The future of food production, innovation and engineering could look very different from what we have taken for granted in the present day. The incorporation of several disciplines into the singular process of producing food could see the advent of a so-called post-animal bio-economy.
The adoption of things like 3D printing, lab-grown meat, the blockchain. vertical farming and cellular culturing could see agriculture and animal husbandry (for food) extinct. Just think about that for a second - we could literally be on the brink of retiring the very innovation that made civilization possible.
Whatever the case may be, the future of food technology will never be the same again. These 11 are fine examples of the strides being made in this field today.
1. 3D Food Printing Could Change Food Forever
One interesting development in food technology is the work of institutes like TNO who are developing a means of 3D printing food. With the massed proliferation of 3D printing over the last few years, this development was probably an inevitability.
The technology will work as you anticipate - by building the end product layer by minute layer. This solution will offer endless possibilities for the shape, texture, composition, and ultimately, taste of food products in the future.
3D printing can probably be likened to the replicators in Star Trek, albeit a lot slower and more cumbersome. Like Star Trek, 3D printing will let you customize the final dish to your specific demands and tastes - just like cooking for yourself but without all the work.
TNO believe that this technology will be popular with food producers, retailers, and consumers alike. Whether it will usurp the growing momentum in robotic chefs (more on them later) or compliment them - only time will tell.
The future of food production looks interesting indeed. Plus 3D printing will greatly reduce the waste produced from 'conventional' cooking and could be used to promote healthy high-tech food and completely redefine how we produce 'recipes'.
Once the technology is refined it will provide unlimited possibilities for novel food designs by manipulating the ratio of ingredients to its final physical form on the plate. We start to see 'chefs' of the future combining their culinary talents to push the limits of the artistic form of the food sculptor.
2. High-Pressure Processing Could Extend The Shelf Life of Food 10x
One of the main concerns for food producers is how to extend the shelf life without compromising the taste or quality of the food. This has been an ongoing problem since time immemorial with early solutions like smoke or salt curing, fermentation and other solutions in common use since antiquity.
Brand new techniques currently in development include a process called High-Pressure Processing (HPP). This is a conservation technique that could quadruple or even extend by 10 times the shelf life of food products in the not too distant future.
High-Pressure Processing is a cold pasteurization process that introduces foods sealed in packaging into a high isostatic pressure environment (300-600 MPa) that is transmitted by water. That is more pressure that can be found at the base of the Mariana Trench.
This technique effectively inactivates micro-organisms to guarantee food safety. This combination of high pressure and low-temperature environment safely maintains the taste, food, appearance, texture and nutritional value of food.
High-Pressure Processing respects the sensorial and nutritional properties of food, because of the absence of heat treatment, and maintains its original freshness throughout the shelf-life. Another benefit of HPP is the fact that no irradiation or chemical preservatives need to be introduced in the process.
3. Automated Grading Systems Like Aris' AQS-System Could Replace Thousands of Workers
Companies like Aris have started to deliver innovative food production using something called an AQS-system. This system is used to grade and sort chickens (and potentially other animals) efficiently and accurately. AQS lets Aris' clients sort chickens by their shape, size, color and any other characteristics desired.
This relatively new system can manage in excess of 12,000 chickens in one hour greatly improving food production efficiency.
Aris's AQS-system is, by all accounts, the first of its kind. It uses a camera system and software programme to detect a suite of variations (like color) on the examined specimen. This system registers many profile deviations like broken wings or missing parts, poor coloration etc, and can even learn and improve itself over time.
The AQS-system also collects data from the products and product streams to feed and control the entire slaughterhouse operating system.
Aris have also devised similar systems for grading plants like Orchids, Potplants, and other seedlings at impressive rates per hour. These kinds of automation could completely replace human alternatives as they provide a greater level of accuracy and can operate tirelessly without needing to take breaks or holidays.
4. Insect Protein Could Replace Beef, Chicken, Pork, and Lamb
Although eating arthropods, like insects, is par for the course for many nations around the world it is a bit rarer in the 'West' - if we disregard things like lobsters and crabs of course. This is set to change with Kickstarter companies like Exo hoping to make insect protein bars and other foodstuffs commonplace in our diets.
The startup blew its funding goal of $20,000 in less than 72 hours and managed to raise $55,000 in total. They have since attracted investment from the likes of the rapper Nas and the one and only Tim Ferriss.
With this level of investment in the company, it seems many key players are confident that insect protein could become the next big thing. It goes without saying that the farmers, chefs, and startups involved in the burgeoning insect-protein industry want bugs to become as common as beef—and maybe even replace it.
If its popularity grows it could spark an entirely new industry and create hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs.
Exo is not the only kid on the block with our insect-protein manufacturers quadrupling their revenue between 2014 and 2015 according to Fortune.
Insect protein tends to contain about 60% protein, is packed with vitamin B12, has more calcium than milk. It also has more iron than spinach and can supply you with all the essential amino acids your body needs.
Insect meat is also better for the environment compared to its lumbering four-legged alternatives. It requires much less water (about 455 liters to make 72 grams of crickets compared to 6 grams of beef) and requires much less physical space.
Although it might seem unpalatable to eat insects in their 'natural' form, it can easily be ground up and used to replace other protein in your favorite recipes.
5. Robo Chefs Could Change the Way We All Cook Food
Restaurants and celebrity chefs might become a thing of the past if companies like Moley have anything to say about it. They have been busy developing one of the world's first automated kitchens - a so-called robochef.
Moley's robochef is the product of a collaboration between Moley and other companies like Shadow Robotics, Yachtline, DYSEGNO, Sebastian Conran and Stanford University Professor Mark Cutkosky.
It consists of a pair of fully articulated and automated robotic arms that can, for all intent and purpose, replicate the movement of humans arms and hands. Moley believes that their robotic chef has the same level of dexterity as that of any human alternative - especially when it comes to speed and sensitivity.
This robot chef takes its cue from famous chefs whose cooking skills are being followed to the letter by the robot. Each recorded 'recipe' is not only a list of ingredients and a set of instructions but also a complete and accurate replay of the original chef's actual motions and movements.
As exciting as this all might sound, this technology won't be cheap with estimates of it each robot chef costing $15,000 initially - though if you are a regular patron at a Michelin Star Restaurant this might sound like a bargain.
In the long run, the company plans to produce self-contained 'kitchen' that is operated by touch screen or via a smart device app. It will, in effect, be like a takeaway restaurant but at home - you could even order on your way home from work and have it ready by the time you arrive.
6. Lab-Grown Meat Could Make Animal Farms and Abattoirs Obsolete
This kind of 'meat' is grown from stem cells that are harvested by biopsy from donor livestock and then cultured in a lab for a few weeks.
In vitro meat is very popular with environmentalists who believe it could greatly reduce the environmental impact of large-scale animal husbandry. Some estimates believe that 'greenhouse gas' emissions, most notably methane, could be reduced by 96% if it were adopted large scale.
The technology is being developed by companies like JUST who hope to bring its products to market at some point in 2018. Products like chicken nuggets, sausage, and even foie gras could be created by this technique.
Of course, public opinion and the market's 'invisible hand' will ultimately dictate the commercial success of this new industry. However, some polls indicate that a significant percentage of people are open to eating 'clean meat'.
It is currently very expensive compared to the more traditional method of growing meat with costs of around $2,400 to make 450 grams of beef. As the technology matures and efficiency improves it is not out of the question that these costs will fall dramatically.
7. Vertical Farming Could Be The Future of Agriculture
Vertical farming could be the future of large-scale agriculture in the future. With more and more people moving into cities and traditional agriculture requiring large tracts of land the solution to future crop production could be to farm 'upwards'.
The concept is nothing new and was first proposed by Dickson Despommier who noted that an upscaling of the concept of rooftop gardens could be the future of farming. He envisaged purpose built farming 'towers' that could allow crops to be produced on every single level of the buildings, including the roof.
Although initially considered to be a utopian ideal some prototypes have actually been built in the last few years. For instance, prototypes have been built including a three-story VF Suwon, South Korea, over 50 'vertical farms' in Japan, a commercial vertical farm in Singapore that opened in 2012, and another in Chicago that was built in an old industrial building.
These kinds of farms generally fall into one of two categories - hydroponics (plants are grown in a basin of nutrient-enriched water) or aeroponics (roots are exposed and sprayed with nutrient-enriched mist). Neither requires any soil and artificial lighting tends to also be incorporated unless sunlight is in abundance.
These kinds of farms have some clear advantages over more traditional means of agriculture. Physical ground space is minimized, all-year-round farming is possible and agrochemicals are eliminated.
8. Blockchain Could Revolutionise The Agri-Food Supply Chain
Whenever you hear the term blockchain you can be forgiven for instantly thinking of Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies. Yet, another interesting potential application of the technology could be to improve traceability in the agri-food supply chain.
Being a distributed and collective public ledger system, blockchain has the potential for making every transaction in an agricultural supply chain transparent, traceable, verifiable and have no third party oversight.
There have been a few examples of series issues with traceability in recent years that could have been easily resolved a lot quicker if a blockchain ledger system had been used:-
- A blockchain system could have easily and quickly identified the source of contamination during the 2017 multi-state Salmonella outbreak that infected over 200 people in the US. Months of investigation finally traced the source of contamination to imported Maradol papayas from Mexico.
This would have been abundantly clear if a blockchain system had been employed to record and trace transactions throughout the food supply chain.
- The 2013 horsemeat 'scandal' in the United Kingdom could have been quickly resolved if a blockchain system had been employed. This scandal involved meat product labels failed to disclose the presence of horse meat.
Blockchain could have, in theory, provided traceability across the entire process and quickly resolved the issues at hand before they got too serious. This would be especially true for sources of major contamination - like a single supplier.
Food giants like Wal-Mart, Nestle, and Unilever, to name but a few, are already working with IBM to apply blockchains to their food supply chains. According to Forbes, a trial blockchain system could trace an exact farm supplier for a particular food product in 2 seconds - a task that would normally take over 6 days to complete.
9. Personalized Nutrition Could be the Future of Eating Plans
Personalized Nutrition is the concept of tailoring your diet to the specific means in which your genetic makeup predisposes you to react to different foods and other consumable products.
The concept is not new but some companies are already offering it to their clients. "Nutrigenomics" as it's called, is widely considered to be too far in its infancy for public consumption.
According to Rasmus Neilsen, a geneticist at the University of California, Berkeley:-
"We still don’t have the ability to accurately predict the most healthy diet for an individual … with or without the use of genomics."
Companies like DNAFit, Nutrigenomix, and Habit all offer services that promise to tailor your eating plan to your very DNA. They all ask for a sample of your genetic materials before preparing a customized diet plan - some will also prepare and send your meals for you (for an extra fee).
Researchers have been investigating the like between a person's unique genetic makeup and how they react to foods differently from other people. Some people, for instance, are able to absorb certain essential nutrients more efficiently than others.
Once this discipline becomes more sophisticated it is widely accepted that food and nutrition supply will move away from a "one-size-fits-all" approach to a truly unique and personally tailored eating plan.
10. Plant-Based Proteins Could Be the Future of Protein Supply
Proteins (technically speaking amino acids) are essential to build and maintain muscles, keep your bones in tip-top shape and keep your brain running like clockwork. If you don't get enough meat in your diet you will quickly begin to lose energy, hair, muscle mass and cognitive functionality.
Although 'conventional' sources of protein like animals, eggs, and fish are excellent sources (obviously) so to are some plant-based foods. These kinds of foods contain incredible amounts of nutrient-dense properties that your body and brain can use to help you feel your best.
Also, unlike animal-based protein, plant-based protein is easier to 'grow' and less damaging to the environment just like insect-based protein.
Good sources of plant-based protein include, but are not limited to; chickpeas, lentils, barley, almonds, quinoa, spinach, peanuts, kidney beans; to name but a few.
There are also plant-based meat substitutes like tempeh and tofu.
Although they have clear benefits over animal-based proteins there are various downsides to them too. Every single course of plant-based protein does not contain all the amino acids you need - this can be circumvented by eating a variety of them in your diet.
They are also less easily absorbed by the body when compared to animal proteins and tend to lack vitamin B12.
11. Cellular Agriculture
Cellular agriculture is often touted as a means to end to the post-animal bio-economy. But what is it exactly?
As the name suggests it a means of agricultural production but built on cell cultures rather than large-scale productions like traditional farms. This process comes in two forms:-
- acellular products and;
- cellular products.
The former are products made from organic molecules like protein and fat but contain no living cells. Cellular products, on the other hand, are primarily made from or contain living or once-living cells.
The final products are essentially the same as regular foods harvested from animals but are made in a very different way indeed.
Acellular products, for instance, use microbes like yeast or bacteria. By inserting the relevant genes into something like a yeast cell, the colony could be 'programmed' to produce, en masse, regular 'animal products' like milk.
Since all cells read the same genetic code, the yeast, now carrying so-called recombinant DNA, makes casein identical to the casein cows make.
This form of technology is nothing new - it was first perfected back in the 1970's. Arthur Rigs et al was able to insert the required genes into bacteria so they could start churning out insulin. Before this the pancreases of pigs and cattle needed to be ground-up to harvest insulin in large quantities.
This technology is already been applied to make products like Rennet and Vanilla. The former used to require harvesting the inner lining of the fourth stomach of cow calves - but no longer.