Our foodstuffs in the future may be full of surprises. The challenges are high, human imagination is boundless. Numerous emerging innovations can be noted. Some are still in the labs, others are seeking to gain a foothold in the marketplaces.
The challenges faced in coming decades by our agricultural systems and the agro-food industry are quite formidable. They include the forecast increase of some 2.5 billion in total world population by year 2050, growing urbanization, a nutritional transition towards a greater intake of meat in the diets of emergent countries and climate change. Technological innovation is part of the solution, both in agriculture and in food sciences. So what are the trends in the latter area?
The fight against loss and waste
The fight against food loss and in favor of waste reduction is now one of the top priorities of international institutions such as the FAO, as well as States, NGOs, and professional organizations. It is estimated that some 30% or the world’s food is lost after harvesting, or wasted in storage by shops, households and catering services. Loss and waste at this level carries a high cost. The FAO has evaluated the direct financial loss at close to 1,000 billion $US and total cost at 2,600 billion $US, if we add environmental costs (≥ 700 billion $US) and social costs (1,000 billion $US) to the direct economic loss.
Fruits and vegetables represent the most commonly wasted food categories. Scientists and producers – apart from helping consumers to become aware of this and improving the logistic chains (in particular the cold chain) – have been working for a long time to increase product life expectancy. An international tomato sequencing project engaged by Cornell University was launched in 2003. As of 1994, the American company Calgene were working on a transgenic tomato, Flavr Savr, the first fresh, genetically modified fruit or vegetable sold in the world, which retained its firmness longer. But it turned out to be a commercial flop, inasmuch as the tomato was found by customers to be too expensive and not very tasty. A more promising and original long conservation tomato appears to be the variety produced by the Swiss agro-chemical group Syngenta, under the code name FW13; long and honey-colored, it does not rot but candies, losing water in a manner similar to dates.
Among the numerous initiatives to combat food wastage, we can note the possibility to collect the discarded fruits and vegetables then transform them. A London supermarket promises “zero waste,” thanks to a transformation of unsold vegetables into soup. Companies like Le Potager de Marianne at the huge Rungis food market, just south of Paris, now specialize in collecting and processing unsold vegetables. An even more astonishing venture consists of transforming the same discarded fruit and vegetables … into packaging!
A case in point here is “fruit leather,” an innovation proposed by a French company, CD Fruits, designed using dehydrated fruit pulp. The format used is a thin film that will theoretically resist heat and handling. The priority target market slots are those of the agro-food industrialists, catering service professionals, bakers and delicatessen outlets.
The packaging made this way is biodegradable and offers another advantage: it is edible. Various products are already on sale, made from mushroom, olive and corn wastes. The American company WikiFoods Inc. produces packaging made of food particles, encapsulating food (under the brand-name of WikiPearls) which can even be washed before eating. A WikiPearl is fundamentally a “heart” made of food or even beverage and an edible “skin” that protects the core. The range of products runs from yogurts to cheese, ice-cream and fruit juices. Packaging like this can also be used to contain hot beverages or food.
The agro-food sector is often accused of producing food that is too fatty, too salty or sweet and therefore potentially leads to health problems and obesity. An innovation wave is seeking to do exactly the contrary, i.e., not only to produce foodstuffs that do not damage your health but which might even prove beneficial.
One of the most attractive prospects lies in the development of products incorporating micro-algae. Spirulina, for example, is the trade name for a blue micro-algae rich in vitamins, glucids, minerals and trace elements with attested anti-oxidant properties (contributing to anti-ageing protection of our skin), detoxifier, anti-cholesterol … In particular, Spirulina contains the eight amino-acids normally present only in animal products. A startup company, Algama, has launched the development of a spirulina-based beverage, Springwave, focusing its advertizing pitch not only on well-being and health, but also on technological modernity to counter the “organic” lines that have been pervasive in this market slot.
The contribution of food to health is a focal point for intense competition because the market slots are potentially promising. For a decade now, the Danone Group strategy has focused on health and we note that the competitor group Nestlé has also strategically shifted in this direction, setting up in 2010 Nestlé Health Science and the Institute for Health Sciences, by acquiring several medical research specialized companies. The Nestlé Health Science Division is presented as “a new industry at the frontier between traditional food-stuff activities and the pharmaceutical sector through development of personalized scientific solutions and training in new approaches to prevention and management of illnesses and disorders.” Nestlé’s intentions are to develop innovating nutritional solutions in three specific areas: medical care for ageing disorders, intensive care units and surgery, pediatric medicated care.
Alongside the majors, we also see startups operating on specific related market slots. To illustrate, we have a company like Ynsect.com is specialized in what is called “neutraceuticals” produced from farmed insects.
A lighter variation in the field of health concerns is “cosmetofood,” highly appreciated in Asian countries with a local development of products such as beverages, yogurts or candies purported to be good for our skins, our complexion, etc.
From nanos to synthesized meat: breakthrough technologies
The fact that the agro-food sector is turning increasingly to nanotechnologies is promising per se even if somewhat controversial. Nanotechnologies are being used more and more to improve food safety factors, traceability and conservation time. Thus, for example, packaging incorporating nanomaterials can prove to be more waterproof, protecting the food contents from UV degradation, from germs, smelly environments or humidity.
Nanos can also be incorporated in foodstuffs to enhance aromas or certain nutritional effects, to reduce fats, increase protein and vitamin contents. To illustrate, we have, on one hand, the active oil produced by Israeli company Shemen Industries, aimed at limiting cholesterol concentration in the bloodstream, while the weight loss supplement Nanotrim by Nanonutra Labs burns fats and, on the other, RBC LifeSciences’ chocolate with its low sugar content and unchanged taste.
One of the main challenges for agricultural systems and the agro-food sector is to produce more food, notably meats, without inducing environmental damage. Agricultural output (especially meat production) has considerable impact on the environment, with the FAO estimating that by 2050 the world’s foodstuff production must increase by some 70% to meet the needs of the growing global population. Moreover, rapid development of the emergent countries has modified the diets of their middle classes. This nutritional trend has led to a transition from cereals staples to a diet with significantly more food from livestock breeding. The result is that these populations are now feeding on a diet with large fat and sugar content and saturated fats that come mainly from ingesting animal produce. This is a trend that will certainly continue, inasmuch as the FAO foresees a doubling up of meat and dairy production in the world by 2050. Production on this scale consumes a lot of energy (twenty times more energy is needed to produce a kg of meat than a kg of wheat), of water (ten times more water is needed to produce a kg of meat, viz., 15 000 liters than to produce a kg of wheat); it also leads to deforestation, soil and water-table pollution and emission of greenhouse gases (producing meat leads to emission of more GHGs than the whole transportation industry).
The challenge before us is to determine how to produce more foods without unduly affecting the environment. There are numerous, innovative projects that support this aim. Firstly, the target consists of producing meat without necessarily taking it from animals. The vegan option consists of producing, for example, a vegetable steak based on textured pea proteins, such as that proposed by the French company Sotexpro, or breast of chicken again with vegetable proteins as proposed by Beyond Meat Inc. Likewise for other classic farm-raised products, such as eggs replaced by a combination of vegetable proteins (yellow peas from Canada), Hampton Creek Inc., or even artisanal cheese made from almond nut milk proposed by Lyrical Food Inc.
Other laboratories or enterprises are seeking to go even further; their aim is to “create” meat without animal origins. Ethan Brown, CEO of Beyond Meat explains that “we raise a basic question: what is meat? If you answer spontaneously, it is flesh from cattle, chickens, pigs. However, if you prefer a scientific answer, meat is composed of amino-acids, lipids, water, carbon hydrates and minerals. It is assembled in a specific manner which we now understand. Consequently, analyzing its architecture, we now have its blue-print specifications. We can reassemble these five components so as to obtain the same structure as found in natural meat.”
US company Modern Meadow Inc. intends to “create” meat with a 3-D printer, with a technology called ‘bio-printing.’ Their process requires collecting animal stem cells which are cultured. After duplication, the cell clones are stored in a printer cartridge. Immediately after printing, the cells aggregate naturally to form a living tissue.
The world’s first lab-grown in vitro beef-burger was assembled by research scientists at Maastricht University, Netherlands, and presented in 2013. The meat content is synthetic, assembled in a laboratory from cultured stem cells from adult cattle. Stem cells have the capacity to replicate and form muscle fibers. They were placed in an incubator where they rapidly replicated and developed; it took three months to “fabricate” the burger meat. The growing concern for animal well-being in developed countries and the trend to focus on animals suffering favor a synthetic meat option. Of course, two key questions remain: firstly, is it feasible to move from the lab to an industrial phase and obtain reduced production costs and, secondly, how will potential consumers accept synthetic meat, as a function of pricing, taste, texture and possible impact on health?
To produce meat with least environmental impact, another innovative technique, albeit controversial, has been to create GMAs (genetically modified animals). This technology enables “modification of the genetic material of micro-organisms, plants or animals, by adding, changing or removing certain DNA sequences in a way that does not occur naturally. It aims to modify specific characteristics of an animal or introduce a new trait, such as disease resistance or enhanced growth – in a predetermined manner.”(Source: European Food Safety Authority).
Currently, no GMAs are marketed in the EU. Nevertheless, such GM animals do exist in the USA, even if there has been no authorization to date to market them. In Canada, the Enviropigproject has led to creation of a transgenic Yorkshire pig, whose manure contains less plant phosphor than the non-transgenic species. We recall that phosphor manure contributes to green algae proliferation. GMAs offer further advantages, such as enabling the species concerned to grow more rapidly than “natural” animals. A case in point is the AquAdvantage, a GM salmon produced by the US company Aquabounty, with enhanced growth performance, thanks notably to transfer of an eel gene – the resulting “AAS” salmons become adult in 18 months, compared with three years for salmon in the wild. A last example here is the transgenic-chicken-project developed by a British research team which proves unable to transmit avian flu.
An alternate solution consists in eating meat of less common animals. Here we can refer to the numerous innovations that revolve round edible insects. It is a trend largely encouraged by the FAO because of the high nutrient value of certain insects with high fat, vitamin and mineral content, plus protein levels close to those in traditional meat. More than 1 900 insect species are edible and, indeed, are already consumed round the world: beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grass-hoppers, locusts, crickets, termites, bugs, cicadas, etc. The can be eaten raw, cooked, or transformed into pate spreads. Moreover, the environmental impact of raising insects is far less that production of traditional meats. Some companies have specialized in this field, e.g., the French company Micronutris who present themselves as “the leading European company specialized in breeding insects and making edible insect-based preparations for human consumption.” In their product range, the company proposes insect-based biscuits, chocolates and macaroon cakes. In the same area, we can cite Exo Protein (cricket flour) and Ynsect. Eating insects is strongly advocated for the Southern hemisphere where some 2 billion inhabitants already eat insects, a figure to be compared with the 800 million persons who currently suffer from malnutrition and another two billion who suffer from deficits in micro-nutrients (minerals such as iron, iodine or zinc, and vitamins A, B and C). An interesting experiment, by the name of Toumou’Délice, was tested in 2014 in Burkina-Faso. The idea was to distribute packets of fresh, precooked caterpillars, with the dual feature of having excellent nutritional value and reasonably long conservation (18 months), the aim being to have the local test population become accustomed to eating this sort of food and to fight malnutrition, a problem rife in Burkina Faso.
The most radical solutions call for a nutritive flour that could be substituted for any kind of foodstuff, especially meat. A case in point is the diet powder – produced by Rosa Labs, headquartered in Los Angeles – under the trade name Soylent. This white powder, to be mixed with water, is advertized as containing not only everything the human body needs: vitamins, minerals, amino-acids, calories and also fat – from olive oil and a little fish oil … but also none of the toxins that we find in many foodstuffs today. Soylent can be consumed in replacement of all other forms of food. It is also seen as economical by its creator, young American software engineer Rob Rhinehart, at 3 $US/meal or 100 $US a month.
Eating insects and sea-weed remind us that Mother Nature’s resources are far from depleted and that our nutritional habits can change rapidly. Sushis became highly commendable in just one generation’s time-span – who before that would have accepted the idea of eating raw fish? With transgenic products and synthetic meat, Humanity has moved one notch closer to consuming man-made foodstuffs. Our food intake has a long history yet is still pointing to new developments: 10,000 years ago, corn cobs, wheat or rice were not at all like the varieties we eat today. Beef-cattle, chickens and pigs did not exist. History is certainly accelerating but more relevantly, it continues to progress.
More on paristech review
On the topic
By the author
- Agriculture and food: the rise of digital platformson February 12th, 2016
- The education tsunami – 9 pieces to make sense of a revolutionon July 22nd, 2015
- Energy transition Series – Smart consumption: technology to the rescueon June 26th, 2015