We know that the world is facing many significant global challenges. BMI's in developed countries continue to rise while other communities go hungry, modern farming practices are depleting soils and reducing biodiversity, food waste is rising, and packaging is polluting our oceans.
The Agrifood sector must step up if we are to reverse the trends and create a better future. Innovation is essential and there are encouraging signs with recent science and technology breakthroughs occurring that promise positive outcomes. Here is how five areas of ag+food innovation are taking us in a better direction.
In recent times the understanding of gene function and manipulation has increased exponentially. Plant breeders armed with increased knowledge, powerful gene sequence-based diagnostics, and gene editing tools such as CRISPR are now able to more precisely manage plant genetics with more predictable outcomes, shortening the breeding cycles required to deliver their targeted plant attributes.
We are just beginning to appreciate the genetic contribution many of the world’s native plants can play through the supply of novel genes to address genetic deficiencies in domesticated crops. This could open up new avenues to disease resistance, environmental adaptation, and enhanced nutrition.
More and more animal genomes are being completely understood for our livestock species creating opportunities to increase herd productivity, improve the nutrition of our food, and reduce negative environmental impacts.
Whether it’s for health, the environment, or animal welfare, demand is increasing for food where the consumer feels they are making a healthier, more sustainable or more ethical choice. The pandemic has also caused us to really explore the health of our food supply. "...people are thinking more and more about the insecurity of the supply chains that bring our food to us. The supply chain that brings meat to us is really fragile, and we've seen that with meat shortages, with plant closures, with COVID outbreaks in the slaughterhouses."- Bruce Friedrich of The Good Food Institute.
This all leads to a desire for more options and has created the perfect environment for step changing science and technology innovation. Meat can now be supplied from cell-based systems where it is produced from animal cells, largely removing the animal from the process. Plant based substitutes for beef or chicken are almost indistinguishable from the traditional animal based options. And alternative sources of protein such as crickets, are now finding their way into mainstream foods. All perfect examples of science and technology innovation that gives the consumer the ability to make conscience based choices.
The Data Revolution
There are now billions of devices connected to the internet gathering and sharing data, and with the cost of sensors so cheap, there are countless new opportunities to capture & analyse data to drive innovation.
One applied example is the Californian based, Trimble Navigation. Trimble Navigation captures the unique attributes of each point in a paddock to ensure that inputs are optimised for that precise location. This leads to increases in yield, reduction in inputs, and a more sustainable system.
Advanced manufacturing is also benefiting with an increased ability to optimise product design, increase operational efficiency, accurately determine when machine maintenance is required, optimise quality, and inform the supply chain.
The increasing amount of data available provides countless opportunities for innovation but this is critically dependent on data analysis capability. Without this it is just a whole lot of meaningless information but get this right and the possibilities are transformational.
Producing more from less
With a possible 10 billion people to feed by 2050, humanity is confronted by the challenge to increase agricultural production while also maintaining the earth's ability to support it. To meet this challenge will require a mindset shift to stop thinking infinitely and challenge the paradigm of the existing food production system. One possible solution is vertical farming.
Vertical farming is similar to greenhousing with environmental conditions controlled to maximise plant productivity. The fundamental difference is that vertical farming incorporates many layers to multiply the outputs possible compared to a traditional single level system.
Another area of exploration is to diversify the plant species that the global food system is reliant upon. Currently the world is heavily dependent on a few plant species such as corn, rice, and wheat and as such they are extensively researched and developed. There is untapped potential in many lesser known plants and initiatives such as the African Orphan Crops Consortium have been established to specifically explore this. These plants could play roles in increasing the nutrition of food, increasing yields with fewer inputs, and enabling more production options for land previously considered as “unproductive”.
An outcome of the need to produce more is that there is more waste to manage and while disposal is seen as the main method of handling this, waste will increasingly contribute to environmental degradation. Food waste is particularly destructive contributing significantly to global greenhouse production. This is aside from the travesty of an estimated 30% of food being wasted while millions globally go hungry every day.
Innovative solutions are supporting the shift from disposal towards a circular economy. Award winning company Goterra, has developed a modular waste management unit that uses Black Soldier Flies to convert “waste” to a valuable resource that can produce high quality products such as high protein feedstock or soil conditioning fertilizer.
The world is under threat and we must respond if we are to change the heading we are on. The challenges are tough and all-encompassing and to crack them will require mindset shift, courage, and innovation. The Food and Agriculture industries will play critical roles and there are promising signs as science and technology breakthroughs fuel innovation. There is a long way to go but there’s never been a more exciting time to be a part of the industry.