The Future Of Food
7 billion consumers, $8 trillion spent every year and demand set to increase by 50% before 2050. Our global food and agriculture industry is booming yet we are reaching breaking point. According to a new UN report Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services humans have altered more than 75% of the Earth’s land area and 66% of oceans, putting a million species at risk of extinction.
The World Health Organisation reports that 1.9 billion adults are obese whilst 820 million people are still suffering from hunger and malnutrition. Current agricultural practices use half of the world’s land whilst contributing on average 25% of all greenhouse emissions; livestock takes up nearly 80% of this yet produces less than 20% of the world’s calorie supply.
The problem of sustainable food supply is attracting huge amounts of investment particularly in the space of food tech. According to the 2019 report from Dealroom, food tech has produced 45 unicorns (businesses valued at over $1 billion) with a combined value of $235 billion, and alternative protein represents one of the fastest growing sectors.
In addition to food tech there are a number of innovative products set to radicalize the way we design, grow and think about food.
3D Printed Meat
Alternative meat has rapidly gained in popularity as consumers opt for more plant based meals. Barclays analysts predict that alternative meat market could reach $140 billion in the next 10 years, equating to 10% of the overall meat market valued at $1.4 trillion. Lab grown meat has dominated this industry, however since the inception of 3D printed pizzas by NASA, new companies are racing to get their 3D printed meat to market first.
Novameat was the first company to 3D print steak and chicken breast in 2018 using plant based proteins. Biomedical engineering expert Giuseppe Scionti founded the business as a way to address greenhouse gas emissions from livestock whilst producing a fleshy meat like alternative.
“While I was researching on regenerating animal tissues through bioprinting technologies for biomedical and veterinary applications, I discovered a way to bio-hack the structure of the native 3D matrix of a variety of plant-based proteins to achieve a meaty texture,” said Scionti.
The start up has received investment from New Crop Capital, investors in plant based businesses such as Beyond Meat, New Wave Foods and Mosa Meat. Managing Partner, Dan Altschuler Malek commented:
“We think the global food supply chain is broken and we are focused on fixing one of those challenges, which is animal protein. We see that there is an opportunity to shift consumer behavior to reduce their consumption of animal protein products to products that are at the price point that people will pay.”
These 3D printed meats will look, taste, and smell like the real deal, whilst addressing ethical concerns around slaughterhouses and the associated environmental impact.
Tech Based Supply Chains
As consumers we may be choosing to eat less meat in a bid to lower our carbon footprint. However, it is difficult to establish the embodied environmental, social and ethical impact of the food we buy. Typically the supply chain, consisting of manufacturers, producers and distributors, accounts for over 80% of greenhouse-gas emissions and more than 90% of the impact on land, water, air, biodiversity, and geological resources. Supply chains are the most cost-effective way for the food industry to reduce cost whilst minimizing their environmental impact.
The application of blockchain technology to food supply presents an opportunity to overhaul global supply chain systems. Blockchain is a decentralised, open ledger database where all transactions (blocks) can be stored, tracked and linked to previous blocks. The blocks are permanent and secure, so the block can not be altered, only read. When created, each block is sent to all participants in the supply chain to verify and add to the blockchain.
Blockchain ensures transparency of transactions and can capture all data relating to environmental impacts such as water usage, land usage, and CO2 and greenhouse emissions. This would give consumers the ability to choose products, scanned through QR or barcodes, receiving accurate information about the provenance of their food. The platform also has the ability to provide an accurate ledger of fair working conditions and wages giving buyers confidence that the food being purchased is ethically robust.
Insect - the New Plant Based?
Crickets, grasshoppers, beetles. Are you salivating yet? Perhaps not you first choice for dinner, but they probably should be. The nutritional value of insects varies depending upon species, but typically you can expect large amounts of B12 and around 60% protein with a complete amino acid profile. They are also rich in trace elements such as copper, iron, magnesium, selenium and zinc, as well as vitamins like riboflavin and folic acid in some cases.
But it’s the environmental credentials of insects which is really compelling. According to the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation, insect farming produces one hundredth of the carbon emissions of the equivalent output from cows or pigs. An article in the Environment Journal explored the land, water and feed usage of insects compared to typical protein sources. It reported that, to produce one kilogram of protein from cattle, it typically requires 200 square meters of land, 50 square meters for pigs and 45 square meters for chickens. Whereas just 15 square meters provides one kilogram of insect-based protein.
Similarly, 10kg of feedstock is needed to produce 1kg of beef, 5kg for pork and 2.5kg of feed to get 1kg of chicken. For insect protein, the feed input is 1.7kg. Water usage is just as persuasive. For 1kg of protein from cattle, water consumption is alarmingly 22,000 litres, 3,500 for pork and 2,500 litres for chicken, while just 1 litre for insects.
As the population grows, insects, in the form of powders and liquids, could provide a solution to the problem of sustainable protein whilst feeding the growing global population.
AI For Food
It may come as no surprise that machines are replacing production lines traditionally managed by manual workers. And AI is further refining the efficiency of these production lines through improved sorting. For example, intelligent sorting machines from TOMRA can select which potatoes will produce the least waste when cut into french fries and which ones work better for potato chips.
Artificially intelligent robots aren’t restricted to production lines, with MIT testing smart bots which can pick crops as soon as they are ready using machine learning to pick more food, faster, and handle it at the height of its ripeness. The tech also aims to address problems such as food waste and scarcity of labor.
Big data and AI are also helping growers proof against crop failure by collecting data from satellites and smart sensors to monitor weather conditions, analyzing the moisture content of soil and even understanding ‘plant intelligence’ by gathering data that affects yield, quality, drought-resistance and even protein or sugar content. AI is using this data to find solutions which increase yields, improve quality and reduce the impact of unpredictable weather from climate change.
The way we design, grow, and supply food is changing. Ultimately, it's the consumer that has the power, through our purchasing choices, to make a real difference.
Sign up to our community so you can stay up to date on everything sustainable.