Revisiting the Food Innovation Summit

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, families travel far and wide to be together and share a great meal. As we make our menu lists and prep our kitchens for the big feast to come, we may often take for granted the various food production practices that are utilized to make a bounty of food available in our local markets and stores.

This fall, IFIC had the pleasure of hosting a “Food Innovation Summit,” an event to address innovative food production techniques. We found that while many food production practices are rooted in tradition, there are a number of new and emerging practices that increase our access to safe, affordable foods that you rely upon on a daily basis. There are also some that you may not have heard of yet.

Traditional vs. Emerging Agriculture

While the majority of all of our food comes from a farm, agricultural practices have changed significantly over time, largely due to advances in technology. Historically, farmers were required to closely monitor all steps of farm maintenance and food production without the assistance of computers, sensors or any other computational device. On dairy farms, this included hand-milking cows, manually collecting milk in pails and then allowing time to naturally cool their contents to prevent bacterial growth. Today, farmers and food producers alike use technology to do all of the above and ensure the quality of foods we find on store shelves.

One of our summit panelists, a dairy farmer, highlighted how sensors used on his family-owned farm work as a “FitbitTM” for cows. At any point in the day, he’s able to monitor where his dairy cows are located as well as determine the quality, amount and temperature of the milk they produce. This helps to ensure food safety during cheese production. 

Technology doesn’t just help in dairy farming, it supports crop production and other farm animal raising as well. Specifically for growing crops, using technology can help give us access to the fruits and vegetables that we enjoy all year-round, aid in yielding better crops, save natural resources and help to produce more food with less “muscle.”

Farmers and ranchers are also conscious of the ethical treatment of the animals they raise. One of our panelists who raises chickens, pigs and cattle for meat production reminded us that the way animals are bred and raised is important not just for the humane treatment of the animal, but also for yielding high-quality meat.

The Evolution of Food Production

As our population grows, there is an increased need for food and less space to grow it. The average U.S. farm in 2017 took up 444 acres. That’s more than 330 football fields for one farm!

One of our panelists talked to the audience about a new approach to farming that  uses less space and promises a higher crop yield: vertical farms. Vertical farms involve growing crops year-round in a tightly-controlled, indoor environment. These farms use vertical space to conserve land and generally provide produce to local grocery stores. Determining the amount of water, heat, light and carbon dioxide plants receive makes it easier to grow specialty crops like basil which matures best with six or more hours of daily sunlight. Without vertical farms, we would only enjoy fresh Margherita pizza and Caprese salad during summer months.

Vertical farming has been praised as a potential solution for increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables in urban communities where availability is limited. While it can certainly help with eliminating food deserts, our summit panel agreed that there is no one solution for farming challenges. Technologies like vertical farming are “tool[s] for farmers”, to increase crop yield not to replace existing practices. When combined with emerging advances like CRISPR technology, as highlighted by another panelist, innovations are very important to increase crop resilience, enhance taste and improve nutrition.

Food on the Horizon

Our speakers also covered the production of foods that aren’t on the market yet. This includes cell-cultured meat and plant-based eggs. Ever heard of these types of products before? Chances are you may not have and you’d be among the majority.

Cell-cultured meat is cultivated from the muscle tissue of live cows, but does not require that the animal be slaughtered, as it is done with traditional meat production. The harvesting of the cells and the growth of the tissue into meat is part of cellular agriculture—production of agricultural products from cell cultures. Our panel discussed that while this type of meat production may not be the only way to produce meat, it could be a “sustainability tool” in a cattle rancher's toolbox.

Plant-based diets have grown in popularity over the years. They can be rich in fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals. For consumers who’d like alternatives to animal proteins, they can be a nutritious and healthy option. One of our panelists told us about the company’s production of a plant-based “egg.” This egg substitute can be scrambled and gives the appearance of a cooked chicken egg, but comes from mungbean. These legumes are high in protein, calcium and phosphorus.

IFIC’s Food Innovation Summit reinforced that our food production system is evolving not only to meet consumer demand, but also to adapt to be more environmentally sustainable, provide enhanced safety and produce more food for a growing population.

It is exciting to see how the food production system remains agile in producing reliable, nutritious, safe and great-tasting foods that we can depend on at Thanksgiving and every other day of the year. 

This blog was written by Casey Evans, 2018 Sylvia Rowe Fellow and Tamika Sims, PhD.