Feeding ten billion people by 2050 will be a formidable challenge. Especially considering that 10% of the world’s population is already hungry today and that around 30% is malnourished. And to achieve zero hunger – as set out in United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 2 – that same year, we’ll have to be able to feed an additional three billion people and provide better nutrition for two billion more. All that while conflicts and climate change are threatening the viability of vast areas of arable land.
Scientists around the world, undaunted, are working hard to develop new methods and technology that can put us on a more sustainable path. Experience has shown that the problem of hunger can’t be solved through increasingly intensive farming: such practices actually make things worse. Large, single-crop farms – still prevalent in many countries – have disastrous effects on biodiversity.
What’s more, “We now know that most modern grain varieties – engineered through artificial selection – have a much lower nutritional value than ancient ones,” says Ismahane Elouafi, chief scientist at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). According to Sara Bonetti, the head of EPFL’s Laboratory of Catchment Hydrology and Geomorphology and an expert on soils: “The agricultural industry accounts for a third of CO2 emissions from anthropogenic activity. Yet traditional farming methods, many of them centuries old, can capture large amounts of carbon and store it in the soil while boosting crop yields”.
While technology certainly isn’t a panacea, researchers from a range of disciplines are joining forces to address the issue of the global food supply going forward. They’re developing novel approaches along the entire production chain, from seed selection, gene editing, germination and crop-growing (in fields, in greenhouses, aboveground or on urban rooftops) to harvesting, shipping, processing and packaging. Scientists are also looking at how we can better care for plants through a combination of chemical compounds, robots and natural methods. Some R&D centers are even studying ways we can grow food either synthetically or by revamping existing biological processes like dry fermentation.
In Israel, an entire food-tech ecosystem is developing around Technion university, where academics are working hand in hand with startups. Similar initiatives are also popping up in Europe, with organizations bringing scientists and farmers together to test new technology and farming methods. Two examples here in Switzerland are the Agropôle technology park in Molondin (in the canton of Vaud), of which EPFL is a member, and EPFL’s Integrative Food and Nutrition Center, part of the Swiss Food & Nutrition Valley.
In terms of sustainability, part of the problem lies with our eating habits. While so many people are dying of hunger, billions more are overweight and eat too much meat – which has a large carbon footprint. Making matters worse, they often waste the most food. Adding that waste to crop, harvesting and storage losses, around a third of the food we produce gets thrown away in today’s world. The good news is that there are steps we can take to reduce this waste along the entire value chain, all the way to our plates. A pilot test conducted recently at restaurants right here at EPFL shows how.
These figures give the FAO hope we can rise to the 2050 challenge – but not without a concerted effort. The organization has spelled out concrete recommendations, although some of them could run up against the interests of the business world and policymakers as well as a certain resistance to change among farmers. Such obstacles can be overcome, however, through scientific research, extensive dialogue and open collaboration. We have a duty to explore all options in the fight against hunger, as the lives of billions of people are at stake.
Without the soil underneath our feet and the life it contains, we would have almost nothing to eat. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), around 95% of the world’s food is produced either directly or indirectly from soil. It is therefore essential that we protect this living resource – not only if we are to feed a rapidly expanding population, but also if we want to maintain stable climatic conditions, which in turn can help ensure adequate food production.
While crop yields have increased by a factor of 2.5 to 3 since the 1960s, thanks to advances in farming methods (such as new seed varieties, mechanization, irrigation and fertilization techniques), growth in farm productivity has slowed by 21% as a result of global warming. Yields of corn, wheat and rice crops are down by 5.9%, 4.9% and 4.2%, respectively.
In addition, agriculture, forestry and other land-use industries account for 23% of greenhouse gas emissions from anthropogenic activity, based on data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. These emissions consist of methane produced at farms, nitrous oxide released by nitrogenous fertilizers and carbon dioxide emitted as a result of changes in land use.
Soil, owing to the organic matter it contains, is home to the world’s biggest stock of terrestrial organic carbon. Soil plays a fundamental role in the carbon cycle and in the Earth’s climate system. Meret Aeppli, a carbon cycle expert and head of the Soil Biogeochemistry Laboratory (SOIL) at the EPFL Valais Wallis campus in Sion, explains why.
Soils are an important component of the global carbon cycle for two reasons: first, they store a large amount of carbon in the form of soil organic carbon. Current estimates suggest that soils store more carbon than the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere and vegetation combined. Second, soils have large carbon exchange fluxes with the atmosphere. Exchange fluxes include the influx of carbon into soil through decaying plant material and the outflux of carbon in the form of greenhouse gases produced in microbial respiration. The in- and outfluxes are currently estimated at around 60 Gt C per year each. A small fraction of around 3 Gt C per year is estimated to remain in the soil. This small fraction explains the strong mitigating effect of soils on climate change. The fact that soils host large organic carbon stocks while having large exchange fluxes with the atmosphere means that small variations in the exchange fluxes can have very large effects on the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and thus on climate.
This small fraction explains the strong mitigating effect of soils on climate change”
The effect depends on the type of farming. Intensive land use generally leads to high greenhouse gas emissions. It can also negatively affect soil organic matter and give rise to soil erosion, pollution and degradation. These effects in turn reduce soil stability and water retention capacity, thus provoking more erosion, and so on. Furthermore, the overuse of fertilizer and pesticides affects soil chemistry. We need to encourage farming methods that preserve soil organic matter, as organic matter promotes the formation of aggregates, helps improve soil stability and increases the soil’s ability to retain water and nutrients essential for plant growth. To prevent nutrient depletion, for instance, farmers could plough soil in moderation, use balanced amounts of fertilizer, grow the appropriate plant species, and rotate crops by year.
We are interested in the biogeochemical processes that govern the cycling of elements in soils. These processes include chemical, biological, geological and physical reactions. One of our projects aims to determine how high-intensity tillage affects soil structure and thereby the stabilization of soil organic matter. Our research indicates that ploughing can introduce oxygen into the soil and break up associations between minerals and organic matter. This may trigger the breakdown of organic matter by soil microbes and result in the release of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. In another study, we are interested in how the addition of specific soil fungal and bacterial communities enhances the formation of soil organic matter.
No. People tend to take soil for granted, without recognizing it as a valuable, non-renewable resource shaped over tens of thousands of years. Soils are operating at the interface of the air, water, rock and biota. The complexity of processes and interactions in soils is remarkable. We still only understand a fraction of this complexity and of the way soils function.
Sara Bonetti, an expert in catchment science and head of EPFL’s Laboratory of Catchment Hydrology and Geomorphology (CHANGE), explains the vital role of catchment processes for soil fertility and food security.
Catchments, also known as drainage basins, are areas of land from which water drains before entering a river, lake or ocean. They comprise mountains, valleys, agricultural areas and cities and they are important because they regulate the quantity and quality of water that sustains the livelihoods of humans and other species – from providing water for drinking and commercial purposes, including irrigation, to regulating river and groundwater quality and their impacts on local and downstream communities. They’re highly dynamic, and anything that happens in one part of a catchment can have notable impacts downstream. For example, withdrawing large amounts of water from an upstream drainage basin can lead to shortages in valleys. Similarly, deforestation or land use changes can increase surface runoff, thus triggering further erosion and consequently reducing soil fertility and crop yields.
withdrawing large amounts of water from an upstream drainage basin can lead to shortages in valleys”
More and more land was converted for intensive use over the last century, and today’s increasingly intensive farming methods are placing an unprecedented pressure on soil resources. For example, in many agricultural areas, the rate of soil erosion greatly exceeds soil production, meaning that we are rapidly losing our most fertile soils. Intensive farming is causing damage in other ways too. For example, through loss of organic matter, contamination, acidification, salinization and declining biodiversity. According to FAO, over 30% of the Earth’s soil is already moderately or highly degraded – and this figure could exceed 90% by 2050.
We absolutely need to reevaluate and redesign the way we use our soils and manage catchment areas in general. Climate change is leading not only to an increase in mean temperatures, but also to more extreme weather events, such as heavy rains and droughts, which are putting additional pressure on our water supply and also aggravating the erosion process and increasing the risk of floods. The big challenge we face is finding ways to mitigate and adapt to climate change while, at the same time, protecting the environment, securing our food supply and reducing inequalities. It won’t be easy to find the right balance among farming methods, climate policies, economic interests and the need to preserve local soil and water resources. And the necessary synergies and trade-offs won’t be the same in each region – unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
It’s time to rethink how we grow the food we eat. At least that’s according to the eight farmers who, with the help of volunteers, have been running the Bassenges Farm for the past three years. The farm sits on 11 hectares of land owned jointly by the University of Lausanne and EPFL. The goal is to experiment with novel, productive farming methods that are radically different from the practices at industrial sites. The Bassenges farmers have adopted a holistic approach drawing on the principles of biodynamics and agroecology. “Here, we don’t just grow food,” says Timothée, one member of the cooperative. “Our aim is to create a living body that promotes natural processes and the ties that unite humans, animals, the soil and the plants growing in it. It’s holistic.”
The cooperative has implemented a closed-loop revitalization process that requires almost no inputs. “We reuse or recycle everything that’s produced on our farm,” says Tom, another cooperative member. “For example, we don’t buy any fertilizer – we use our own compost instead – or purchase any fuel, as the power we need comes from animal traction.”
“But our farm isn’t at all about bringing back the past,” he says. “On the contrary, we’ve got our eyes set firmly on the future.”
All eight farmers hold advanced degrees in subjects including agriculture, environmental engineering and communications, and are up to date on the latest findings in soil health, seasonal cycles, plant life and more. They try to use low-tech methods – that is, simple, sustainable methods tailored to local conditions – as much as possible.
“It’s taken a lot of hard work and determination – but it works!” says Timothée. The cooperative has planted 140 fruit trees and 1,000 shrubs in the past three years. Today it produces food in abundance – enough to send weekly vegetable baskets to nearly 100 nearby households, to sell directly to customers on site, to hold a spring seedling market, and to comfortably feed the cooperative members themselves and their animals: chickens, two horses, around 20 sheep. The farm also raises bees.
More and more farmers are being drawn to this kind of low-tech approach, as it offers an alternative to purely industrial farming methods. Citizen groups are also taking an interest because it puts them back in touch with nature, provides a response to today’s environmental and economic crises, and lets them take ownership of how their food is produced. We’re therefore likely to see more of these kinds of small farming cooperatives. France, for example, already has over 1,200 such “eco-habitats,” according to figures from Coopérative Oasis and similar organizations.
We reuse or recycle everything that’s produced on our farm”
Scientists at EPFL’s Swiss Plasma Center aren’t just studying nuclear fusion. They’re also carrying out advanced research into other applications for plasma – the “fourth state of matter” – including surprising ones like crop growing. Prof. Ivo Furno, along with colleagues at Changins School of Viticulture and Enology, is testing a plasma-based method for sterilizing and storing seeds. “A lot of industrial farms today use chemical processes that can be expensive and harmful to humans and the environment,” he says. “Organic farms use a water-vapor process, but that requires a large capital investment and consumes a lot of power.” However, there’s a third option – a sterilization method that’s been around for about a decade. It employs cold plasma from a dielectric-barrier discharge reactor and has proven to be effective for sterilizing medical and surgical equipment. “It’s an inexpensive method that relies on ambient air and electrical power, which can be generated from renewable sources,” says Furno. In proof-of-concept tests, the method was successful at eliminating pathogens from wheat seeds. The next step will be to scale up the process to industrial use, which should take about a year.
One of the biggest challenges farmers face in many regions of the world is finding enough water for their crops. Fortunately, some methods have shown to be effective at sustaining plant growth while conserving this precious natural resource. Drip irrigation is one such method – it uses 90% less water than conventional sprinklers.
But some researchers want to go further. At the Agropôle technology park (of which EPFL is a member) in Molondin, a company called CleanGreens is developing an aeroponics system for growing lettuce in greenhouses. Unlike hydroponics, where plants’ roots are underwater, aeroponics delivers nutrients to plants through a mist containing a special solution. Any liquid the plants don’t absorb is recovered in the form of run-off, which saves considerable amounts of water. The CleanGreens system can be used to grow healthy lettuce in a greenhouse using just 5% of the water that would be needed to grow the same crops in a field, and the lettuce can be cultivated year-round. It’s no coincidence that one of CleanGreens’ first pilot plants was built in Kuwait.
At the company’s pilot plant in Monlondin, the results speak for themselves. Perfectly formed identical heads of lettuce – you might think they were cloned – and herbs grow along cords lined up on large tables, while their roots, hidden underneath, are sprayed automatically at regular intervals.
Some 280 billion cubic meters of wastewater are produced worldwide every year, which corresponds to 15% of the water that’s needed for farming. “If we find a way to recover and reuse this water, we could sharply cut the agricultural industry’s consumption of not just water but also fertilizer,” says Cara Tobin, the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) program manager at EPFL’s EssentialTech Centre. For example, the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium contained in wastewater is enough to meet 13.4% of the agricultural industry’s demand for these nutrients. And recovering the phosphorus contained in household wastewater could meet an estimated 22% of global demand. “In all, recycled urban wastewater could cover the needs of over 42 million hectares of farmland,” says Tobin. At that point, we’d no longer be talking about “wastewater” but rather “new water.”
The amount of wastewater globally is expected to double by 2050 as a result of the growing population, especially in urban areas. Being able to recycle this water for drinking purposes or in irrigation systems could bring many public-health and environmental benefits. But first, several technical and sanitation hurdles need to be overcome, particularly with regard to removing microbiological compounds, micropollutants and pharmaceutical substances.
In regions with temperate climates, greenhouses are useful at the beginning and end of the summer, but not in the middle when indoor temperatures can get too hot. Two EPFL spinoffs – Insolight and Voltiris – have invented ways of using adjustable solar cells in greenhouses so that they can run all year long. With Insolight’s system, the diffusion of the sun’s rays is controlled so that plants always get the right amount of sunlight. Tests run at a pilot site in the canton of Valais showed that the system is particularly effective for growing berries (such as raspberries). Meanwhile, Voltiris has developed panels that filter sunlight so that only the wavelengths needed for plant growth can pass through. The other wavelengths are converted into solar power.
Gamaya, an EPFL spinoff founded back in 2015, has created an advanced modeling and remote sensing system that incorporates AI-powered analytics. The remote sensing is done by drones, which take images that are used to determine crop health, nutrient levels and the presence of any weeds or invasive species. These data are fed into a model capable of predicting crop yields up to a year in advance – even before the seeds are planted. What’s more, the system’s AI algorithms can factor in agronomic data such as soil type, crop varieties and agronomic cycles. Gamaya has provided its technology to sugarcane growers in India, the US and Brazil to help them not only boost yields, but also generate sustainability reports and measure their crop-related carbon footprint.
Vaud-based Ecorobotix has developed robots that, thanks to AI, can automatically recognize weeds and spray exactly the amount of herbicide needed, right where it should go. This can drastically reduce the amount of herbicide required and prevent fruits and vegetables from being contaminated.
As crop-growing has intensified, some fungal diseases and pests have become a major headache for farmers. Last century, the answer was to use purely chemical treatments, but it’s now known that these products often create more problems than they solve.
Many scientists are looking at how new gene editing technology can be used to produce more resistant plant varieties by adding specific genes in a way that’s much faster, safer and better targeted than old-generation GMO procedures and the gene selection and combination techniques used in the past.
Engineers at EPFL’s Computational Robot Design & Fabrication Lab (CREATE) are studying new ways of designing robots to perform a variety of tasks, including handling fragile objects. Last year they tested a raspberry-picking robot after training it on a silicone raspberry they’d fabricated themselves. The findings were used to develop a proof-of-concept and further enhance their system. The hope is that one day their robot will be deployed to pick other berries and soft crops such as apricots, tomatoes and grapes.
This year, CREATE engineers explored another approach to robot design: they asked ChatGPT to devise a tomato-picking robot, through a process that was just as intriguing as the outcome. The engineers started at a conceptual level, describing today’s global challenges to large language models (a form of neural network) and determining that harvesting robots could be a solution to the challenge of securing the world’s food supply. They then fed the models data from university publications, user manuals, books and news outlets to come up with the “most probable” answer to prompts like “What features should a harvesting robot have?” Based on all this information, ChatGPT decided that the most suitable crop for a harvesting robot would be tomatoes – a choice resulting from a bias in the literature? – and suggested the best way to harvest them. The project culminated in a specially designed robotic grip. “The robotics community needs to decide how it wants to make use of these powerful tools for advancing progress in their field in a way that’s ethical, sustainable and socially responsible,” says Josie Hughes, professor at CREATE.
CREATE also runs the AgriFood program whereby groups of Master’s students are selected to work on projects in the area of sustainable food production. The program offers support in the form of coaching, expert guidance and funding. One student group used a FarmBot – a cartesian-coordinate robot purchased by CREATE that can autonomously tend to gardens of up to 3 by 6 meters, along with sensors for measuring such things as humidity and salinity, to better understand and improve plant growth. Another student group built an aeroponics demonstrator, and yet another, looking at the consumer end of the chain, taught a robot to recognize and make the perfect piece of toast. The goal with AgriFood is to give engineering students a chance to develop and apply technology that can help the agricultural and food industries adopt more sustainable, versatile methods.
The robotics community needs to decide how it wants to make use of these powerful tools for advancing progress in their field in a way that’s ethical, sustainable and socially responsible”
Yves Leterrier, a scientist at EPFL’s Laboratory for Processing of Advanced Composites, offers some food for thought: “Humans recycle only 6% of their waste – but Mother Nature recycles everything.” One component of that unrecycled waste is food packaging. “Synthetic plastics like PET are almost indestructible out in the environment, but they’re generally used only to carry food and beverages before being thrown away,” says Leterrier. “We need to find a way to extend these plastics’ useful lives or develop alternative materials.” For the past four years, Leterrier has been working with Christian Ludwig, the head of the chemical processes and materials research group, and Nestlé to develop a biosourced plastic that performs just as well as other plastics but is less harmful to the environment.
Meanwhile, engineers at EPFL’s Laboratory of Sustainable and Catalytic Processing, headed by Prof. Jérémy Luterbacher, have created an alternative to PET made from inedible plant matter. Their material is solid, heat resistant and impermeable to gases such as oxygen, making it ideally suited for food packaging. It can be recycled using a chemical process or left to decompose naturally into harmless sugars.
The use-by dates on food packaging tend to be quite conservative and are often more conjectural than meaningful, as they can lead consumers to throw out food that’s still perfectly edible. Prof. Ardemis Boghossian and her group at EPFL’s Laboratory of Nanobiotechnology (LNB) have created a sensor that can be placed on the inside of food packaging and immediately detects whether the food has gone bad. It sniffs out rotten food by detecting the gases that mold starts to give off as it forms. Upon detecting such gases, the sensor sends out a signal in the form of near-infrared-frequency light waves invisible to the naked eye and capable of passing through all opaque surfaces except metal. The signal can be picked up by smartphones, for instance, saving consumers the exasperating task of finding and reading miniscule expiration dates. Boghossian’s system works on food in solid, liquid and powder form.
“At first, our idea was to help grocers manage their inventory,” says Boghossian. “But we soon realized that our technology would be very useful for consumers, too. Smart refrigerators already exist that can tell you what’s inside. One day, they might also be able to tell you when the milk has soured and it’s time to buy more. In addition, our sensors are much more affordable than RFID chips, for example.”
The sensors were developed as part of Future Food – a research initiative carried out jointly by Swiss universities and food companies. Now that the sensor has been finalized, the next step is to design a low-cost, easy-to-use camera for detecting near-infrared light. LNB and its partner organizations have created a prototype of a portable device, “but it won’t be market-ready for another five to ten years,” says Boghossian. “We still need to do some testing, but the biggest challenge will be overcoming legislative obstacles. Our research group usually works on devices for the medical industry, which has clear procedures in place. But all this is new for the food industry and a lot still needs to be set up.”
Animal farming is disastrous for the environment. Not only does it use up vast amounts of water and land, but it also accounts for some 15% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. One option that’s catching on for meeting the world’s demand for meat and fish is to grow it from animal cells in a lab. Singapore approved the sale of cell-cultured meat in late June and the US Department of Agriculture has recently followed suit. In addition, an application has been filed in Switzerland in recent months by Aleph Farm, a company active in cultured meat and which counts Migros among its shareholders. While you won’t see lab-grown chicken at the supermarket anytime soon, these moves are a helpful leg up for a nascent industry. Over 150 companies worldwide are already developing lab-grown meat products and have attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in capital.
However, the jury is still out on whether this process brings real environmental benefits. A report by the EPFL’s International Risk Governance Center on emerging technologies points out that cultured meat can impact the environment and the climate through its energy consumption, primarily electricity used during production, or through the production of the growth medium.
Currently, there is no large-scale production facility. Life cycle assessment studies conducted on cultured meat are thus based on hypothetical production processes and simulation models. But the authors stress that before considering the environmental aspects of lab-grown meat, researchers should first carry out prospective studies examining the health, safety, financial, industrial and societal (i.e., acceptability) factors involved.
Could we do without animal protein entirely? The planet would certainly be better off, but how could we ensure that eight to ten billion people get the 50 grams of protein they need every day? Plant-based substitutes have become a popular option, with peas now replacing soja for allergy reasons. The bad news is that when these substitutes are processed to create meat-like products, manufacturers generally add a lot of sugar, salt, fats, food colorings and other flavor enhancers.
Some companies are experimenting with a process that makes proteins from fermentation using yeast, fungi and bacteria. These organisms are often GMOs, including in the EU, but not always. A company called Cultivated Biosciences – founded by Tomas Turner and Dimitri Zogg, two EPFL alumni – has developed a non-GMO yeast that can be used as an ingredient in dairy alternatives. The firm’s website states that its compound can impart the creamy texture that the most demanding consumers would expect. Cultivated Biosciences raised CHF 1.5 million last September and began testing its creamy products with selected clients this year.
Alternative proteins can also be made from algae, bacteria and insects (even though insects are still animals). In any case, researchers in the UK have concluded that almost all alternative proteins, regardless of their origin, are healthier than red meat and can reduce the burden on our planet.
An EU-funded program called SWITCH kicked off early this year to examine ways of facilitating the transition to healthier, more sustainable diets. The program, which has been awarded €10 million in funding over four years, brings together a consortium of 21 businesses and universities with the goal of using knowledge and innovation to encourage European citizens to change their eating habits. “Many people don’t know what they’re really eating or the impact their food has on the planet and their health,” says Nicolas Henchoz, the head of the EPFL+ECAL Lab and the program’s innovation manager. “And even when people understand they should eat five servings of fruit and vegetables a day, that doesn’t mean they’ll actually change their behavior.”
Under SWITCH, scientists will comb through reams of data – economic, environmental, agricultural, public-health, sociological, anthropological and more – to get a big-picture view of European citizens’ eating habits and the associated factors. Then they’ll use these findings to develop three applications – one for citizens, one for chefs and one for policymakers – designed to encourage change. The first prototypes should be ready in two years. “Beyond the development of applications, SWITCH will give us an opportunity to access all that data, which constitute a goldmine of information for research labs,” says Henchoz.
Hardly a week goes by that we don’t hear about a new food tech breakthrough by an Israeli startup. Take the latest non-animal – or “alternative” – proteins, for example: these are meat substitutes made from plants, algae, fungi or microorganisms. Israel poured over a billion dollars into its food tech industry between 2020 and 2022, putting it in second place worldwide by investment – just behind the US and ahead of the UK and Chile.
That may seem strange for a country in the middle of a desert. But according to Gillian Diesen, a portfolio manager for Pictet Nutrition, “…it actually makes sense for countries whose geography or climate makes them vulnerable in terms of food security. We also see that in other parts of the Middle East and in Singapore, for example.” In other words, these countries’ quest to secure their food supply propelled them to the forefront of the food tech revolution.
Israel’s focus on developing the food of the future dovetails nicely with the country’s strengths in technology. There’s been a clear political push since the 1990s to anchor the country as a leader in high tech. Israel invests around 5% of its GDP every year in R&D – more than any other OECD country.
The Israel Innovation Authority (IIA) is a government body that subsidizes up to half of a company’s R&D spending and is repaid through royalty payments if the product reaches the commercialization stage. But most of the country’s R&D is funded by the private sector – paradoxically, the government only provides less than 10% of the R&D funding. The figure for Switzerland is 27%.
It’s not surprising that Israel – the startup nation – would devote so much of its R&D to food tech, given the surging demand worldwide. And there’s the fact that Israel is reportedly home to the world’s biggest vegan community, as reflected in the many vegan sushi, steak and egg dishes on offer in Tel Aviv restaurants. The country has even made food tech a national R&D priority.
Recently, the war in Ukraine has clouded the food tech industry’s bright prospects. The global market slumped in 2022 under the combined effect of inflation and supply chain disruptions. Food tech investment that year amounted to “only” $29 billion, down from $51 billion the prior year. But that was likely just a temporary blip in an otherwise booming area.
The rise of food tech companies in Israel is a relatively new development. It can be traced back to 2015 when Strauss Group, an Israeli consumer foods conglomerate that’s almost a century old, teamed up with the IIA to establish The Kitchen FoodTech Hub – a business incubator that has provided around 20 startups with office space, networking opportunities and $650,000 to $750,000 in funding.
“Ours was the first incubator of its kind, but others have since copied our idea,” says David Nini, The Kitchen’s chief science officer, from his office in Ashdod, about 40 kilometers south of Tel Aviv. The newer food tech incubators are Fresh Start and inNegev, and four business accelerators have also been opened.
For Strauss Group, the millions of shekels invested in The Kitchen have paid off (although the government invests much more through the IIA). What’s more, the company has gotten access to a host of exciting new ideas along with ties to new businesses it could acquire when the time is ripe.
Whether or not you’re starving for culinary innovation and convinced by these entrepreneurial attempts to produce carbon-free food, we’ll all be affected by advances in the food tech industry sooner or later. That’s because the ultimate goal of all the people I spoke with is to one day be able to feed the Earth’s ten billion people in a healthy, sustainable way.
Israeli businesses have been pioneers in desalination systems since the 2000s. Five desalination plants built along the coast process water from the Mediterranean and use it to meet half of the country’s water demand (or 80% according to public officials). The rest of the country’s water comes from underground pumping stations and surface-water harvesting, primarily from the Sea of Galilee. And Israel knows how to be smart about water. It has one of the lowest per capita water usage rates in the OECD and recycles 80% to 90% of its wastewater for crop irrigation. That practice is still banned in Switzerland and in most countries with temperate climates, but it’s slowly gaining traction. Ram Lisaey, the head of Global Agronomy at Netafim – the world’s leading supplier of micro-irrigation systems – can’t speak highly enough about the benefits of such recycling. “Most of the water we use is desalinated and reused,” he says. “At university, we’re taught all about Israel’s water management process. It’s both fantastic and unique.”
Israel has around 200 businesses providing drinking water and irrigation systems, ranging from young startups to heavyweights like Netafim and IDE Technologies, a water desalination firm. These businesses are developing technology to turn air moisture into safe drinking water, purify wastewater using ultraviolet rays, detect water leaks at users’ sites, measure water quality and more.
Most of the water we use is desalinated and reused”
Milk-free cheese, artificial milk and synthetic ice cream may sound like components of conceptual artwork, but they’re actually products being developed by ImaginDairy, an Israeli startup that recently signed up Danone as an investor.
At the company’s headquarters in northern Israel, three pairs of eyes watch in silence as I take a cracker spread with cream cheese and raise it slowly to my mouth. “Don’t I have to fill out a form or sign some sort of release?” I ask. Roni Zidon, ImaginDairy’s vice president of business development, shakes her head no. Having grown up in a region with Charolais cattle, I’m curious to try this cream cheese made from creatures that are considerably less imposing: microorganisms.
Before the tasting, Zidon gave a PowerPoint presentation explaining how the cheese is made. “The process is already well-known – it’s used to make insulin, milk oligosaccharides for baby formula and other ingredients,” she says, in a room with creamy white walls. “Even rennet, which is the main enzyme used to produce cheese, is made this way. Before, it came from calf stomachs.”
I bite into the cracker. The spread is cool and creamy with a fairly neutral taste. A combination of Philadelphia cream cheese and Madame Loïk, with a hint of salt. “It has just seven ingredients,” says Amir Biran, director of dairy applications, with pride. “Some seasonings, fats and plant-based stabilizers – all things that are found in regular processed foods.”
Next up on the tasting menu is the cow-free milk. The pearly-white, unctuous liquid could fool even a calf. And its flavor is also surprisingly true to the real thing, although with a mildly fibrous aftertaste. Biran refills our tasting cups with one of ImaginDairy’s latest products, and this one feels delightfully creamy on the tongue. It’s now time for the lunch break and the company’s new employees – who bring its total headcount to around 30 – approach the table to taste the results of their efforts, apparently for the first time. And they don’t look disappointed.
The process is already well-known – it’s used to make insulin, milk oligosaccharides for baby formula and other ingredients”
How much does our food really cost? Certainly more than the price listed at the supermarket. The global food industry is one of the main reasons why we’re exceeding our planet’s limits – with climate change and shrinking biodiversity as a result. The food industry is also associated with a number of societal ills such as underpaid and forced labor, as well as public-health problems like malnutrition, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and more. Because these hidden or exogenous costs of our food are not reflected in its end price, the actual bill is artificially reduced.
A 2014 initiative by the UN Environment Programme put forth the idea of true cost accounting, which entails quantifying and incorporating these hidden costs – whether environmental, societal or health-related – into the prices of consumer goods. The goal is to help drive the transition to a more sustainable economy through a system-wide, holistic approach. This concept was taken further at the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit through the introduction of true cost accounting for food (TCAF). A number of TCAF initiatives have been launched around the world and the idea is gaining in popularity. For instance, a study in the US estimated that the true cost of food is three times higher than what is actually paid by consumers. A TCAF approach was one of the recommendations put forth at the February 2023 food systems summit in Switzerland, in support of the food sustainability transition. And the TCAF is also mentioned in the Confederation’s 2030 Strategy in connection with its commitments under the Paris Agreements.
As part of a project called From Farm to Fork and Beyond: A Systemic Approach for Implementing True Cost Accounting for Food in Switzerland initiated by the Enterprise for Society (E4S) research center, the consortium will look at concrete steps we can take to incorporate the true cost of food. “However, what sets our project apart is that we’ll factor in features specific to Switzerland, such as incentives for farmers, subsidies, industry practices, and consumer habits and perceptions,” says Veronica Petrencu, the project coordinator at E4S. The project has received funding from the Swiss National Science Foundation.
While some of the impacts of food production are fairly well-known and easy to quantify, like carbon emissions, others are much trickier. Gino Baudry, a scientist at EPFL’s Laboratory of Environmental and Urban Economics (LEURE), explains: “Ifthe effect on the environment is irreversible, then in theory the cost is infinite. And how can you put a price on the working conditions or even the lives of workers, or on child labor?” Baudry, who will be involved in the research project, stresses that the goal isn’t to come up with a “fair, absolute cost” but rather to create a common language, no matter how imperfect it may be, that people can use to compare the costs of different items. He gives the example of the carbon tax. “Depending on the country you’re in, it can range from $0 to over $150. There’s no one ‘right’ carbon price. Each country has set its own value in order to account for costs that were previously hidden,” says Baudry. “For instance, a fresh carrot can’t be assigned a single total cost. The figure will vary depending on where it was grown, what farming methods were used, its nutritional value and a number of other factors.” All this information will let scientists calculate not “ the” total cost of a given food but “an estimated” total cost that’s widely accepted.
The research consortium has identified five focus areas for their research. The first will be to develop a TCAF calculator for Switzerland’s food system. The calculator will be made available online so that consumers can model the positive and negative effects of a change in their shopping habits, such as buying food produced in a different way or sourced more locally. The second focus area will be to examine the role of businesses (including farms) in the food production chain, in order to pinpoint potential hurdles and areas of improvement. This focus area will involve carrying out surveys and interviews with industry representatives to get their views on the TCAF approach. The third focus area will be to assess consumer habits and perceptions. “It won’t be easy to convince consumers to change the way they eat, because food is a big part of our culture,” says Baudry.
The fourth focus area will relate to change theory and policymaking. “We need to design laws, regulations and subsidies that encourage a more sustainable food industry, from the farm to the fork,” says Baudry. That will require working with organizations all along the production chain to come up with tangible measures. One measure could be to gradually update the relative prices of wholesale and retail products based on sustainability criteria. And the fifth focus area will strive to communicate TCAF information and developments effectively to all stakeholders and build awareness about the issue among the general public. An initial E4S white paper has been issued that summarizes the feedback already received from the Swiss food industry on the TCAF approach and ways it could be implemented.
It won’t be easy to convince consumers to change the way they eat, because food is a big part of our culture”
The study From Farm to Fork and Beyond: A Systemic Approach for Implementing True Cost Accounting for Food in Switzerland is being spearheaded by E4S and includes the following consortium members: LEURE at EPFL; HEC and Unisanté at the University of Lausanne; CCRS at HEG Fribourg; CDE at the University of Bern; and BFH-HAFL at the School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences in Bern. The project has received a four-year, CHF 3.2 million Sinergia grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation, which will start in 2024. E4S was founded by EPFL, the University of Lausanne and IMD to pool the skills at these universities and work in tandem with businesses, policymakers and citizens to support the transition to a more sustainable, resilient and inclusive society.
Growing enough food is only the first step – we’ve also got to make sure it gets distributed and consumed with no waste. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 30% of the food produced globally – or 1.3 billion tons – is wasted every year. In Switzerland, the average annual figure is around 2.8 million tons.
Only about a third of global food waste is due to consumers buying too much food. The remaining two-thirds occurs earlier in the supply chain, during either storage, shipping, processing, distribution or some other part of the logistics process. And this holds true for all types of food. Waste can happen, for example, when fruit and vegetables are thrown away because they’re not ripe enough or don’t meet size and shape criteria, when food perishes in a warehouse or when products get contaminated during processing. The FAO estimates that 14% of food goes bad before it reaches a point of sale, and another 17% either perishes at a point of sale or gets tossed by consumers. In Switzerland, these two forms of waste amount to 330 kg per person per year and make up 25% of our food-related greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment.
Food waste takes a considerable toll on the environment. Valuable natural resources – arable land, water, energy and labor – are wasted when the food they are used to produce ends up in the trash, while carbon is emitted every step of the way. Some 10% of global carbon emissions, which is more than twice the percentage from air traffic, is due to food that never gets consumed. There’s also the sizable impact on consumers’ wallets. According to the WWF, the average Swiss household throws out over 600 francs worth of food per year.
Here at EPFL, a revolution is under way. It’s being led by Bruno Rossignol, the head of our food services department, who was appointed in 2019 and quickly laid out an ambitious strategy. “The first thing we did was review all existing processes,” he says. “Then we updated our entire value chain, from producer to consumer, in an effort to closely align with environmental and climate standards. That included prioritizing sustainable methods, local and seasonal produce, healthy dishes and more vegetarian options.”
A number of concrete measures have been introduced under the new strategy. For instance, EPFL restaurants installed 450 meters in their kitchens to track their energy use; set up around 30 smart trash containers that calculate the carbon emissions associated with discarded food; and put together a list of 2,600 approved products that meet environmental requirements. “We’ve taken all threatened fish species and greenhouse-grown produce off our menus,” says Rossignol. The restaurants also stopped using disposable tableware in 2021 and are in the process of introducing additional vegetarian meals – the target is 80% of their menus by 2030, up from 50% in 2020 and 10% in 2018.
In short, EPFL restaurants are restructuring their entire network of farmers and suppliers in order to shorten the path from farm to table. They’re also closely monitoring everything that’s bought and eaten on our School’s campuses, using that information to minimize waste and adjust purchasing volumes as needed. They’re being helped in these efforts by a comprehensive food-management system developed in association with Robert West, the head of EPFL’s Data Science Laboratory.
The initial results are encouraging. The average CO2-equivalent emissions of an EPFL restaurant meal decreased from 6.1 kg to 4.1 kg in just two years, and the goal is to reach 2.5 kg by 2030. These ambitious goals make EPFL a pioneer in this area.
We’ve taken all threatened fish species and greenhouse-grown produce off our menus”
It’ll be a huge challenge. But the truth is, we already produce enough food today, the problem lies in how it’s distributed. What we need is to fundamentally transform our food system so that it’s more effective – so that we can produce more with less – and more inclusive, resilient and sustainable. These are the four focus areas of our work at the FAO.
Unfortunately, you’re right. Global hunger has been increasing since 2017, showing just how vulnerable our system is. And the devastating consequences of shocks like climate change, conflict, structural inequality and the pandemic have had an outsized impact.
We need to act on several fronts. The most important will be to help small farmers around the world. A lot of progress has been made in farming technology and methods, but there are still obstacles to implementing these new techniques at small farms, which is very frustrating. Modern technology can be a huge help, but it’s often too expensive to put in place – the required investment is just too high for the people we’re trying to reach. We also need to consider the needs of women, young people, indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups.
True, but the cost to users can be reduced substantially. For example, I was amazed by what I saw during my recent visit to EPFL’s EssentialTech Centre. I was shown an artificial foot that the center had developed in conjunction with the International Committee of the Red Cross that costs just 50 euros – instead of the usual 3,000 euros! If we adopt a similar approach for agricultural technology, I’m sure we can make it accessible to more farmers. For instance, we could use local production and distribution systems to cut shipping and transportation costs.
Sure, take irrigation systems. Drip irrigation uses up to 90% less water than conventional methods. Using drip irrigation systems in Africa – where very little food is produced relative to the continent’s surface area – could make a huge difference. Only 7% to 8% of the land in Africa is irrigated, compared to 57% in Asia. We pilot-tested drip irrigation systems in Burkina Faso and Niger, installing them at local farms and training farmers on their use. The results were incredible! The yields on some crops jumped from 1.5 tons per hectare to 7 or 8 tons per hectare. Such small-scale irrigation systems can go a long way towards reducing the amount of food that Africa imports, but those imports need to be replaced by locally grown crops of native species, cultivated by local farmers.
I’m afraid it’s not that simple. We also need to spur investment and partnerships and encourage the creation of local businesses to build and maintain irrigation networks. There are often a lot of intermediaries involved, which pushes up the cost. But the issue goes beyond irrigation. Fertilizer is another example. Most of it is produced far away from Africa, meaning it costs more for farmers in Africa than in Europe! It’s therefore clearly out of the reach of African farmers. But by making targeted investments, we can enable small local businesses to produce the inputs needed by nearby farms, thus transforming local farming processes. Shortening the supply chain like this would bring benefits to everyone.
Selection and cost pressure have drastically reduced the genetic diversity of plants”
We need to be wise enough to avoid repeating our mistakes, and bold enough to correct them. Local farms provide a golden opportunity to introduce greater crop diversity. Did you know that there are some 30,000 edible plant species around the world – but only 125 of them can be found in supermarkets? Selection and cost pressure have drastically reduced the genetic diversity of plants. Now it’s time to bring that variety back.
Seeds of ancient plant species can still be found outside the main distribution channels, and thanks to advancements in gene editing, we can now diversify and improve these species. Gene editing technology, which earned its inventors the Nobel Prize, is mature enough to produce plants that are particularly disease resistant, adapted to the regions where they’ll be grown or enriched in certain nutrients, like protein.
With gene editing, we’re literally entering a new paradigm. It’s nothing like the GMO techniques of the past. In my view, the question of GMOs is a moot point. Gene editing allows for such a high level of precision that we can now correct or integrate exactly what we want, without running the risk of bringing in foreign DNA. The main problem is that many policymakers haven’t understood – or don’t want to understand – that this is a new era, and they’re introducing the same restrictions as for GMOs. They’ve therefore shut the door on many markets, including big ones like the European Union. As a result, R&D is no longer being conducted in countries, especially in Africa, that depend on those markets, even though European scientists are still performing gene editing in their research labs. We need to step up our communications on the science behind gene editing in order to change people’s mindsets. And the potential with gene editing is huge – it costs 20 times less to develop a plant modified with this technology than with conventional gene enhancement methods, and it’s much faster, meaning it’s a technology that can benefit small farmers.
The FAO is calling for all gene editing developments to be made available in open source, so as to prevent that from happening. It’s crucial that these discoveries be shared openly and not remain in the hands of just a few companies. Farmers in the Global South should be able to take advantage of the discoveries as well.
Yes, and some scientists are already running experiments. In Argentina, for example, scientists edited the genes of cows to make them more resistant to cold weather. Today we can improve not just the animals themselves but also the food we give them. For example, we can improve livestock feed so as to reduce the amount of methane produced by bovines. More fundamentally, we need to return to integrated, small-scale agricultural systems where farmers grow their own livestock feed and use the manure as fertilizer. That means transitioning away from a purely profit-driven model where farmers calculate their inputs and outputs and seek only to maximize yields – a mentality that can lead to environmental disasters.
That’s not our role. Animal meat has been part of the human diet throughout evolution, and there are some nutrients, like vitamin B12, that can only be found in animal-based products. But what we can and want to do is establish a set of best practices to help farmers select which species to breed and how to feed them, in order to strike the right balance among productivity, sustainability and environmental impact. Each ecosystem is ideally suited to certain species, and we have to keep that equilibrium in mind when deciding which species to produce.
It’d be really hard to put a lid on urban expansion. Ideally people would live close to where their food is produced, but that’s no longer possible in densely populated areas. Some cities are experimenting with vertical farming, and time will tell whether that could be part of the solution. But for now a lot of countries import the food they need. That doesn’t necessarily mean their food is grown on farms where land and workers are exploited. Contract farming agreements do exist that protect the interests of both producers and consumers, and they’ve proven to be effective. Japan has entered into such agreements with Canada, and the United Arab Emirates with Sudan. That said, governments need to oversee these kinds of agreements to make sure they aren’t just a way for another country or a large corporation to take control of a region.
We need to have the courage to scrutinize – and eventually change – the model on which our food economy is based. This model runs largely on government subsidies and isn’t viable for the long term. The FAO is conducting a study of the entire food system in order to determine the real cost of what we eat. The data we collect will let us quantify the huge losses that occur during food production and all along the distribution chain to consumers. Both these types of losses are currently estimated at 17% each of total production. Putting these two figures together already tells us that over a third of the food grown by farmers is wasted. The priority should therefore be on developing and implementing systems to remedy that and, crucially, making large amounts of food available. I’m optimistic this will allow us to feed ten billion people in 2050.
Contract farming agreements do exist that protect the interests of both producers and consumers, and they’ve proven to be effective”