In the coming years, innovative developments will be unchaining a revolution in the way we produce and consume food: think 3D printers, genetic barcodes and facial recognition cameras for dairy cattle...
Simulating climatological circumstances
Nutella producer Ferrero is looking for new places to grow hazelnuts: today the majority is grown in Turkey, but when the weather damages the crops, like in 2014, prices go up. Normally the company would be planting test plots in various areas outside of Turkey, but that is expensive and time-consuming.
Ferrero found the solution in the Food Computer, developed by the Massachussets Institute of Technology (MIT): a compact, mobile lab that can track every aspect of a plant's needs and control them: water, soil temperature, sunlight, mineral use, ... Researchers can simulate specific climatological circumstances and predict the plant's reaction to them. This allows them to find out what region or climate is best suited to produce the tastiest or most nutricious fruits and vegetables.
The example illustrates how the food industry - which was fairly traditional up until recently - is quickly becoming digital. That change is needed: consumers are demanding healthier meals, transparency on the origins of ingredients, respect for animal wellbeing and attention to the environmental impact. Simultaneously, the industry wants to keep costs under control. To answer these big challenges, producers are turning more and more to innovative startups. Food technology is hot, as The Wall Street Journal proved with a list of some telling examples.
A new generation of food printers might make its way to our kitchens faster than expected. The Foodini, developed by Spanish company Natural Machines, already allows restaurants and bakeries to create complex desserts and garnishes. The 4,000 dollar price tag is still a bit high, but that can change quickly. This pizza printer was developed at NASA's request to have something tasty to offer astronauts on their way to Mars.
Closer to home, food printers are beginning to make an appearance as well. Recently, star chef Roger van Damme purchased a Kasko 3D printer to manufacture unprecedented desserts.
Algae and seeweed
In the future, there may be a shortage of land to raise cattle to feed the growing population. Alternative sources of protein are needed, such as algae, which are rich in proteins and omega 3. They grow well in stagnant water in the desert due to plentiful sunshine and the fact that they do not need fresh water. Algae are becoming a popular ingredient in new foods such as protein bars, vegan "shrimp", fish food and food colouring agents.
Related to algae is seaweed: we mostly know it as a sushi ingredient, but the possibilities go far beyond that. Seaweed can be added to all kinds of food products. Belgium recently saw the construction of an ambitious seaweed innovation project with Colruyt Group as one of the partners.
The edible barcode
To improve food products' traceability, scientists are working on a sort of "genetic fingerprint" that allows us to track the origin of a product in minutes. The unique signature based on DNA segments from seaweed is invisible, has no taste and is perfectly safe to eat. It could be added to the protective wax layer of an apple or even to an entire grain silo. It contains information on the origin of the product: not just the farm that produced it but even the exact row on the field.
No more food loss
Apeel Sciences uses the grape pulp left over from wine presses to create an ultra-thin edible coating, protecting fruits and vegetables from dehydration and oxidation. It serves as a kind of 'second peel', allowing the products to remain fresh three times longer: an important step in the fight against food loss. Farmers can also harvest fruits in a riper stage, which is better for the taste and nutritional value of the produce.
The company is now working on a coating for asparagus, a delicate vegetable which is usually transported by plane due to its limited preservability. The coating will allow asparagus to be transported by ship, a far cheaper solution.
And finally, cattle farmers too are getting some assistance: cameras with facial recognition will be helping farmers to identify their cows based on their facial expressions and skin patterns. This allows them to track how much each animal is drinking and eating and how she behaves. When an animal is showing divergent behaviour, the farmer will be alerted in a smartphone message. Software provides an analysis of the patterns and gives advice such as a diet change or a treatment for sick animals. The same technology is also capable to monitor plant growth.