Vertical farming and lab meat are new trends in agriculture that some say could feed the rising populations of our megacities. Kerstin Schweitzer offers a first glimpse of the future at the Global Food Summit in Munich.
As urban farming has become a buzzword among the world's metropolitan elites, the Munich-based startup Agrilution is already looking beyond the trend, suggesting that growing your vegetables on the balcony is old school already.
Agrilution plants its salads and herbs in cubicles for the high-end kitchens of tomorrow, with inbuilt temperature, moisture and light control.
"Plantcube simulates the conditions of spring all year long," says the startup's product manager, Patrick Proppe, adding that the plants can be harvested after no more than seven to 32 days.
Visitors to the Global Food Summit in Munich enjoyed the idea, and so did Stephan Becker-Sonnenschein, the organizer of the event. Disrupting conventional agriculture has become his ultimate goal, as he aims to move food production away from arable land and raising animals.
Agrilution claims there's no better way to get plant-based foodstuffs closer and fresher to the customer than with its Plantcube
So, has Mother Earth run served her time in feeding the world? "Quite the contrary," he insists. "The Earth is full of wonders. But the question is: Do we want to use the science it offers?" he says. What Becker-Sonnenschein wants is to promote a better understanding of nature so that scientists can simulate processes such as photosynthesis and remodel them under artificial conditions.
Meat patty for the urban masses
Dutch researcher Peter Verstrate is at the forefront of the agritech which comes under the catchy term of Life Science. His research firm Mosa Meat focuses on growing meat in Petri dishes. In 2013, Verstrate surprised the public with the world's first lab-grown burger. The protein patty, as the product is technically called, was grown from beef stem cells in a nutrient solution, and has even piqued the interest of US tech giant Google.
Google founder Sergey Brin funded the startup with $250,000 (€221,000), only to see that a breakthrough on tech meat is still along way off five years on. "Developments aren't moving so fast," stresses Verstrate, adding that he expects lab-grown burgers to be sold in supermarkets not before another five years.
Researchers like Verstrate find it difficult to add fats to the muscle tissue and say that both color and texture of the artificial meat product aren't quite satisfactory either.
A lab-grown burger made in the Netherlands and ceated by painlessly harvesting muscle cells from a living cow. Scientists then feed and nurture the cells so they multiply to create muscle tissue, which is the main component of the meat we eat
The race is on
Nevertheless, there's already massive interest building in the industry. Mosa Meat has secured startup funding to the tune of €7.5 million ($8.48 million) recently, counting German pharmaceutical giant Merck and Swiss meat company Bell Food among its supporters now.
As one patty of tech meat currently costs several thousand euros to produce, the aim of the venture is to drive down the price to about €9 over the medium term.
Researchers across the world are currently racing to produce lab-grown meat, with the 30 most promising companies located in the United States, Israel and Asia. Lab-grown fish is also said to be on the threshold of a major breakthrough. But what's the tech race all about?
Changing diets for a growing world
In view of rising climate-warming emissions as a result of conventional agriculture, Verstrate admits that eating less meat would of course be the best solution. "But I don't expect that to happen," he says, pointing to both the benefits and evils of today's food production.
Although agriculture still feeds the world, he cites mounting problems from reduced biodiversity, pesticide use and degrading water resources. Supply chains that stretch across continents would add to food production's increasingly questionable image.
At the same time, the United Nations has calculated that 9 billion people will live on this planet by 2050, most of them in megacities that will consume 80 percent of global food production. Will the growing cities of tomorrow be able to supply themselves with food shipped from afar?
Germany's leading scientific institution, the Frauenhofer Institute, has recently published a study showing that a relatively small space of just 3.6 square meters (38.7 square feet) would suffice to feed a person living in a city.
This, however, under modern production methods such as Aquaponic — raising fish in a closed-cycle system — and vertical farming where food plants grow on building facades.
Researchers at the Frauenhofer Institute have found that new agritech methods such as vertical farming require more energy but significantly less water, fertilizer and pesticides
Nannan Dong, a professor of city planning at Tongji University in Shanghai, says that urban farming is already a big issue in China. "We want to enable not only inner-city districts to grow their own food, but also our sprawling suburbs. Already there are several private companies which use vacated building to engage in indoor agriculture," he says.
City planners in China are already incorporating high-tech greenhouses in their designs, he added, and even pig-raising areas in skyscrapers. "But recycling animal manure remains an unresolved problem," he says, which is why animal farming might probably remain in the countryside.
The Global Food Summit in Munich is devoted to next-generation solutions to feed the world's growing populations. But summit organizer Stephan Becker-Sonnenschein admits that the solutions offered by the event can only go so far. Cash crops such as wheat, corn, rice and soybeans will always remain in the realm of conventional farming in the countryside. But lab-based agriculture has huge potential for new ideas to feed our cities, he says.