IDTechEx asks if emerging technologies can make food production more sustainables

24 April, 23

It is no secret that modern, highly industrialized approaches to food production strains the environment. Today, food production represents approximately 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, food production is associated with other negative impacts, including high water demand, severe soil degradation, eutrophication, and more. As a result, it is becoming increasingly important for sustainable solutions to be developed for food systems. Fortunately, emerging technologies offer promising possibilities for sustainable food production. In this article, IDTechEx will examine three of these technologies and explore their potential to make food production more sustainable.

Cultured Meat

Meat production has become well known in recent years for being a major contributor to greenhouse gases, especially through methane emissions from cattle. The cultured meat industry is a recent and exciting new field that can counter this drawback of meat consumption. Cultured meat, also known as cultivated or lab-grown meat, involves the in vitro growth of animal cells, effectively removing the animal from the production process and bypassing the methane emissions produced over the animal’s lifetime. The cultured meat industry has seen significant growth, and the industry is predicted to be worth US$14 billion by 2043, according to IDTechEx’s latest report, “Cultured Meat 2023-2043”.

Cultured meat production presents several compelling environmental benefits. For starters, it requires significantly less land and water – up to 95% and 96%, respectively – than traditional livestock farming. Additionally, issues associated with meat production, such as deforestation and antibiotic overuse, could be alleviated. However, the impact on carbon emissions is uncertain because, with no large-scale production in operation yet, it is difficult to make carbon impact estimations. Importantly, cultured meat production requires significant energy, and this is a potential source of CO2 emissions. Compared to methane, CO2 does have a longer-lived GHG effect but is still preferred over methane which has up to 80 times more potent effect in the first 20 years.

Vertical Farming

Vertical farming is another emerging technology that may improve the sustainability of agriculture. Vertical farming is a method of growing crops in modular stacks indoors and under controlled environmental conditions. Advanced growing methods such as hydroponics and LED lighting tailored to the exact photosynthetic needs of the crops are used in vertical farming to achieve yields hundreds of times higher than conventional agriculture per area of land used.

Vertical farming boasts several benefits compared to conventional agriculture. In particular, it is an incredibly efficient use of water and space. Vertical farming can achieve yields with over 90% less water usage compared to conventional farming, and it takes up less space due to the vertical stacking of crops. Furthermore, by treating used water carefully, the eutrophication potential of vertical farming can be reduced.

However, vertical farming, much like cultured meat production, uses far more electricity than conventional farming. Therefore, if a vertical farm sources energy from conventional fossil fuels, it is much less sustainable on the metric of CO2 emissions. To tackle this challenge, many vertical farming players are investigating the use of solar energy and other renewables to improve their sustainability. As LED efficiency improves, vertical farm energy demand will decrease, further improving its sustainability. Overall, vertical farming can potentially improve agriculture’s sustainability impact by optimizing resource use and efficiency. Many believe in the sustainability credentials of vertical farming, and funding continues to grow. In 2021, US$1 billion was invested into the space, according to the IDTechEx report “Vertical Farming 2022-2032”.

CO2U Microbial Conversion

A promising area of technology in the green transition is Carbon dioxide Utilization (CO2U). These are technologies that involve the productive use of anthropogenic CO2 to make value-added products such as building materials, synthetic fuels, chemicals, and plastics. The CO2U industry has been gaining momentum as a crucial tool in the decarbonization of the economy, and the IDTechEx report “Carbon Dioxide Utilization 2022-2042: Technologies, Market Forecasts, and Players” predicts that the CO2U market will exceed US$285 billion by 2042. One effective method of consuming CO2 emissions while improving plant yields is pumping carbon dioxide into greenhouses. However, the most interesting aspect of CO2U technology is microbial conversion. This involves the use of hydrogenotrophic bacteria to convert CO2 into food-grade protein. NASA first experimented with this technology in the 1960s, when it discovered that these microorganisms could convert the CO2 exhaled by astronauts into high-protein food more rapidly than plants. Today, startups are leveraging this technology to utilize CO2 from emissions. For instance, Solar Foods, a Finnish start-up, produces Solein, a protein powder created from gas fermentation of CO2 and H2. The powder can be used as an additive in bread, pasta, and meat alternatives.

These CO2 microbial conversion-based proteins are versatile, offer added nutritious value, and can act as a carbon sink. They have the potential to both mitigate emissions (by substituting for conventional protein in products) and capture existing carbon emissions, providing a valuable solution for environmentally- and health-conscious consumers. However, the renewability of the process is once again dependent on the energy source, as well as the sustainability of other raw materials such as H2.

In conclusion, technology holds some promise to improve the sustainability of food production. However, the high demand for energy to grow foodstuff creates an inherent challenge in food production. This means that the viability of these emerging technologies is largely dependent on the availability of renewable energy sources. Nonetheless, beyond carbon emissions, technologies do have the potential to solve other environmental issues, such as water shortage, land usage, and methane emissions. As the world works towards a more sustainable future, food production technology is set to play an increasingly important role in achieving our climate goals.

For further insights about the technologies leading the transition towards a sustainable economy, explore IDTechEx’s portfolio of sustainable technology reports at reports/sustainability.

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