Food Technology is one of the fastest-growing areas nowadays. It also is among the most stable industries, since rooted in basic human needs and, at the same time, part of human culture. As such, Food Technology is fully shaped by local and universal values of single customers or of the whole society.
Food is linked to our behaviors and wills, affected by human History but also affecting the Environment. Sustainability is then fully part of the equation. We can place food innovations along a ladder going from Farm to Fork: From production to delivery and enjoyment, spanning such diverse fields as agriculture, industry, logistics, or wellbeing.
People are looking for fewer animal proteins and more plant-based proteins, to reduce the impact of food production on the environment and to improve health. Food production is responsible for 27% of greenhouse gas emissions*. Meat production (livestock and fisheries) is the main responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, among food production. Moreover, 1 person in 3 is obese and 1 in 12 is hungry or undernourished.
The ability to source and produce plant proteins from the right crops or plants, providing the best quality and functionalities for many different areas of the food industry will likely shape the future of food.
Plant-based proteins are not only intended as simple replacements for animal food (such as meat, fish, or even dairy products and egg). They can have a much larger impact on the food industry as a whole, provided that the ingredients we build can show the right functionalities.
Mastering the science of plant-based proteins involves basic knowledge from biology and chemistry, but also precise understanding of the needs and usages of the customers.
Till mastering the engineering and technology of protein production processes, today roughly divided into wet and dry processes. When it comes to the production of meat analogues, then, the techniques of extrusion and texturization are the ones to be mastered.
*Typically reported as carbon dioxide equivalent, to allow comparison among different gases.
Controlled Environment Agriculture
Fresh vegetables and fruits have never been more trendy than now. People perfectly know that health is linked to what we eat every day. However, consuming fresh vegetables or fruits coming from far away threatens the environment and weakens supply chains.
A new technology, called Controlled Environment Agriculture, is helping with that. Thanks to new and more advanced kinds of greenhouses, all the growth parameters of plants can be fine-tuned (temperature, hygrometry, CO2 levels, evapotranspiration, even leaf, and root temperatures,…) providing a stable, high quality and local produce all year long.
This also allows saving essential resources, such as water (more than 95% of water is reused and recycled) and getting more from less. This is why some tiny countries that already embraced advanced greenhouses can feed the World.
What about Vertical Farming?
Vertical Farming is a subset of Controlled Environment Agriculture where the level of control is even higher, allowing specialty crops to grow.
Such as biofortified vegetables or even pharmaceuticals produced in plants, instead of cell cultures. FarmTech Society is among the leading non-profit organizations leading this new approach to agriculture.
Vertical Farming and space exploration
In a vertical farm, even light is provided with LEDs or other sources different from sunlight. Everything is fully controlled and scientists can even provide each species the perfect “growth recipe”. When humankind will establish settlements on the Moon or Mars, producing food locally will be essential. That’s why space agencies are studying vertical farms and how to improve them.
The most advanced kind of vertical farm is a closed system able to fully recycle the waste for long periods of time. Such systems are called regenerative life support systems, and one example of such research is explored by the Melissa Project.
CO2 usage and valorization
Carbon dioxide is the molecule shaping our Planet. It’s the molecule of life, along with oxygen, and among the main causes of climate change.
We know CO2 mostly as the waste of industry but CO2 also is the source of all our food and most of the industrial products in the end. Because even oil and gas once were CO2 molecules freely swimming in the air.
Carbon dioxide is also a resource, already used in many different applications. No beer in the world could be served without cylinders of food-grade CO2 at the bar. Nor medicines or vaccines could be transported and delivered without dry-ice (solid CO2). Without modified atmosphere packaging (MAP), which typically contains CO2, used to preserve fresh food in supermarkets, we would have much more food waste than we have.
However, CO2 levels in the atmosphere have been rising since the Industrial Revolution because of human activity. Today, CO2 levels are the main cause of climate change, affecting biodiversity, agriculture, climate stability, and even geopolitics and peace.
Different technologies are investigating how to capture CO2 from the air and make new products. Those technologies span from microalgae (aimed at producing also fuels or pharmaceuticals) to direct air capture coupled with the downstream valorization of captured CO2.
Molecular biology &
Understanding genes, what they do, where they are in a genome, and their relevance for an organism, is among the main goals of biology today.
This is done with the so-called “wet techniques” of molecular biology (PCR, qPCR, cloning genes,…) but also by means of bioinformatics. Bioinformatics encompasses things like sequencing RNAs, matching their sequence on a genome, and understanding what are the other downstream genes that they activate (or not). In doing so, one needs to use a lot of statistical tools. Essentially because genes are information, and information means mathematics.
When we talk about genes coding for proteins, such as enzymes, one can also try to understand the molecular pathways where they are operating. One should then use lab techniques closer to the ones of chemistry. In fact, this is also called biochemistry.
Plants are incredibly complex biological organisms. They provide humanity with feed, food, and fuel, and just for this reason, their understanding is crucial for our future. Plants have so many different shapes, and their flowers too. Now, most of this diversity in shapes is due to very specific genes.
There is a family of genes, called WOX, showing quite important roles in plant architecture and organ development, particularly at the flower level. Flower organs are in fact modified leaves, something that Goethe, the famous German philosopher, proposed a long time ago.
You can learn more about WOX genes in flower development here.
The impact of humans on the environment is so intense that there is a debate among scientists whether we are in a very specific geological Era: an Era where mankind is acting as a geological force reshaping the environment at a global level. And for that reason named Anthropocene from the Greek word for “man”.
What’s for sure, CO2 levels are rising because of humans, an incredible amount of sand is displaced yearly at amounts not different from what rivers are doing (think the Amazon, the Nile, or the Huang He), and animals and plants have been displaced all over the Earth by mankind in a way comparable only with some geological forces.
Because of all that, we urge to understand the Earth as a complex system, where multiple feedback loops occur and, as such, investigate the many implications behind the complexity of our world.