Future food: Six technologies changing how food is produced

by | Jun 23, 2022 | Opinion

Feeding the world is turning out to be quite difficult. As fast as the global population is growing – with 9 billion mouths to feed by 2050 — hurdles to food production keep mounting. Experts from Plant & Food Research consider the challenges – and the solutions!

 

Natural resources essential for growing – healthy soil, fresh water and clean air – are under pressure on all sides, from nutrient run-off to urban sprawl. Climate change is sending unseasonal droughts and storms, and sparking wildfires. Localised wars and unrest are affecting supply chains globally.

The productivity improvements that marked the ‘green revolution’ of the late 20th century are tailing off, requiring ever growing use of agricultural inputs like fertilisers, agrichemicals and irrigation. And counter-intuitively, we’re producing too much food in some parts and insufficient in others. The supply chain is misaligned, producing astonishing volumes of food waste.

At Plant & Food Research we’re tackling these challenges head on. The Productivity Commission recently advocated for changes to agriculture and for much more technology adoption if New Zealand is to reduce emissions and lift food productivity. We agree – and are investing in the science to get there.

Here are six technology advancements that Plant & Food Research believe could help solve multiple food problems – and grow our primary industries at the same time.


1. Open ocean aquaculture

New Zealand has one of the largest exclusive economic zones, if you include our oceans – our ‘blue economy’. So far we’ve harnessed it by fishing our wild stocks.

An alternative is fish farming. Half the world’s seafood comes from aquaculture but, despite our large ocean real estate, our coastline has relatively little area suitable for aquaculture. Our current aquaculture can be affected by coastal change such as rising sea temperatures, as was recently reported in the Marlborough Sounds.

If we could grow fish in the open ocean, where the currents flow fast and the temperatures remain more even, we could dramatically increase the supply of fish and reduce coastal impact. Open ocean aquaculture is used overseas in so-called static systems, with fixed pens tethered to the ocean floor or engineered structures.

New Zealand scientists are taking a novel approach. A consortium of science organisations, including Plant & Food Research, are pioneering mobile fish farms – pens that can move to find the most nutrient-rich waters and operate far from land. The pens offer multiple benefits: reduced coastal impact, fewer vulnerabilities to climate and, excitingly, the production potential for taonga species like snapper and trevally.

Dr Damian Moran, Leader of our Growing Futures Ngā Tai Hōhonu Open Ocean Aquaculture Direction, says aquaculture has the potential to be an efficient, low impact protein, production system.

“One of the best ways we can help to alleviate pressure on the land is to move some of our production to the sea. It’s about changing how we make and consume protein. The ocean is really an unexplored opportunity.”

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2. Lab-based meat

Fancy a juicy snapper fillet? How about one grown in a lab? The ‘cultured meat’ revolution involves growing animal protein in factory-style conditions. The technology has been bubbling away in labs for a decade now and is nearing commercial release. Cultured chicken nuggets are already being sold in Singapore.

Cultured meat will be produced in large volumes in small factories, not farms, with minimal water and sunshine requirements. And of course, no slaughter. It may even convert a few vegans. New Zealand is no slouch in this field. Dr Georgina Dowd is leading a project to produce cultured snapper and salmon. The task involves establishing continuous cell lines for Aotearoa’s finfish. In addition to the potential for growing protein for food, the cell lines would help support the future of our seafood industry.

“There are so many applications for cell lines,” says Georgina. “Preventing and monitoring disease is probably the biggest. It’s only a matter of time before one of the detrimental diseases arrives here and impacts our seafood industry. Unless we put systems and pipelines in place, we are really at risk.”

Georgina has established New Zealand’s first dedicated fish cell lab and is building an expert team and international network of collaborators in Canada, the US and Singapore.

3. The new breeding

Traditional breeding of perennial crops is slow. Even with modern advances in genomics to screen for important characteristics, it can still take 15 years to get a new cultivar to market.

New breeding technologies, like gene editing with CRISPR, have the potential to help us adapt and change our food at a fast rate. “Using these sophisticated editing tools we can cross plants ten times faster than with traditional breeding,” says Professor Andrew Allan, who leads a major project into the effect of climate change on flowering plants. “I just don’t think our traditional breeding techniques will be fast enough for climate change,” he says.

In the 1950s and 1960s an agricultural revolution involving the breeding of dwarf phenotypes into rice and wheat saved populations from starvation. Andrew says we need a similar revolution now to face the climate crisis and protect food security for a rapidly expanding global population. Many plants may fail to flower and fruit as night temperatures warm, for example, since they require colder temperatures to trigger flowering. Gene editing could help meet this challenge without using chemicals.

“Could gene editing be something for New Zealand to consider?” he asks. “There are small gene edits that could bring huge benefits to Aotearoa, and similar to the changes that occur, just more slowly, in nature or conventional breeding. If we want to mitigate or even reverse the impacts of climate change, then we are going to need to use as much innovation as possible, quickly.”


4. The farm next door

Imagine popping out from your office job to pick berries for lunch, or a fresh cucumber or an apple – all from the same system. That dream for vertical farming is growing ever closer, thanks to the work of scientists such as Dr Samantha Baldwin, leader of our Hua ki te Ao Horticultural Production goes Urban Growing Futures Direction.

Vertical farms are already popular for growing leafy greens and micro-greens. Vertical farms grow crops in artificial settings, with LED lights and hydroponic systems and can be as large as a factory or as small as a cupboard. Samantha is working on the next generation of vertical farms. “Imagine a single structure that produces a range of fruits throughout the year – maybe you could have berries, peaches and cucumbers from a single source whatever the season.

“We could have vertical farms in the centre of the city, or each have a growing box in our home, where we could ‘dial up’ whatever fresh fruits or vegetables we needed – the box would be programmed to control the light, humidity and other conditions to make the produce perfect at the time we wanted to eat it. We’d even be able to grow fruits and vegetables far from their usual growing zones or out of season.

”That may sound like science fiction, but new forms of growing systems, programmed to provide the right environment for plants to grow and produce to order, are within reach. They would require new forms of plants that could produce fruits and vegetables year round.Some of those challenges could be met with new technologies like gene editing – breeding plants with the characteristics needed to thrive in new growing systems and that will produce food year-round, close to an increasingly urban population.

5. Zero waste factories

Imagine putting a fish in one end of an energy efficient processing plant and getting high-value products at the other – food, industrial materials or cosmetics, with nothing left over. To make this dream a reality, our scientists and engineers are developing new adaptive manufacturing technologies that can respond to any marine raw material and allow optimal processing choices.

“We need to think of a fish as being more than food, valuing the whole organism and what it contains. Of course there are fillets, shellfish, stocks and flavourings but marine organisms also contain a wealth of compounds including bioactives for body, skin and hair and large polymers for biomaterials. This creates huge potential to add value to our fisheries without catching more fish” says Dr Sue Marshall.

Sue is part of a world-leading team bringing together New Zealand and international experts in industrial chemistry, biomaterials and technology development, as part of the MBIE-funded Cyber-Marine programme.

“New Zealand is already producing some marine nutraceuticals and biomaterials, but there’s so much opportunity to do more. We’re working towards using everything, optimising value, reducing energy and water use, and making exciting new products that will give us an edge in our export markets” says Sue.


6. Digital orchards

Digital twins are used in a variety of sectors – from manufacturing to medicine – but no one yet has created a digital orchard. Enter Dr John Mawson, leader of the Growing Futures Digital Horticultural Systems Direction.

A digital twin could help scientists and growers predict what would happen as a result of multiple future scenarios: increasing carbon dioxide, rising temperatures, change of crops, altering pesticides, introducing natural predators and so on.

It could also improve the alignment of growing food with consumer demand. The digital orchard project includes market data and all the points in the supply chain. With this level of information could we predict consumer demand and adjust the supply chain before the shopper even asks for it?

“Creating digital models for crop growing isn’t new, but these usually address a particular crop and a particular aspect of the production system, such as helping growers make decisions on water or fertiliser application. What we’re aiming for is a digital twin that could take data across all potential scenarios in the supply chain – from what crop to plant and how to grow it through to how to process it or where to ship it – then we could tweak one aspect and track the knock-on effects right through to the consumer,” says John.

Conclusion

The rising global population and the environmental and geopolitical stress that this brings is putting huge pressure on our food systems. Science and technology are not the only answer but can certainly contribute to accessible, nutritious and delicious solutions. At Plant & Food Research we are committed to playing our part.

Article produced in partnership with The Feed

 

About the Author

Vincent Heeringa

Vincent Heeringa is a communications strategist, writer, marketer and PR expert specialising in tech, investment, and sustainability. He was co-founder of Idealog, Stoppress and Good magazines and helped establish the Science Media Centre. He is the host of a podcast ‘This Climate Business’, co-founder of The Feed.co.nz, and a trustee of the Adventure Specialties Trust. And there's nothing he loves more than a good story. vincentheeringa.com

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