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Agritech: the Future of Food

Agritech: the Future of Food

The different ‘techs’ from ‘fintech’ to ‘meditech’ and ‘biotech’ to ‘traveltech’ refer to technology-driven developments either augmenting and progressing established sectors and industries or disrupting them by providing a new, more efficient business model. The end user, the provider or, ideally, both, benefit from what new technology can offer or provide efficiencies in.

Many of the world’s most respected business and tech analysts believe that the food and agriculture industry will be the next huge industry to see legacy processes torn down by the latest technology. Agritech, they say, is the next big ‘tech’.

Tone Fadell, Nest co-founder, the smart home tech company now owned by Alphabet, and who also worked on the first iPod, is quoted by the Financial Times as predicting that the ‘big food’ industry of today bears many similarities to the tech companies of the 70s, the finance industry of the 80s, the communications sector of the noughties and contemporary tech developments in our social lives. He compares the giant soft commodities trading companies and food conglomerates that dominate the industry with mainframe IT companies of the 70s.

What Is Agritech And How Does It Differ From Biotech and GMO?

But what exactly is covered by the term ‘agritech’, what changes to the agriculture industry will it drive and how do we, the end consumer, stand to benefit from the Silicon Valley treatment? The first important point to make is that agritech is not the same as biotech though there is certainly significant cross-over. Biotechnology is the broad term which, as defined by BIO, the largest trade association if biotechnology companies,

“harnesses cellular and biomolecular processes to develop technologies and products that help improve our lives and the health of our planet”.

Biotech covers pharmaceuticals and diagnosis in human and veterinary medicine, biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology, genetic engineering, chemistry and chemical engineering to name just several of the main applications. The umbrella also covers food and agriculture-focused biotech such as agricultural and biosystems engineering, agronomy, botany, forestry, food and nutrition science.

Agritech refers to any application of biotech within agriculture as well as non-bio technology applied to the agricultural or food cultivation and distribution process. GMO crops would fall under agritech as would fertilisers and specialist lighting systems as well as automation and software applied to gain efficiencies anywhere along the food chain from testing the nutritional composition of soil to optimising farm to dinner table logistics.

Why Is Agritech So Important?

Agritech’s crucial role in the future of humanity can be broken down into two pillars:

  • Feeding a growing global population.
  • Achieving environment sustainability in mass agriculture.

Hope that we will be able to feed a global human population forecast to hit 10 billion by 2050 amid the twin challenges of climate change and pollution leading to land degradation and access to water lies firmly with agritech advances. And it’s not only that the world population is increasing quickly but that it is getting richer. Human demographics clearly show a declining birth rate in developed economies with a high average individual income. But populations are growing quickly in developing economies – particularly those of Africa and Asia. But the average income and standards of living are also growing in those countries.

The result of the transition of huge global populations from subsistence agriculture to a basic level of modern affluence is a growing demand for protein. The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation predicts that this will lead to a 76% increase in the amount of meat consumed globally by 2050. The problem with consumer demand for meat is twofold. Firstly, a 2018 study by Oxford academic Joseph Poore, co-authored by Thomas Nemecek, finds that agriculture accounts for over 80% of the total amount of land given over to farming globally. While far from all of the 83% of agricultural land used for livestock farming is suited to crop, fruit and vegetable farming, it has led to the continuing destruction of crucial ecosystems, threatening wildlife and the global ecology.

Source: The Guardian

The second big issue, which overlaps with land usage promoting deforestation, is the environmental impact of the meat industry in terms of greenhouse gases. Beef cattle farming accounts for by far the greatest contribution to greenhouse gases of any kind of agriculture. Meat agriculture’s environmental impact also has hugely imbalanced ratio to the amount of calories and protein we consume, accounting for just 18% and 37% respectively.

Source: The Guardian

One of the major focuses of agritech is to find a way to meet the growing demand for meat-based protein expected over the coming decades while reducing the devastating impact of the agriculture industry that produces it. While part of the answer is educating human populations around the importance of consuming less animal-based products and the promotion of a ‘flexitarian’ consumption culture that doesn’t entirely cut out meat and dairy products but significant reduces it, that is not realistically the key to solving the problem.

Practical experience demonstrates that while, particularly in the developed world, certain sections of society are increasingly adopting a flexitarian approach as a result of awareness over the environmental impact of meat and dairy farming, it is unlikely to become a global norm anywhere quickly enough.

Mass agriculture of plant-based foodstuffs can also not be ignored as part of the problem of the agriculture industry needed to feed human populations. As well as the degradation of soil quality, erosion and depletion of natural water basins large scale agriculture leads to, there is also the impact of the use of fertilisers, pesticides and the carbon footprint that results.

However, there is hope that current and future agritech developments will go at least a big part of the way towards mitigating the environmental impact of mass farming while also keeping burgeoning populations nutritiously and satisfyingly fed.

Major Agritech Developments

A recent article for the Financial Times explores some of the most significant agritech developments currently taking place. Many of the most exciting developments in plant-based farming agritech industry are concentrated in Wageningen University and its research institutes in the Netherlands. Wageningen is found in the central part of the Netherlands, which has historically been one of Europe’s most fertile, and productive, areas of farmland. And now, thanks to the University and the hub of spin-offs and big private enterprise partnerships that have grown up around it, the region is being dubbed ‘Food Valley’.

The ‘Food Valley’ moniker is a twist on California’s Silicon Valley and an insight into how much of an agritech hotbed the locale has become. The introduction of higher-yielding crop strains and new fertilisers in the 1960s was the last huge revolution in agricultural productivity but Wageningen is now the most active front in the new war for tech-empowered sustainability in agriculture. That involves not only increasing the yield of global farming but also hugely decreasing its environmental impact at the same time.

Optimising nutritional and vitamin concentrations in crops is one major development being worked on by agritech enterprises around the world and in Wageningen. One way of doing that is genetic engineering or GMO. While GMO-based farming has been the target of environmental campaigners and activist groups for decades now, the weight of independent scientific evidence is now falling on its side and starting to change opinions.

While, as always, things are rarely black and white and GMO has to be responsibly regulated and controlled, there is little evidence it creates environmental imbalance beyond that of traditional farming. Nor is there any real scientific evidence that the consumption of GMO-engineered food stuffs has long term negative health implication.

Environmental activist Mark Lynas, a prominent critic of big agrictech such as the oft-demonised Monsanto, who used to help destroy GMO crops, is perhaps the most high profile convert to the benefits of agritech. His 2018 book Seeds of Science: Why We Got it So Wrong on GMOs details how he way finally convinced by scientific evidence that not only is GMO is not dangerous to the environment or human health but that it is the only realistic approach to farming for the future human population.

GMO developments are helping create crops that are more nutritious, higher yield, can be successfully grown on less fertile land and lead less, milder or no fertilisers and pesticides as they are genetically engineered to process soil nutrients more efficiently and resist diseases and pests.

Another hugely promising agritech development that focuses on increasing the nutritional and vitamin qualities of crops and growing them more efficiently is the use of special lighting systems. In Wageningen, as described by the recent FT feature on agritech, Leo Marcelis, a professor of crop production, uses different colours of light to influence how tomatoes grow:

“For more efficient growth, switch on the red light; to develop shorter plants with higher levels of antioxidants, use more blue; and for a long-stemmed plant with fewer branches, turn on the dark red. It’s about the balance between the different colours. If that slice of tomato has double the amount of vitamin C, then it might help a large portion of the world population that doesn’t get enough.”

Sensor and AI monitoring nutrition and ripeness is another agritech direction making farming and harvesting more efficient. If we can understand the nutritional qualities of individual plants and harvests while they are still growing, farmers can adjust different inputs. It is hoped these developments will not only optimise the nutritional value of ripe crops but also reduce environmental impact by using water, lighting, heating, fertilisers and pesticides in the most efficient way.

Automation of nurturing, harvesting and distribution chains is an agritech branch that will also make farming more efficient and transparent in coming decades. AI-powered robotics will soon be able to tell when individual vegetables are optimally ripe and ready to be harvested. This should lead to a huge reduction in the amount of food waste, currently one of the biggest inefficiencies of mass farming.

Automation technologies are also expected to minimise the requirements for human labour in agriculture in coming years, reducing the end cost for consumers.

Traditional Meat and protein replacement agritech, termed ‘Alt-proteins’ is perhaps what could make the biggest difference when it comes to agricultural sustainability and providing a nutritious, protein-rich diet for a 10 billion-strong world population. It’s also a potentially hugely valuable market which is why it is seeing significant investment and has attracted the interest of some of the largest companies in big food, from Monsanto to Cargill, the agricultural soft-commodities trading house.

Agritech startups, the most prominent of which have received significant VC and big business backing, are making huge progress around plant-based meat substitutes that genuinely taste and have the ‘mouth taste’ of real meat. In California, Beyond Meat, is 5% owned by Tyson Foods, one of the world’s biggest meat processing companies. Another California-based start-up in the same space is Impossible Foods.

These start-ups are combining plants-based ingredients such as pea protein, potato starch, mung bean, beetroot and multiple other ingredients in patties that a reporter for The Times recently confirmed “looks and tastes like meat”. Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown is even determined to create a vegetarian ‘meat facsimile’ that ‘smells like beef’ when it is cooking. A decade of research and investment of £117 million has been spent in the pursuit of a goal that Brown is convinced his company is close to realising. Impossible Foods has raised even more, attracting $400 million (£300 million) on the promise they will create a ‘veggie burger that bleeds’.

In Wageningen, Atze Jan van der Goot, the university’s professor of sustainable protein technology, leads a team that was researching how to make long threads of protein from dairy products when it inadvertently stumbled upon a process to make soy protein into meat-like fibres. Quoted in the FT feature, van der Goot explains:

“We believe this technology allows the formation of larger pieces of meat. A tender yet flavourful product with the mouthfeel of meat should be ready to come on to the market a couple of years from now”.

The other approach to a more sustainable meat industry is lab-cultured meat and fish. In Berkeley, California, Finless Foods are working on being able to grow ‘fish’ meat in a laboratory rather than fishing it out of the sea. Memphis Meats from San Francisco are attempting something similar, cultivating chicken breast and meatballs in the lab. The approach, which uses animal cells to grow slabs of ‘real’ meat tissue should mean that within the next decade it will be possible to buy beef, pork and chicken in the supermarket that is biologically identical to that which comes from traditional animal farming but without the need for live animals to be reared and killed for it.

Conclusion

While there remains plenty of work and progress to be made before the latest technology in the world of agritech leads to genuinely sustainable agriculture that also cheaply and efficiently feeds the world, real progress is being made. Some recent agritech developments have already been commercialised and over the next two decades many more will be.

And it is not only what agritech hubs such as Wageningen in the Netherlands and well-funded start-ups in California are already working on that will change the nature of big farming in what is likely to be its biggest revolution in history. The revolution in AI and big data means that many more breakthroughs, some of which we will not yet even have imagined, can be expected.

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