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Food for a better life

As the world population continues to grow, its nutrition will have to change in the coming decades. Researchers and engineers are already working on the solutions of tomorrow.

Researchers and engineers are already working on the solutions of tomorrow.Innovations that change the world are often created in inconspicuous places: garages, basements or, like at the end of the 19th century, in a grain mill. It was the age of industrialization in Europe. Workers toiled long and hard in factories for paltry wages. Concerned, Swiss mill operator Julius Maggi sought ways to ease the burden of malnourished working-class families.

In 1884, the first thing he did was produce an inexpensive but filling flour from protein-laced legumes. The breakthrough came two years later when Julius Maggi introduced the first instant soup to the market, made from pea and bean flour. Additionally, he launched a seasoning sauce, followed not long after by a stock cube. With this idea, Julius Maggi became one of the pioneers of a new sector – the food & beverage industry found ways to process agricultural products so that they were well preserved and easy to transport and prepare.

In a century replete with innovations, the young industry was able to develop rapidly. The invention of the railroad prepared the ground for low-cost transportation. In addition, new conservation methods such as sterilization, pasteurization and vacuum technology went hand-in-hand with mechanization to make it possible to process food cheaper than ever before and in large volumes.

A blessing and a curse
With the food & beverage industry now in full swing, it achieved something monumental. Together with advances in medicine and hygiene, it made urbanization possible, and in the process helped improve human health and significantly extend life expectancy.

For around 200 years, life expectancy rates rose in parallel with per capita calorie intake. Today it appears that this development has already reached its zenith. The food & beverage industry’s former recipe for success has now turned from a blessing to a curse. From its inception, the industry was committed to the paradigm of improving quality of life. And for a long time that meant feeding people more and more calories!

In the 20th century, chemists had identified only proteins, fats and carbohydrates as the main elements of nourishment. This trio supplies the energy for all physiological processes, making it the fuel of life. Loads of calories might be ideal for those who perform tough physical labor, but today most people sit at desks, plagued by diseases of affluence such as high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes.

Demand and reality
Given the enormous choices that are available, and because people have the money to shell out for food, people are thinking a lot more about what they eat. Today, eating is more than just nourishment for the body. Food is to be enjoyed. It’s a health elixir, a comforter of the soul, a photo subject, status symbol, an expression of one’s personality – and a social bond. Food is a sensitive matter and a projection surface for many things.

In contrast to Julius Maggi’s time, today there are a multitude of demands placed on products manufactured by the food industry. For instance, they should be healthy, safe and of high quality, yet cheap. The ideal products are locally grown – and in the most environmentally friendly fashion possible. It’s a formidable demand that even consumers themselves often fail to meet. Just around half of Germany’s population cooks on a daily basis. And only one-third use fresh products, not to mention that resource conservation is hardly a priority. In Germany alone, 18 million tons of food landed on the garbage pile in 2017.

Apart from the growing demands of individual consumers, the food & beverage industry is facing new global challenges. The world population is rapidly growing. According to most prognoses, by 2050 there will be 9.7 billion people on our planet – 2 billion more than today. Once again, the food industry is tasked with ensuring that the world has enough to eat. In more concrete terms, by 2050 it will have to produce an incredible 70 percent more food than it does today.

Changing agricultural landscape
The conditions have unfortunately become less favorable. Farmlands are shrinking and climate change is threatening the harvests. Moreover, evolving eating habits that reflect a growing demand for protein-rich meat and dairy products are leading to diminishing natural resources. Addressing these issues requires drastically changing the way food is produced and changing the way we eat.

The solutions, now more  than ever, call for innovative technologies and ideas. Initial visions can already be seen in fields and in cities. Using precision farming, for instance, sensors can examine plots of ground and detect soil properties, nutrient content and harvest yields as the tractor drives over the field. By combining this information with GPS navigation technology and connected machines, the farmer can precisely determine the amount of seed and fertilizer to spread over every square meter of his farmland in order to grow more crops over the same area.

So-called vertical farming could also be part of the future agricultural landscape. With this approach, crops are planted in high-rise buildings using frames stacked one on top of another in closed systems, and under stable environmental conditions. The roots of the plants are sprayed with water and nutrients, while LEDs provide light in the correct wavelength. Increasing numbers of such high-rise farms are being created around the world.

The future of eating
If today’s researchers have their way, people will one day eat more insects and microalgae, both of which are considered an environmentally friendly alternative to meat. Insects and microalgae, while low in fat and calories, have the potential to supply large populations with the protein they need. In parallel, the industry is tinkering with a new convenience product – namely food from a 3D printer. With the help of a cartridge filled with a food paste, the idea is that every consumer can prepare whatever tastes good to them, customized to their personal nutrient requirements, bodyweight and intolerances.

The question is, where does the data come from? The answer is, from sensors worn on the body – and from a physician. This still young field of research, referred to as nutrigenetics, is confident that in 10 years, a blood test will make it possible to create meals tailored precisely to our individual needs and disposition. Here’s to happy and healthy eating!

Posted from Reinach, Basel-Landschaft, Switzerland.

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