The agriculture and food industry is rolling out innovations along the entire food value chain. The aim is to enhance efficiency and increase sustainability at all stages of production, right through to waste. Food engineer Dr Peter Braun (see box) explains in an interview where the boundaries lie in Switzerland and how it could become more innovative in the foodtech sector.
What are the current trends in the foodtech sector?
Peter Braun: The agriculture and food industry is developing at a rapid pace. That makes it difficult to talk about trends. When in our industry we talk about what’s happening today, by the time we’re finished talking it’s already in the past and the next topic has taken its place.
The overriding trend is probably best summarised as the “efficient and holistically sustainable use of resources”. A burning topic here is the development of plant-based products and the search for protein-rich alternatives for milk and meat. Or the challenge of growing meat in a laboratory. Big things are happening at the technological level in fermentation technology and biotechnology, where an especially large number of start-ups have entered the scene. They are researching how to produce fat from micro-organisms or use micro-organisms to derive other bioproducts, for example. Lots of things that until now have been produced on the basis of plants are being targeted to find ways of producing them directly in labs – instead of in the traditional manner out in the fields.
Other important areas of research include vertical and indoor farming, which involves growing crops indoors stacked on top of each other or attached to the façades of buildings. The goal here is to optimise production using the same surface area and use resources as efficiently as possible.
Food waste is of course another big topic. Fortunately, the Swiss government see things this way as well, and recently published its action plan with the aim of cutting food waste.in half by 2030 compared with 2017.
You’re not a fan of the term “foodtech”. Why is that?
Yes, that’s true, I’ve got some fundamental problems with the term “foodtech”. For me, it just doesn't capture the full meaning. I prefer to use “agrofood”. The topics of agriculture, food and nutrition belong together; it’s about the entire food value chain. Because ultimately the food ends up on people's plates. Many illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, etc. are primarily ascribed to poor diet. There is heated debate within the industry about how much technology should be our foods. Studies show that highly processed foods are associated with certain symptoms in humans. On the flipside, some foods have to be processed so that they can be eaten in the first place. A lot of research is needed to understand what effect foods have on us as individuals and how we can get the most out of the things we eat – the concept here being “personalised nutrition”.
Why do foods need to be processed in the first place?
The topic of processing is very important, as it will make it possible to produce food using less energy and less space – that is, more sustainably. In the agriculture and food industry, every innovation that is developed is inextricably linked with the issue of energy and sustainability. Let's take the example of a fictitious carrot. Until now, only about 40-50 percent of the “carrot and tops” biomass has been used; the rest ends up in the rubbish, for example due to disease, discarded peelings and offcuts, or because the tops are not used. One goal would be to extract 80-95 percent out of the entire vegetable by processing it accordingly. This is a more sustainable approach – by keeping the resources used and the energy and spaced consumed roughly the same, in the end you get a lot more “carrot”.
What do you think we will be eating in 2050 and how will we be consuming it?
I shy away from making any specific predictions. Generally speaking, however, taste and the things we eat is something that is learned. When a human is born into this world, they don’t know what steak is, they don’t know what bananas are. Eating habits vary wildly around the globe. What we find nauseating might be considered a delicacy in other parts of the world. As humans, we are extremely adaptive and are able to change our habits pretty easily. From one day to the next, we could get the nutrition we need entirely from powdered food.
That would be a massive improvement in efficiency. But at the end of the day, humans are social beings. So our diets are likely to remain as we know them today: with solid foods in social settings. Because it’s not just about the food, but interacting with others. What’s more, we're born with senses such as smell and taste that make moments of pleasure an important part of who we are. I can’t really picture a world where all we consume is spoonfuls of powdered food washed down with water.
But I’m confident that in the future we’ll be eating less meat. We’ll have new things to choose from, for example more plant-based foods and also lab-grown meat, if we’re able to get the taste right. The proportion of foods that are not grown in nature/produced by biotechnological means will be higher. More foods will likely be produced indoors, due to the ongoing changing climate. Climate extremes are not good for plants and animals.
Which is the most innovative country when it comes to agrofood?
In terms of agility, the Netherlands is the clear leader in agrofood. Denmark is also stepping on the gas. Israel is making great strides here as well. As a country, it has a great need for autonomy. It is faced with external threats and massive changes in its immediate environment. So it’s vital that the country is able to function independently and not make itself too vulnerable. Singapore is likewise extremely active in the biotechnology sector. The city-state has no agricultural land, no water sources of its own and several million inhabitants. In spite of this, it wants to increase its level of self-efficiency from 10 to 30 percent. By comparison, Switzerland has a self-sufficiency rate of almost 60 percent.
What is the key to Switzerland’s power of innovation in agrotech?
Top-tier research, excellent infrastructure and stable finances: Switzerland is ideally positioned to drive forward developments and devise new approaches. But the country could be bolder. The Netherlands has similar structures to Switzerland: hardly any natural resources, limited land space, a good research infrastructure and a strong agricultural sector. But the Netherlands has been quicker off the agrotech blocks than Switzerland. Dutch greenhouse-grown tomatoes used to have a pretty bad rap. This northern European country now uses agricultural technology and has specialised in seedlings and cultivation. It also exports the plant rather than the end product.
Approaches like these could also be practicable for Switzerland if we shifted our focus to technological innovations that can be applied not only at home but also made suitable for export. This could take the form of licences or perhaps the machines themselves. We could benefit from exporting more of our knowledge to other countries. And Switzerland could serve as a role model for a holistically sustainable agriculture, food and nutrition system under the umbrella of a “One Health” approach*. This would also help it increase its independence.
How should we do this, in your opinion?
By bringing more diversity to agriculture and starting to think more in terms of circular systems. So, for example, we could also produce the feed we need for the milk and meat industry within our own borders. We also need to step up our efforts to close cycles at home and avoid food waste. The short distances within our country and our social culture of dialogue and collaboration offer the best prerequisites for this.
Switzerland has more opportunities available to it than its neighbouring countries because it is not a member of the EU. It has a lot more freedoms and could be bolder in trying out new things, not least because we have a high standard of quality. Of course it makes no sense to feed ruminants to ruminants – BSE springs to mind here – but we could close cycles by using slaughter by-products or restaurant leftovers as feed, for example, and thus putting them back into food production. There are many examples of how circular systems could work. Switzerland could also plough its own furrow by approving novel foods – without jeopardising safety.
Switzerland has long been regarded as one of the most innovative countries in the world. So why aren't we also leading the pack when it comes to agrotech?
The top of the totem is a dangerous place to be because you can’t see anybody above you. When you’re in the top spot it’s also easy to fail to see others coming up behind you. It’s difficult to keep up the momentum and keep improving when you’re at the head of the pack and have no-one else to chase. That's where Innosuisse and its programmes come in, to attract the various players and motivate them to do something. The Innovation Booster is a first major step in this direction. It’s designed to promote ideas that promise to be “transformative” and “disruptive” and develop these in multidisciplinary teams. The aim is to turn pioneering projects into reality. A new feature of the Innovation Booster is that companies can also receive money.
For you, however, this is only part of the solution. What also needs to be done, in your opinion?
Swiss SMEs and start-ups need additional support. After all, it’s mainly start-ups that bring new ideas and approaches to the table. The younger generation also feels the greatest pressure to create a more sustainable future. Start-ups in the agriculture and food industry need more than just a computer; they need access to analyses, test facilities, etc. – and that all costs a lot of money. We should give these companies the means to get the additional financial support they need so they can develop their ideas and approaches in the first one to two years under their own steam and with their own spirit, without the influence of others.
Direct financing like this also helps to drive forward the process of transformation. It goes without saying that some of the proposed ideas won’t work. But there will also be lots of ideas in there that will be crucial in advancing us along the path that's already been laid. Or maybe even open up a completely new one. This is a bottom-up approach and it suits Switzerland as a country.
And Innosuisse is now taking targeted action to support this – among other things, with the Innovation Booster, a first courageous step. But the possibilities shouldn’t stop there. Switzerland’s innovation ecosystem must be developed further. We’re committed to this process and to shaping future debate.
* A One Health project creates added value for the health of humans, animals and the environment through a multisectoral, transdisciplinary and collaborative approach. A One Health project is planned and implemented across sectors, meaning it takes into account social as well as economic aspects and involves the areas of human, veterinary and environmental health (source: Wikipedia).
Last modification 21.07.2022
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