Against the background of a growing world population and increasing demand for sustainability, pioneering businesspeople are developing the foodstuffs of the future. Their aim is to use the latest technology to produce food that will feed the world, but is not mass-produced.
Vegetables and lettuce are grown under optimal conditions at the fully digitalized farm at MIT.
Staff and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) know all there is to know about the digital world. But alongside the supercomputers, one of the most exciting projects at the elite American university is a farm, and Caleb Harper is the young man in charge of it. He does not look as if he gets his hands dirty very often. You’re more likely to find him at futuristic trade fairs than out in the fields, and his work is based on bits and bytes, rather than farmers’ sayings. “What if we could create our own climate?” he asks. “It would give us completely new opportunities for producing food.”
The members of Harper’s team call their test beds “tree computer” and “food server”. Every plant is monitored closely using a variety of sensors. “We can check what they taste and smell like, how fast they are growing, and how much water they are consuming, regardless of their geographical location.” Caleb Harper and his colleagues regulate the temperature, ambient humidity, and concentrations of carbon dioxide and oxygen down to the nearest decimal place, from sowing right through to harvest.
The digital farm at MIT is just one of many ideas that call into question the way we think about food. How and, even more importantly, what will we be eating in the future? Because the way in which we produce all our food today, from fish and meat to fruit and vegetables, has one thing in common: inefficiency. Already more than half of the world’s population lives in cities and, by 2050, more than six billion people will be city dwellers. In order to alleviate growing world hunger, agricultural productivity will have to increase by 50 percent in future, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
Purple LEDs replace sunlight and mineral wool soaked in a nutrient solution replaces soil–on a city farm, the romance of the countryside is sadly lacking. But the carefully controlled atmosphere means that no pesticides are needed. The high-tech farm has long since moved from Harper’s lab into the cities of Germany. In Hamburg, Isabel von Molitor and Mark Korzilius, the co-founders of Vapiano restaurants, are running one of these modern farms in a brick-built warehouse. Korzilius now sells home-grown herbs instead of the Italian lifestyle. In Berlin, the agricultural start-up ECF Farmsystems has set up an aquaponics unit between the ring road and fast food restaurants, where it combines vegetable growing and fish farming in a highly efficient cycle. The waste products from the fish are used to fertilize the plants. And both the fish and the vegetables end up on the plate. To the uninitiated palate, tomatoes from the vegetable factory are hard to distinguish from organic produce.
Isabel von Molitor, founder of Farmers Cut, with the fruits of her business idea.
“What we are doing is importing water from Morocco,” says Nicolas Leschke, one of the founders of ECF, describing the complex logistics systems of the globalized agricultural industry, where vegetables are grown in sunny regions with a shortage of water, like Morocco, and then transported thousands of miles to the end consumers. Why grow tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce in Spain and Morocco, when it’s possible to cultivate them in Berlin or Hamburg? Both businesses supply their produce to trendy restaurants and to the supermarkets around the corner.
Vegetables are also being grown in other cities, for example on the roofs of buildings in New York and in a former air raid shelter nearly 100 feet below the streets of London. Of course, the amounts of food being produced are not large enough to come anywhere near to resolving the global hunger problem. For example, the facility in Berlin has an output of a few dozen tons per year. This is why city farms need to grow upwards over several stories. A vertical farm covering an area of two and a half acres could produce ten times as much food as a field of the same size. In addition, vegetables grown in a closed cycle use up to 90 percent less water and two-thirds less fertilizer than conventional agricultural systems.
Although their methods differ considerably, the new city farmers have the same goals as the organic movement: sustainable and locally produced. Organic food has become a mass trend in recent years. In Germany alone, consumers spend almost ten billion euros every year on organic produce. It’s no surprise. A study entitled “How Germany Will Be Eating in 2030” shows that the majority of the population feels that “resource-efficient food in a value-oriented society” is the most important consideration. One problem that city farming can’t resolve is the meat on our plates.
Only a move away from meat will save us.Godo Röben, Geschäftsführer Rügenwalder Mühle
Together with the energy industry and transport, conventional meat production is one of the main threats to our global climate. Huge quantities of water are used and vast areas of forest are destroyed to grow feedstuff for livestock. In addition, the animals emit large volumes of the climate gases CO2 and methane.
“Only a move away from meat will save us,” says Godo Röben, managing director of the food company Rügenwalder Mühle.
Traditional meat producers and food start-ups with eye-catching names, such as Beyond Meat and Finless Foods, are working to develop omelets containing no eggs, burgers containing no beef, and sushi containing no tuna. The meatless revolution is backed by millions of dollars of risk capital. Food giants such as Oetker and Nestlé are establishing start-up incubators, with Bill Gates and Google co-founder Sergey Brin among the investors. All of a sudden, some of the glamour of Silicon Valley has rubbed off onto vegetarian and even vegan food.
Closer to everyday life, because they are already available in the chiller cabinet of every supermarket, are meat substitutes made from soya or protein-rich lupine beans. At the other end of the development spectrum is the in-vitro burger, which is produced from stem cell cultures grown in bioreactors. The process is still too expensive for mass production, however, one thing is certain: Not only the ingredients of what we eat will be changing, but also the way we prepare our food.
“What kinds of protein-rich, tasty, strange, and rather unusual dishes can you imagine?” asks Koert van Mensvoort, director of the Dutch technology think tank Next Nature Network. By way of preparation, he has already written his own in-vitro cookbook containing a few dozen speculative recipes: knitted steak, 3D printed bone marrow eggs, and meat ice cream. Mensvoort is certain that the future will taste delicious.
By Michael Moorstedt. The article was first published in our Messe München Magazine 01/2018.
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