June 2, 2022 – That tuna-on-whole-wheat you had for lunch is a technological marvel.
A century ago, few people could’ve guessed how simple it would become to make. Sliced bread only hit the market in 1928. Canned tuna didn’t become popular until the 1930s. And the mayo holding the sandwich together was likely to be homemade until around 1922. The history of food is closely tied to technology, just like the future of food.
“Food innovation historically involves technological innovation,” says Todd Mockler, PhD, a principal investigator at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. “For 10,000 years, it’s been this continual march of technology, and the technologies are getting better and more efficient, more effective.”
The private sector seems to agree with him: Investments in food technology businesses exploded last year, with investors shelling out a record $12.8 billion globally in 2021. That’s twice as much as in 2020.
Artificial Intelligence Across the Food System
Some of the most exciting developments use artificial intelligence (AI), in which computers mimic human problem-solving and decision-making skills by analyzing data. AI performs complex tasks hundreds, even thousands of times faster than the human brain could ever do. In the food world, researchers are already using it in several ways. Looking forward, it has the potential to transform almost every part of the food system. For example, right now researchers are experimenting with AI to:
• Run an entirely autonomous, environmentally resilient farm using sensors, robots, and other innovations
• Find out when produce is at its peak for harvesting and processing with the least amount of waste
• Simulate food processing operations to pinpoint where food safety issues may arise
• Compile and analyze nutrition data from studies, organize the information, and use it to predict how eating a certain food might affect your health
Mockler is part of the Crop Genetics and Genomics team at AIFarms (Artificial Intelligence for Future Agricultural Resilience, Management, and Sustainability) at the University of Illinois, where they’re trying to develop an autonomous farm.
“It involves things like computer vision – using high-res cameras mounted on drones, tractors, or robots to image crops in field,” he says. Engineers are developing new AI approaches to glean information from the images those cameras collect, then find ways to act on it.
“And it’s not only about plant-based science. A quarter of the project is directed towards livestock, using AI with swine, using camera-based imaging to track animal behavior. They can tell if a pig’s sick or not happy.”
Using Genetics to Grow More — and More Nutritious — Food
Because of population growth, experts believe that by 2050, the world is going to need almost 60% more food than we’re producing now. Climate change will affect our ability to meet demand – for every degree Celsius of warming, crops will yield 5% less food. While nations argue over how to stop temperatures from rising, scientists are looking to genetics to offset potential losses and make the food grown more nutritious.
Think of the process known as CRISPR gene editing as a cut-and-paste option for plants’ DNA. Scientists can snip out genes that lead to unwanted qualities, or double up on beneficial ones – boosting the protein content of a soybean, say, or increasing the yield per tomato plant, or helping corn thrive with less water. Unlike genetic modification, CRISPR doesn’t mix in genetic material from other plants. It only adjusts what already exists, the same way breeders have been doing for centuries. The big difference: These changes take place in one or two generations of a plant, while old-school cross-breeding can take years.
An innovative breeding method like CRISPR is just one way our ever-growing understanding of how genes work can help feed us in the future.
“Genomics, predictive rapid breeding, genome editing, we’re harnessing all of them to innovate,” says Mockler. “It’s not just about improving the seeds that get sold to growers – it’s also about improving the end product, whether it’s the whole food a consumer eats or an ingredient like soy protein isolate. Innovation doesn’t end with the seeds; it goes all the way to the product.”
Benson Hill, an agriculture tech company he co-founded, developed a variety of soybean that’s not only high in protein, it also uses fewer natural resources to produce soy-based foods.
Genetic material can also be added to give crops climate-resilient traits. Worldwide, around 1,750 gene banks hold nearly 7.5 million samples of genetic material from seeds, seedlings, and other forms of plant matter. They aim to preserve domesticated crops as well as wild varieties, which may have hardier features.
“We have this huge database of potentially useful genetic diversity that can be used to enhance the resilience of our crops to climate change. And there are new methods that scientists around the world are using to try to figure out which of those genes are going to encode the most useful traits,” says Pamela Ronald, PhD, whose lab at the University of California, Davis, focuses on plant genetics.
Some scientists are looking at ways to reintroduce crops that fell out of favor, for example because they were too hard to harvest. If they can pinpoint the genes that cause the problem and edit them out or introduce a different gene, those crops may be viable on a large scale. “In 50 years, we’ll probably be seeing some plants that we haven’t seen on grocery store shelves recently,” says Ronald.
For instance, a colleague is working on gene-editing groundcherries, a wild relative of the tomatillo. They’re hard to grow in large quantities because the bushes sprawl unevenly. “He’s trying to use genome editing to change the branching structure, to make them easier to harvest,” Ronald says.
Altering the genetic makeup of food isn’t without controversy. Here in the U.S., the Non-GMO Project advocates for labeling of genetically engineered foods. Around the world, dozens of countries ban GMOs altogether. Gene editing, a newer technology, falls into a gray area since it tinkers with a plant’s existing genes rather than mix-and-matching genetic material from different plants.
“The resistance to COVID vaccines has highlighted the danger to human health of misinformation and disinformation,” says Ronald. “In plant biology, we’ve known for 35 years that using biotechnology is incredibly helpful for advancing sustainable agriculture, and it’s no more risky than conventional approaches. But it’s been really challenging to get that information out. There are so many conspiracy theories, and people are really afraid.”
Creating New Kinds of Food
Experts see novel foods – edible items that literally didn’t exist before – as another way to feed the world in the future. Researchers and companies are turning to new technologies and ancient civilizations to create healthier, more sustainable products.
• Synthetic biology may seem like a futuristic term, but if you’ve ever had an Impossible Burger, you’ve already tried it. These lab-based products are engineered to achieve a similar flavor and texture to their conventional cousins, but with a healthier nutritional profile or a more sustainable footprint. For instance, Incredo Sugar starts with real cane sugar, but it’s engineered it to reach your tastebuds more efficiently so you only need half as much. And Aleph Farms takes cells from a cow and grows them in a lab, until eventually they become steak. (Read more on alternative proteins.)
• Innovative uses for existing, overlooked foods often come from a sustainability angle. That might mean using microalgae like spirulina in plant-based burgers, or using insects as a protein source in power bars. Several research facilities (and a Michelin-starred Spanish chef) are looking at ways to sustainably harvest and use Zostera marina, tiny grains that cling to seagrass. Until now, only the Seri, an indigenous people in Mexico, have used it for food.
• 3D-printed food may one day be something you can make in your own home. Researchers see its potential to repurpose food waste (one company in the Netherlands, Upprinting Foods, is already pursuing this commercially), custom-make food to suit your specific nutritional needs, or avoid food allergens.
Of course, the challenge with all these innovations is to ensure they don’t create new problems for human health or the environment. Remember, not that long ago, many of the practices that have led us to the edge of climate disaster were hailed as revolutionary.
Changing the Packaging
What good is nutritious, sustainably produced food if it spoils before it reaches you? Technically, advances in packaging won’t change what you’ll be eating decades from now – but they could have a huge impact on both sustainability and food safety.
• Intelligent packaging uses sensors that can tell when food is no longer safe, and indicators that let you know. It helps to extend shelf life and prevent food waste. (No more throwing out perfectly good food just because it’s past its expiration date.) And it also has the potential to protect you from foodborne illness. For instance, Mimica Touch may soon be used on perishables packaging in the U.K. It measures temperature, and when food gets too warm, bumps rise on the label. A simple finger swipe lets you know when it’s time to toss that milk carton. As long as it’s smooth, you and your morning cereal are good to go. Other intelligent packaging approaches use gas indicators, humidity sensors, and biosensors.
• Active packaging, on the other hand, interacts with food to help it stay fresh longer and prevent the growth of bacteria that could make you sick. That might happen by using an antimicrobial substance, moisture controller, ethylene absorber, or some other system to control the conditions inside the package. You can already find versions of this in the supermarket – think about how much longer you can keep a package of cut lettuce in the fridge, compared to an untouched head. Those packages are filled with a mix of gases that discourage microorganisms from growing. Future possibilities include an edible film made with essential oils that have antimicrobial properties, a bread bag that emits ethanol, which inhibits mold and bacteria, or an electronic chip-based system that uses AI and can send an alert when your chicken is about to go bad.
• Biodegradable or edible packaging intends to reduce the amount of food-related non-compostable garbage we generate. That includes most of the packaging you see in the grocery store, from plastic bags to cans to glass jars. Far too much of it ends up in landfills – here in the U.S., the EPA estimates that 28.1% of all solid waste comes from packaging. Sometime in the near future, instead of throwing away the empty bag from the chips that went with your tuna sandwich, you might eat it or turn it into fertilizer for future food.
It all sounds exciting, but turning these ideas into real products may not be smooth sailing.
“We shouldn’t take it for granted. It’s going to take investment from everyone – venture capitalists and government entities – to invest in food technology and innovations that can address challenges like healthier food, or mitigating the negative impacts of climate change on food production,” says Mockler. “Look at how what’s happening in Ukraine is affecting food supplies. You can’t predict these things, but by having more robust food production technology, you can be better poised to deal with the challenges.”