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The need to define the future of food is growing. Gen Z citizens and consumers are already demanding radical change from food sector actors to increase access to healthy and affordable food. Food anthropologist Wendy Yared’s story about the future of food and the technologies that will sustain it, presented during the Techsylvania Conference in September, comes at the perfect time.
Wendy is not only a scientist, but also an online education expert. On her quest to help people understand where their food comes from, Wendy started Evolve.ag, an digital educational platform. She discusses current challenges in our food supply chains and the new trends and technologies that can change what, where, and how we eat. She has a Bachelor’s and a Master’s of Art degrees in Applied Anthropology from the University of San Diego.
“Food is one of the most visceral and enjoyable parts of life, and it’s life sustaining, too. What if suddenly one day, you would walk into the grocery store and find that your favorite food doesn’t sell anymore? What if your local restaurant no longer got the ingredients to make your favorite dishes?,” Yared began.
As we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, this can quite easily happen. Food supply chains can be disrupted by political, social, and cultural actions. What is more, even if agricultural production tripled between 1960 and 2015 across the world, we do not always grow healthy food. People around the world are not getting good nutrition, which is evident in that current rates of obesity are higher than ever. On top of all that, we manage to waste around 40% of our food.
How can we fix our food systems to ensure they can nourish current and future generations? And what role can high tech innovation play? It’s a really wild world out there when it comes to food.
Growing vegetables: From destroying the soil to vertical farming
Even if we have n types of veggie-based foods in modern supermarkets for plant-based diets, “there are still a lot of issues with how we grow vegetables,” says Yared. From using toxic pesticides that pollute our food, our soil and water, ending up in our bodies, to practicing monocropping, which gradually degrades the soil in lack of nutrients from biodiversity, we are building an unhealthy food production system that cannot be sustained.
“When large fields are harvested and planted again the existing root systems that are full of precious microbes from the seasons prior are disturbed, and in a lot of cases destroyed on purpose, because the farmers want to get into the soil to make sure there are no weeds. And this reduces the quality of the soil. Without rooting systems, the temperature of the soil will fluctuate, it will hold less water for plants, and increase the chance of mudslides,” Yared adds.
One innovative solution for growing vegetables with less constraints on the environment is vertical farming. “In these controlled environments, the sky is literally the limit,” she says. Indoor vertical farms are agriculture systems independent of environmental factors, such as sunlight, temperature, and weather events. Plants are grown vertically, typically using LED lights, and sometimes hydroponics to deliver water and nutrients to the root system without the need of soil.
Today, different versions of vertical farms are spread around the world, from America, to Europe, to the Middle East, and to Japan. Many vertical farms grow leafy greens, sprouts, and small vegetables that don’t require a lot of attention or pollination. But the sector is quickly expanding – in China, they are experimenting with rice, in Romania, with bell peppers, and elsewhere with root vegetables.
“The Vertical Farm Institute states that with every square meter of floor space of vertical farming produces approximately the same amount of vegetable crops 50 square meters of conventionally worked farmland”. We shared more about the benefits of vertical farming in our stories about hydroponics-grown greens by CRiSP and the biggest microgreens Romanian producer and B2B supplier.
Fish farming: From overfishing to aquaponics
According to Yared, fish farming is another scary sector. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that about 24% of fish stocks are either over exploited, or depleted. While factory farming keeps populations in check, a lot of them are grown in the wild, negatively affecting the surrounding environment. For instance, to avoid bacterial infections, farmers treat them with antibiotics, which are then spread to wild stock.
One technology that Yared highlights is land-based aquaculture, or fish farming. This refers to growing fish in big tanks on land, instead of giant fences in the water. Similar to vertical farming, the environment is controlled and there is very little to no use of antibiotics.
Some of these farms have also incorporated hydroponics elements in their system resulting in aquaponics. Fish are grown in a closed system, whereby the water is recycled into the system. The nutrients fed to the fish are processed by helpful bacteria and delivered in optimal quantities.
What’s next? Cell-based meat and cell-based dairy
Two thirds of all agricultural land is already used for grazing in order to sustain animal farming. In this rhythm, with current population increase estimates, we won’t have enough agricultural land to feed future generations. Another big challenge that animal farming and meat production are facing is the GHG emissions attributed to these sectors. A recent article in Nature finds that global emissions from animal-based foods are twice larger than those of plant-based foods.
One of the solutions in this case? Cell-based agriculture. One key product that is talked about everywhere is cell-based meat, also referred to as clean meat, cultured meat, or lab-grown meat.
“Scientists take stem cells from animals without causing any detriments, place the cells in a nutrient-rich solution, and then grow them in a pressure-cooker like equipment. In order to get to a specific piece of meat they grow the cells in a scaffold, which is usually made up of some kind of plant material and mimics the animal features on that part of their body,” Yared explains.
Growing meat in a lab comes with some straightforward benefits. It is non-exploitative, there is no need for antibiotics, or hormones, and huge areas of land are saved.
On the downsides, Yared mentions: “There are greater energy costs associated with growing meat in a controlled environment (Ed.note similar to vertical farming and aquaponics), but here we have yet another opportunity to use alternative energy sources.”
The technology is already expanding in the markets around the world, Yared noted, sharing some examples. The EU allocated over €2.7M to support R&D in cellular agriculture under the Horizon 2020 program. Elsewhere in Asia, Singapore approved cellular agriculture for consumption starting last December. Meanwhile, the former Prime Minister of Israel, Netanyahu, made headlines some months ago when he tried cell-based meat by an Israeli company and stated that he couldn’t tell the difference, Yared exemplified. There is even a lab growing cell-based dairy, TurtleTree, with offices in Singapore and the US.
“Price parity with traditional meat is top of mind for all the producers I spoke with. Once they can operate at scale, and as producers raise the price of their products, cell-based meat prices will be comparable to the price of meat in grocery stores today. So, keep an eye out, it may be on our plates very soon,” Yared concluded.