From free-range chicken to food miles on alfalfa, eating ethically is becoming more and more of a head-scratcher. Even for vegans, there are the questions of how sustainably agave was sourced, or whether environment-damaging pesticides were used to grow kale – and all that is without even considering how the food tastes.
Advances in the food and agriculture industry could answer every one of these questions, plus some the regular consumer hadn’t yet thought to ask.
For a slaughter-free spaghetti bolognese, a beef burger where no cows were harmed, and fresh produce growing from the walls of skyscrapers, food technology is turning science fiction into science fact one innovation at a time.
Plant–based burgers are on a roll
Meat alternatives are not new. Tofu and seitan have been around for over 1000 years and veggie burgers have been on supermarket shelves for decades. However, these have typically only appealed to vegans and vegetarians, a niche market perhaps prepared to compromise on how meat-like the product is for their own ethical reasons. With the advancement of new food technologies, that may no longer be a compromise that needs to be made; plant-based food is becoming increasingly convincing as meat. One example of plant-based food appealing to a more carnivorous palette is Impossible Foods, who used genetically modified yeast to make a vegetarian burger that bleeds.
But could the search for sustainable, guilt-free burgers go further? Cultured meat says yes.
Culture shock: meat the new burger on the block
A burger, made from 100% real beef, but no cows were harmed in its making? New technologies in cultured meat offer a potential solution for the burger-lover who feels bad about it.
Cultured meat involves directly culturing the same (or very similar) animal cells that make up conventional meat. Therefore, it is theoretically possible to create meat products completely indistinguishable from conventional meat, and without the need for slaughter.
Since the world’s first cultured burger was produced in 2013, the industry has grown at a rapid pace, with start-ups around the globe competing to be the first company to commercialize a cultured meat product.
In December 2020, the industry received a major boost when Singapore became the first region in the world to grant regulatory approval for commercial sale of a cultured meat product, a hybrid product made from plant protein and cultured chicken cells produced by Eat Just. Many in the industry are hoping this will be the first of many approvals over the next few years, helping cultured meat transition from the prototype stage to consumer products.
For more information on how cultured meat is made, and promising companies in this area, see the IDTechEx report “Cultured Meat 2021-2041: Technologies, Markets, Forecasts”.
Vertical farming takes agriculture to new heights
Let’s not forget the lettuce and tomatoes! A successful vertical farming future could see us buying our veggies at markets mere meters from where they were grown. Food miles could become a thing of the past.
Vertical farming is a method of growing crops indoors under controlled environmental conditions, with crops grown in vertically stacked layers to save space. This could enable yields 20-30 times higher per acre than normal agriculture. By using advanced growing methods such as hydroponics and LED lighting tailored to the exact photosynthetic needs of the crops, vertical farming can achieve yields hundreds of times higher than the same space of conventional farmland.
Because it doesn’t need large amounts of arable land to grow crops, it’s possible to do vertical farming in urban areas, closer to population centers. This both frees up arable land and reduces the distance that food must travel to reach consumers.
Almost any location can be used for vertical farming, with companies operating out of old shipping containers (Freight Farms), disused warehouses (AeroFarms uses a warehouse in New Jersey for its indoor farming) and the walls of skyscrapers. The only limitations are being able to get resources in and harvested plants out.
Increasing agricultural yields in a sustainable manner will be crucial in feeding the world’s growing population. Precision farming is a promising emerging approach, in which individual plants (or at least regions of a field) can receive targeted treatment. Furthermore, planting and harvesting can be tailored to ground conditions in a particular area and to the status of a particular fruit or plant.
Achieving this technological transition from the incumbent, broad-brush farming methodologies requires multiple new technologies, spanning robotics, imaging, machine vision and low-cost sensors. Indeed, this revolution in farming practices provides a substantial market opportunity for technologies perhaps more commonly associated with industrial automation.
One technology that can monitor plant health and catch diseases early, minimizing the risk of wastage and lost crops, is hyperspectral imaging. Insight into plant health can be gained through hyperspectral imaging. Rather than expressing an image as red, green, and blue (RGB) values at each pixel location, hyperspectral imaging instead records a complete spectrum at each point, creating a full 3D data set. By obtaining a complete reflection spectrum for each pixel, far more information can be gained than from a standard image, enabling supervised machine learning to quantify chemical composition more precisely and hence determine ripeness or disease.
Extensive details of the wide range of competing technologies for SWIR and hyperspectral imaging, along with other emerging image sensor technologies and market forecasts for their adoption in different industries can be found in the IDTechEx report “Emerging Image Sensor Technologies 2021-2031: Applications and Markets”.
Agricultural robotics and drones
Once agriculturally relevant data has been harvested and converted via AI into actionable insights, these need to be carried out. This will require agricultural robots, which can use this data to deliver precision-targeted planting, fertilizing, weedkilling and harvesting. Imagine varying planting densities across a field in response to soil conditions or targeting specific areas of a field with pesticides.
Short-wave infra-red imaging
To appropriately target fertilizer and/or weedkiller, the attributes of individual plants need to be ascertained. While this can be done via algorithmic image analysis, conventional cameras in the visible spectrum cannot necessarily identify subtle differences between leaves or fruit at different stages of ripeness.
Short-wave infrared (SWIR, 1000 to 2000 nm) imaging resolves some of these challenges since surfaces that look similar under visible light can show substantial differences under SWIR light – bruised fruit is an excellent example. An additional advantage of SWIR imaging is that scattering by clouds, dust, or mist decreases as wavelength increases, thus facilitating imaging in otherwise adverse conditions.
Biostimulants and biopesticides
Synthetic chemical pesticides and mineral fertilizers are growing less and less sustainable. They are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and environmental damage, with the overuse of certain pesticides leading to the growing problem of resistance. However, much of the world’s food supply still depends on them.
Agricultural biologicals – crop inputs derived from nature – could form part of the solutions. Biostimulants could boost crop yields while reducing the need for fertilizers and boosting soil health and biodiversity, while biopesticides could provide much-needed new modes of action, without causing environmental damage.
One other solution to the pesticide problem would be to genetically engineer plants to withstand certain common pests and diseases.
Although many aspects of agricultural biotechnology remain controversial, the technology has enormous potential as a way of improving food security.
Crop biotechnology is a set of tools and disciplines that modify organisms for a particular purpose, e.g. increasing yields, or developing an innate resistance to certain diseases in order to reduce crop losses and pesticide requirements.
The basis of agricultural biotechnology is genetics, with scientists using an understanding of DNA to develop methods to improve agriculture. The ability to identify genes that can confer advantages to certain crops and the ability to work precisely with these genes can significantly enhance breeders’ abilities to improve crops and livestock.
A cultured burger, vertically farmed lettuce, and genetically modified tomato. Would you bite?
IDTechEx, a leading market intelligence provider, offers a wide range of technical market research on the food and agricultural technology industry. For more details visit www.IDTechEx.com/Research/AgTech.
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