We’re running out of time
I wasn’t sure if having this section was worth it. We’ve all heard about the ecological crisis. Some of us, even since kindergarten. Still, how many of us have genuinely reflected on the possibility of Earth becoming an inhabitable place before the year 2050? The short answer is very few people. It’s just not sustainable for our mental health.
Unlike most of my friends, I don’t believe that “small actions” can save us. As I like to say, we are treating with the human factor, which means that we only realize our mistakes until it’s too late to fix things. We also like to make the same mistakes more than twice and don’t like to think too ahead.
Inspirational videos or documentaries like this one can inspire people to make a change. But isn’t this the same thing that happens with videos about life and success? People create New Year’s resolutions and forget about them before March.
Don’t get me wrong. Not everyone behaves in the way I’ve mentioned. However, I honestly don’t think we’ll make it if we don’t implement aggressive measures.
I don’t want to eat insects. Really. I think that many sci-fi movies have done a good job at making people scared of climate change by telling them: “if you don’t take care of this freaking planet, there won’t be more cheeseburgers, wings, chicken tenders, sausage, ham, or bacon for you”.
To me, it makes more sense to think like Ray Kurzweil: to solve the world’s biggest problems, we need to use the world’s most advanced technologies. Yes: that means that with exponential tech the future of food won’t only be about eating insects ;).
If you agree with me, emerging technologies refer to those brand-new tools that have the potential to inherently change the way we do things. As for exponential, the term refers to something that will grow slowly at first, but after a certain point (inflection point), will grow explosively.
Some examples of exponential technologies are gene editing, Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain, quantum computing, synthetic biology, cloud computing, cellular agriculture, nanotechnology, Virtual and Augmented Reality (AR & VR), among many others.
At this point, you may not see the connection between all of that, and the ecological crisis. That’s why I wrote this guide. I have do doubt that we can leverage these technologies to solve the world’s biggest problems. Unfortunately, people who want to save the world often don’t know about exponential tech, and people who know about exponential tech, are just using it to create a Tinder for dogs.
Before getting into other things, know that Peter Diamandis said: the world’s biggest problems are also the world’s biggest business opportunities. If I convince you that exponential tech is the answer to climate change, health, hunger, and other problems, I will have been successful.
Sustainable Development Goals
The basic and generally accepted meaning of sustainability is “doing what we normally do today, in such a way that future generations can do it too”. This involves looking after the economic, social and environmental side of things.
Going back to our problems, we know that these are hard, important, and urgent. Well, as an international and powerful organization, the United Nations created a list of 17 goals, to live in a sustainable society in the long term.
Out of all those goals, in this article we are especially concerned about 6. Citing the UN, here is an overview of them and how they are related to the future of food.
- Zero Hunger: end hunger, achieve food security, and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. This one’s self-explanatory.
- Good health and well-being: ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages. In short, we can think of food as a preventative medicine, and the food many of us are eating today is, inherently, not that healthy.
- Responsible Consumption and Production: harvesting, transport, storage, processing, and consumption of goods. Food travels a long way from the raw resource to our mouths. Having a holistic approach, all this process should be sustainable.
- Climate action: combat climate change and its impacts. Food leaves a huge carbon footprint. Can the future of food be different? I think so!
- Life below water: conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources. We currently consume a lot of animals from the sea in a non-sustainable way. Tech can change that.
- Life on Land: protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems. Plants, trees, and the abiotic elements around them are part of what we eat.
The hard data
Let’s double-click on some important points, according to UN and WWF reports:
- Current estimates show that nearly 690 million people are hungry today. If trends continue, the number can surpass 840 million by 2030
- A profound change is needed if we are to nourish more than 9 billion people (by 2050)
- Each year, 1.3 billion tonnes of food end up rotting in the bins of consumers and retailers or spoiling due to poor transportation and harvesting practices
- Around 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction
- Agriculture is responsible for 70% of global freshwater consumption
- 50% of the world’s crops are used to feed animals, not people
- There’s been a 60% decline in wildlife population sizes between 1970 and 2014
What are we doing differently?
I almost can’t believe that the iPhone 13 is on its way, but the majority of agriculture is being done the same way as hundreds of years ago. Of course, techniques have gotten better, we produce much more, have gotten better at combating plagues, and producing food despite the season.
Again, this may not sound that big of a deal, but once that we compare traditional methods with novel ones, I promise you’ll notice a huge difference. Sustainability, health, and efficiency will meet.
Coming up… a more detailed explanation of 5+ innovations in farming, agriculture, food enhancing, production, and consumption. Said with food, we’ll be talking about fruits and vegetables, meat, and dairy.
Who’s hungry to learn?
We know that the general problems with farming are that it consumes a lot of land space, we can’t have all types of crops in every season, and it’s very labor intensive.
This section includes potential solutions like vertical farming, automation in agriculture, and hydroponics. We’ll also cover some challenges that each of these technologies has.
The concept itself is quite straightforward: growing crops in vertically stacked layers, as opposed to the traditional 2D horizontal fields. Now, the interesting questions are: how does this actually work? and how can we make it work in any given location around the world?
Vertical farming is often done in abandoned buildings, recycled shipping containers, tunnels, or abandoned mine shafts. This means that we need to simulate the natural environment with artificial technologies. The first element that comes to mind is the sun/light, which will be replaced by special LED lights in this case. Other factors to control are air, temperature, water, humidity, carbon dioxide, and plant nutrition.
Talking about nutrition, this solution can also incorporate soilless farming techniques such as hydroponics, which involves submerging the roots of plants are in solutions that contain the necessary macronutrients for plants to grow and develop. Mediums like gravel, sand, or sawdust can be added to give support to the roots. The great advantage of hydroponics is being able to save approximately 13x the amount of water used in the cultivation process.
Overall, the main promises of vertical farming are:
- Smaller land requirement: grow things from bottom to top instead of left to right
- Cultivate a larger variety of crops at once: different plots for different crops makes this possible
- Resistance to weather and plagues: being a controlled environment, crops wouldn’t be prone to these natural disasters
- Reduce the carbon footprint: urban farming (vertical farms in urban areas) would allow for nearly immediate farm to store transport, reducing CO2 emissions
On the challenges and drawbacks now, I actually found a lot of articles talking about this. Some of the most important points are:
- High cost: a hypothetical 10 level vertical farm would cost over 850x more per square meter of arable land than a traditional farm in rural Victoria,
- Energy consumption: if energy used isn’t produced cleanly then it would produce more GHGs than traditional farming
- Higher labor costs: if implemented in urban areas, we can assume that the cost of living is higher, and so is the cost of labor
- Dependent on technology: what could we do in the case that the energy goes out in the whole city?
Some reports actually question these pros and cons even more:
- Solar panels? Some calculate that these would take more space than the farm itself, which means that it wouldn’t make sense at all. It would be like replacing the sun with the sun 👀
- Reducing food miles? A larger food operator can ship food more efficiently, even if it travels longer distances. Some larger means of transport use less fuel, per pound per mile than smaller ones
Despite these challenges, there are already some startups in the field. Two of them are Local Roots, Mirai, and Aerofarms. The former has achieved using 97% less water by recapturing it, while the second one has created 80% less food waste, and 99% less water usage. These metrics are comparing vertical farming against traditional farming.
Having learned about this potential solution, I would say it’s probably not our best bet yet unless we find a more efficient source of energy to replace the sun.
This topic is also relatively simple to understand. It’s applying robots and Artificial Intelligence to the farming industry. It’s not that either of these topics is simple, but compared to others, most of us have heard about this.
We can leverage these technologies to automate tractors, irrigation, harvesting, and even to monitor large fields through the use of drones that take videos and pictures. AI comes into play when analyzing crops, looking for plagues, or knowing when it’s time to harvest.
Knowing that the farming industry is highly labor-intensive and mostly repetitive, wouldn’t an amazing alternative be automation? Well, there are pros and cons, especially considering that sustainability is also about the social aspect.
Some reasons why automation is a wonderful idea are:
- Labor shortage: with globalization, urbanization, and technology, now there are more dream jobs for kids apart from being a farmer, which means that in the long term, there could not be enough offer of jobs
- Repetitive tasks: agriculture is highly repetitive, which makes it perfect for machines to do
- Labor costs: it is estimated that labor accounts for 50% of the cost to grow a farm
As for the disadvantages, I think that the main and most important one to cover is the job loss that this could bring. We can imagine a scenario where big companies implement these technologies, and a lot of farmers’ jobs are taken away. Of course, some of them could adapt and learn how to use these technologies, but maybe not all of them. Would that be sustainable?
What if I told you that current meat production can pollute more than transportation? That’s true. You can’t be completely eco-friendly if you consume meat often. It is estimated that livestock emissions make up between 14.5 and 18% of total global Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, whereas the transportation sector is responsible for around 14% of these.
Meat isn’t the only problem though. And the reason why people around the world go vegan isn’t only because of pollution. Looking at animal exploitation, other activities/industries like dairy and tanning are also responsible.
Another problem of our current practices is health. Lots of antibiotics and growth hormones are currently given to animals in order to sustain the economic pillar of the world.
Saved by innovation again! Cellular agriculture will allow us to continue consuming all kinds of real animal-derived products without destroying the planet. I would personally define cell ag as:
the art and science of growing biological stuff by leveraging all sorts of biotechnologies.
No insects; no tricks
I really mean it when I say that cell ag is the REAL thing. I don’t like to see it as an “alternative”. This word tricks people into thinking that they’ll be eating soy, insects, or plant-based meat. No. Cell ag literally allows us to grow the exact same animal products. It’s simply the process that changes.
Over the next paragraphs, I’ll be going more in-depth with the technical details. For now, and in a nutshell, here are the main steps to have clean meat:
- Pick a sample from the animal: this doesn’t hurt the animal at all
- Prepare it: we want to get the stem cells from that sample
- Grow it in the lab: replicate the environment of the animal by using special nutrients
- Shape it: the lab plate in which our cells are growing won’t shape the meat itself. We need a scaffold
- “Cook” it: a lot of the flavor is provided by the adipose (fat). Our sample doesn’t have it, so we have to figure that out
As you can see, there’s nothing extremely weird about clean meat. It’s completely safe, and the best part: I bet it’ll be the most sustainable option. Compared against traditional methods, here are the benefits of in-vitro meat:
- 76% lower GHG emissions
- 94% less water
- 80% less land
- 45% less energy
- (Not really quantifiable but:) 99% less animal suffering
You can call it clean, in-vitro, or cultured meat. I like to see it as a branch within cellular agriculture, that specializes in creating different kinds of meat like beef, lamb, pork, fish, chicken, and others.
The steps that I mentioned previously were really just an over-simplified explanation of the topic. The actual scientific process involves 6 steps:
1) Biopsy: it still means getting a tissue sample of the animal. There are two possible methods:
- Incision: we can get more sample, it’s more precise, worse experience for the animal
- Needle: the opposite
- Factors to consider: cells from different parts have different potential for differentiation, age, and sex
2) Isolation of stem cells: not everything in our sample will be useful. We are specifically want to get stem cells from the skeletal muscle tissue.
- Why? Stem cells are magical. They can self-renew and give rise to the muscle cells that we ultimately want to eat. First, there are some steps to follow:
1. Do a physical dissociation
2. Enzymatic dissociation: use specific enzymes to get rid of the fiber, tissue debris, connective tissues, and muscle stem cells
3. Use filtration and centrifugation methods to remove the debris
4. Isolate the stem cells from that: using methods involving fluorescence (FACS) or antigens (MACS)
3) Cryopreservation: what’s better than an unlimited fountain of meat?
- I find it interesting that there’s an actual biotech technique that is called “cell immortalization”. It does what it sounds like
- On some more technical terms, immortalization can help cells overcome the Hayflick limit (their natural limit of divisions)
4) Primary culture: “media” is a very common word in biotech. What does it actually mean though?
- At this point, we already have the cells we need, so it’s time to give them the environment they need to proliferate: the media
- My definition of media: food for cells
- A more detailed definition of media: solution of nutrients to grow cells in-vitro by helping them maintain pH, proliferate and differentiate
- Media can be broken down into two: basal media and serum
- Basal media components: glucose, amino acids, salts, vitamins, and water
- Serum: this is the only controversial part of clean meat. We’ll talk about it in more detail later now. For now, we should know that it’s a blood component
5) Upscaled culture: scaffolds and bioreactors
- Scaffolds: they give geometric guidance to the cells. They must be edible. Some examples include collagen, fibronectin, laminin, and gelatin. Different for muscle and fat cells
- My definition of a bioreactor: environment simulator to grow biological stuff
- More formal definition of a bioreactor: automated, controlled chambers for cell mass culture
6) Downstream processing
- Taste: it normally comes from fatty acids in membranes and fat cells, fibroblasts and collagen, muscle and endothelial cells. These are compounds such as haem iron, creatine, carnitin glutamate. Adding those substances will help us have the taste of conventional meat as well
- Enhancing it: did you ever imagine that the future of food could not only be sustainable but also have an added nutritious value for us? Welcome to the era of super-foods!
As mentioned above, cellular agriculture isn’t only about clean meat; we can grow anything! This includes dairy products like milk, cheese, yogurt, or even ice cream.
This time, the principles are a bit different. Being strict on the definition, anything most of other products that aren’t meat, are actually part of acellular agriculture. This means that we don’t care about cells that much. We care about the products that cells create, we are using cells as bio-factories, we are doing something called synthetic biology.
So how do we produce milk without cows? I think the real question is actually: what is milk in the first place? This is the same question that scientists made to create real animal-free milk. They found out that two main proteins made milk, milk: casein and whey. Going back to the initial question, we just need to insert the DNA sequence for these two proteins into yeast, let the yeast grow with fermentation and mix the proteins with sugar.
As a refresher, fermentation is the process that an organism can do to produce energy in the absence of oxygen :)
The best-known company in the field is called Perfect Day. They follow the process described above to create dairy products. The only difference is that they use microflora instead of yeast since they’ve found it to be safe. Not only is this an amazing option, they could be better: free of lactose, cholesterol, hormones, or antibiotics that come in traditional milk.
Home - Perfect Day
We make the foods you love in the most compassionate, sustainable, and delicious ways possible - starting in the dairy…
Challenges with cellular agriculture
The world’s first in vitro burger was by Mark Post with USD $330,000 in 2013. In 2018, Aleph Farms was able to produce a steak for USD $50. Indeed, the cost is still one of the big challenges for cell ag to go mainstream. Going deeper, what drives the cost?
FBS is the answer. Remember that serum is an essential part of the media to grow clean meat? Well, the most widely used type of serum is Fetus Bovine Serum (FBS). It costs approximately USD $1,000 per liter 🤯. This substance is also considered to be unethical. Citing a paper about it it “is commonly harvested by means of a cardiac puncture without any form of anesthesia”. Literally disheartening.
Adding on to the previous ideas, another point that could be considered as a disadvantage for cultured meat is that it’s not an option for those who don’t want to consume the real thing because of health or religious reasons. So even when it may sound like the most innovative approach, some are more feasible at the moment.
Despite not being the real thing, I’ve heard that some of these alternatives do taste like the meat we’re used to. The first example that comes to mind is Impossible Foods, a company creating burgers from soy and potato proteins. Their secret sauce? Heme, a protein that gives meat its flavor. After all, there is a bit of acellular agriculture in there.
Another crazy company is Just: a plant is an egg. This is definitely more unconventional. I haven’t tried it myself, but if the pictures don’t lie, we shouldn’t notice a huge difference between this and a conventional egg.
Even when water covers more than 70% of our planet, only 2% of our food comes from there. Fish peaking — the point at which we cannot take fish out of the ocean anymore — is also a big problem. Why not take advantage of the immense space to culture high-protein-containing foods like algae?
Furthermore, what about plant-based seafoods? A company called New Wave Foods is doing this. Their shrimps are kosher, have zero cholesterol and low calories.
For those who do like insects…
Fine. We can’t deny that there’s a huge potential in insects as a protein alternative. Compared to meat, some environmental and nutritional benefits of insects are:
- Use 95x less land
- Use 26x less water
- Emit 7.7x less CO2
- Contain at least 2x more protein in every 100g
- Can be farmed vertically
Aspire is a company that uses robotics and data collection to farm insects that have a similar protein quality to meat and an environmental footprint closer to plants. They merge the future of farming with insects!
To make this more ‘marketable’ for everybody, Don Bugito is a company that transforms these insects into Mexicanish snacks with chocolate, coconut, granola, and more. That actually looks tasty 👀.
An estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of food are wasted globally each year, one third of all food produced for human consumption. The amount of food lost or wasted costs 2.6 trillion USD annually and is more than enough to feed all the 815 million hungry people in the world… four times over!
- Food loss typically refers to food lost in earlier stages of production such as harvest, storage and transportation.
- Food waste refers to items that are fit for human consumption but thrown away, often at supermarkets or by consumers.
In low-income countries, loss occurs more often in the earlier stages. For example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, 83% of food is lost during production.
Beyond food waste, we must consider that when edible products are discarded, it’s not just them that are wasted, but also all the resources required in the process: water for irrigation, land for planting, fuel for powering harvest, transport vehicles…
Only in America, people generate 10.5 million tons of plastic waste a year and recycle less than 2% of it. It’s clearly destroying our planet by killing animals and even whole ecosystems. That, you already knew. The question is: are there any legit alternatives to it?
Let’s remember that sustainability is about 3 aspects: the social, environmental, and economic. So even when there are some that satisfy the first two, I think that if there were more options that were economically accessible, we would’ve already noticed it in our day to day.
Nevertheless, some quite popular options I could find are meant to replace straws, cutlery, and packaging.
- Bakey’s: edible cutlery made out of millet, rice, or wheat flour
- Loliware: edible seaweed-based straws that can withstand over 18 hours of continuous use
- Innventia: expanding package that saves space during transportation and reacts to hot water to then expand
It’s our choice
Connecting the dots, the technological advancements of the XXI century are enough for humanity to have a sustainable future of food. One that satisfies the economic, environmental, and social aspects. The challenges right now are making these technologies mainstream.
It’s not easy to convince people that a weird thing called “cellular agriculture” is better for our planet, and potentially better for our health too. But it will happen, and now that we both know, it’s in our hands to bet for technology, to bet for a better future.