Today’s agriculture and food businesses are attempting to feed a growing population in a world under increasing under threat from climate change. Innovation in the way we produce food might be the solution.
The food industry is undergoing a new wave of technological disruption. This is largely because of the recent spike in global investment action. In 2018, SoftBank’s Vision Fund led a $200m investment round in agricultural technology. The year before, total investment was $1.5bn — a record-breaking sum for the sector.
There’s a special sense of urgency behind this disturbance. While population forecasts show demand for food will skyrocket in the next few decades, forecasts for the rate of climate change show crop yields are expected to fall by a quarter at that time. innovation is desperately needed in order to conquer this colossal challenge.
Formerly the stuff of science fiction, lab-grown or cultured’ meat is shortly to arrive on our dinner tables. When the first lab-grown hamburger premiered in 2013, it cost $280,000 to make. Now start-ups believe these hamburgers could hit supermarket shelves for $10 each.
Around the world, demand for meat is expected to grow by 70 percent by the year 2025. The mass production of lab-grown meat could fill this crucial gap in the food distribution chain. AT Kearney predicts that by 2040, 60 percent of all meat consumed internationally will come from lab-grown replacements or plant-based alternatives.
The meat industry has come under fire for its contribution to global warming. The Adam Smith Institute has discovered that moving away from conventional animal farming and slaughter could reduce greenhouse emissions by up to 96 percent and free up to 99 percent of the property used in animal farming globally.
We all know that our addiction to plastic is unsustainable. Its incidence is nowhere more apparent than in the food sector — but this is a tricky problem to solve. In the rush to embrace eco-friendly materials, many restaurants and retailers have begun using packaging which, on closer inspection, still poses a danger to the environment. In a recent controversy, restaurant chain Chipotle was discovered to be serving meals within their flagship compostable bowls, when in actual fact they contained high levels of the toxic compound fluorine, which made them non-degradable and potentially carcinogenic.
Many organizations are currently developing innovative biodegradable options that exploit waste products in the food sector, like the six to eight million metric tons of shellfish waste generated annually. Scientists have discovered a use for this waste by turning the chitin in the shells of shellfish into chitosan, which functions as a biodegradable plastic wrap that might be used in food packaging.
In the USA, the restaurant delivery service sector constitutes $19bn of the market. However, the increasing popularity of services such as Deliveroo and Uber Eats can be bad news for local restaurants. Delivery charges can take around 25 to 35 percent in commissions, which can eat into restaurants’ already slim profit margins. Coupled with the expenses of running a restaurant, many are deciding to cut out the middleman and adopt a fully virtual restaurant version.
So-called ‘ghost kitchens’, or cloud kitchens, are concentrated purely on creating fast-food deliveries. They’ve no dining room, meaning they are able to cut back on labor and rent costs. One of the important players in this sector at this time is Rebel Foods, which operates 235 kitchens across 20 cities in India and is poised for international growth.
There are high hopes vertical farming can reinvent agriculture and meet increasing demands for food. Vertical farming is the umbrella term for plants that are grown inside in urban areas, usually inside enormous warehouses. Urban farms present an attractive solution in countries where there is very little arable land, or in states which are extremely dependent on imported food. Vertical farms utilize much less land and water and even create 200 to 400 percent greater yields thanks to close observation of their plants’ nutrition intake. This also negates the need for pesticides.
But in its present form, vertical farming utilizes a significant quantity of energy, the majority of which can be used to power hydroponic systems and artificial lighting. Until vertical farms can exploit renewable energy on a massive scale, a more sustainable alternative might be to exploit the rooftop space in towns.
In an increasingly challenging climate, individuals will require crops that are more resilient to extreme weather whilst also being richer in nutrition. This can be accomplished through selective breeding and biofortification, where micronutrients are added to foods in the agricultural phase by crossbreeding standard plant types with their wild relatives. Genetic engineering is just another option; scientists have discovered they could genetically modify plants to make them more drought-resistant.
Examples of these super plants comprise’scuba’ rice, that may survive even if submerged underwater for a couple of weeks, and iron-rich beans which could withstand a temperature change of as much as four degrees. Researchers in Dubai are modifying plants like quinoa so that they can thrive in the nation’s salty and arid deserts.