Bring a man to the moon – and bring him back safely
From the start, SFI has aimed at combining short term with long term, concrete innovations with future developments. And since field labs and research projects are now starting or already running, it was time to put our attention to the future.
The overall goal of has always been to make food production fully sustainable, delivering nutritious foods that are trusted and loved by the consumer. This is a huge challenge, perhaps even comparable to the challenge that the USA posed itself in 1961, when confronted with Russia having launched the Sputnik in 1959. President Kennedy inspired his people, to not just work on short-term issues, but to set everyone’s eyes on the horizon: before the decade is out, landing a man on the moon, and returning him safely to Earth.
So, let us, as SFI community, inspire ourselves by setting a similar goal! We already had set ourselves three moonshots. But how will we eventually get to the moon? How will we actually achieve our aim in time? We will need short term improvements, but we cannot possibly achieve our final goal without creating breakthroughs. On 4 June 2020, we came together digitally, to discuss what technologies will make us fly, and to inspire each other.
Sjef Smeekens, from the University of Utrecht, talked about how CRISPR-CAS genome editing technology provides unprecedented opportunity for the transition to a sustainable and more productive agricultural system. There are already many examples of crops with improved nutrition profile, but we could add to this better processability, reduction of waste, and crops better suited for urban agriculture. All this is a fast, inexpensive, and highly accurate technology. But he also expressed worries that Europe is closing the door for the technology. CRISPR-CAS will still continue, but if indeed we close the door for using this technology in Europe, we will lose our lead.
Remko Boom, from Wageningen University, then showed how a next generation processes could run on electricity instead of heat, and that this can lead to a dramatic reduction of the energy costs. Why evaporate all the water that you need to remove? You can also keep it liquid and draw it out electrically. That saves a ton of energy. This is called electro-osmosis, and is already used in other fields. You can remove the last bits of water with electrohydrodynamic drying, which is also more efficient than normal drying. It is possible to isolate proteins or other components very selectively by using electricity as a switch between adsorption and desorption. And for some separations, you do not need water at all – electrostatic separation. So, yes, the factory of the future perhaps does not need any natural gas, but just a bit of electricity.
Jacob de Vlieg, from the Technical University Eindhoven, then discussed how to bridge the gap between Data Science, ICT and Agri&Food. While many people talk about the potential, our sector in fact lags behind in these technologies. The benefits in using this type of technology are already demonstrated by the SFI project Internet of Food, that is running at the moment, where a digital platform is being created to share models between SFI partners, which will speed up product innovation with all participating SFI members. But much more is possible by using computer vision, having direct feedback from consumers, and perhaps even direct involvement of consumers in the product that they want and get. Dynamic pricing models may help in strongly reducing wasted food. But he also made clear that these things can only be achieved by working together.
Of course these technologies are not all available in the next year or so. But they show us what the direction of our community can be. This inspirational session of how we could get our collective rocket to the moon, may add to our current activities, and sets out a path and opening up our minds to what is actually possible. SFI will make food production fully sustainable, and making our sector the strongest and most innovative on Earth.
Because the Earth deserves it.