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Will our children remember the taste of steak?

We are living – and especially eating – beyond our means. In this article, John Baekelmans (Vice President & Managing Director of imec the Netherlands) envisages a more sustainable food system.

Why we need to change the way we eat

In 2018 Earth Overshoot Day, the symbolic date that marks when we have used more resources than our planet can produce or renew in a year, fell on August 1. This means that humanity consumed the equivalent of a planet in just seven months. We can argue that, as of that day, we are essentially borrowing – or stealing – our grandchildren’s resources.

A large part of the problem is the way the western part of the world produces, consumes and transports food. Pineapples are shipped in from Costa Rica, avocados from South-America and even apples get flown in from New-Zealand. Our groceries have traveled the world before they end up in our local supermarkets. 

Food is relatively cheap, so we frequently buy too much and a week later we end up throwing away those tomatoes that lie forgotten in the back of the fridge. Too much food gets lost in this process. 

In the United States, an estimated 40% of food goes to waste, which is the equivalent of the ecological footprint of Peru and Belgium combined.

Besides, our food habits are not only bad for the planet, but also for our own health. We tend to eat too much and not necessarily the right things, thus increasing the prevalence of health problems such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and even cancer.

A high-tech greenhouse in your apartment building

The first step in tackling those problems is to make sure our food is – as much as possible –produced and consumed locally, ideally within 5 to 10 kilometers of our homes. As most people live in cities – and urbanization is expected to increase even more in the future – city farms are a sensible solution. 

This is a trend that has already been set in motion with several cities experimenting with vertical indoor farms. Here food is produced in vertically stacked layers in warehouses or apartment buildings. By creating the ideal conditions (in terms of light, humidity levels, temperature, nutrients, etc.), these indoor farms are able to produce food faster and all year round. 

Vertical farming Colruyt

The Belgian supermarket chain Colruyt is already experimenting with indoor farming to grow basil. Because of the special mix of 80% red light and 20% blue light, the basil plants grow twice as fast. They also need 20 times less agricultural space because they are stacked in layers.

In the next five years, the technology that drives this kind of farming – such as the ion (fluid) sensor developed by imec to monitor the needs of individual plants – will be fine-tuned further. Local city farms will soon become commonplace.

People might also start growing their own food again, either in their garden or in mini-greenhouses in their own apartments. This kind of farming will be technology-enabled and data-driven. With low-cost sensors and data analytics systems we will be able to analyze the needs of each individual plant. The self-learning gardening system will learn how you like your tomatoes – sweet or tangy – and will give them exactly the right amount of water or nutrients to grow your perfect tomato.

Demo kit with imec’s ion sensor (available for companies to use for testing). The sensor can give detailed feedback on individual plant’s nutrients and pH values. It can also help to detect crop diseases in time.Demo kit with imec’s ion sensor (available for companies to use for testing). The sensor can give detailed feedback on individual plant’s nutrients and pH values. It can also help to detect crop diseases in time.

This kind of precision farming – producing exactly what you need where you need it – will minimize waste and will definitely contribute to a more sustainable food production. However, with a fast growing world population even these technologies might not suffice. Therefore, we also have to explore the potential of artificial food to meet our needs by 2050 or earlier.

Ready to print your spaghetti?

For decades, science fiction series and novels have toyed around with the idea of artificial food and the role it could play in our diet. Perhaps the most intriguing concept is the one presented in the Star Trek series where spaceships are equipped with ‘food replicators’, i.e. machines that are capable of conjuring up whatever dish you want. Though it may seem very futuristic, scientists are actually exploring research tracks quite similar to this. Perhaps, for future generations, this kind of food replicator will become a standard kitchen appliance.

The idea is that the food processor uses a limited number of – locally produced – ingredients that can be modified in such a way that a wide range of dishes can be created.

The best part will be that the food processor will be equipped with artificial intelligence that knows exactly what nutrients and vitamins we need. As we all have a different physique, activity level and metabolism, this combination will be different for each individual user. We can still eat together as a family, but the exact composition of the food on our plates will differ. Growing children, for instance, have different needs than their parents.

But how will this food processor know what is good for us?

To create these highly-customized dishes, the food processor will rely on information from our ‘digital twin’. By 2035, we should be able to create accurate digital replicas of ourselves, i.e. an enormous collection of data that represents the inner workings of our individual bodies. If we know how our body works, we can also figure out what it needs to be healthy.

Not only would this kind of digital twin provide essential information to the food processor, it would also offer tremendous opportunities in medicine: e.g. doctors could test allergies or even cancer treatments on your digital twin to find out what works best before starting invasive treatment.

To know what constitutes ‘healthy’ food for a specific person, we need to understand our digestive system. Imec is working on ingestible technology that is up to this task:

Food for thought: how do we convince people to go ‘artificial’?

Although the technology to develop a personal food processor is still in its infancy, this will probably not be the main challenge. The biggest hurdle will be more fundamental: will people be willing to eat ‘fake’ food?

To get people on board, a number of conditions need to be met. First of all, artificial food needs to resemble real food as closely as possible. Unless given no other choice, people will not be willing to swap their delicious pasta bolognese or juicy steak for bland shakes or bright-colored geometric cubes.

Artificially produced meals need to look and taste like proper food.

A second important factor is cost: the technology needs to be low-cost and low-energy. As the food processor would only use a limited number of basic ingredients that can be grown locally, food would no longer need to travel the world. Not only will this drastically reduce humanity’s ecological footprint, it will also make artificial food cheaper than fresh produce.

Does this mean that our children will not remember the taste of steak or the smell of home-made cookies? Luckily, if we make the switch towards more environmentally friendly food production soon enough, real food will continue to be on the menu as well. But it is likely to become a treat, to be enjoyed on special occasions or in restaurants.

Especially meat – which requires an enourmous amount of energy before landing on our plate – will soon become an expensive delicacy. On weekdays, we will probably mainly eat meals prepared by our personal food processor – saving us time, money and resources – occasionally supplementing it with fresh food if we are wealthy enough to afford it.

For food lovers and chefs this outlook may seem bleak, but we should focus on the positives: this kind of technology will enable us to feed the world’s growing population and – more importantly – to do so in a way that is not only more sustainable but also healthier than our current eating patterns.

Towards a healthier and more sustainable life with OnePlanet

One thing is certain: we need to change the way we produce and consume food, not just for the sake of our planet, but also for our individual health. Technology can be a big enabler in this, but it is not enough. To really make a change we need to combine expertise in (nano)technology, medicine, food and agriculture.

This is exactly what we plan to do at OnePlanet, the research center for food, health and agriculture technology that we are currently setting up in Gelderland (the Netherlands). The initiative is a collaboration between imec, Radboud University, Wageningen University & Research (WUR), and the academic hospital Radboudumc. It is supported by the Dutch province of Gelderland, which has recently approved a 65 million euro grant (over 8 years).

Each partner brings their own expertise to the collaboration. Together with Radboud University and Radboudumc, we will focus on preventive healthcare technology – leveraging early data-based assessment of health risks, prevention through personalized nutrition, early diagnosis and efficient treatment and support of chronically ill people.

In the domain of agro and food technology, imec and Wageningen University & Research will, together with industrial partners, investigate the development of sensors, robotics, artificial intelligence, (big) data analysis and digital connectivity for more sustainable agricultural technology.

The OnePlanet center will primarily be located at the university campus in Wageningen and is due to open in April 2019. Our research roadmap has been defined and we are ready to venture into new research programs with our experienced partners. So stay tuned for more news!


Want to know more?

  • For more information on the OnePlanet initiative, you can find the press release here.

  • Precision agriculture is not a new field for imec. Our ion sensor (more information in this imec magazine article could play a significant role. And our research on hyperspectral imaging also has applications in agriculture and waste management.

  • To find out how imec’s organ-on-chip platform can enable personalized healthcare, take a look at this imec magazine article.

  • For more information on our research on ingestibles, check out our webpage or watch this interview with Chris Van Hoof at the Digital Health Summit.


John Baekelmans

About John Baekelmans

John Baekelmans is Vice President & Managing Director for imec in the Netherlands. As Managing Director, he is responsible for the overall NL business and operations. Next to his Imec NL role he leads the Internet of Things and Connected Health Solutions teams and is responsible for the Smart City vertical across imec globally.

John obtained a Master’s degree in Computer Science from the University of Antwerp, Belgium and is a former Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE). Before working at imec, John spent 21 years at Cisco where he held various global leadership positions within Engineering, Services and the M&A departments and has authored numerous US and European patents. John was also the co-founder of a Belgian residential solutions startup called Fifthplay. Before Cisco, he designed, implemented and operated large PBX-networks at Siemens.

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