The convergence of revolutionary technologies — chemicals, materials, life sciences, digitalization, data, and mobility — has turned food systems into a hotbed of innovation. Last month, I discussed how America’s history and economy are tightly intertwined with food, along with the challenges facing the broader food industries and new market opportunities that exist; this month, I’m focusing on solutions and how innovators are leveraging revolutionary technologies.
High-tech on the Farm: Scientific and analytical breakthroughs are enabling researchers to work with countless gene combinations and massive amounts of data to uncover new crop traits and agricultural practices. Biotechnology, for instance, is creating crops that are pest- and disease-resistant; drought-, heat-, and flood-tolerant; and with more protein, essential amino acids, and vitamins. These new crops could boost yields and establish agriculture where we cannot now. For example, after analyzing hundreds of crops and millions of data points, an industry-university consortium developed Opti-Oat — the Quaker Oat Growth Guide — which allows growers to assess their oat crops against benchmarks and modify their practices to improve yields and efficiency.
“The challenge for global agriculture is innovating ways to do more with less,” explained John Deere’s Chief Technology Officer Dr. Jahmy Hindman. “That means feeding a fast-growing world population while reducing inputs like fertilizer, water, seed, and chemicals to provide for a more sustainable future. Deere believes the answer to this challenge lies in the application of cutting-edge technologies and increasingly intelligent machines, which create more data-driven farming and enable smarter decision-making.” And, indeed, such solutions are scaling.
Sensors in fields, drone scouts, and aerial and satellite imaging give agricultural producers new ways to monitor fields and analyze crop growth and health. Smart equipment delivers water and fertilizer to plants only when and where they need it, conserving both resources. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data analytics can predict yields, get insights on soil conditions, and plan when to plant, prune, and harvest. The internet of things and blockchain are also illuminating the farm-to-fork supply chain, enabling the traceability that helps ensure food safety and origin, which assures eco-conscious consumers that their food was sustainably produced.
Meanwhile, automated farm vehicles are substituting for farm labor in some regions. A single operator can now run a fleet of Deere’s autonomous tractors. Vegetables are being grown in indoor farms, ranging in size from a shipping container to a massive warehouse, thanks to precise nutrient formulas, tunable lighting, and microclimates. These farms have cut water use by up to 95%, don’t use pesticides, and harvest more frequently; some crops are obtaining 10 to 20 times the yield per acre in vertical indoor farming compared to open-field crops.
New Foods, New Flavors: Teams of scientists and engineers in a range of fields, including physics, synthetic biology, biochemistry, bioengineering, food and sensor sciences are working together to create new foods and design new flavors. They are studying the many dimensions of food to optimize the eating experience. Taste, texture, chewability, and aroma are essential for lab-grown and plant-based meat to mimic the real thing; creaminess is a must for plant-based dairy products like ice cream.
“Science has the capacity to radically change how we eat for the better,” said Dr. Jonathan McIntyre, CEO of Motif FoodWorks. “Plant-based is the key to this equation. Yet plant-based foods will never be more nutritious or sustainable unless people actually eat them. We’re pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in plant-based foods, delivering innovations that will benefit people and the planet.”
With all of this in mind, artificial intelligence is assessing massive amounts of data on consumer preferences and tastes to develop new flavors in collaboration with sensory sciences. Designers are engineering novel flavors that combine surprising food pairings. In fact, the personalization of food is on the horizon, with customized food and beverage products and diet plans based on a person’s DNA, age, health condition, and overall preferences.
Innovative and Sustainable Packaging: Innovators are creating all sorts of new food packaging, such as compostable packaging made from mushrooms or seaweed, plantable packaging that contains seeds, and even paper bottles or self-chilling cans that release liquefied CO2. Antimicrobial packaging prevents the growth of harmful microbes, which keeps food fresher, reduces the need for preservatives, and extends shelf life. Smart packaging can detect when food is no longer safe to eat, while intelligent pigments change colors to indicate freshness.
Attacking Food Waste: Properly storing food can help consumers determine when to eat it before spoiling, allowing food to retain its good taste and nutritional value. Some Electrolux refrigerators have smart crisper technology that removes excess moisture and keeps dry air out; and an ethylene absorber reduces the gas emitted by fruits and vegetables that causes spoiling. Hazel Technologies developed a package liner that releases antimicrobial vapor to slow the growth of mold on produce, and a sachet with ethylene inhibitors that slows aging and decay for shipped and stored produce. NewGem Foods developed edible films made from purees of unmarketable fruits and vegetables, serving as low-carb alternatives to bread and tortilla wraps; one film equals a full serving of fruits or vegetables.
Tackling Sustainability: Getting food to the table also involves water, energy, and labor. With their scale and reach, large companies are positioned to drive resource savings and sustainability across their value chain and into the supplier base. For example, PepsiCo is working to sustainably source 100% of the key ingredients it uses by 2030; in high water risk areas, improve water-use efficiency by 15% in its agricultural supply chain and become net water positive, replenishing more water than the company uses, in high water risk areas by 2030; achieve 100% recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable product packaging by 2025; and reduce absolute greenhouse gas emissions in direct operations by 75% and 40% across its value chain by 2030.
“As a company that does business in more than 200 countries and territories and uses more than 25 crops sourced over 7 million acres in 60 different countries, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to use our size and scale to help build a more sustainable food system,” said René Lammers, Executive Vice President and Chief Science Officer at PepsiCo. “We’re striving to build a food system that preserves the planet and positively impacts the people and communities we work with and serve.”
When I look across the food science and technology landscape, I am optimistic that innovators will develop solutions across the food value chain that can take us from the tragedy of food scarcity and food production’s threat to the planet to food sustainability, security, and abundance.
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