The global population grows from 7 billion in 2010 to a projected 9.8 billion in 2050, and incomes grow across the developing world, overall food demand is on course to increase by more than 50 percent, and demand for animal-based foods by nearly 70 percent. Yet today, hundreds of millions of people remain hungry, agriculture already uses almost half of the world’s vegetated land, and agriculture and related land-use change generate one-quarter of annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to ‘World Resources Report: Creating a Sustainable Food Future’.
Further, the ongoing pandemic is treatening world food supply chain. As the novel coronavirus pandemic shuts down businesses globally and sends countries into lockdown, the disruptions are threatening to cut off supply chains and increase food insecurity. “Supermarket shelves remain stocked for now,” the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) said in a report released in March 2020. “But a protracted pandemic crisis could quickly put a strain on the food supply chains, a complex web of interactions involving farmers, agricultural inputs, processing plants, shipping, retailers and more.”
The issue, however, is not food scarcity — at least, not yet. Rather, it’s the world’s drastic measures in response to the virus. Border closures, movement restrictions, and disruptions in the shipping and aviation industries have made it harder to continue food production and transport goods internationally — placing countries with few alternative food sources at high risk. Airlines have grounded thousands of planes and ports have closed — stranding containers of food, medicine, and other products on tarmacs and holding areas, said the UN Conference on Trade and Development on March 25. Heightened instability in global food supply will affect the poorest citizens most, warned the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in a paper.
China was worst-hit by the virus initially when thousands of new cases were being reported each day. “In China, logistics constraints and labor crunches have caused losses of fresh vegetables, limited access to animal feed and diminished capacity of slaughterhouses,” said the FAO report. however, Chinese governments’ efforts appear to have softened the blow to the food industry . The government distributed $20 million in subsidies to revive agriculture, and invested in technology including agricultural drones and unmanned vehicles that could keep supply chains moving without human contact, said the FAO report. Even the country’s dominant e-commerce market stepped in; provincial lockdowns and movement restrictions hampered the export and transport of goods, so e-commerce giant Alibaba set up a fund to help farmers find markets for their unsold products, the report said.
“The global health crisis has changed consumer preferences in new and unexpected ways,” says Vince Macciocchi, president, Nutrition. “We are seeing a heightened demand for foods and beverages that support immune systems, enhance our mood and reduce our environmental impact, driven in part by emerging human tensions. This has provided a unique opportunity for brands to develop disruptive new products that will forever change the way we eat and drink. It’s going to be a year of innovation, marked by significant breakthroughs in nutrition.”
Addressing Food gap
According to the WRI’s new Creating a Sustainable Food Future report, innovative solutions are needed to close the gap between the food currently available and that needed by 2050, without destroying the environment. The report offers a five-course menu of solutions to ensure we can feed 10 billion people by 2050 without increasing emissions, fueling deforestation or exacerbating poverty. Reduce growth in demand; Increase food production without expanding agricultural land; Increase fish supply; Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production; and Protect and restore natural ecosystems.
Achieving these goals requires closing three great “gaps” by 2050:
The food gap—the difference between the amount of food produced in 2010 and the amount necessary to meet likely demand in 2050. We estimate this gap to be 7,400 trillion calories, or 56 percent more crop calories than were produced in 2010.
The land gap—the difference between global agricultural land area in 2010 and the area required in 2050 even if crop and pasture yields continue to grow at past rates. We estimate this gap to be 593 million hectares (Mha), an area nearly twice the size of India.
The GHG mitigation gap—the difference between the annual GHG emissions likely from agriculture and land-use change in 2050, which we estimate to be 15 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (Gt CO2e), and a target of 4 Gt that represents agriculture’s proportional contribution to holding global warming below 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures. We therefore estimate this gap to be 11 Gt. Holding warming below a 1.5°C increase would require meeting the 4 Gt target plus reforesting hundreds of millions of hectares of liberated agricultural land.
“We’re all about feeding the future. The mission is for spaceship Earth. How do we build a system to feed ten billion people in a more sustainable way?” Lisa Dyson, CEO of Air Protein, asks the question on the minds of many. Her company is making sustainable meat from air. “We are disrupting animal agriculture, quite specifically. It’s very resource intensive and costly to our environment. Brazil saw record fires last year and a significant amount were for cattle grazing.”
Agriculture is an industry that has always relied on nature, an immutable fact that has seen harvests and livestock wiped out regularly throughout history by heat waves and droughts, by floods and pestilence. But with breakthrough advances in science and technology, we have more tools than ever to mitigate the vagaries of nature.
By connecting to online marketplaces, farmers can now access a wider audience and sell their produce with more visibility and control over pricing. They can also leverage precision farming technologies to monitor what is happening on their farms in real time, with Internet of Things devices and other tools becoming cheaper and more widely available.
Aerial imagery is a technology that can help farmers prepare for and plan based on weather patterns in their area, giving them a better chance at staying profitable year-round. With drones, they could survey what is happening to their crops from afar and adjust accordingly. These technologies are more affordable than they were a decade ago, making them more accessible for the average farmer.
Drones are the backbone of precision farming, which is about using data collected through drones and other types of technology to make decisions about the timing, location, type and rate of fertilizer application for each crop or field in a way not possible with traditional methods.
Further upstream, they can even improve their productivity by tapping onto next-generation seeds, with scientists altering crops at the DNA level to make them pest and disease-resistant. Crop genomics is a subfield of agricultural biotechnology involving modern genotyping and next-generation sequencing technologies to identify genetic variation within and between crop species. Crop genomics can identify specific genes that confer plant traits, such as disease resistance or better nutrient uptake, which enables targeted breeding programs to produce crops that are more tolerant to environmental stress factors.
Seed technology is a broad term referring to any of the various techniques in plant breeding, propagation, or production by which the quality and quantity of seeds available for cultivation are improved. There are revolutionary technologies in both the breeding sector (developing new seed varieties) and the commercial sector (producing and marketing crop seeds).
In the breeding sector, biotechnology and other new technologies can revolutionize the seed industry by making it possible to breed seeds for various growing conditions, such as drought tolerance. In the commercial sector, biotechnologies are used to develop better quality varieties of existing crop products and produce agricultural commodities not previously grown commercially on a large scale.
Outdoor farming now takes up about 12 percent of the world’s land area. Feeding the growing population has two choices. We could convert more land into farms. Other option, you increase the production of the land we already have by managing the land responsibly.
Increasingly, we find ways that allow us to farm in non-traditional places. Especially relevant, the future is including indoor locations. Hence to therefore, Hydroponics involves growing plants without soil. One company has even started a farm in an old World War II bomb shelter underneath the streets of London using hydroponics technology.
Most essential is preventing degrading farmland. It is so crucial to growing enough food sustainably. One recent study concluded that 100 million people could be forced to migrate in the next three decades. Furthermore, it’s all due to worsening land degradation. Unsustainable management of farmlands causes erosion, nutrient depletion and increased flooding.
With this surging population, the need for enhancing the productivity of everything, for catering to the requirements of the people, has increased as well. At the present time, however, there is a pressing need for increasing the agricultural productivity, which is why a number of technological advancements have occurred in the agricultural sector. One of such developments is the emergence of agricultural biotechnology, which involves the utilization of science for modifying animals and plants. This is done to breed out undesirable characteristics, such as low productivity and susceptibility to diseases. Furthermore, any beneficial traits can be bred in by making use of a gene which contains the specific characteristic.
Agricultural biotechnology helps in enhancing agricultural productivity and animal feeds, for increasing their nutrient intake and reducing environmental waste. Attributed to such positive aspects, the agricultural biotechnology market is expected to advance at a substantial rate in the coming years. The different technologies utilized in agricultural biotechnology are biochips, genome editing tools, synthetic biology, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) sequencing, and ribonucleic acid interference (RNAi). Out of these, genomic editing tools are used the most, primarily in agricultural research.
Specialized feed to reduce methane emissions in livestock, for example, is helping to address consumer interest in more eco-friendly protein sources. New farming practices, such as regenerative agriculture, are being used to enrich soil, resulting in carbon drawdown and improvements to the water cycle. Renewable plant-based materials such as cornstarch and even seaweed are appearing in consumer packaging to reduce landfill waste.
Researchers have demonstrated many new technologies including crop traits or additives that reduce methane emissions from rice and cattle, improved fertilizer forms and crop properties that reduce nitrogen runoff, solar-based processes for making fertilizers, organic sprays that preserve fresh food for longer periods, and plant-based beef substitutes. A revolution in molecular biology opens up new opportunities for crop breeding. Progress at the necessary scale requires large increases in R&D funding, and flexible regulations that encourage private industry to develop and market new technologies.
1) Plant-based meat
Globally, per gram of edible protein, beef and lamb use around 20 times the land and generate around 20 times the greenhouse gas emissions of plant-based proteins. Affordable plant-based products that mimic the experience of eating beef could reduce growth in global beef consumption, while still satisfying meat-lovers.
Globally, 56% of plant consumers are trying to eat more plant-based foods and beverages, pushing alternative proteins into an increasingly mainstream phenomenon. Demand for plant-based protein products is rapidly expanding beyond just burger analogues to new and novel products, including alternative seafoods like shellfish and shrimp, plant-based cheeses, ready-to-eat protein snacks and more. Alt meat products also continue to evolve, with new technologies like 3D printing and protein fermentation playing a role in driving innovation. New plant-based meats on the horizon include whole-muscle products like steak and chicken breast, lunch meat, bacon and more.
Fortunately, companies such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are already making headlines by creating plant-based “beef” that looks, sizzles, tastes and even bleeds like the real thing. Starfield Food and Science Technology, a Chinese food tech that has created its own meat-free alternative. Considered the only “2.0” alternative meat venture in China that operates its own R&D and manufacturing facility in China, Starfield has now partnered with 6 major restaurant chains to offer plant-based dishes across the country. Starfield’s ground meat substitute is primarily made from seaweed protein, and was developed by food scientists at Beijing Technology & Business University, Shenzhen University and Jiangnan University.
The dairy alternative category, an early leader in the plant-based nutrition space, is growing to encompass other formats such as yogurt, ice cream, butter, spreads and creamers. To stand out in the dairy aisle, products must deliver more protein than traditional dairy and feature a nutritional label fortified with vitamins and minerals or functional ingredients like probiotics.
2) Extended shelf lives
About one-third of food is lost or wasted between the farm and the fork. Fruits and vegetables are a common food item wasted in more developed markets. One breakthrough to address this is the emergence of inexpensive methods that slow the ripening of produce. Companies are already investigating a variety of natural compounds to do so. For example, Apeel Sciences has an array of extremely thin spray-on films that inhibit bacterial growth and retain water in fruit. Others include Nanology and Bluapple, whose technologies delay decomposition.
3) Anti-gas for cows
About a third of all greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production (excluding land-use change) come from “enteric” methane released as cow burps. Several research groups and companies are working on feed compounds that suppress the formation of methane in cows’ stomachs. Dutch-based DSM has a product called 3-NOP that reduces these methane emissions by 30 per cent in tests, and does not appear to have health or environmental side effects.
4) Compounds to keep nitrogen in the soil
About 20 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production are related to nitrogen from fertiliser and manure on crops and pastures. The majority of these emissions come from the formation of nitrous oxide as microorganisms transfer nitrogen from one chemical form to another. Compounds that prevent these changes, including coatings on fertilisers and so-called “nitrification inhibitors,” can reduce nitrogen losses and increase the amount of nitrogen taken up by plants, leading to lower greenhouse gas emissions and less water pollution from fertiliser runoff. Without a regulatory push, research into such technologies has stagnated, but great potential remains. Some new compounds have emerged in just the past year.
5) Nitrogen-absorbing crops
Another way to chip away at nitrous oxide emissions is to develop crop varieties that absorb more nitrogen and/or inhibit nitrification. Researchers have identified traits to inhibit nitrification in some varieties of all major grain crops, which others can now build upon through crop breeding.
6) Low-methane rice
Around 15 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production come from methane-producing microorganisms in rice paddies. Researchers have identified some common rice varieties that emit less methane than others, and they’ve bred one experimental strain that reduces methane emissions by 30 per cent in the laboratory. Despite this promise, there is no consistent effort in any country to breed and encourage the uptake of low-methane rice varieties.
7) Using CRISPR to boost yields
Two broad items on the menu for a sustainable food future involve boosting yields on existing cropland and producing more milk and meat on existing grazing land. One way to boost crop yields sustainably (without over-application of fertilisers or over-extraction of irrigation water) is to unlock traits in crop genes that increase yields. CRISPR technology, which enables more precise turning on and off of genes, has the potential to be revolutionary in this regard.
8) High-yield oil palm
Dramatic growth in demand for palm oil, an ingredient found in everything from shampoo to cookies, has been driving deforestation in Southeast Asia for decades, and now threatens forests in Africa and Latin America. One way to reduce this threat is to breed and plant oil palm trees with 2-4 times the production per hectare of conventional trees. Potential for higher-yielding oil palm trees already exists. The company PT Smart, for instance, has a variety with triple the current average yield of Indonesia’s oil palm trees. These high-yield varieties need to be used in new plantations and when farmers restock current plantations with new trees (typically done every 20 or more years).
9) Algae-based fish feeds
Another element of a sustainable food future is to reduce pressure on wild fish stocks. As the global fish catch has peaked, fish farming, or “aquaculture,” has grown to meet world fish demand. However, aquaculture can increase pressure on the small wild fish species used as feed ingredients for larger farmed fish. One technological innovation to circumvent this challenge is to create substitute feeds using algae or oilseeds that contain the omega-3 fatty acids found in wild fish-based oils. Some companies are moving to produce algae-based aquaculture feeds, and researchers have created a variety of canola that contains omega-3s.
10) Solar-powered fertilisers
The production of nitrogen-based fertilisers uses vast quantities of fossil fuels and generates significant emissions, roughly 85 per cent of which result from the production of hydrogen to blend with nitrogen. Many have invested in solar energy to produce hydrogen for fuel-cell vehicles, but similar technologies can also help produce low-carbon fertilisers. Pilot plants are under construction in Australia.
11) NASA’s microbial recipe for sustaining astronauts
More than half a century ago NASA worked out the microbial recipe for sustaining astronauts on long space missions to Mars and beyond. Forgotten for 50+ years, those very same microbes can feed the hundreds of millions of hungry people down here on Earth. Not only that, they may hold the key to a truly carbon neutral, circular economy.
The microbes NASA worked with in the 1960s weren’t just any microbes, however. They were bacteria that can harvest energy from little more than the mere constituents of air, waste CO2, and water to make plentiful amounts of nutritious protein. Unlike plants, these microbes don’t even need to use light. Instead, the bacteria — known as hydrogenotrophs — use hydrogen as fuel to make food from CO2 — just like plants use the energy of sunlight in photosynthesis.
Now, a suite of synthetic biology companies are picking up where NASA left off, developing a whole new generation of sustainable food products, and leading us towards a truly carbon neutral economy; for the good of space travellers, and for the benefit of everyone down here on Earth.
One of those companies leading the charge is NovoNutrients, which aims to be one of the big manufacturing technologies of a new circular economy, first through disrupting the fast-growing aquaculture sector. Novonutrients is transferring electrical energy into a food energy, taking its waste CO2 from factories to make protein via their synthetic, hydrogen-metabolizing microbes. This is the transformative potential of green hydrogen – an energy source which is undergoing rapid development and will be a cornerstone of the new green economy.
Solar Foods, much like NovoNutrients, is also making food from thin air — and their goal is not to be carbon neutral, but to be carbon negative. “We capture CO2 from the air, much like plants, but our yield and efficiency is an order of magnitude higher – many orders of magnitude depending on your energy source,” says CEO Pasi Vainikka. “We need only one tenth of the land compared to plants, or one hundreth compared to meat. In an idealistic world, let’s say you wanted to consume all food like this, you could convert agricultural land to forest, let the trees grow back. When you do that, that land becomes a carbon sink. On a systems level, you have the potential for carbon negativity.”
Air Protein are going even further. “We’re the only company making air-based meat, in particular,” Dyson explains. “Taking CO2 from the air we make a protein and then apply culinary techniques that give customers what they want from an experiential perspective but that is also more sustainable. We can make air-based beef, chicken, seafood, pork. The platform is really flexible.” And, says Dyson, “We can change the functional properties of the proteins at the cellular level to optimize all the different properties of meat. We ask the question, how do we build this up with a new type of technology without needing the animal?”
Reducing Food Waste
The world produces enough food to support an estimated 10 billion people, but each year, roughly one third of it is lost to supply chain inefficiency. This staggering amount of waste – 1.3 billion tons annually – not only fuels a global crisis of food insecurity, but also exacerbates the adverse environmental impacts of industrial agriculture.
To create a more sustainable food supply chain, the industry is increasingly turning to technologies like blockchain, artificial intelligence and hybrid cloud as a means to mitigate food waste, while offsetting the CO2 emissions generated by farming. Some leading companies are starting to experiment further with the possibilities arising from quantum computing.
Blockchain for food traceability
One of the biggest contributing factors to food waste is the overall lack of visibility and traceability across the supply chain. As food travels from farm to grocery store shelf, it passes through a dizzying number of intermediaries – packagers, wholesalers, distributors – each of whom has their own system and processes for tracking the product journey. These systems are rarely interoperable and are often analogue, making it virtually impossible to see what’s happening in real-time. This, in turn, makes it extremely difficult for retailers to accurately forecast inventory needs, leading to product surpluses and, eventually, waste.
Blockchain provides a unified system for monitoring the path of food from source to endpoint, allowing producers and companies to upload their product data to a single trusted source of data and insight. This not only vastly mitigates inventory surpluses, but also enables stakeholders to perform more targeted recalls in the event of a foodborne illness outbreak, eliminating the need to destroy unaffected meat and produce. The same data can also be used to track sustainability parameters such as CO2.
Almost most Farmers today use tech to gather data about their operations. Think about this, farmers can use collected data to improve their crops. This practice is often called precision agriculture. It involves using tools like GPS, sensors and drones to collect information on crop growth. You can then decide things like soil health, water use and weather forecasts. Crunching data with AI, enables farmers to know alot of things like precisely how much water to give plants. By incorporating weather data into calculations helps them plan watering cycles. You can plan around rainfall and can cut that water waste.
Hence, crop monitoring can help to spot problems like pest infestations. In addition, monitors also helps the farmer solve problems quickly. Therefore, you can stop the problems before they cause further severe damage.
Artificial Intelligence for resource planning and crop yield optimization
Agriculture accounts for a staggering 70 percent of the world’s water usage, but how efficiently is that water utilized? Through AI-enabled analytics and sensor technology, farmers are able to analyze in real-time the chemical composition of their water and soil. Predictive modelling can then mine that data for actionable insights, suggesting more effective irrigation, fertilization and harvesting strategies.
In addition to supporting water conservation, AI also enables better resource planning throughout the supply chain by delivering more accurate and up-to-date crop forecasts. AI-enabled weather predictions also help farmers develop hyperlocal strategies for boosting crop yields.
Cloud for value chain digitization
Whether it’s blockchain-enabled traceability, AI-powered analytics or any number of other cutting-edge capabilities, cloud is the bedrock technology that makes it all possible. Every day, the food industry generates vast quantities of data across a disparate footprint of incompatible point systems, legacy platforms and analogue processes. Cloud – hybrid cloud in particular – is the nexus that bridges these disconnected siloes and allows organizations not only to achieve a more holistic view of their business, but to infuse every process with intelligence and automation. It allows stakeholders to innovate, co-create and share information, regardless of where the data resides.
Quantum computing for sustainable fertilizer
In scaling food production to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population, one of the greatest bottlenecks is our reliance on nitrogen-based fertilizer. While nitrogen is among the most abundant elements found on Earth, plants can only process it in its “fixed” form. Nature achieves this through a specific type of bacteria found in the roots of certain plants. But humans don’t currently have a method for replicating this catalytic process at scale in the production of commercial fertilizer.
Engineers have been tackling this problem for the better part of a half-century, but quantum computing now offers a fresh approach. In the next few years, researchers hope to use quantum computers to simulate numerous catalytic processes, using AI-enabled predictive modelling to validate their effectiveness.
Global Food Biotechnology Market
The Major Players Include: ABS Global, Arcadia Biosciences, AquaBounty Technologies, BASF Plant Science, Bayer CropScience AG,
Camson Bio Technologies Ltd, Dow AgroSciences LLC, DuPont Pioneer, Evogene Ltd, Hy-Line International, KWS Group, Monsanto
Origin Agritech Limited, Syngenta AG
References and Resources also include: