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The future of food

How technology is revolutionising food production and making it more efficient

The future of food

The food chain starts with plants using photosynthesis to convert sunlight to sugar molecules. Animals eat plants and other animals to get the energy they need for existence. But the human food chain is long and inefficient. Less than a billionth of the energy of the sun reaches the earth and of that less than 1 per cent is used for photosynthesis. Food is grown far from consumption centres and needs to be transported long distances. Eating habits determine the consumption of animal proteins. The average person needs about 50 gm of proteins a day but consumption increases with wealth (see the charts).

Rearing animals for human consumption is similarly wasteful. Large tracts of land are required for animal breeding and for growing food for animals. Only some parts of animals get consumed, requiring disposal of other parts. Animals also produce greenhouse gases. Overall, it is estimated that food production accounts for about 20 per cent of all greenhouse-gas emissions. Excluding Antarctica, about 40 per cent of all land is used in agriculture. But changes are visible in food production and these are accelerating.

Farming technology
Technology has been used in farming for decades. From genetically modified crops to hydroponics and aeroponics to mechanised harvesting and weed removal, industrialised agriculture dominates production in wealthy countries. Increased awareness of the hazards of climate change, water shortages due to excessive use in farms and higher levels of chemicals in ground water are leading to a change in farm practices. Vertical farms, around for almost a decade, are now in the scale-up mode. Plenty Unlimited Inc., founded in California in 2014, is perhaps the largest in this field, currently building its third vertical farm in the city of Compton in California. Returns are still elusive and the company has had to raise $500 million - the last $140 million in October 2020. Others are joining in - AeroFarms, Freight Farms, Gotham Green, Bowery Farming - and the trend is gathering speed. For now, the economics remains challenging but with no need for extensive land, limited use of water and nutrients, and controlled environment eliminating the use of pesticides, the advantages are not small.

Cultured meat
Developments in biotechnology, the ability to grow cells and tissues in laboratories, increased understanding of DNA and the ability to manipulate it using CRISPR technology have led to an explosion of companies seeking to produce real meat from animal cells without needing to feed, breed or slaughter animals.

Beyond Meats (NASDAQ: BYND, market cap $8.9bn) is one such company that has a mission to "build meat directly from plants". Now at a commercial scale, BYND has announced a tie-up with Taco Bell in January 2021 to come up with new menu options. Earlier, McDonald's had clarified that its McPlant, a plant-based patty and chicken substitute, which it claimed was made in-house, was also in collaboration with BYND. The company has a partnership with KFC where KFC sells a 'Beyond Burger'. Impossible Foods, another privately held company, is competing with BYND for dominance in fast-food burger chains. A number of start-ups are working in the area of meatless alternatives - for example Heura Foods, a Spanish company that claims to replicate the texture of meat with fewer ingredients.

Memphis Meats was set up in 2015 by Uma Valeti, MD (cardiologist), and cell biologist Nicholas Genovese, PhD, with the idea of growing meat in the lab. Starting with cells taken from a live animal, the company uses a 'nutrient' to grow these in a lab. On its website (https://www.memphismeats.com/about, accessed January 16, 2021), it states, "We are proud to say that our team has produced many of the world's cell-based meat breakthroughs: World's first cell-based beef meatball in 2016 and world's first cell-based chicken and duck in 2017." A year ago, the company raised $161 million out of the cumulative $180 million with the goal to "use the funds to build a pilot production facility, grow its world-class team and bring products to market."

The fact that these businesses are serious can be gauged from the list of investors - SoftBank Group, Norwest, Temasek, Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Threshold Ventures, Cargill, Tyson Foods, Finistere, Future Ventures, Kimbal Musk, Fifty Years, CPT Capital, KBW Ventures and Vulcan Capital.

The process of making cultured meat involves taking cells from an animal and feeding them nutrients. When millions of cells have grown, they are encouraged to differentiate into muscle cells and eventually muscle fibre. The technology doesn't harm animals, is easy on the environment and produces disease-free meat. The cost of the medium that nurtures cell growth is still high and while dropping, the price of a kilogram of meat is still hundreds of dollars. This is encouraging companies to explore hybrids, mixing meat with vegetable-based proteins.

The development of the industry can also be seen from the next round of companies specialising in developing ingredients like fat, egg whites, and gelatine. Taste in food largely comes from fat and a pure-tissue-based cultured meat will likely be chewy. It needs fat to add to the taste and sensory perception.

Convergence of technologies
When developments in several technology areas converge, change is accelerated. 3D Bioprinting Solutions used live beef cells to print real meat in space in 2019, demonstrating that almost all food could be made available at the point of consumption, even in the most hostile conditions. Combine this with developments in robotics and artificial intelligence and it is likely that your meals will be cooked by your personal robo-chef using engineered food in your kitchen in the next decade or two. Importantly, this could comprise gluten-free wheat and plant-protein-enhanced meat grown industrially - cooked to your taste. When technologies stabilise, prices fall and widespread adoption is possible. That investors are betting on this outcome can be seen by visiting the website of just one incubator fund like Indie Bio ().

In this context, the fight that farmers in Punjab are waging against the government, demanding an above market price for their excess produce, seems like a fight against the force of nature. If India and the world have to eliminate hunger, we have to adopt technology, not fight it.

Anand Tandon is an independent analyst.