meat alternatives
Plant-based meat products are becoming increasingly popular as more consumers seek out meat alternatives. These products are made by using a variety of plant-based ingredients, such as proteins from peas, soy, or wheat, combined with other ingredients to create a meat-like texture and flavor.
Companies such as Redefine Meat and Juicy Marbles are using 3D printing techniques and assembly technology to create plant-based products that mimic the texture and fat marbling that characterise animal meats.
3. Transforming food waste
An estimated 40% of worldwide food produced goes to waste. This is not only an ethical issue, but also causes negative environmental impacts, such as greenhouse gas emissions.
Anaerobic digestion technology can transform food waste into valuable resources. This process involves placing organic waste in an oxygen-free environment, where it breaks down and produces biogas that can be used for energy. The remaining material can be used as a nutrient-rich fertilizer.
Another emerging technology is upcycling, which uses food waste to create new food products. This can involve turning fruit and vegetable scraps into nutritious powders, or creating new food products from imperfect or used produce that would otherwise go to waste.
EverGrain, an AB InBev company, is upcycling spent barley grain, a byproduct from the beer brewing process, to extract the protein, fiber and other nutrients and turn them into a range of food products.
Another innovator, Reencle, manufactures household composters that combine heat, humidity and ventilation to break down food waste into nutrient-rich compost – used to fertilize plants and gardens. The composting process is fully contained within the unit and can be completed within 2 hours.
4. Smart packaging
Smart packaging technology has the power to monitor, record and communicate information about the contents of the package. Technologies include: time-temperature indicators, providing information on the temperature history of a product; freshness sensors which monitor factors impacting the quality of food such as oxygen and carbon dioxide levels; and lastly, active packaging, containing active substances such as antimicrobial agents to help preserve it.
These technologies can help extend the shelf life of food products and reduce waste, whilst improving food safety and consumer experience. One such smart packaging technology which is on the market already is edible straws by a Spanish company, Sorbos.
5. Precision agriculture
Precision agriculture, also known as smart farming, involves the use of sensors, drones, and other technologies to collect data on soil conditions, crop growth, and other factors that impact agriculture. This data can be used to optimize crop production, reduce waste, and increase efficiency.
There are a range of technologies to support precision agriculture such as self-driving tractors and machines being developed by John Deere, and software platforms allowing farmers to make more informed decisions about their crop management.
These emerging technologies offer promising solutions to some of the most pressing challenges facing the food industry today.
As the technologies become better researched and developed, they will become more accessible and affordable through scale efficiencies – transforming the way we produce, distribute, and consume food. This will reduce waste from the food system and help meet growing demand in a way that is ethical and environmentally friendly.