German chemist Fritz Haber saved his country from famine. During the late 19th and into the early 20th centuries, Germany’s population was growing fast and agriculture was unable to keep up. Unless something changed, nearly 20 million people faced starvation.
In 1913, Haber collaborated with his assistant to create the Haber-Bosch process, a chemistry feat that turned nitrogen gas into liquid nitrogen, allowing it to be used in plant fertilizers. This invention was so monumental, scientists estimate that if the Haber-Bosch process didn’t exist the world’s population would be 4 billion, not the present 7.5 billion. Today, we face similar issues.
Monocropping, climate change, and population density have led us down a dismal path and the way we raise and grow food needs to change. It’s an interesting problem with dire consequences, let’s explore the technology and science that’s supporting this change.
via: GettyUnlike the greenhouse effect, greenhouse growing has positive potential. Farmers located in Telangana and located in south-central India are adapting to the deleterious effects that unpredictable weather patterns have had on their crops. Typical greenhouses trap heat to protect plants in the cold, but these greenhouses are designed differently. They are built using aluminum-coated nets, which reflect light and ventilate the covered area. They are also equipped with drip-irrigation systems, meaning that farmers use about 90 percent less water than usual.
How Much Does it Cost?The Indian rupee is worth 0.014 American dollars, so you may ask, “how are these farmers affording this technology?" First, they partner with organizations like Kheyti, a non-profit that creates the structures and provides loans for the farmers to buy them. A typical greenhouse can run over $30,000, but Kheyti makes ones that are a fraction of the size, costing closer to $2,500. By providing smaller greenhouses to farmers, it not only reduces cost, but it decreases risk – farmers can still grow their usual menu of crops on their remaining land while they experiment with new practices.
How Well Does it Work?
via: GettyDuring one growing season, 15 farmers piloted the program. The results? Most yielded between five and eight times the average volume of crops during that season. One farmer estimated that he was able to produce equivalent yields inside the greenhouse (774 square feet) as outside the greenhouse (14,520 square feet). Some of the farmers used their surplus of money to advance their children’s education.
Packaging Gets RepackagedSingle-use plastics are the worst of the worst. They wreak havoc on our environments and perpetuate a culture that values convenience over long-term health. But students in the packaging and industrial design departments at Pratt Institute are looking to change this. Various pilot designs include straws made from sugar and agar gum; bowls formed from mycelium, the threaded root systems of mushrooms; and a paperboard box perforated with DIY fork and spoons, all too be composted after use.
How Much Does it Save?
via: GettyAccording to the Earth Day Network, 335 million metric tons of plastic was produced in 2016. Roughly half of this total plastic was destined for one-time use. How does this relate to the future of our food supply? Well, single-use plastics degrade into microplastics, which leach into our food and water supply. In fact, my prior article on microplastics delves into this issue and how scientists are already observing the ripple effects of this issue. Plastics are an unpredictable and understudied addition to our food chain, having the potential to be a health burden as well as a cost burden on society.
Genius Gene Editing
via: GettyGMOs are a touchy topic, bearing conflicting research on its long-term impacts on human health. Luckily, scientists are starting to experiment with a different technology that yields similar results. CRISPR, short for “clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats" is an incredible step forward in gene research. Where GMOs use DNA from viruses or bacteria, CRISPR harnesses the genetic defense mechanisms of bacteria and archaea or single-celled organisms. CRISPR is also cheaper and simpler than creating GMOs. So in the future, we may be looking less for “non GMO" labels and more for “Made with CRISPR" labels on our food.
But How Does CRISPR Work?When a virus attacks a bacteria or archaea it can save genetic information from the virus in its own DNA, enabling it to recognize the virus and ward off future attacks. Inspired by this observation, scientists mimic the process by first identifying a gene that is responsible for an undesirable trait. Next, they manufacture a section of RNA that will mimic the target gene and introduce it to the DNA with an enzyme referred to as Cas9. The RNA sniffs out the matching DNA site, binding to it as well as Cas9, which acts like a pair of scissors to snip out the undesirable sequence of DNA. Scientists then mutate this empty portion of DNA, introducing genetic material that will ameliorate the undesired trait. Lastly, the guide RNA and Cas9 are removed.
via: GettySure, not everyone is an “adventurous eater," but our definition of this may need to change. Bugs are the original source of protein and although humans certainly evolved consuming some portion of them, somewhere along the way we deemed the practice unfit. Products like cricket flour are hitting the market and efforts are being made to scale them. Unlike livestock, crickets actually thrive in dark and cramped conditions, making them the perfect candidate for vertical farming. They also produce relatively little waste, especially when you compare them to cows, who are veritable methane manufacturers.
The Potential and Predicaments of Bug ProteinAlthough breeding bugs and feeding them is an overall simpler task than raising industrialized livestock, challenges are still abound. Like many processes, the quality of the output is only as good as the quality of the input. In order for this protein to be environmentally friendly, the main food supply for bugs and insects should be food waste. But food waste is stochastic, meaning the end product may be unpredictable. A second obstacle is the issue of scale. The systems we have for livestock slaughter and consumption are monolithic, meaning toppling them using bugs and insects will be a massive effort.
Kernza: The Newest Grain in Town
via: ShutterstockWheat is a worry to environmental and agricultural scientists. As an annual plant, meaning it must be replanted every season, it requires many resources and can diminish soil health. Kernza is a perennial wheatgrass that has a ten-foot root system and can produce grain for up to 5 years. Wheat’s root system is less than half this length and can only produce grain that’s good for one year.
Kernza: Challenges and Future PlansCurrently, Kernza grain is about ⅕ the size of wheat grains, making yield quantities less than desired. The Land Institute is a company that is dedicated to solving these problems, and they predict that by 2019 the first Kernza® variety will be available. That said, you don’t have to wait to try products made from Kernza! Patagonia Provisions’ Long Root Ale is available, and establishments like Cafe Gratitude in Los Angeles and The Perennial restaurant in San Francisco are serving products made with Kernza.
Meat Made by Plants
via: GettyBeef production needs eight times the water and 160 times the land per calorie as vegetables. Now, meatless Mondays and soy-based burger patties aren’t new, but there are technologies that are looking to take the concept one step further. One company, Impossible Burger, is making a beef patty that “bleeds" due to its lab-made heme protein.
But How Does it Taste?According to Impossible Burger, heme is the flavor factor in meat. It’s a naturally occurring molecule in meat that transports oxygen throughout our body. Given how critical it is to our health, it’s only natural that we humans crave it. But what’s interesting is that heme doesn’t only occur in meat, it’s present in all living matter. So, Impossible Burger has pioneered a way to make your not-meat-meat taste like meat.
Hold the Butter, Pass the AlgaeButter and oil are integral in cooking and baking, but they serve two different purposes. While butter is solid at room temp, making it perfect for recipes that need more binding, oil is the way to go for salad dressings and sauces. Algae may be able to replace both of these items.
How is Algal Oil Made?
via: GettyScientists managed to harvest algae from the sap of a German chestnut tree, engineer it to increase its oil production, feed it with sugar in massive vats, and press it to release its oil. This Frankenstein of fat is neutrally flavored, has a high smoke point, and is viscous (similar to butter) at room temperature.
via: ShutterstockUnlike the vegetable variations of meat that we’re familiar with, clean meat is made differently – in the lab. Scientists take animal cells and culture them in Petri dishes until they’re coaxed to edible proportions. The first lab-grown meat that’s likely to hit our plates? Chicken. Currently, 50 billion chickens are killed every year for food and as the world population grows, traditional meat production and consumption makes increasingly less sense. You’ll have to wait for the technology to evolve though. Currently, one pound of the stuff costs $9,000.
via: GettyThe Svalbard Global Seed Vault represents the Y2K way to prepare for the inevitable future food issues we face. Located in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, the vault is strategically placed above the Arctic Circle to facilitate the - 180-degree temperatures that the interior is maintained at. Presently, the vault holds near 930,000 seed samples, comprising 5,000 plant species.
The Future of Seed Stock PilingIn a macabre irony, the vault is becoming increasingly affected by the very force it’s supposed to protect against, climate change. The rock tunnel that leads to the vault is subject to warmer temperatures as the permafrost in the region melts, so projects are underway to install concrete and cooling pipes.
Your Diet, Personalized
via: GettyThe Institute of Medicine of the National Academies developed the first recommended daily allowances (RDAs) for nutrition in 1968. Since then, our understanding of nutrition has evolved greatly. Fat is now the friend, not the foe, and scientists are realizing the importance of our genomes in determining what’s right for your body. Some companies, referring to themselves as “nutrigenetics services" are beginning to provide counsel on what nutrients each of us may be missing. This could have the downstream effect of less food waste, as individuals learn how to more efficiently fuel their brains and bodies.
Hi-Tech FarmersYou probably don’t associate cutting-edge technology with farming practices, but that’s about to change. GPS equipped combines, which are used to harvest crops en masse, are fitted with yield monitors. Yield information is merged with GPS data to provide farmers with useful information on the variations within their fields.
A Dirty Secret
via: GettyFarmers also are taking soil samples from fields and structuring maps to match where the samples were taken. This allows farmers to analyze the health of their soil and provide precision-based treatment to keep their fields healthy.
Weather TrackingBetter than your weatherman, local monitoring systems allows farmers to hone in on the short and long-term forecasts for their region. This data not only helps the farmer, but it is used to inform agricultural companies on what products to tailor and services to provide their consumers.
via: GettyYes, it sounds like an oxymoron, but it could work. Designer, Charlie Paton, sold his lighting company and set out to design a Seawater Greenhouse, which can grow food in coastal desert regions using nearby saltwater. The five pilot establishments are located in the Canary Islands, the United Arab Emirates, Australia, Somaliland, and Oman.
How Do Desert Farms Work?First, simulation techniques inform the teams on local climate data so they can predict what specific design will work best in the desired location. Each site uses two basic elements: light and water. Seawater is siphoned into the pipes of the greenhouse and distributed to two evaporators in the greenhouse. The first evaporator draws air through a spongy, perforated surface while sea water is distributed over its surface. This causes the temperature inside the evaporator to decrease, creating a cool, humid air. Meanwhile, a second evaporator contains sea water heated by the sun and draws in this cool, humid air. This causes the air to become hot and humid and when it contacts the pipes containing cold sea water, fresh water condenses. This fresh water is then piped to a storage container and used to irrigate crops. The end result? A farming system that saves water and energy, operating 10-40% cheaper than usual greenhouses.
via: GettyChemical fertilizers contribute to the global greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the long-term productivity of crops, over-saturating soil with chemicals and disturbing its symbiotic balance. Science may have found a way around this. Microbes assembled in a particular cocktail can be applied to the soil and provide the plant with tailored nutrition. In turn, the plant provides carbon compounds that are necessary for the microbes to survive.
Microbial Soil in ActionMicrobes not only optimize plant health, but they can significantly reduce the need for pesticides. This is because a healthy colony of bacteria will actually prevent pests from living and feeding on its surrounding plants.
Fitbits for Cows
via: GettyHumans love to biohack ourselves, so it’s only natural we want to biohack our food as well. Transmitters fitted around cows’ necks use motion sensors to track the behavior of a cow and then merges this information using AI to inform farmers on how to manage their herds.
How Does it Help?Of course, fancy-schmancy technology without an impact is just that – fancy schmancy. But the name of the game here is efficiency. Cows are a high-cost investment, and losing one to illness or missing a breeding window can reduce output for the farmer. By increasing the efficiency of a herd, we can potentially get more for less.
Focusing on the Small Things
via: GettyMicroscopic things, to be exact. Among fancy technologies to help manage livestock, science is also looking at individual microbiome and epigenetic factors. Antibiotic resistance is a major concern for both humans and animals, and heavy antibiotic use in industrial farming is in part to blame. By maintaining the health of an animal’s microbiome and improving its environment to capitalize on epigenetic effects, the farming industry can increase its long-term health and sustainability.