New Technologies Will Fundamentally Change Food Production
- Cellular agriculture, 3D printing, and genetically modified organisms are emerging to disrupt the food industry.
- Significant investments are from major players in the food industry (and outside it) are driving research and development of technologies that will dramatically change how food is produced and processed.
Emerging food production technologies, among them cellular agriculture, 3D printing, and genetic modification, are changing how food is being produced and prepared. The coming revolution in food production could ultimately be as profound as the agricultural revolution that began with the domestication of plants and animals more than 20,000 years ago.
These technologies could be the solution to the ever-increasing need to feed a growing human population. Cellular agriculture, 3D printing, and genetic modification could boost food production while reducing the need for resources like water and land. They could also halt the use of millions of pounds of pesticides, antibiotics, and chemical fertilizers that cause as many problems as the they solve.
Cellular Agriculture & Synthetic Food Products
Whether it is “cultured meat” grown in laboratories or plant-based meat substitutes produced in vats by genetically modified yeast, the emergence of foods produced in factory-like settings rather than land-based agriculture could change fundamental aspects of food and food production.
The emerging field of cellular agriculture uses biotechnology to produce meat, fish, milk, egg whites, and other food products. (1)
In 2013, the live tasting of the burger made of lab-grown meat generated considerable publicity. The taste test went okay—the food critic found the meat a little dry—but the $330,000 price tag for the burger made it commercially unviable. (2) In 2017, Memphis Meats announced it developed chicken and duck meat from cultured cells. (1) Memphis Meats has received support from billionaires like Bill Gates and Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group of companies, and agriculture giant Cargill, Inc. (3)
Companies have been working to reduce the price of cultured meat and are close to having an affordable product. (2) The basic technique for producing synthetic meat uses muscle stem cells from live animals and growing them in a nutrient-rich liquid. The cells grow around an edible “scaffold” that helps the meat take on a desired shape.
Genetically modified yeasts are already being used to produce a wide range of products from coffee, eggs, and milk (4) to beer containing cannabis compounds CBD and THC rather than alcohol. (5)
3D printing—also known as additive manufacturing—is being adopted across a variety of manufacturing industry sectors because it allows rapid production of diverse products with minimal physical effort from human operators. 3D printing is also finding its place in food production.
Many of the initial 3D printed food products seemed whimsical; 3D Systems’ CocoJet printer for chocolate, for example, was designed to create complex chocolate creations; the Chef Jet Pro laser-based sugar printer used to create an edible model of historic buildings and multi-colored, multi-shaped candies; or Foodini’s that can print a personalized pizza in five minutes. (6)
Dovetailed Design Studio, in collaboration with Microsoft, has developed a 3D printer that can create fruit. Using a molecular 3D technique called “spherification”, they are able to print any type of fruit within seconds. The printer can even change the flavors of the fruit through a combination of fruit juice and sodium alginate powder (7).
While 3D food printers began as novelty devices for food industry professionals in specialty businesses, they are beginning to move into institutional applications.
In South Korea, researchers are catering to elderly people by developing 3D printed foods that are easier to chew. The main concern is that softer foods, which are easier for elderly people to consume, may not be as healthy. With 3D printing, soft food can be created while maintaining the nutritional value of firm foods. This is done by grinding the food down into tiny nutrients at a low temperature with liquid nitrogen (8).
The next step is consumer-level 3D food printers that sit on the countertop and are ready to produce meals at the push of a button. (9)
The ability to edit an organism’s genetic makeup used to be science fiction; however, this has changed in recent years. While there is much work to be done before this science is perfected, researchers are editing the genes of various fruits and vegetables.
Calyxt, a subsidiary of Cellectis, a French pharmaceutical company, is on the cutting edge of genetic editing in the food industry. Scientists there developed a “healthier” soybean oil by turning off genes responsible for trans fats in soybeans. Calyxt says their soybean oil contains healthy fats while avoiding unhealthy fats that lead to a host of medical issues. They further suggest that this type of oil could be used in the production of various types of foods such as chips, salad dressings, and baked goods. (10).
GMOs are a topic of debate in today’s society, so it is important to understand how these organisms are modified. TALEN and CRISPR are two prominent tools used to modify organisms genetically. They both work like scissors, cutting the double helix of an organism’s DNA at preprogrammed spots. When the DNA heals itself, it deletes the gene next to the cut. This “turns off” a certain gene in a plant’s DNA. Scientists are now working on adding new genes at the breaking in the DNA. This could potentially lead to most resilient plants that are healthier for human consumption (10).
There are numerous examples of this at work. The Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in Cordoba, Spain has developed a strain of low-gluten wheat that can be used to create various food products for people with gluten allergies. Pennsylvania State University has created mushrooms that do not brown. Scientists at universities throughout the US are working on crops that can withstand drought, disease, and various other climate related factors (10).
Genetic editing will be as revolutionary as 3D printing, if not more. This field of technology has limitless possibility in regards to food production. It has the potential to allow scientists to develop healthier foods, more efficiently and with widespread availability. It may also be a potential answer to the question of food security in regards to climate change. While GMOs have a lot to offer, a major challenge will be educating the public on what this entails and dispelling negative opinions.
Factors Driving Food High Tech
While the emerging technologies in the food industry may sometimes seem frivolous, in the future these technologies could be vitally important to millions of people. A variety of factors are making food production increasingly precarious.
Climate change will have significant, perhaps dramatic, impacts on agriculture and food production sectors. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released a report in 2018 that suggests by 2050 food production is expected to shift. In some regions, such as tropical areas, crop production is expected to decline due to rising temperatures. Conversely, temperate regions may see an increase in harvests due to rising temperatures and longer growing seasons (11).
The US National Climate Assessment (NCA) projects a decline in crop yields in the coming decades. Some regions, such as the Northern Great Plains, will benefit from climate but as a whole, the US will see food production decline. The report suggests the US economy could shrink by up to 10% by 2100, with a projected loss of hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century (11).
Population Growth & High Living Standards
The demand for food continues to grow as the world’s population increases. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) says global food production will need to increase by 70% by 2050 to meet the needs of 9.1 billion people. In the developing nations, food production will need to double. (12)
The rural to urban migration of much of the world’s population will change the kind of food people eat. The demand for food in urban areas differs significantly from rural areas, with urban dwellers looking for more convenient foods, many of which are highly processed. (13)
As the standard of living rises around the world, that quantity of food consumed tends to increase and the nature of that food changes. For example, as living standards increase, demand for meat products tends to increase. (13)
Environmental & Health Dangers
Traditional agriculture, with its heavy dependence on pesticides, antibiotics, and chemical fertilizers, takes a huge environmental toll. Increasingly, the impact of pesticides and antibiotics in food production is being questioned. While the health hazards of these chemicals have been ferociously argued for several decades, new concerns about previously unsuspected health impacts are emerging.
Candida auris, a drug-resistant fungus that can be deadly to humans, is beginning to emerge as a serious and grow threat to public health. While there are not yet any definitive answers, the widespread use of pesticides and antibiotics in agriculture are being discussed as potential causes for the emergence of this drug-resistant pathogen. (14)
Infants exposed to common agricultural pesticides during pregnancy and their first year of life had a higher risk of autism. A study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) found a link between pesticide exposure and autism. Other studies in laboratory animals found that common pesticides can affect brain development. (15)
- “Big food”—large agricultural producers and multinational food businesses—could face disruptive innovations that will be as far reaching for their industry as the computer revolution of the late 1970s and early 1980s. (16)
- Meat producers will face increasing competition from cell-based cultured meats, which use significantly fewer resources that traditional methods for producing animal protein. (17)
- While consumers may initially be hesitant to eat cultured meats, that reluctance could be diminished as more products enter the market. Ultimately, costs and the taste of the food will be the major determining factors in adoption.
- Traditional methods of food production may need to change dramatically in the face of increased environmental threats as a result of climate change.
- Concerns about the health impacts of widespread use of pesticides and antibiotics for agriculture could curtail their use, resulting in significant production problems for traditional producers dependent on them.
- TF-2018-03: Agricultural Innovation – Emerging Technologies to Improve Food Output examines how robots, sensors, artificial intelligence, data analytics, augmented reality and other emerging technologies can impact food production.
- GL-2018-02: Good and Ready-to-Eat Food – Delivering Convenience, Nutrition—and Taste looks at how consumer demand is driving the use of new food preservation and processing technologies.
- TF-2016-01: CRISPR Gene Editing – A New Age for Genetics is an overview of how CRISPE gene edition technology will change bioengineering.
Beef substitutes are gaining market share in the fast food industry. Burger King’s plant-based Whopper—dubbed the Impossible Burger by some—gained national news coverage when test marketing began in limited locations in the United States. The meat industry needs to be pay attention, commentators said. (18)
Through genetic editing, researchers may be able to manipulate the ratio of chemicals in cannabinoids and terpenes. This could further medical use and provide an alternative for certain conditions such as anxiety. (5)
Leo Marcelis, a professor of crop production at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, can alter the taste, smell, and vitamin content in tomatoes by altering the color of light in his indoor grow room. For more efficient growth, he uses red lights. To produce smaller tomatoes with more antioxidants, Marcelis uses blue lights. (16)
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