High tech frenzy on food production

By 2050, 10 billion people will need to be fed. Some observers believe that technology can help find ways to feed a huge world population, at the same time as climate change and environmental pollution cause land degradation and limit access to water. So FoodTech is on a roll, attracting investors, startups and large corporations. A revolution similar to the computer revolution of the 1970s is being forged, with genetic manipulation, massive data processing, robotisation and artificial intelligence. Journey into the Silicon Valley of food production.
C’is a small town of 37,000 souls located in the centre of the Netherlands. Wageningen is home to a rich university with a staff of 7,400, mainly dedicated to life sciences. This is the heart of a new revolution that is beginning to have an impact on both the food industry and agricultural production. Together with the University of California, Davis, and Cornell University in the United States, Wageningen is one of the world's leading research centres in the field of food technology.
This European "Food Valley" is suffering from the same frenzy that made the success of California's Silicon Valley. Investors are rushing in, convinced that the food industry is on the verge of facing disruptions on the same scale as those that affected the computer industry in the 1970s or the financial world in the 1980s. Food production is ripe to revolutionize its sector through disruptive innovations.

Supporting trends

A revolution that doesn't happen by chance. It is driven by several strong trends, but of very different natures. First of all, there is population growth, particularly in developing countries. It is exerting a very powerful pressure on protein requirements; a pressure that neither global supply nor respect for production that respects the planet can satisfy. Meat production already occupies 70 % of the world's agricultural land and makes a very significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. As things stand, it is impossible to imagine that developing countries would adopt the same food practices as rich countries. However, protein needs do exist and cannot be neglected.
Then there is, especially in Western countries and mainly in Europe, the consumer demand for healthier food, made up of authentic products that are as neutral as possible with regard to the environment. The surge of organic and innovative products is a symptom of this.
Finally, there is the impact of climate change, the collapse of biodiversity and soil degradation, which are forcing farmers to change their practices. Willingly or unwillingly, under pressure from public opinion, markets, or out of personal conviction, farmers know that they must reconsider the ancestral ways of practising their profession.

A flood of innovations

These strong trends are opening up loopholes for all possible innovative solutions. A wave of scientific innovations ranging from genetic editing to artificial intelligence and digital technologies are entering food production and agricultural crops.
For a long time, the agricultural world was considered old-fashioned in relation to the changes in the world brought about by computers and all the digital technologies that are now part of our daily lives. This image is now a thing of the past. Agriculture captures the imagination of startup creators and investors alike. « Around the world, money is flowing into new forms of agriculture and food distribution, funding projects ranging from vertical farms and robotic farms to alternatives to meat. "writes Emiko Terazono in the Financial Times. By 2017, annual global investments in food technologies, farm management systems, robotics and mechanization have more than tripled to $10 billion.
Annual financing in agri-food technologies (in billions of $)
In this financial frenzy, the waltz of mega acquisitions has gone wild. In 2013, Monsanto bought the American Climate Corporation for $1 billion. This startup, founded by former Google employees, specialises in the ultra-localized analysis of agricultural risk and the sale of related insurance policies. The firm thus has enough information on a farmer's land to react immediately. In the event of drought or predator attacks on his plot of land, the farmer receives from Monsanto, in a few seconds on his smartphone, an offer of adapted phytosanitary products.
Then it was Bayer's turn to buy out Monsanto last year for a staggering $66 billion. According to the NGO Greenpeace, the marriage between the American and German would create a world leader in transgenic seeds and pesticides, with market shares of 30 % and 24 % respectively.

READ UP : Validation of the Bayer-Monsanto Marriage: the underside of creating a monster

Europe is not left behind in this financial fever. Every day, a new startup is being created and according to The New Plant4.2 billion has been invested in the sector over the last four years. 1655 startups are active in Europe in all areas: production, manufacturing, delivery or even recycling. France, despite being a country of gastronomy, is nevertheless lagging behind. It ranks fourth in the European top, behind Germany, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. This delay in the start-up phase can be explained by the reluctance and mistrust of manufacturers, who are hesitant to enter into partnerships with young, innovative but terribly ambitious companies.

Alliance games

In Wageningen, we don't embarrass ourselves with these sterile fears. Armies of researchers have already made agreements with industrialists to develop projects capable of radically transforming agricultural practices. « The combination of technologies and new technology platforms, such as the combination of genetics, sensors and AI to monitor the nutritional status of plants, animals and humans, will lead to significant changes. "said Louise Fresco, President of Wageningen University and its research institutes, to the Financial Times. In the labs of this university, the aim is to develop new products to meet the protein needs of a growing human population.  
Atze Jan van der Goot presents his synthetic meat
Atze Jan van der Goot, professor of sustainable protein technology at the university, presents what looks like a large plate of salted beef. His team was researching how to make long strands of protein from dairy products when they stumbled upon a process to turn soy protein into meat-like fibre: "The team was researching how to make long strands of protein from dairy products when they came across a process to turn soy protein into meat-like fibre. We believe that this technology allows for the formation of larger pieces of meat, and that a tender but tasty product with the mouth feel of meat should be ready for the market "within a few years". "This researcher is not working alone in his lab. He is associated with a group of eight companies that have financed him to the tune of 6 million euros. His financial pool includes a Dutch poultry processing company, the billionaire Warren Buffet, the Swiss flavour specialist Givaudan and the giant Unilever.
Other labs at this prolific university are working on robotic arms capable of "sensing" the ripeness of a fruit or vegetable before picking it. A technological feat that combines mechanical dexterity with spatial cognition to ensure that AI harvests fruit at the right time, neither too early nor too late.
The alliance between R&D laboratories, specialised start-ups and food manufacturers has become the norm. Unilever is opening a global centre for food innovation on the Wageningen campus. Bayer has just launched in France a call for proposal to startups for " Leveraging digital and data science to catalyze new plant health discoveries ".

All-powerful technology?

Meatless steak, insect-based protein bar, full meal pills, 3D printer to concoct your dinner, weeding robots, fruit-sniffing arms, blue tomatoes, seaweed brownies... not to mention plants transformed to resist the lack of water, to produce more, to be bigger, stronger, more beautiful... Technology is taking over a field hitherto reserved for manual work, human sensitivity, taste, and know-how passed down from generation to generation. The promise of food, if not better, then at least different and sufficient to feed the entire population on Earth.
Will this technology, boosted by the hormones of financial investors and the strategic plans of major industrial groups, be the panacea? What will be the consequences on health and the environment? What negative externalities will it produce?
These questions make no sense to those who are betting everything on technological innovation to get humanity out of the difficult period it is about to go through. Should we follow them with our eyes closed?
Technology can't solve everything. Changes in our behaviour will be predominant. The movement has begun. Consumers are changing their diet and the representations that surround it much faster than we think. The decline of meat, the explosion of organic consumption, changes in catering practices, new distribution methods... these are all examples that show that the agricultural and food transition has begun, at least in people's minds.
Source: Financial Times

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