A+ Food Crisis

Can technology solve the global food crisis?

9 Mins read

Vertical farms, robot kitchens and lab-grown meat are all potential solutions to pressing issues like climate change and food waste.

According to the UN, the world’s population is expected to increase to almost 10 billion by 2050 which means arrangements will need to be made to feed nearly two billion more people in the next 30 years. This means increased pressure on the planet’s biodiversity, lack of food to provide basic nutrition, food banks becoming overburdened and excessive spoilage and wastage in places that do have food.  

It is quite natural that these circumstances have sparked a spiral into a global food crisis and insecurity, and climate change only exacerbates it. The UK, for example, saw a record-breaking heatwave in 2022, with temperatures reaching 44°C, which led to fruits and vegetables dying in the field and increasing concern among farmers. The situation only seems to get worse worldwide, but thanks to food technology, modern innovations can help mitigate some of the damage.  

An analysis by the UK’s innovation agency for social change, Nesta, shows that global investment in food technology has increased 40 times over the past 10 years and reached an all-time high of £26.9 billion in 2021. This statistic is only expected to grow because food technology not only increases profitability and productivity but also helps ensure constant supply to supermarket shelves, adequate nutrition that will help combat obesity, reduction of food waste and increase in food security.  

Some of the best food technology innovations so far are vertical farming, robotic kitchens and cultivated meat. Here’s how they can help reduce the global food crisis.         

A vertical farm growing plants with workers looking at them.
Workers tending a vertical farm growing plants [Mos.ru]

Vertical farming   

As the population grows, more arable land will be required to farm additional crops, increased water supply will be required for irrigation and more energy will be utilized to transport food from distant farms to cities. Vertical farming, however, poses a potential solution to these problems and could even help tackle food insecurity.    

Imagine a large warehouse with white walls, high ceilings and artificial white light which epitomises its antiseptic quality. Now imagine it being filled with rows of green plants stacked from floor to ceiling on metal scaffolding. It seems akin to something out of a dystopian novel as if District 13 from The Hunger Games were to indulge in agriculture, but this is in fact a new way of urban farming.   

Vertical farming is the process by which crops are grown indoors and stacked on top of each other instead of outdoors and in horizontal rows. This type of urban farming is typically done in a controlled environment like warehouses where techniques such as hydroponics, aeroponics, and aquaponics are used to optimise plant growth, increase yield and reduce food waste. This not only allows for the conservation of space but also increases the potential for more production per square foot of land. Also, since the plants will be in a controlled environment, seasonal fruits and vegetables can be produced year-round unlike on regular farms with set harvest seasons.  

As of 2020, the UK imported 2.2 million tonnes of vegetables, making it the third-largest importer of vegetables in the world. Most of the produce such as lettuce, onions, and bell peppers are imported from EU countries like the Netherlands and Spain. However, due to Brexit and the red tape surrounding importation, the prices of these goods have increased. By growing vegetables locally on vertical farms, the UK could eliminate having to import food from overseas and therefore secure a more reliable supply chain where food can be placed on supermarket shelves within 24 hours and at a cheaper price.  

Vertical farming is already being trialled across several locations in the UK, many of which use renewable energy like solar panels. They exist amid the concrete jungle of London and can be found right up to Newcastle upon Tyne. In fact, the UK even hosts the largest vertical farm in Bedford. Most of these farms here grow leafy greens like lettuce, chard and watercress as well as herbs such as lemon verbena, bronze fennel and burnet. Growing Underground, a company that indulges in vertical farming, even grows micro-greens like pea shoots, red cabbage and dill below Clapham’s busy streets.   

As found by the UN, 55% of the world’s population currently inhabits urban areas whilst rural population is expected to drop by 11% in 2030. This indicates that more fruits and vegetables from farms in rural areas will need to be transported to feed a growing population in urban areas. Making these long journeys with huge amounts of perishable goods could lead to spoilage and create food waste and food scarcity. To mitigate such food insecurity, vertical farming can be practiced in urban area warehouses to ensure constant presence of produce on supermarket shelves and quicker farm-to-fork mobility.  

Vertical farming also provides healthier and more nutritious organic produce. Since the fruits and vegetables are grown in an environment where light, water and temperature are regulated, no pesticides need to be used on the plants to keep insects away. Traditional farms which use manure with animal faecal matter can contaminate fruits and vegetables and potentially endanger the lives of 2 billion people. However, vertical farming systems like hydroponics do not use manure and therefore neutralise the threat of any outbreaks of infection amongst its consumers.     

However, farming upwards comes with several caveats as it isn’t without its flaws. For example, the large amount of electricity used to power vertical farms comes from fossil fuels emitting greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Additionally, pollination would need to be done manually as no insects are allowed in the warehouses. This could be time-consuming and costly. There is also not enough skilled labour when it comes to vertical farming. Power outages could also pose a threat to all the crops and can come with an even bigger price.    

Regardless, with this kind of sustainable farming, the benefits outweigh the risks as renewable sources of energy can be used and over time, enough people will learn how to farm indoors. Whilst initial costs of investing in this modern-day Babylon may be high, it could alleviate aspects of the food crisis by helping people access food more easily and reduce food waste on farms without destroying the environment.    

Robotic arm in a kitchen helping to put trays away.
A robotic arm helps out in a kitchen [Shanghai Xixiang Yixiang E-Commerce]

Robotic kitchens   

It’s 7:00am in a community canteen in Shanghai. There is no one but a robot chef busy organising ingredients and steaming pastries for the early birds. Headed by artificial intelligence, this fully automated kitchen can manage around 100 dishes simultaneously without human help. According to customers, the food tastes “just like what humans cook”.    

With machine learning, the kitchen bot can cook eight types of Chinese cuisines and has additional functions like heating and serving. The bot’s manufacturers say that it can provide a wide variety of healthy and nutritious meals by calculating the amount of fat and calories in each dish and using a strictly low quantity of condiments like salt, sugar and oil. This is in stark contrast to processed food which is known to contain way more additives than what the human body needs and leads to obesity and diseases. To further help enhance right nutrition, gadgets like Nutri AI Kitchen Scale help suggest the daily intake of essential food based on people’s preference and dietary needs.   

On the other hand, human errors are inevitable in traditional kitchens – over or under cooking can happen to even the most skilled chefs. However, with codes and algorithms, machines are less likely to go wrong once the recipe is confirmed, and more importantly, they can allocate precise portions for each dish to avoid excess use of one ingredient.  

From regional eateries to big chains like White Castle, a growing number of restaurants worldwide are employing robotics to reduce labour costs and increase food consistency. The success of these robotic kitchens is so high that according to a report by Meticulous Market Research in 2021, the global food robotics market is expected to grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 11.6% from 2021 to 2028, hitting USD 2.02 billion by 2028.   

Apart from the obvious advantages relating to profits and productivity, AI also seems to offer solid solutions to help tackle food crisis by reducing food waste. Ingredients such as fresh vegetables and raw meat tend to have a longer storage period when prepared and organised by machines, and this reduces spoilage. AI tools are so effective that Kamran Abdollahi, the manager of food waste company Winnow, estimates that they help save 36 million meals per year for their clients. One such effective tool is a camera that monitors the type and weight of food waste in the bin and uploads that information to the cloud system. This then allows their staff to predict the amount of food for future purchases to reduce wastage.  

Robotic kitchens also strengthen food safety, an ever-present consideration when people dine out or order takeaways. A nasty scene is when there is hair or bugs in the food, but the unseen can be much worse when ingredients are not processed in a clean and careful manner. There is a high chance that cross-contamination will occur and cause health problems like food poisoning. Robot chefs are a safer choice because they generate fewer bacteria while cooking and usually have a self-cleaning session after a day’s work.  

Currently, robotic kitchens can even remember and tailor to individual’s taste on things like spices. Their recipes and performance will continue to improve as leading companies specialising in kitchen robotics such as Nala Robotics and Moley Robotics make use of machine learning and constantly add new features to their bot chefs.   

For all that they offer, more and more robotic restaurants are about to show up globally in 2023. They will likely dominate the future of fast food and even mid to high-end restaurants and go on to successfully tackle the food crisis.  

A plate of artificial chicken meat.
Artificial chicken meat [GOOD meat]

Lab-grown meat   

Imagine the scene: It’s roughly 3:00am when the after-party munchies start to kick in. Fast comfort food is what your tipsy, in-need-of-sleep body craves. Nothing like a succulent, juicy burger, right? What if the beef patty was 100% made of meat grown in a laboratory? Would you still go for it?    

Cultivated meat – also called slaughter-free, cellular or lab-grown meat – is manufactured in a completely different way than what we eat today. Drawing on the stem cell technology used in medicine, technicians select a small amount of animal tissue and convert it into muscle cells. After being isolated, these muscle cells are cultivated on a scaffold with vital nutrients and vitamins until they reach the necessary density. In the process, warmth and oxygen are provided to trick the cells into thinking they are still inside the owner, resulting in something that looks a lot like food.    

Although no one has come near lab-cultivating a steak (yet) due to its cellular complexity, texture, appearance and taste, cultured meat is closer than ever to being approved for commercial sale. In 2020, Singapore became the pioneer in allowing lab-grown meat for human consumption – slaughter-free chicken nuggets produced by Good Meat were served for a limited period in the Singaporean restaurant, 1880, for $23. 

The Australian company, Vow, left the world in awe by creating a mammoth meatball, showing the potential of meat grown from cell culture in all its glory. Until then, the sarcastic and grumpy Manny from the Ice Age films was the closest contact we could get to these long-extinct animals. 

On the other hand, Italy has just backed a bill to ban any laboratory-cultivated meat to protect Italian food heritage and health. The proposal sparked backlash from animal welfare and environmental activists who told the BBC that lab-grown meat is a much more “ethical alternative.”   

The activists were right because cellular meats are not only animal cruelty-free but also considered key in tackling food crisis, environmental devastation, and climate change. Currently, animal agriculture takes up nearly one-third of the global land area, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. It is also responsible for 18% of all greenhouse gases globally. As per the scientific publication, Our World in Data, “Animal agriculture contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined which is responsible for 13% of global emissions.” Meanwhile, lab-grown meat doesn’t release methane emissions and uses much less water and land — at least, that’s the promise. In addition, because the meat is grown in a laboratory, it is also predicted to be relatively safe from natural disasters such as droughts, floods, and pest infestations.      

However, lab-cultivated meat faces the challenge of living up to the “real thing.” “That’s nasty!”, “Doesn’t sound right,” and “I’m not really into like lab-made things, it’s unnatural” are some of the comments that people shared in a video for Wired. Lab-cultivated meat has to face the so-called uncanny valley found in robotics and artificial intelligence – an unsettling and often repulsive feeling with humanoids that look like humans but aren’t quite there.   

Another challenge is that the manufacturing process can also be energy-demanding because meat culture has to exercise the cell muscles by mimicking the heating and cooling of an animal. As a solution, Vow says their company runs on a renewable grid to avoid producing emissions. Also, these innovative foods still need to be able to set an affordable price for the market and cover the production costs.    

The challenges are small compared to all the good such meat can do. Inventors of this type of synthetic food, like Vow and GOOD Meat, claim that labs can sustainably make food on a large scale for the world’s ever-increasing population in the future.   

So, how is the sound of that late-hours lab-grown snack now?  

Featured image by  Mos.ru via Wikimedia Commons

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