11 innovations that could build the food of the future

Is humanity on the brink of retiring farming forever? These 11 innovations in food technology could be the future of food production.
Christopher McFadden
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  • The future of food production, innovation, and engineering could look very different from what we have taken for granted today.
  • Incorporating several disciplines into the singular process of producing food could see the advent of a so-called post-animal economy. 
  • But what are the major advances in this field?

Adopting things like 3D printing, lab-grown meat, the blockchain, vertical farming, and cellular culturing could make agriculture and animal husbandry (for food) extinct. Just think about that for a second - we could be on the brink of retiring the very innovation that made civilization possible.

Whatever the case, the future of food technology will never be the same again. These 11 are fine examples of the strides in this field today.

1. 3D food printing could change food forever

One exciting development in food technology is the work of institutes like TNO, which are developing a means of 3D printing food. With the mass proliferation of 3D printing over the last few years, this development was probably inevitable. The technology will work as you anticipate; by building the end product layer by minute layer. This solution will offer endless possibilities for the future shape, texture, composition, and, ultimately, taste of food products. 

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 believes this technology will be popular with food producers, retailers, and consumers. Whether it will usurp the growing momentum of robotic chefs (more on them later) or complement 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 their final physical form on the plate. We start to see 'chefs' of the future combining their culinary talents to push the limits of the art form of the food sculptor.

11 innovations that could build the food of the future
3D printing may have a big role to play.

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.  Many of these were used well into the 19th Century and beyond until visionaries like Louis Pasteur and Lloyd Hall devised reliable alternatives. 

Brand new techniques currently in development include a process called High-Pressure Processing (HPP). This conservation technique 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. More pressure can be found at the base of the Mariana Trench.

This technique effectively inactivates microorganisms to guarantee food safety. This combination of high-pressure and low-temperature environments safely maintains food's taste, appearance, texture, sensory, and nutritional value.

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 delivering innovative food production using 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 shape, size, color, and desired characteristics.

This relatively new system can manage more than 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 program to detect 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 has also devised similar systems for grading plants like Orchids, Potplants, and other seedlings at impressive hourly rates. These kinds of automation could completely replace human alternatives as they provide greater accuracy and can operate tirelessly without needing to take breaks or holidays.

11 innovations that could build the food of the future
This system grades chickens automatically.

4. Insect protein could replace beef, chicken, pork, and lamb

Although eating arthropods, like insects, is par for the course for many nations worldwide, it is a bit rarer in the 'West' - if we disregard things like lobsters and crabs. 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 raised $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, many key players are confident that insect protein could become the next big thing. 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 contains about 60% protein, is packed with vitamin B12, and has more calcium than milk. It also has more iron than spinach and can supply all the essential amino acids your body needs. Insect meat is also better for the environment than its lumbering four-legged alternatives. It requires much less water (about 455 liters to make 72 grams of crickets than 6 grams of beef) and much less physical space. 

Although eating insects in their 'natural' form might seem unpalatable, they can easily be ground up and used to replace other proteins in your favorite recipes. 

5. Robochefs 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 Robochef's first automated kitchens. 

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 human arms and hands. Moley believes their robotic chef has the same skill level as any human alternative - especially regarding 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 a list of ingredients and a set of instructions, and 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 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 a self-contained' kitchen' operated by a touch screen or 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

Lab-grown meat, otherwise known as in vitro animals or "clean meat," could be on sale very soon indeed. It could also make meat production a new form of sustainable engineering.

This kind of 'meat' is grown from stem cells 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 significantly reduce the environmental impact of large-scale animal husbandry. Some estimates believe greenhouse gas emissions, most notably methane, could be reduced by 96% if adopted large scale. 

The technology is being developed by companies like JUST, who hope to bring its products to market 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 many people are open to eating 'clean meat.'

It is costly compared to the more traditional method of growing meat, costing 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. 

11 innovations that could build the food of the future
Lab-grown meat may also become more important.

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 idea of rooftop gardens could be the future of farming. He envisaged purpose-built farming 'towers' that could produce crops on every level of the buildings, including the roof.

Although initially considered a romantic ideal, some prototypes have been built in the last few years. For instance, prototypes have been constructed, 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 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 soil, and artificial lighting tends to be incorporated unless sunlight is abundant.

These kinds of farms have some clear advantages over more traditional agriculture means. Physical ground space is minimized, all-year-round farming is possible, and agrochemicals are eliminated. 

11 innovations that could build the food of the future
Vertical farms are growing in popularity.

8. Blockchain could revolutionize the agri-food supply chain

You can be forgiven for instantly thinking of Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies whenever you hear the term blockchain. 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 to make every transaction in an agricultural supply chain transparent, traceable, and 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 quickly 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 failing 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 significant 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 typically taking over six days to complete.

11 innovations that could build the food of the future
The blockchain can play a big part too.

9. Personalized nutrition could be the future of eating plans

Personalized Nutrition is tailoring your diet to the specific means by which your genetic makeup predisposes you to react to different foods and other consumable products. The concept is not new, but some companies offer it to their clients. "Nutrigenomics," as it's called, is widely considered too far in its infancy for public consumption.

According to Rasmus Neilsen, a University of California, Berkeley geneticist, "We still can’t accurately predict the most healthy diet for an individual … with or without using genomics." Companies like DNAFit, Nutrigenomix, and Habit offer services that promise to tailor your eating plan to your 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, can 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.

11 innovations that could build the food of the future
Clever food plans could also help.

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. You will quickly lose energy, hair, muscle mass, and cognitive functionality if you don't get enough meat. Although 'conventional' protein sources like animals, eggs, and fish are excellent sources (obviously), so are some plant-based foods. These foods contain excellent 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 more accessible to 'grow' and less damaging to the environment than insect-based protein. Good sources of plant-based protein include but are not limited to, chickpeas, lentils, barley, almonds, quinoa, spinach, peanuts, kidney beans, and a few others. There are also plant-based meat substitutes like tempeh and tofu.

Although they have clear benefits over animal-based proteins, they have various downsides. Every 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 innovations that could build the food of the future
Source: Pradeep717/Wikimedia Commons

11. Cellular agriculture is another growing field

Cellular agriculture is often touted as a means to end the post-animal bio-economy. But what is it exactly? As the name suggests, it is a means of agricultural production 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 very differently. 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 technology is nothing new - it was first perfected in the 1970s. Arthur Rigs et al. inserted the required genes into bacteria so they could start churning out insulin. Before this, the pancreas of pigs and cattle needed to be ground up to harvest insulin in large quantities. This technology is already applied to make products like Rennet and Vanilla. The former used to require gathering the inner lining of the fourth stomach of cow calves - but no longer.

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