The Future of Food is Really Small
To date, food is one of the most valued economic production lines.
Unfortunately, we’re not really that good at making food. In fact, we waste more food than we eat. Every year, we waste about 1.3 billion tons of food by loosing it, or having to throw it away.
As we begin to see an exponential increase in population as time goes on, we start asking a different question. It’s no longer “what does feeding 7+ billion people look like?”. Now, the million-dollar question is
What does feeding 11 billion people look like?
And its 11 billion people because we’re talking just 30 years from now. I can tell you that with current agricultural methods, this isn’t good. In fact, its so bad because we would need about 5 planet earths to feed the world. Even if we were to inhabit Mars, we still wouldn’t be able to feed the world sustainably.
Let’s take a look:
The Food System
As of now, the food system has been split into three main categories: food production, food processing, and distribution. These steps inform not only how we produce food, but also how it’s delivered to people like you and myself for consumption.
Interestingly, there are so many stakeholders in the process that allows us to produce food. Its not only biologically complex, but its also physically convoluted. Quite frankly, its ridiculous, but its worked thus far, so there’s something to be said for that. Let’s take a closer look.
Currently, we rely on the process of agriculture. This isn’t just terrestrial farming of animals to produce our food. With agriculture, we can produce a variety of products, including food, feed, fiber by raising and domesticating animals.
Domestication: The control of a multi-generational relationship where the initial organism base informs the following generation through reproduction! This system essentially means that the initial generation of animal raises the following generation, which means we produce more food. Take cows and their cattle, for example!
Sometimes, we don’t just farm animals, but also plants — commodity crops — as well. This process is what we rely on for around 83% of all of our food. Environmentally, this is not good. No matter how we look at it. I know that climate change has assumed the role of a buzzword that we throw around, but it’s truly important.
Global warming isn’t just greenhouse gas, ozone, and melting glaciers, it’s an immediate problem that we should be worried about as time goes on. It may not yet be a life or death deal, but we are getting fried to an extent, which is not fun. Then if we look at what we’re doing to ANIMALS, there’s a fast approaching negative outcome. However, lets not go too far by thinking to general. We’ll really zoom in by looking dairy industry really quickly:
The dairy industry has grown exponentially in the past 50 years. With the institution of new agricultural practices, farming and yields are continuing to develop. Today, cows yield 2.5 times more milk than they did 50 years ago, meaning that today, cows are producing 60% more milk from 30% fewer cows. Over 80% of the world’s population — 6 billion people — indulge in dairy products on a daily basis.
Add to that the over $330B market that the dairy industry is due to milk being an important ingredient, cheese being a culinary staple, and creams being a spread used across the globe, it is evident that a majority of the world enjoys or needs dairy.
Due to them being nutrient-dense, dairy is also an indispensable dietary component. The main contents that make it nutritious are: calcium, magnesium, vitamin B, and riboflavin, which are some of the top energy-providing proteins. The world dairy sector releases an estimated ± 26% of total anthropogenic (GHG) greenhouse gases. Without proper sustainable development innovations, this number is expected to rise to 33% in the coming years.
The emissions of the dairy industry have also been placed in proportions to determine the overall efficiency of the production pipeline. The cheese ratio to GHG is 5.9 kg of per every kg of CO2, whereas peanut butter 0.17 kg of kg of CO2, meaning associated GHGs of dairy products are about 35 times greater than that of their corresponding non-dairy foods. Dairy production itself is a 3% efficient technology. Farmers only receive three parts of dairy for 100 parts of feed and other resources that they put in to get the products. Overall, dairy feed efficiency isn’t very high, and the massive levels of waste generated because of this is what causes such high greenhouse gas emissions.
Livestock agriculture for dairy also takes up massive amounts of land. About 25% of the Earth’s surface is being used for these practices to make high protein foods, such as meat and dairy. With the population expected to grow from 7.7 to 9.7 billion up to 11.2 billion in 2050, the demand for animal food products will rise by minimum 70%, which would warrant the need for double the efficiency of current dairy production.
Every decade, dairy products, especially milk, grow by 18% in their carbon footprint, while average cow herds scale up by 11% in the same timeframe. Annually, the milk yield increases by 15%, with total dairy greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reaching a project 38% increase. The dairy market has a total valuation of $330 B and growing, as consumer demand continues to nearly triple, with consistent 30% increases in demand occurring over only a 5-year span.
Cows are kept restrained from pastures using the zero-grazing method, effectively introducing them to an array of welfare issues. Cows become lame from laminitis, where their hooves swell, can suffer mastitis, an udder infection that causes 16.5% of all cow deaths, and become infertile, which happens to over 13% of cows in the US, stopping them from completing their evolutionary function of reproduction.
With zero-grazing, a majority of cows are kept in tie-stall barns. The flooring damages their hooves and can cause extreme bone and muscle pains, increasing the rate of lameness, and they also have a high risk of infection. This is an unfortunate reality for over 40% of cows.
In addition, growth hormone treatments are currently being used on livestock, which can heavily increase the associated risks of dairy product consumption, and can stimulate unnatural responses in the human body. For example, the recombinant bovine growth hormone or somatotropin (rBGH/rBST) is a growth hormone derived from the somatotrophin hormone found in the pituitary gland, which is a factor to stimulate growth and cell replication.
However, the rBST is engineered through editing the somatotrophin gene to create a hormone that promotes growth. rBST has been under further scrutiny, which has revealed concentrations of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), a substance which, when in high enough concentrations, can inadvertently promote the development of tumors in the body.
The overconsumption of milk specifically from bovines who were growth hormone treated can lead to higher levels of prostate, breast, and colorectal cancers. Though use of these products have been banned in areas such as the EU, hormones such as rBST are still available in other countries, including the United Status, which has led to almost 17% of cows continuing to be injected.
However, the food industry is one of the topmost contributing industries to climate change — about 26% of all emissions contributing to global warming — and its processes being 79% reliant on fossil fuels.
Farming isn’t completely bad economically; it creates a lot of important jobs that power our economy. In fact, 33% of humanity currently works in some field that contributes to farming, like an agricultural scientist, a farmer, or a harvester. This equates to 1 in 3 people!
However, this is a double-edged sword. Farming only contributes about 3% to global GDP, or gross domestic product, or the monetary value of all goods produced combined. This means that out of everything we make all over the world, food is only 3%, but it contributes so greatly to environmental issues.
So, to think that agriculture = 0.03 of GDP + .28 of greenhouse gas is somewhat concerning in proportion, huh? I would say so, and so are many other companies, which is why this is being worked on so heavily. Though a small-ish contributor monetarily, from a health and greenhouse gas standpoint, food production is huge.
And because of the fact that the way we produce food isn’t as great as it could be, neither is the way that we package food, which ends up hurting us in the long run.
Right now, animals are toy cats on a highway filled with dump trucks. Basically, they’re super inneficient machines. In terms of converting what we feed them to edibles that we can use, we’re at about a 3–5% efficiency for some of the leading animals (and foods), like chicken/hens, and cows, or eggs, meat, and dairy. Slaughtering animals like pigs for bacon is that eco either; slaughterhouses produce about 10 million tons of waste per year.
So, because we aren’t going to be eating raw chicken or raw egg, we need food processing, which is the method by which raw food is turned into edible food, to make the food chomp-able. The food processing steps take harvest, slaughter, and butcher-based food that allow us people to eat the tasty proteins, or package them and place them on shelves to be bought frozen and fresh in-store. The importance is that this produce becomes marketable thanks to food processing, which can be done in a number of ways.
- Batch production: This is the production method that is used for unknown amounts of products, or a range of different products. For example, 🧁 in a bakery.
The importance of batch production is that a specific number of goods is produced within a single production step, given the bakery has a limited number of cupcakes. This batch is based off of what is predicted to be wanted, which is called consumer demand. Therefore, batch production is often over or underestimated, meaning that there’s food lost or thrown away.
- JIT: This is just-in-time production. It’s *kind of* what it sounds like. All the products are open and stored inside of wherever the food is being used or cooked (in-house). The product is broken down into its base components, for example, a pizza is broken down into the cold sauce, toppings, and cheeses, and when the customer orders a pizza, the chef/worker constructs it, and throws it in the oven. Then BAM! Delicious pizza. Aside from pizzerias, this also use in restaurants, and some grocery stores (Whole Foods’ lunch 🤩).
- Mass Production: When there’s a lot to make, mass production comes into place. This massive market all want the same exact product (like corn, or candy), so its mass produced. The production line makes a whole lot of the same thing, and is able to do it quickly.
- One-off production: Unlike the other three, this one tends to be very selectively wasteful. This is used when we customers want something specifically for ourselves, and only for us, like a wedding/birthday cake or a chocolate mould. If you’ve ever had a custom-made cake, you and I both know how detailed fondant can become. One-off production can take multiple iterations, and making the designs can take multiple days and is ultra-specialized!
Overall, every one of these production systems are responsible for the wastefulness as well. It’s not the worker’s fault, be we as humans are prone to error, so we tend to produce too much, and waste a lot. And then, food spoils when we try to store it.
After we make food, we store it. Then, when we store it, we drop some of it on the floor, throw some away, or some of it spoils. But that’s just us at home. Think about what happens in groceries.
With urbanization occurring, we now have plenty of supermarkets and huge eatery stores, and more foodstuffs being sold. Even a century ago, we could have tens of thousands of produce inside of one store location. This was during the era of sitcoms and tiny cars! Now we can have hundreds of thousands of items being stored at once.
Since demand for food has increased, we’ve begun doing catering, online grocery, and technological inventory. Our current grocery systems look like this:
And no, these systems aren’t available everywhere, but we’re getting there. Either way, with our current agricultural and storage based technologies, our food spoils, gets stolen, is infected by pathogens, and we end up loosing billions of dollars. More specifically, 400 billion dollars.
I’m confident that you wouldn’t want to loose that much money, and I know that the US can’t afford to loose 14% of food and all of this money. So it’s not great that we still have these systems. From harvest to packaging, foods are dropped along the way. Wasting food = ethanol 👇🏾!
I’ve been mentioning the concept of spoiling quite a lot. This is where a food rots. 40% of all of our food goes uneaten thanks to spoilage. Then, we have shelf life, which is basically the amount of time that food can stay on a counter. This decreases as we treat food with a whole bunch of synthetic products. As the produce absorbs oxygen, it begins to spoil. We can look at this example from the perspective of an apple.
And remember, even when we refrigerate, we technically slow down the bacterial reactions that are occurring on a substrate level. AKA, we slow down the break down. But some foods can even spoil in a refrigerator/freezer!
While this apple *might* still be edible, it’s unattractive. Basically, if any of the store owners or workers were to find any apples that look like this in their batch of 66, they’re sure to be thrown away. And there are a lot of these.
The overall point is that in retail, even after food is put in its nice branded box and placed on a shelf, there is still opportunity for thievery, spoilage, and loss.
But, even with all of the doom and gloom that I’ve been projecting regarding the food industry, it wouldn’t be fair for me to not acknowledge all of the hard work and ingenuity that goes into the food industry. With that said, there’s still a lot that needs to be done if we want carbon-neutral food production, or even anything sustainable, for that matter.
Fortunately, there are a lot of solutions.
The Future of Food
Nanotechnology is literally tech on the nanoscale — so supramolecular, atomic, molecular-sized tech. The pillars are nanomaterials, nanoparticles, nanostructures.
- Nanomaterials — Describe different materials that exhibit unique and advantageous properties from their dimensions on the nanoscale. Nanomaterials have so many structural applications; you can use them to make this lighter, accelerate biological system views, and even create different devices that harness their properties
- Out of these, we have nanoionics and nanoelectronics, which have applications in energy power and transfer systems; nanoparticles in healthcare, nanorods for added conductivity
- Nanomaterials are a lot of times structural precursors for sensors, therapeutic devices, larger devices (that need their material properties), and medicine
- Titanium dioxide, graphene, Phthalocyanine pigments, ceramic and semiconductor nanoparticles
- Nanoparticles — 1 to 100 nm in diameter particles (on the nanoscale). This can also refer to different nanotubes and nanofibers which have the same properties in specific dimensions. They’re also sometimes called ultrafine particles; they are very receptive to the random movement (Brownian motion) in a liquid, so they can’t really sediment
- Ultrafine particles are present everywhere, are in pollution and industrial products, the production of nanoparticles with specific properties is an important branch of nanotechnology
- Heat, molecules, and ions can diffuse through the high surface area of particles very often, can coat, ferromagnetism, mechanic points, melting points, regular packing, large area/volume, interfacial layers, melting, solvency, and quantum implications/crystals
- Antimicrobial applications, biosensing, imaging, and drug delivery and; while for environmental applications, nanoparticles are used for bioremediation of diverse contaminants, water treatment, quantum computing, and production of clean energy
- Titania, silica, nanodroplets, nanocrystal liposomes, you can find them in deodorant — all examples
- One of the most interesting nanostructures, which describe full systems that are built on the nanoscopic scale, a lot of these are actually VERY in different constructions like space elevators, drones, smart shirts, and the like
…And a whole bunch of other tech, as you’d probably say, especially if you’ve read my articles previously (which I’d definitely recommend doing if you haven’t already!). In this article specifically, we’ll be talking about nanotech.
So, let’s talk about how we go from “the future of food” and “nanotechnology”, to the “future of food is nanotechnology”. For the most part, it involves nano sensors, and nanoparticles, but they're used in extremely unique and intriguing ways!
The huge premise of nanotechnology in food in today’s age is our ability to use this technology to create functional, delicious foods by engineering different biomolecules to complete functions that aren’t their initial applications. This includes anything from gene editing to pesticide delivery. Due to the diversity of this technology, there’s practically no limit to what food technologists are getting ready to with nanotechnology at their disposal. It’s a brand new tool in the toolshed that will give them the ability to innovate beyond imagination, from burgers to beverages.
Currently, there are four main areas in food where nanotechnology is taking presidence:
Food Processing Applications
- Nanoencapsulation units to enhance and improve flavors, and inherently, desirability of standard foods.
Nanocapsules: Nanoscale caps that contain an amount of a certain substance that can open and release the substance into an organism efficiently
- Nanocapsule units that enhance the the bioavailability of nutrients that prevent chronic diseases in standard cooking ingredients to improve the nutritional value of meals that use the nano-enhanced products (e.g: improving the bioavailability of the widening factors of blood vessels in oil).
- Nanotubes and nanoparticles in the gelatin made from slaughterhouse waste as viscosifying agents. Basically, what this means is that we can extract the substances from the remains of dead animals to get gelatin, which we can then turn into nanoparticles that can allow different substances to flow. This means that we’ll be able to improve the watering of crops!
- Nanocapsules that can infuse plant-based steroids to replace cholesterol in meat. The reason why this is important is that the cholesterol content in meat means that eating a lot of it can increase the chance of heart disease. Cholesterol is a type of fatty molecule, called a lipid. More specifically, it’s a special type of lipid called a sterol, and helps to construct and strength the cell membrane. When we eat a lot of meat, we collect a lot of cholesterol, which builds up on our membrane walls, which is called atherosclerosis.
- We can create nanoemulsion-based systems that deliver particles that carry nutrients throughout the food and disperse it, which can increase the availability of the health benefits of produce.
Nanoemulsions: Nanoscale particles that carry different molecules. These are typically biochemically guided and are injectable!
- Using nanosensors to detect singular molecules and determine how enzymes and substrates interact. As we know, enzymes are like puzzle pieces, meaning that only one thing (substrate — most of the time) fits. Therefore, determining how enzymes and substrates interact is groundbreaking.
- Nanocapsule delivery of pesticides, fertilizers, and other agrochemicals to crops, therefore wasting less resources and not over-injecting the plants. This means that we can protect crops from pathogens without killing them due to high pesticide contents.
We can also do the same with hormones, and injecting them in a controlled manner.
- Nanosensors in soils to understand the liquid content of the soil as well as the nutrients in the soil and how that correlates to crop growth. This will give farmers accurate diagnostics on the state of their crops.
- We can combine nanochips and blockchain for identity preservation and tracking of crops specifically, and store them on the blockchain to be able to find. detect, and isolate specific crops. Combining these with sensors would be advantageous to this system, as farmers would also be able to determine which crops are sick.
- Nanosensors that can identify and signal when there are animal and/or plant pathogens that are nearby.
- There is the possibility of using nanocapsules to deliver vaccines to different crops after the early diagnosis of plant-based diseases, like in corn, for example.
- Completely targeted genetic engineering of DNA using nanoparticles combined with a gene cutting and insertion system. Using nanoparticles essentially enhances the accuracy of the gene editing system.
- Attaching antibodies to fluorescent nanoparticles so there will be a visual detection of chemicals or pathogens within foods. We can do this by attaching something like the green florescent protein (GFP), a molecule that glows green.
- Biodegradable nanosensors that can monitor environmental factors, like temperature, moisture, and time! This will mean that we are able to to determine factors that influence plant produce growth and health, as well as their life cycle.
- Nanoclay and nanofilm as barriers that can help to increase the shelf life of different produce to prevent the absorption of oxygen. Less oxygen absorption means that the food doesn’t spoil as quickly.
Nanoclay: Clay is silicate, a salt made of oxygen and silicon. Nanoclays are merely nanoscale layers of these.
Nanofilm: This is a film made up of a material with special properties and geometries when they are really small. Nanofilms grain down materials to their flattest extent.
- These silicates can also be used as light, but dense, heat-resistant films that protect the plants from things like wildfires! Graphene is an optimal material to do this!
- Nanosensors that are electrochemically based that can detect ethylene.
→ Using modified permeation of foil behaviors. What this does is it increases the efficiency and sustainability of the packaging process
Dietary Supplements/Food Pills
- We can use cellulose, a really awesome biomaterial that makes up the cell walls of plans, to create new drug carriers for specialized deliveries of food. Cellulose is really useful because it doesn’t dissolve in water, and thanks to it being made of glucose, its physically versatile (like cotton vs. electronic paper!).
- Powders ground down to the nanoscale to allow for nutrients to be absorbed in nano-engineered supplements.
- Creating vitamin-based nano sprays that can disperse into small droplets that can enter the pores of organisms better, which increases absorption.
- Nano-capsules that contain nutraceuticals — nutrients that prevent chronic diseases — that can deliver nutrients to supplements that are produced, or stabilize the supplements chemically and increase the absorption of the nutrients when ingested.
- The use of coiled nanoparticles, or Nanocochleates, that can send nutrients directly to cells that don’t cause the food pills to taste, smell, or even behave differently.
We can even apply nanoscale iron molecules to decontaminate water, and many more, including:
- Surface-level nanomaterials in food packaging that allow for the decontamination of the food inside.
- Nanosensors instead of QR codes to track supply chains more efficiently.
- Custom engineered animal feed with nanomolecules that can bind and remove toxins or pathogens, and give the animals the necessary nutrients they need without injections!
The XXI Future
Overall, its clear to me that the future of food is small. Even with respect to other technologies, the use of nanotechnology is really, really important. For example, with cellular agriculture, it’s necessary that we utilize nanotechnology to apply tissue engineering techniques (the process of growing tissues in a lab) to produce meat from cells. In the bioreactors where the production processes take place, nanosensors will likely be used as well.
In the 21st century, we’ve begun to engage in these rapidly growing spaces, and address their versatility, specifically within the food industry and nutraceuticals by working off of first principles, which is where we use old knowledge to create new forms of understanding.
By applying the fundamentals of engineering and physics and learning more about the folding and quantum properties within material dimensions, we can create nanomaterials to target the delivery of bioactive compounds, micronutrients, and more.
I encourage you to learn more by not only reading my content, but others as well. Read Nanotechnology: The Future is Tiny by Michael Berger. It’s a compilation of essay detailing the versatility of nanotech. This 👈🏾 is what the future of food looks like.
Overall, nanotechnology has immense potential in the food industry, and we’ve only peeled the skin of the onion in possibility.
Before you go…
My name is Okezue Bell, and I’m a 14 y/o innovator/entrepreneur investing my time in researching and developing myself in the super interesting biotech and bioeng space!
I’m currently focusing my efforts in alternative protein and artificial intelligence, working with some of the leading companies as an advisor, project manager, and interning and building for some awesome startups. .
If you want to hear more from me, I post a newsletter every month, speak at events, do research and projects, YouTube, I have a podcast called VZIN, and I post here quite often, so follow me if you want to get notified on these articles! Also, give this one some claps if you thought it was good!