By 2050, 68% of the projected 9.9 billion people in the world will be living in urban areas according to the UN, and feeding this growing population is among the top concerns of our time. But current farming and agricultural practices are inefficient, unsustainable and often ethically dubious. As the world changes, the agri-food sector has to reevaluate how it produces and distributes food, and advancements in deep tech are emerging as potential solutions to transform the entire agri-food sector.
The current state of the agri-food industry is defined by its broad, global challenges. These range from everything from packaging and the broader environmental impact to empowering consumers with information and growing more resilient crops. While there are innumerable issues that deserve attention, in this article we will focus on four of the most pressing, along with some deep-tech solutions:
- Creating healthy and tasty alternatives to animal products.
- Reducing the environmental impact of the food production industry.
- Boosting production efficiency while reducing cost.
- Transforming the packaging industry.
Alternatives to Animal Products
Livestock farming is the single largest human land use on earth, leading to serious degradation of soil and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Pasture expansion for the purpose of feeding cattle continues to be a major cause of deforestation and the loss of biodiversity.
In recent years, replacing animal proteins with plant-based diets and proteins produced via fermentation has become a priority in the food industry. Lab-produced meat and insect-based proteins are among other alternatives, which have been under the spotlight for some time now. Companies such as Shiok Meats are currently using stem cell technology to grow crustacean meat from the muscles of crustaceans like shrimp or lobster. The research contributes to understanding cell growth in invertebrates, and future large-scale automation of the process will make this lab-grown meat available for human consumption.
Reducing the Environmental Impact
Advances in molecular biology to produce cheaper proteins will help us manage our limited environmental resources and lower the carbon footprint. But the scale of this issue means we need a broad range of solutions to have a substantial effect on improving the environment. Another method in this fight is focusing on increasing the efficiency of crop growth and the sustainability of its practices.
Smart Agriculture or Agriculture 4.0 does exactly this, using deep tech methods and information technology as well as advanced machinery, sensors and devices to increase the quantity and quality of fresh produce. Precision Agriculture and robotic systems will eliminate the necessity of applying water, pesticides and fertilisers uniformly across entire fields, which is common in traditional methods.
The use of clean energy and resources such as sun and seawater, growing crops in arid regions, 3D printing, aerial images, cultured meat, genetic modification and the like will become indispensable practices in the agriculture and food industry of the next few decades. Offering more efficient, eco-friendly alternatives, Agriculture 4.0 will help reimagine the entire agricultural landscape of the future.
Boosting Production Efficiency
Innovations in Smart Agriculture, such as the use of robots, humidity and motion sensors and GPS technology, also hold the solution to another one of our greatest challenges – production efficiency. In 1987, the American economist Robert Solow famously said, ‘the computer age can be seen everywhere except in productivity statistics.’ But today thanks to technologies such as the Internet of Things, drone technology and artificial intelligence productivity statists are exactly where the computer age is most apparent.
Despite the explosion of new technologies, growth in productivity has stagnated. According to some experts, it is below the rate necessary to provide for the predicted 10 billion global inhabitants in 2050. In fact, the 2030 sustainable development goals call for current agricultural productivity to be doubled in the poorest countries.
The Netherlands is currently one of the most inspiring examples of what is possible, even more so as they are the world’s second largest exporter of agricultural products after the United States. Using precision farming and deep tech methods to control variables like humidity, temperature and sunlight exposure in greenhouses has led to an incredible boost in crop production and quality while saving on land and water. In order to produce one kilo of tomatoes, Dutch greenhouses use only eight litres of water, which is 25 times less than the global average needed to produce the same amount.
But beyond the efficiency of what is produced, we also need to look at other areas of the supply chain, particularly with regard to packaging. Take the knock-on effects of the recent pandemic, for example. Even before the pandemic hit, there was a marked increase in packaging due to technological innovation. Now, as the hospitality industry feels the sting of government regulations, people’s habits are shifting and online deliveries are further on the rise. While this is an essential lifeline for the sector, it also brings these latent challenges to the fore. In fact, as a whole, the packaging industry is expected to grow by 3.5 per cent within the next four years.
Although tech innovation has fuelled the rise of online deliveries, it also holds the solution. Thanks to intelligent and modular software systems, we are able to ensure increased transparency and safety for the automation processes. This will be further compounded by the use of multi-layer packaging which are made from various materials and are more eco friendly. But these are just a few examples – the potential for transformation in this industry is staggering, with potential solutions ranging from 3D printing and intelligent packaging to increasing product shelf life and even developing edible packaging.
The challenges facing the agri-food sector are undoubtedly daunting and will require the full breadth of human ingenuity to overcome. Yet, with the rise of deep technology and other innovative approaches, a more efficient and environmentally sustainable future is within our grasp.
Launching a new vertical: Agri-food, The Collider 2021 edition focuses on the use of Agriculture 4.0. The Collider is a venture-building programme that brings together researchers, corporates and entrepreneurs to enhance our ecosystem and create a positive impact on our society as a whole. Powered by Mobile World Capital Barcelona, we understand how to maximise tech transfer for startups.