Fabricated Food: In the Lab, Factory, at Home

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Movies and other depictions of the future have often included visions of what people will eat and drink. Popular tropes have included the ubiquitous food “pill” that provides all of a day’s required nutrients in a single capsule; food delivered in metallic packets and tubes (inspired by space innovations); machines that materialize dinner on demand; and, of course, robot farming. Reality, of course, has unfolded differently.

The global food production and distribution systems are expanding to keep up with population growth, urbanization, and rising incomes and the changes in diet these trends create. This has led to an increase in land dedicated to agriculture, consolidation and the pursuit of efficient industrial farming techniques, and the development of new crop technologies.

But change is also happening at the edges of the global food production system. Innovations in biology, genetics, material science, manufacturing, and other realms are pointing toward new ways of “making” food, which may help contribute to the 40–50% increase in agricultural output required to keep pace with global demand by 2030.1 These new production techniques may also provide solutions to other food-related challenges, such as reducing waste and the environmental impact of food production and transport.

The report selects three emerging production approaches being tried in the lab, in the factory, and in the home—and explores the ways in which these innovations may address obstacles in food production and distribution.

3 KEY FINDINGS

  • Technology for meat production through in-vitro growth and 3D printing are nearing initial production stages.
  • Small-scale microagriculture, through aquaponics and algae farming, are already viable and accessible.
  • Issues of scalability, cost, consumer perception, and skills transfer still pose barriers.

IN THE FACTORY

  • Problem: Mass production creates waste. While there have been gains in efficiency in past decades, industrial food production still creates an enormous amount of waste. For example, the European Commission estimates 39% of total food loss in European food supply chains occurs at the manufacturing stage, while a UK-specific study suggests that food manufacturers lose 16% of raw materials during manufacturing.19 Additionally, issues such as product recalls, food safety problems, and weather-related disruption of supply chains and distribution also put thousands of tons of food product at risk every year.
  • Solution: Food printing. One potential way to reduce food waste during production would be to focus on localized and real-time production. This could employ 3D printing technology, which has come to be seen as a disruptive technology that may very well change the way a host of goods—from furniture and car parts to clothing, buildings, and aircraft—are made.

IN THE LAB

  • Problem: Meat is costly in more ways than one. In recent years, environmental and food researchers alike have taken greater notice of the impacts of various foods on the environment—from direct impacts of natural resource consumption, to more indirect results of long supply chains, emissions from production, and waste generation. When looking across all the various types of food, meat carries one of the largest environmental footprints.
  • Solution: Meat grown in a dish. To sidestep environmental and natural resource issues related to meat consumption, some researchers are pursuing the idea of cultured meat.

AT HOME

  • Problem: Sustainable nutrition at home. Despite sophisticated just-in-time production and delivery, and advances in home storage, a tremendous amount of nutrition never reaches the mouth of the consumer, particularly in regions such as North America and Europe. For example, the average US family of four discards about 470 pounds of food per year, equal to 1,400 calories per person per day, according to data from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Further upstream, as mentioned above, a great deal of raw product gets discarded due to changing aesthetic tastes and trimming for packaging and transport before products even reach consumers.
  • Solution: Closed-loop home production. Resource constraints, natural disasters and climate change, and the growing density in urban environments are focusing more attention on issues such as food waste and food miles. To address these issues, some advocate for local food production.

3 BUSINESS IMPLICATIONS

  1. Food producers and retailers should make part of their long- range planning a consideration of ways in which they might be circumvented in the delivery chain of food products. The advent of 3D printing is already raising such issues in manufacturing of hard goods like machine parts and household objects.
  2. Likewise, organizations should explore the new opportunities that will be unlocked as these technologies facilitate local, small-scale production. For example, there will be opportunities for greater customization of foods; for accommodation of religious requirements in production (such as in halal and kosher foods); and for development and delivery of products that address food allergies (e.g., wheat-free), medical restrictions (e.g., low-sodium or low-sugar), and specific health demands (e.g., nutriceuticals).
  3. While not yet economical for large-scale production of food, technologies such as artificially produced meat, food printing, and closed-loop production of nutrient-rich foods are a potentially viable component of long-term food production roadmaps for specialized small-scale environments, such as dense urban housing or remote military or exploration environments.