Digging Deeper: Pasteurization

milk being poured into a glass

In the past, some of us drank fresh, raw milk every day. But these days, several factors make raw milk an untenable option, including dairy industry consolidation, food safety concerns, and longer transportation times.

Since milk needs to be packaged and delivered to a grocery store or corner market, it may take several days before it hits your glass. For milk to safely survive the journey from cow to carton, it gets pasteurized, a process that keeps milk safe and lasting longer in your refrigerator.

Pasteurization is the process of heating a substance to kill pathogens, such as listeria, E. coli, salmonella, and the highly-pathogenic avian flu.

Dairy producers pasteurize milk to make it safe for consumers, as well as maintaining its safety during transport and extended storage times. If you drink raw milk straight from a cow, without treating it, you put yourself at great risk.

Some believe this process makes milk harder to digest and is an unnecessary procedure that denies our bodies of nutrients destroyed in the processing. Let’s take a look at this first.

Does Pasteurization Make Milk Harder to Digest?

Many proponents of raw milk products believe that pasteurized milk causes gut inflammation from not properly breaking down these denatured protein compounds.

Scientifically, the heat treatment disrupts the hydrogen bonds in a protein molecule and causes the bonds to be “disrupted.” For reference, when you cook an egg, the proteins also denature.

So, while heating raw milk can cause denaturation of protein, this has only proven to potentially affect immunocompromised patients.

Additionally, how your body digests denatured protein depends entirely on the amount of heat exposure the proteins have had. Typical pasteurization methods generate very few denatured proteins.

Let’s take a closer look at the most common ways to pasteurize milk and milk products.

Pasteurization Methods


Also known as flash pasteurization, this method heats up the milk to 280 degrees for 4-5 seconds. Because the temperature of the milk exceeds 150 degrees, it is possible for the proteins to “denature,” or change from their original structure. Essentially, the heat can cause the protein compounds to break down. It is also argued that this process kills off some of the good bacteria present in raw milk.

High-temperature pasteurization

This is the most commonly used pasteurization technique. This process heats up milk to 161 degrees for 15 seconds.

Like flash pasteurization, some of the micro-life present in raw milk will be killed off through HT pasteurization. Additionally, the proteins in HT-treated milk may experience some denaturation. Heat treatment aside, milk remains a nutrient dense food.

Low-temperature pasteurization

LT heats raw milk to 145 degrees for 30 minutes before chilling it rapidly. Like HT and ultra pasteurization, this process can also kill off some of the probiotics present in raw milk. But, it is argued that LT pasteurization helps maintain milk’s protein quality.

While this process does not “denature” proteins, it can cause protein aggregation, whereby the compounds accumulate and clump together, making the proteins harder to digest. These proteins are harder to digest than its denatured counterpart, making consumption especially challenging for immune compromised or extremely allergic individuals.

Raw or unpasteurized

These products have not been heat-treated and are at much greater risk of carrying harmful pathogens. They also have a significantly shorter shelf life, which contributes to food waste if not consumed within a few days of its production.

Even more options

While heat-treating raw milk will destroy some of its beneficial properties, it’s a high price to pay if it’s contaminated with dangerous pathogens. If you still want to enjoy raw milk for its nutrients, consider purchasing products from dairy companies that add active cultures and probiotics that were affected during heat processing.

One such company taking proactive steps to protect your digestive system is Fairlife. Fairlife milk is flash pasteurized and then ultra-filtered to concentrate the protein content, sterilize the milk, and remove lactose – or milk sugars –  from the final product.

This way, those who suffer from lactose intolerance and/or have a hard time digesting denatured milk proteins can enjoy this dairy product with minimal to no effects.

What about cheeses?

Cheese is another important food when it comes to pasteurization. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration mandates that any cheese produced from raw milk must be held or aged for 60 days and kept consistently at 35-degrees Fahrenheit before it can be sold commercially. This helps ensure that foodborne pathogens are no longer present in the food, as they cannot survive in an environment after 60 days.

Additionally, treating the cheese with salt and curing the rind can also protect from potentially dangerous bacteria, viruses and molds. Like milk, pasteurized cheese can be treated at either a high temperature (174 degrees for roughly 20 seconds) or low temperature (149 degrees for 30-40 seconds).

When you think of pasteurization, you undoubtedly think of milk! However, many other foods that are heat treated, as well. Almonds, sauerkraut, and some kinds of vinegar are pasteurized to sanitize the food and kill harmful bacteria. The pasteurization process keeps consumers safe, so before you dismiss a pasteurized product, also consider what it may be protecting you from.

Transcript: Digging into Biofuels

Transcript from January 11, 2024 podcast

Lucy Stitzer:

Welcome back to Dirt to Dinner’s Digging In podcast.

This is Lucy Stitzer and today we’re digging into renewable fuels and the Biden Climate Initiative, which aims to be carbon neutral by 2050. This includes all petroleum that fuels motor vehicles. The standard is to replace the billions of gallons of fuel the United States uses each year with bio with biofuels. Currently, the US uses about 35 billion gallons of ethanol biodiesel, renewable diesel and in limited form sustainable aviation fuel.

Today’s guest is Colin Murphy who is the Deputy Director at the Policy Institute for Energy Environment and the economy at the University of California Davis. In this podcast, he explains the importance of biofuels and how we are going to get to net zero by 2050. Welcome, Colin Murphy.

Colin Murphy:

I am the Deputy Director for the Policy Institute for Energy Environment and Economy at UC Davis and I also co-lead the Low Carbon Fuel Policy Research Initiative. We’re big fans of excessively long wordy titles here at UC Davis, and really what that means, most of my job for the last several years has been to lead our research and engagement efforts around fuel policy.

The main thing we work on is the Low Carbon Fuel standard, which is a policy that was first adopted by California and British Columbia in 2010. Oregon implemented their own in 2016, Washington did theirs last year. So it’s a policy structure that has been very effective in the places that have had it at reducing the amount of petroleum that we consume for transportation. It’s seen as one of the gold-standard fuel policies out there. Certainly not the kind of thing where you’d want it to be the only policy you’re using a transportation, it needs to work with things like electric vehicle policies and policies to switch to renewable electricity and sort of a broad economy-wide portfolio.

But it’s an important part of that portfolio. And so we do research on it. We publish papers like any other academic, but we also spend a lot of our time working with regulators and other policymakers to help understand the topic and help guide them as they make decisions about how they want their jurisdiction to do this. So we have interest from a number of states all over the country who are thinking about, or at some step in the process of adopting a low carbon fuel standard as well as a number of other countries.

Canada just adopted essentially a low carbon fuel standard at the federal level in addition to the one in British Columbia. Brazil has one. It’s limited to liquid fuels only, but they have a very similar policy as well, and a number of other nations are considering it. So yeah, my life for most of the last 10 years has really been largely focused on low carbon fuel standards. But we’re also, we do work on the federal renewable fuel standard, which is a different kind of policy doing increasing amount of work in Europe where they have their own approach to decarbonizing fuels. And we’re really just trying to think about that and make sure we have policy that’s informed by the best science we can.

Lucy Stitzer:

So you’ve been a consultant for the renewable fuel standard for the national one for our country as well as Europe, and then you’re helping Canada and then a variety of different states who are trying to implement their own standards as well?

Colin Murphy:

Yeah, yeah. Not really a consultant so much. We’re an academic research group, so our mission is public benefit and to help also train people. We have grad students coming through and working with us. But yeah, we do research and policy engagement, working with policy makers to help them make good decisions at a wide variety of jurisdictions, mostly in California because it’s obviously where we are and university, it’s California, but we work with jurisdictions all over the world.

Lucy Stitzer:

Well, that’s pretty exciting.

Colin Murphy:

It certainly doesn’t give me a lot of opportunities to be bored.

Lucy Stitzer:

No, I would think not. Well, let’s just talk about the renewable fuel standard and just talk about the United States as a whole in the 2050 green energy, I guess, mandate by Biden indicated that we needed carbon-free electricity by 2035 and carbon free overall by 2050. And so I’m curious about what part biofuels will play in this, and when we think about fuel, I just want to clarify that when I think of fuel, I think we’re talking mostly about cars, trucks, airplanes, and not necessarily to go back on the grid. I think that’s a different subject, but we could certainly talk about what goes back on the grid. But just as far as most of this conversation goes is mostly about, I’ll call it motor fuel, and the UX today uses, yeah, vehicles uses about, I’m thinking, yeah, 135 billion gallons of fuel. And the renewable fuel today is about 37 billion gallons. So am I correct in thinking that there’s just a huge ramp up for the next 25 or so years and to do that?

Colin Murphy:

So there’s definitely going to need to be a huge ramp up, but for most vehicles, so most of that fuel that the US uses is used to fuel on-road vehicles, cars, trucks, buses, stuff like that. And most of it, about 50 or 60%, I’d have to go back and look at the numbers to be sure, is light duty vehicles, passenger cars, cars, trucks, SUVs, things like that.

For the light duty vehicles, battery electric vehicles are almost certainly going to be the main technology that we are using in a world where we have successfully reduced emissions. They have the best combination of low cost, high performance flexibility and everything you need to do that. Very large parts of the medium heavy duty vehicle sector, so these are commercial vehicles, trucks, vans, buses, stuff like that. Most of them can also go onto batteries as well. And in most cases, batteries, because they’re much more efficient at converting energy into motion than an internal combustion engine.

And because they don’t have as many moving parts of an internal combustion engine, their operational costs are a lot lower. So in most cases, it’s actually cheaper. Even today for some vehicle classes, it’s actually cheaper to own and operate an electric vehicle over its full lifespan than it’s internal combustion engine. And batteries are still going to keep getting cheaper over the next 10 years. So most of that 135 billion gallons of fuel is going to be replaced by electricity.

And so we definitely do not have to figure out where we’re going to get 135 billion gallons a year of liquid fuel, which is great because we don’t have the slightest clue where we get 135 billion gallons a year of liquid fuel. So even as important as EVs are, they can’t do everything by themselves. And there’s two real limitations. One is that they’re just some parts of the transportation system where batteries do not have the characteristics to really be a good fit.

The big one is aviation, especially long haul aviation, anything near going more than 500 miles, maybe a thousand miles, batteries just don’t look like they have a trajectory to get to enough energy density where they can satisfy that need. There are also a few specialized applications. Some of the very long haul freight trucks, maybe batteries are not a great fit there. Places people live in really remote areas or really mountainous areas, maybe batteries aren’t the best fit there. So there’s a few other niches of the transportation system besides aircraft that are likely to need something else, probably a liquid fuel for a long time.

Lucy Stitzer:

What about anything on the waterways, barges? They transport a lot of food.

Colin Murphy:

You’re absolutely right. That’s another one where we currently think liquid fuels are likely to be the issue. It’s possible in those hydrogen or renewable natural gas could end up being the fuel there. But for those, yes, liquid fuels may be switching to ammonia or methanol instead of the current kind of heavy oils, or you can make synthetic oils. The thing is waterways, they’re relatively small fraction of the total fuel pool. So even though we definitely have to find a solution for them, it’s not as pressing or scary a problem as is with aviation.

The other thing is with most boats, they have more space and they have looser technical requirements. So with an aircraft, because of the need to be extremely safe with an aircraft and be able to handle a wide range of temperature fluctuations because they fly up very high where it’s pretty cold, the number of potential technical solutions that work in aircraft is a lot more limited than it is in shipping. So while shipping is absolutely something that we have to think of and liquid fuels look like they’re probably going to be the solution there, it’s not, at least to me, not quite as scary or challenging a problem as aircraft.

Lucy Stitzer:

Well, definitely. I mean, your air, you’re in the air and if something goes wrong, there’s

Colin Murphy:

Pull over and wait for someone to bring you another can of gas.

Lucy Stitzer:

Yeah, exactly. And what about trains?

Colin Murphy:

Trains, again, in terms of total magnitude, they’re relatively small. For a lot of trains, you can use electricity and just have a cable overhead or running next to the track. That’s the way a lot of the rail in Europe works is they’re electric and there’s cables running along the track and they get their electricity that way. For trains, hydrogen is a potentially good idea. Hydrogen has a great energy density by mass. So energy for every kilogram of weight is pretty high, but has a lousy energy density by volume.

But with trains, you can put a car full of hydrogen going right behind the train to fuel it to go for thousands of miles, and that doesn’t really affect the train’s functioning all that much. So hydrogen’s one of the ones where I think it’s uniquely well-suited to work in rail applications, possibly maritime, but there’s a little bit more space constraint on the water. So yeah, there’s certainly options there. But again, because the technical requirements are a lot looser than they are for per aircraft, we’re not quite as certain that it has to be a liquid fuel, whereas with aircraft, it’s probably going to have to be a liquid. Right.

Lucy Stitzer:

Yes, I would agree. And then you have the weight and the balance, and as you said, the temperature fluctuation. So there’s a lot with aircraft. So you’ve run through all the different vehicles. So that would bring the 135 billion gallons of fuel that we use today. Would you anticipate that it would come down to fewer, all that? Yeah.

Colin Murphy:

So aircraft, the US consumes about 40 to I think 42, 45, somewhere in their billion gallons a year of jet fuel, excluding military applications. We don’t have great data on that for obvious reasons. With some of the aircraft, like short range lights, 500 miles, maybe a thousand miles probably could go to battery electrics or hydrogen fuel cells. So some of that 40 billion gallons probably could get switched out for or something other than liquid fuel.

But then the needs of shipping, so back of the envelope, probably 40 or 50 billion gallons a year of total demand for liquid fuels over the long run is probably what we’re looking at. And that’s still a lot, but at the very least, it’s not so far out of the realm of what we’ve produced from things other than petroleum that we can at least put together a coherent story about how we might piece together a portfolio that works.

Lucy Stitzer:

So you’re saying we could take out about a hundred or 90 billion out of the petroleum business and we can replace most of that with actually what we’re doing today, our renewable fuel usage is about 37 billion today. And you’re saying we only need about 40? So

Colin Murphy:

Yeah, now from

Lucy Stitzer:

Going to be a big ramp up,

Colin Murphy:

I mean, so of the 37 billion that we’re, yeah, of the 37 billion we’re producing, a lot of that is ethanol, which has a lower energy density. So you have to go and take a few billion gallons off that number to reflect the fact that ethanol is not as energy dense. But yeah, we’re looking at an order of assuming we can take all this fuel and push it to the sectors that need it, that don’t have any other options, doubling the amount may be tripling at most.

There’s a lot of uncertainty here with how quickly is air travel going to keep growing? It’s been the fastest growing form of transportation over the last several decades. So are we going to try to reign in the amount of growth in fuel consumption for air travel or are we going to say no air travel has value. Let’s give people this opportunity to experience the world in a really meaningful and important way.

So we’re going to find a way to make enough fuel to keep supporting, giving more people access to it. And that’s a values question as much as it’s an analytics question. But yeah, we’re looking at something where doubling, probably tripling at most, should be able to give us enough fuel to have a transportation system that provides equal or more total access to mobility than it does today. And the other thing to point out is that there are a number of options for producing liquid fuels that aren’t biofuels.

They’re still kind of in their infancy, but there’s been a lot of interest in a process called electrically derived fuels. And in these, you take electricity, you use the power to break apart carbon dioxide, which you can either capture from the air or capture from an industrial source. We’re going to need a lot of carbon capture under any climate plan that’s going to work, use electricity to break the CO2 apart into carbon monoxide. And then you combine the carbon monoxide with hydrogen, which again you make with electricity using electricity to split water apart into hydrogen and oxygen, combine those together and you can assemble them into liquid fuels using a process called Fischer–Tropsch synthesis. And this is something that’s been done for many decades. It’s not terribly efficient.

Lucy Stitzer:

You can use Fischer–Tropsch for everything. It seems like you could use it for biofuels, you can use it for biodiesel, renewable diesel. I mean, it seems like Fischer–Tropsch is the gold standard for converting any type of matter into a fuel.

Colin Murphy:

Yeah, yeah. I mean the process with biomass is you basically break the biomass down into carbon monoxide and hydrogen and then catalytic assemble those into whatever you want. So as long as you have the carbon and the hydrogen coming from somewhere, you can make a liquid fuel. And in this case, we’re using carbon out of CO2 and hydrogen from water. Previously we’d gotten them out of biomass. The thing is, it’s not terribly efficient.

So right now, if you’re trying to do a fisher to synthesis using this process, you’re losing at least half, sometimes more, like even 60% of the energy you put in to things like waste heat and making unwanted chemicals. The chemical process to synthesize this stuff is not perfectly specific. It makes a lot of different things, only some of which are the molecules you actually want. So we’re pretty confident that we can improve that efficiency somewhat.

We can get the energy losses below 50%, definitely maybe down into the 40% level. And so that at least makes it a lot more tractable for us to be able to make several billion gallons, maybe even 10 or 20 billion gallons a year of liquid fuels out of this  Fischer–Tropsch synthesis process. Now, the problem with it is it requires a whole lot of electricity at a time when we are trying to rapidly retire the fossil fuel plants off of our grid because they are what is emitting most of the carbon from the US and from most industrialized economies.

So while we’re trying to go in and retire fossil plants and build enough renewable or other non emitting energy to replace them, if you add on this very large demand to also make a whole bunch of transportation fuel, that really increases the degree of difficulty in terms of getting the electrical grid in turned over. So eels are one of the things where they have the best argument for being a large scale supply of very low carbon fuels in the 2040s probably.

But for the next 10 years, while we’re still getting so much of our electricity off of fossil fuels, it doesn’t really make any sense to burn fossil fuels and then use it to make an EFU when you’re losing half the energy to waste or useless byproducts. So there’s sort of a technology where we need to deploy a few of these facilities at commercial scale in order to start letting the technology mature to get experience with it and to figure out how we’re going to make it more efficient, but it’s not going to be able to provide us a lot of really significant volume at the carbon tendencies. We need until probably at least 10 more like 15 years from now.

Lucy Stitzer:

So like the Fischer–Tropsch technology, we have 2.0.

Colin Murphy:

Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I mean, it has been used in many cases for many decades, but the problem has always been it hasn’t been very efficient. And part of the low efficiency is that lack of selectivity that it makes a lot of different chemicals and not always the ones that you’re looking for or ones that are particularly useful. It’s the kind of problem that humans are usually reasonably good at solving. We’re good at optimizing technological systems, but you have to go and build it to full scale and give people years of experience running these things to figure out, oh, if I tweak this thing here and add a little heat exchanger there or change the chemical composition in this other place, then I can keep incrementally improving the efficiency. So it’s this weird spot where we need to build a few of these facilities at full commercial scale to have that opportunity, but we also need to be careful not to sort of too much of it in the short term because it’s not going to have a very good carbon intensity for a number of years until the grid is much, much cleaner.

Lucy Stitzer:

Really, the biofield market is going to continue to ramp up until 2035, maybe 2040 until we get and solve some of these issues and then also Fischer–Tropsch. And so we really still need corn and soybeans for the next foreseeable future.

Colin Murphy:

So I think that’s the most likely outcome as well. So most of the volume of biofuels used in the US has been determined and driven by the federal policy, the renewable fuel standard, certainly all the corn ethanol, the amount of corn ethanol that the US makes is essentially the amount of corn ethanol that the RFS incentivizes. They don’t go much beyond that level. And the same thing has largely happened with the soybean based diesel substitutes that are growing pretty rapidly right now. And the industry is asking the government to keep expanding the size of the RFS to let them continue growing.

And if you look at the targets that the EPA put out earlier this year, it looks like they’re starting to say it might be time to tap the brakes and not continue this level of growth because they recognize the potential problems that you get into, particularly with land competition as you get to two larger and larger amounts of biofuels.

But the issue is that for both corn and soybeans, biofuels are only part of what they make. So you have about 15 billion gallons a year right now of corn ethanol that’s being produced, and the corn that goes into an ethanol refinery, what the ethanol refinery does, it takes the starch out and makes ethanol out of the starch. But all of the protein, the fiber, most of the other nutrients, and even some of the starch doesn’t convert. Everything gets left behind and gets sold as annual feed called distiller greens.

Most of what would happen, what would’ve happened to that corn if it hadn’t been used for ethanol is it would’ve gone to the animal feed market anyway. So you lose the starch part of the ethanol and that no longer goes to feed the animals. But all of the yeast that ferment the ethanol and grow in the starch, the sort of spend yeast gets added into this diller grain. So you take this corn that would’ve gone a hundred percent annual feed, and instead you have kind of a slightly smaller volume of a higher protein version of animal feed.

All this is to say, at least in the case of corn, we make 15 billion gallons of ethanol. I think it uses about 30% of our corn crop, but it’s not like that 30% of the corn crop goes away, that 30% of the corn crop is still going into annual feed and not having a terribly large impact on the net acreage not a zero impact. It absolutely does have zero impact, and it does cause some land exchange, but it’s not like that 30% is gone and completely out of the food system just comes into the food system in a different way.

Lucy Stitzer:

So I think if you could just explain the four different types just so people can understand what we’re talking about a little bit.

Colin Murphy:

So like you said, ethanol’s kind of the simple one. The way we predominantly make it now is we pull starch out of something in the US it’s pretty much all corn in Brazil or other countries that have a sugar cane industry. The sugar cane is another great way to make ethanol. And then you ferment, you break starch down into sugars, and then you ferment the sugars into alcohols. Essentially the same process you make used for making beer, wine, or spirits just done on an industrial scale. And it wouldn’t taste very good if you tried to drink it directly. And ethanol is currently in the US blended into all gasoline at about a 10% level. That’s what we’ve been doing since the mid two thousands. The having some ethanol gasoline helps the gasoline burn cleaner. You need about six or 7% to really get that clean burning, the oxygen effect.

Beyond that, you’re just trying to reduce the amount of petroleum you use and replace with something that’s lower carbon than petroleum. And there has been a lot of controversy over corn ethanol, whether it is actually lower carbon. There was a very famous study that came out last year, guy named Tyler Lark was the lead author on it, and he made the argument that the RFS was actually ultimately worse, made the corn ethanol worse than petroleum. So I don’t think his methods were quite right. Part of it. The problem with biofuels is a lot of the impact and a lot of greenhouse stuff comes from what we call indirect land use change. And this is where because you have fuel producers now starting to consume agricultural products that historically has only gone into feeding people or animals or a really small number of other industrial uses.

Now the demand for these industrial, these agricultural commodities goes up and somewhere someone in the world is going to have to make more of the stuff to replace what went into fuels. And some of that replacement comes from plowing more land and bringing more land into cultivation. And there’s a big carbon impact from plowing more land. So the LARC paper said because of I luck, the renewable fuel standard and the corn ethanol was worse than the petroleum, there has been a lot of back and forth, there’s several back and forth in terms of open comment letters published by various groups of researchers on that topic. So a lot of methodological uncertainty over that. Beyond that, even if you believe the LARC paper, I think the appropriate take home message from it is maybe we shouldn’t have gone from 15 billion gallons of ethanol we did. And you can’t really unring that bell, even if you sort of stopped and said, well, any land that was cleared, we’ll return to natural form, the carbon’s lost and takes many decades to recover.

And we don’t have that sort of time. So the question I think now is what’s most useful? What’s the way to get the best use out of it? So the other thing with ethanol is there’s a process that some companies have been developed and are looking to commercialize right now where you can convert ethanol into aviation fuel. It’s not entirely unlike the Fischer–Tropsch synthesis we discussed earlier. And it’s small molecule, I’m sorry, it’s a small molecule that you can catalytic assemble into other bigger molecules like the ones that we used to fly planes on. So that might be one of the ways eventually as more EVs take over the on-road space, there’s not going to enough gasoline to blend the ethanol into, and there is some opportunity for us to increase the amount of ethanol we use. Most cars are on road, they can handle 15% ethanol without any problem.

And that would be a way to, again, push petroleum out of the system quicker, or you could turn the ethanol into jet fuel and use it to push petroleum out system that way. And that’s some of the stuff that we’re researching right now for the diesel substitutes. There’s biodiesel and renewable diesel. So biodiesel is made by a process called fatty acid methyl ester, or it’s a relatively simple low energy process to convert. Vegetable oils could be used cooking oil, could be soybean oil or any vegetable oil. You sort of heat it to a medium temperature, add some chemicals, and you can convert it to this biodiesel biodiesel. You can run it into written into most existing diesel engines up to about 20%. If you go over that, you have to start modifying the engine a bit to handle it. Plus, in cold weather, biodiesel starts to, just like most vegetable oils will start to get kind of thick and sludgy and gel up.

So most of the time, biodiesel is blended into regular diesel at a 5% or 7% level, and it’s fine. Doesn’t really cause a lot of problems that way. But because of these infrastructure issues, because of the cold weather performance and the need to only blend to a certain level, it’s not really what people are focused on right now. There’s not a lot of growth in the biodiesel space. Most producers have turned to renewable diesel. They can add some more hydrogen, and if they add a bit more hydrogen, you get a bit more of a coming out like SAF or jet fuel. So you can sort of choose whether you’re going to emphasize the production of renewable diesel or emphasize the production of SAF of renewable jet fuel. To date, most of the policies in the US have made it more beneficial for them to make renewable diesel. So that’s what they do. But with the SAF tax credit under the IRA, it’s likely we’re going to see a lot of the producers starting to tweak their process a bit to push more of their total product out through the SaaS pathways and a little bit less through the diesel pathways. Right.

Lucy Stitzer:

Well, plus the airlines have committed to a higher SAAF percentage.

Colin Murphy:

In the US it’s mostly voluntary commitments and incentives. The Saban challenge, which was the target that was put forth by the Biden administration but didn’t have a whole lot of regulatory teeth behind it, at least not yet, but there’s the SAAF tax credit that’s actually going to make a pretty big difference. Now, there’s a lot of controversy, surprisingly enough in this space controversy around the SAF tax credit and how exactly you’re going to define it. Most of that, again, comes down to this indirect land use change issue. So the way that the tax credit was set forth by Congress was if you’ll have to be at least 50% cleaner than petroleum and you get an additional bonus for every percentage point below 50, they’re able to get. So if you make it even cleaner, you get a larger and larger per gallon incentive.

Lucy Stitzer:

So you go around $1.25. The issue with that is to determine whether you get $1.25 or $1.50 or $1.75 is don’t you have to go back to the farm to determine how they’re growing the corn and determine what type of agriculture they’re using, whether they’re using cover crops or not. And that bodes a whole other series of questions of how do you verify how much carbon they’re sequestering through their growing methods.

Colin Murphy:

That is a big part of it. So we have good tools in the field of lifecycle analysis to understand how much fertilizer and how much diesel and how much electricity is used. For every ton of corn that comes off the field, it’s a lot more complex to understand how the use of a cover crop would affect soil carbon. We know with very high confidence that you can improve the amount of solid carbon retained in the soil by using things like cover crops or compost or possibly biochar or changing the types of crops or the harvest patterns or tilling the soil less. We know there’s a lot of things that can improve it, but soil is a really complex and dynamic system. So knowing that at least pushing that certain things move the needle in the correct direction is one thing, but being able to quantify it and say how many tons per acre are actually being saved?

There is another level of complexity altogether. And then on soil carbon, you also have the issue of permanence. So a farmer can make choices to use cover crops or use compost or switch to no-till agriculture and build up a lot of solid carbon in their soil. But if in five years or 10 years they decide to switch and need to start tilling the soil again, that carbon goes away. And if they received incentives to build up carbon and then in the future they till it and they lose it, all that money is kind of wasted. What they’re being paid for is permanent sequestration of carbon, and it’s not permanent at that point. Or if they sell their land to somebody else, then whoever else has it in the future, they could do the tillage and lose it. So this permanence or reversion risk is one of the things that really makes a lot of the regenerative agriculture policies, incentives so complex on top of the fact that there’s still a lot of uncertainty, and we’re still not able to effectively quantify it without doing a lot of really expensive and time consuming measurement that is probably just too expensive to really allow the farmer to receive much of an incentive, enough incentive for them to want to change their behavior.

So it’s the kind of thing we’re working on, and I think that we’ll keep getting better at it, but there’s a lot of uncertainty around soil carbon. The other big issue is that indirect land use change. The thing with indirect land use change is there’s really no way to develop a sensor that can measure it directly. Because what happens is because somebody is using more soybean oil in the US to make renewable diesel or saf, somebody else in the world might be slashing and burning rainforest in Southeast Asia to do a palm plantation, to grow palm oil, to sell to somebody on their side of the world because the lack of soybean oil coming out of the US has now changed international commodity flows. So there’s really no way for us to very precisely know how much indirect land use change every ton of soybean oil causes.

The only way you can really try to quantify it is through a model. What our models, the uncertainty is very large, and there’s a bunch of places in the model where you have to make these assumptions that are ultimately they’re subjective. There’s no objectively right or wrong way to make it. There’s only a bunch of different subjective ways. For example, when you go soybeans, you get soybean oil and soybean meal. We know how much fertilizer it took to grow the soybeans, so we know how many tons of carbon or grams of carbon were emitted in order to produce this ton of soybeans. But how much of that carbon is the responsibility of the soybean meal versus how much of it is the responsibility of the soybean oil? There’s a lot of different ways to do that. You can look at the mass, you can look at the energy content, you can look at the economic value.

None of them are objectively right or wrong, but they’ll all give you very different answers. And so that’s one of the problems with the model and with modeling eye luck, it’s the only way to assess indirect land use change, but you’re never going to get one definitively correct answer out of it. And so what’s happening with the SAF tax credit is a lot of the producers are asking the Department of Treasury, the ones that have to make the decision because a tax credit, and they’re obviously, they’re not biofuel analysts by nature at Department of Treasury, but they’re asking treasury, okay, well, let’s use this one particular model. And the US uses this model called greet to do lifecycle analysis. It is this fantastically complex model that’s been being developed for 20 years now, and it’s dozens of papers behind it. But in the current version of Greek, they include one IUC estimate based off of a different model.

And this estimate happens to be extremely friendly towards things like corn and soybeans. And so the industry’s saying, well, look, Greek’s the gold standard. This is the thing that they’ve decided to put in for their best guess. So let’s just use that and use that model with that estimate of eye look in order to determine whether we are 50% cleaner than petroleum, and if we are how much far below to figure out the per gallon range. Whereas a lot of other environmental saying, well know you don’t want to use one model. You have to use multiple models and look at the average or look at the range of options that comes out when you make these subjective decisions in different ways. That gives you a better sense of what the actual impact is not to use one of them. And if you do that, then in more justified and reasonable and certainly risk averse way than a lot of the soybean oil fuels or the corn ethanol alcohol to jet fuels wouldn’t be eligible for these credits.

I also recently gave a talk and published a blog post, which is available through our website if you go to lowcarbonfuel.uc.edu under presentations. I gave a talk over the summer talking about this and sort of why you can’t trust any one single model and why you have to go and look at the ensemble of various approaches out there. And even looking at going through the, if we know that we’re, whatever number we pick is probably not going to be right or it’s going to be too high or too low, we need to think about the risks of whether it’s better to overshoot our IUC estimate or to undershoot our ILAC estimate. And when you start thinking through all the various risk factors, it is much, much safer for us to overestimate IUC to take conservative approach and consume maybe less biofuels than would be theoretically optimal because it keeps us away from the more scary and irreversible risks than to error on the other side. So is there a

Lucy Stitzer:

Chance then that the US farmers or any farmer won’t be able to qualify then for selling their corn into the ethanol market?

Colin Murphy:

Well, no, this wouldn’t change the RFS, so this is just whether there would be the option to get an additional credit for producing jet fuel. But yeah, the existing markets aren’t going to change. They’re going to continue the trajectory set by the RFS volume.

Lucy Stitzer:

This is just for SAF, this is, so there’s a possibility then that us farmers wouldn’t be able to sell into the a f market, the ethanol market, but they could sell into the regular ethanol market.

Colin Murphy:

Yeah, that would be it. And so I think the worry is if you adopt too lax of a policy and bring too many biofuels in the system, then you could really start getting a lot of land conversion. And I don’t think there’s necessarily a problem from the food versus fuel standpoint. I mean, that would increase food prices, but probably not a huge amount. It’s more the carbon impact that if we’re going to go and expand agriculture a lot, there’s a huge carbon impact from doing that. You have to do it to feed people. Okay. Feeding people is obviously a priority. We need to do that. So if we have to have some carbon impact and expand land to keep feeding people, that’s one thing. But if we shouldn’t be doing things that have huge carbon impact in the name of, reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, which is really the goal of these biofuel policies. So that’s where we’re sort of getting hung up on, and we’re waiting for treasury to make the decision and see what they ultimately do. But if they choose to take the really lax approach on I luck and let these incentives be given out to a lot of farmers, there’s a chance you could get enough total growth here that you’ll start converting a lot of land globally and the carbon benefits could be pretty bad or they wouldn’t be a benefit at that point.

Lucy Stitzer:

Right. As it pertain to the land use.

Colin Murphy:


Lucy Stitzer:

Portion of the conversation. So let’s circle back to the original actually purpose of this conversation is really, as we do increase renewable fuels with all the ones that we’ve talked about, is there enough land and will there be a food versus fuel debate, putting aside the land use changes and putting aside the regulations and the great standards and all of that, just is there enough land and will there be enough food?

Colin Murphy:

So absolutely there’s enough land. Like we just said before, we jumped ahead a little bit. But the worry here is that we will be producing more corn and soybeans than would be good for the climate. And again, if we have to produce it to feed people, yes, that’s the choice we make, and that’s the right choice. But yeah, so we’re not worried that there’s going to be an absolute lack of land, nor really an absolute lack of food in any way. Are there risks that biofuel policy could increase the price of food? Yes, there are to date, outside of a couple of transient spikes, often around the drought we had in the early 20 teens, we haven’t seen a really massive increase in food prices as a result of fuel policy. It is definitely there, but in a lot of cases, having alternative supplies of fuel means you are less vulnerable to price fluctuations in petroleum.

So yes, there is some increase in the inflation applied to food prices, but less inflation applied to gasoline prices. I’m not enough of an economist to have a really well-informed opinion on the whole, is it better or worse than not having a biofuel policy? But nothing I’ve seen makes us seem like it’s terribly bad. Beyond that, we know that climate change is going to be incredibly bad for a lot of things, including for the food production system because many, many parts of the world that are highly fertile right now won’t be due to higher temperatures and changing rainfall patterns. So as long as the fuels that we’re making are actually lower carbon than the petroleum, they’re displacing. And that has not always been the case. There’s absolutely been several examples where we produce large amounts of fuels that are worse than the petroleum displaced, but many of them are at least lower carbon. And as long as that’s the case, then the value of reducing greenhouse gas emissions probably does more to help secure the long-term food supply from the effects of climate change than it does to hurt it.

Lucy Stitzer:

So it’s not like we’re only growing corn and soybeans only for fuel.

Colin Murphy:

Yes, absolutely. And that’s part of the reason why it’s so hard to analyze the greenhouse gas impacts of biofuels because almost every input has that dual purpose. And so one of the other things that we’ve been seeing is because we had a biofuel policy through the RFF that really until the last five years or so was almost entirely ethanol, really, renewable diesel wasn’t a big thing until five, six years ago because of this policy. We were actually starting to see more growers in the Midwest go from rotations where they do alternate corn and soy every other year, and soy helps add nitrogen because of nitrogen fixing plants. And then also by having different species of plant, you sort of provide a bit of a break in the pathogen cycles, so you need maybe a little bit less herbicide or less additives to controlled diseases for a while.

We’re starting to see more growers going from corn soil rotation to continuous corn because you had this demand for corn biofuels. Well, now with renewable diesel coming online and demanding a lot of soybean oil because that’s the cheapest oil that you can grow really in the western hemisphere, you’re now seeing people go back to corn soy rotations, and that has some additional benefits in terms of slightly reducing the amount of nitrogen fertilizer they need, and slightly reducing the amount of herbicides and other pathogen, chemical pathogen control measures that they have to use. These are, I’m sure, likely to be much smaller than just the big impacts of are these fuels, in fact clean up the petroleum? But they do make a difference. And so the fact that we’re seeing soy growth, there’s some benefits in terms of agronomy there.

Lucy Stitzer:

Well, thank you very much. This has been fascinating and certainly provides a lot of clarity around the renewable fuels conversation.

Colin Murphy:

Yeah, certainly. Happy to help. This is a really complex topic and one that’s going to become increasingly important in the next few years. So very happy to help you and your listeners start to learn more about it. And again, there’s a lot of data and resources available at our website at low carbon fuel dot uc davis.edu.

Lucy Stitzer:

Great. Well, thank you very much.

How AI Can Supercharge Our Food

“It is not what you eat that causes diseases; it is what you don’t eat that is the problem.” 

What is a Bioactive Compound?

If you want to live to be 100, a key strategy is to eat two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables daily. We at D2D wanted to know: WHY?

The answer: It is all in the bioactives – the keys to a healthy life. One of the most innovative advancements in nutrition is using bioactives – a group of naturally occurring compounds that significantly affect the human body. They are naturally occurring and are found most densely in fruits and vegetables. Now, with the support of artificial intelligence, nutrition researchers and technology can uncover and harness the full potential of these compounds, leading to better health outcomes for everyone.

You have heard of them. Terms such as curcumin, resveratrol, flavonoids, ascorbic acid, and even caffeine to name a few. These, plus thousands more, are tiny molecules that have an effect, usually good, on a living organism, tissue, or cell.  Compounds like these keep your heart ticking, immune system ready, muscles strong, cells rejuvenating, and diseases at bay.

Bioactives unlock specific receptors in our body that trigger a cascade of biological responses that can support our health at every level.”

– Jim Flatt, Co-Founder and CEO

Blueberries are truly a great example of a superfood, packed with a variety of essential bioactive compounds. Just a handful every single day have been shown to support cardiovascular, cognitive, and metabolic health. Hence the term, ‘superfood’. But you need to eat them for this to happen….

Their most notable compounds are flavonoids, a type of polyphenol, particularly anthocyanins, which give blueberries their distinctive color. Evidence has shown that these compounds are the ones that can support your heart and your brain. But that is not all. Blueberries are packed with antioxidants, which protect our bodies from damaging free radicals, thereby bolstering our immune system.

Quercetin and Myricetin fight against free radicals and support cardiovascular and overall health. Blueberries are also abundant in essential vitamins like C, K, and E, and vital minerals including manganese, zinc, and iron. Finally, blueberries contain dietary fiber. You can see why they are a superfood.

Though it’s crucial for us to get the multitude of health benefits from fruits and vegetables, sometimes we have to eat a lot to get what we need.  For instance, it is suggested that we get 500 mg of quercetin a day. But you would have to eat about 33 cups of blueberries to get that same amount as they have about 15 mg per cup. We singled out blueberries as a prime example, and my favorite fruit, but every single fruit or vegetable has its own unique family of bioactive compounds.

Plants not only give us food but also clothing, fuel, materials, personal care, and medicine. But we only know about 1% of all the natural plant molecules. The rest are considered the ‘dark matter’ of plants. But imagine if you had a database of the remaining 99% of all bioactives and their health benefits. Imagine if you could utilize artificial intelligence to match bioactive compounds with a solution to a specific human health issue.  That is exactly what Brightseed is doing.

What is Brightseed?

Brightseed, a San Francisco Bay Area startup, is on a ‘mission to restore human health.’ They are considered the pioneers in discovering bioactive compounds and developing innovative ingredients to fuel the proactive health movement. Brightseed is known for their novel and innovative approach using their proprietary artificial intelligence technology, Forager. Forager combs two databases to match a bioactive compound solution for a human disease.


Brightseed scientists begin by examining edible and medicinal plants used by populations worldwide. This includes mining existing databases and producing original data by sourcing specimens from around the globe to feed into Forager.  They then identify the plant compounds and load them into the Forager database. By 2025, this database will host the largest natural compound library in the world.

To date, Forager has mapped 4 million plant compounds – which is 40x more than what is known in published scientific literature – and has identified more than 30,000 predicted bioactives across 22 health areas. Built on their machine learning platform., Forager works in three parts: it predicts bioactive plant sources; it predicts the health benefits triggered in the body;  and it predicts which plants contain each bioactive compound solution for human disease.

Brightseed uses this computational intelligence to ‘illuminate the world of plant compounds’ at a much deeper level and much faster than human research capabilities.  Forager takes the guesswork out of where to begin for clinical research. As a result, the discovery time is 10x faster than traditional research, with a hit rate of 100x higher than pharmaceuticals.

What is in the pipeline?

Brightseed’s Bio Gut Fiber

For instance, the team at Brightseed will ask a question such as, “What bioactive compound can support a healthy gut barrier function?” After inputting the question into Forager, it searches for a match. In this case, Forager found a bioactive compound in the waste stream of hemp to strengthen human gut lining in order to support a healthy gut barrier function.

95% of Americans don’t eat enough fiber, so you may have heard of ‘leaky gut’? Digestion breaks down our food into nutrients to be used by our body to keep us healthy and strong. These nutrients are absorbed through the gut lining into our bloodstream. Think of a screen with very tiny holes. ‘Leaky gut’ is when those holes get too big and more than just nutrients flow into the blood, like bacteria or pathogenic organisms, neither of which you want in your blood.

Forager isolated two compounds: N-trans-caffeoyl tyramine (NCT) and N-trans-feruloyl tyramine (NFT). Why are these important?  They are bioactives found in Brightseed’s proprietary Bio Gut Fiber that gives integrity to the gut lining, helps fill in the leaky holes, and keeps the gut lining strong.

After further research, Brightseed created their proprietary Bio Gut Fiber that can be added to a protein bar, fiber supplement, or even a cookie that can support gut health if eaten daily.

Time to go to sleep

‘What bioactive compound can be isolated to help people fall asleep and stay asleep?” Sleep disorders affect between 50 to 70 million Americans. The older one becomes, the harder it is to sleep, especially for women. Many sleep problems are related to stress- thinking and worrying about the day’s events.

Pharmavite, a supplement company with the purpose of ‘to bring the gift of health to life’ wanted to bring a natural healthy supplement for restorative sleep to market. They collaborated with Brightseed to find a bioactive compound to help sleep and manage stress. Forager found 11 high-efficacy candidates for improving sleep and 16 for stress.  As of this writing, they are in the testing and trial phases.

This is not just limited to human nutrition. Harnessing the power of bioactive compounds can benefit industries such as pharmaceuticals, consumer health, food & and beverage, agriculture, personal care, and animal health. Some of their partnerships today include Danone, Pharmavite, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Ocean Spray, Archer Daniels Midland, and Food Ingredients First. These partnerships are leveraging the power of bioactive to target chronic health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, gut health, and cardiovascular disease.

Getting the Word Out

Brightseed is committed to raising awareness about the important role of bioactives in human health. They have formed a ‘Bioactives Coalition’ with food and health system leaders as advocates for bioactives. They would also like to educate on the scientific evidence to promote these compounds in functional foods, beverages, and supplements.  Their goal is to make them a part of everyday conversation and dietary guidelines.

“Technology and AI are revolutionizing the relationship between food and medicine, revealing the connections between farming practices, soil health, and bioactives as indicators of food’s nutritional value,”

– Ashlie Burkart, MD, CM Chief Scientific Officer at Germin8 Ventures. Associate with the Beifer Center’s Environment and Natural Resources Program, Harvard Kennedy School

Bioactives on the Plate

But if you are still unconvinced about eating your plants, here’s a snapshot of some additional research about why we need to eat our fruits and vegetables.

Cranberries: A study published in the journal Advances in Nutrition highlighted the potential health benefits of cranberries. A powerhouse of bioactive compounds, cranberries contain a myriad of phytonutrients, including phenolic acids, proanthocyanins, anthocyanins, flavonoids, and triterpenoids. These compounds exhibit potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which can combat oxidative stress and inflammation – two underlying factors in many chronic diseases.

Black Garlic: A review article published in Molecules discussed the impact of black garlic and its bioactive components on human health. Pre-clinical trials have shown promising effects that black garlic can prevent several diseases. Most of these benefits can be attributed to its anti-oxidation, anti-inflammation, anti-obesity, hepatoprotection, hypolipidemia, anti-cancer, anti-allergy, immunomodulation, nephroprotection, cardiovascular protection, and neuroprotection.

Strawberries: A study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences revealed that strawberries, particularly their achenes (seeds), are a significant source of antioxidants and other bioactive compounds, contributing to the prevention of inflammation, oxidative stress, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer, and obesity.

Tomatoes: According to a review in the Foods Journal, tomatoes are rich in various bioactive compounds, including antioxidants, which play a role in preventing degenerative diseases, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, eye disease, and cancer. Tomatoes can also improve blood circulation, reduce cholesterol, detoxify toxins, reduce inflammation, and prevent premature aging, among other benefits.

Digging in: Julie Holmstrom, CPG Foods Strategist

Julie Holmstrom is a distinguished Food, Agriculture, and Consumer Packaged Goods Consultant with over three decades of international experience in driving opportunities through comprehensive strategy implementation and Research and Development (R&D) expertise.

Formerly serving as Innovation Technology & Quality Director, Nutrition and Technology Solutions at General Mills, her extensive career spans across the globe, where she has consistently excelled in steering product, process, and packaging development and renovation across diverse categories.

As a technical strategist, Julie possesses a remarkable ability to bridge the gap between technical possibilities and consumer demands, aligning these aspects seamlessly with business objectives.

What is Synthetic Biology?

Welcome back to Dirt to Dinner: Digging In, where we dig into what’s going on in the food and ag world. In this episode, we spoke with Ahmed ‘Eddie’ Qureshi about synthetic biology.

Ahmed is currently a founder of Valorant Health, which provides virtual care resources to over 67 million Americans living in rural and underserved areas. Ahmed started in Synthetic Biology wanting to apply its promise of scaling and iterating for maximum impact in healthcare. He was also a co-founder at DNAWorks, a spinout of the University of Washington’s Molecular Engineering and Sciences department. You can read more about Ahmed here.

Synthetic biology could be the future not only of healthcare, but of our food. This fascinating topic, which is a combination of genetic engineering and computer science, is changing the way we think about food and agriculture.  Simply put, synthetic biology is taking what we know in nature and making it better.

Scientists utilizing synthetic biology can change the DNA in viruses, bacteria, yeasts, plants, or even animals to improve human health, the environment, agriculture, and industrial processes. For instance, it is being used to reduce fertilizer usage on crops, enhance milk protein fermentation for use in non-dairy products, to create a plant-based coating to extend the shelf life of produce, and even to turn mushrooms into leather.

In our conversation with Ahmed, we talk about the definition of synthetic biology, as well as the impact artificial intelligence will have on re-designing living organisms into new products. We hope you enjoy this podcast and learn a few new things along the way.

Can sugar be healthy? Yes!

Bonumose creates delicious, rare sugars that are affordable and healthy. Bonumose has a mindset of “business as a moral imperative” to make a lasting positive effect on the world.

How Sweet it Is!

Tagatose is a rare sugar that not only tastes sweet but has multiple health benefits, such as fiber and prebiotics. It doesn’t affect one’s glycemic index and has fewer calories than regular cane sugar. Because it has the same characteristics as sugar, it can be used in baked goods, sports drinks, candy, ice cream, protein bars, the list goes on to include anything that uses regular sugar.

Join us as we talk to Ed who has 30 years of entrepreneurial business experience as a founder, investor, adviser, and lawyer. Before co-founding Bonumose, he practiced law for 11 years, co-founded an animal food technology company, and designed and implemented a grant-funded venture investment endowment for a foundation in rural Virginia. He has a Bachelor of Arts and Juris Doctor degrees from the University of Virginia.

At the recent Tagatose production kickoff event, the Bonumose team invited Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin to help scoop the first ceremonial spoonful of tagatose. It was wonderful to see the standing room-only crowd, including investors iSelect Fund, ASR Group, The Hershey Company, Applied Food Sciences, Ed Williams, and our friends from Japan. Read the full press release here.

Ukraine Conflict Tops 2022’s Ag Headlines

It All Starts with Ukraine

Our readers already know the important role played by Ukraine in major commodity markets. We have covered the effect of the disruption to production and export of grains and oilseeds, fertilizers, petroleum, and other products from Ukraine. The devastation of battle is taking its toll.

We’ve shown how the end of Ukraine exports early this year risked hunger for millions of dependent customers across the Middle East and Africa. We outlined the run-up in commodity prices and inflation around the world. We helped explain the damage to the intricate ballet of international ocean shipping and the harmful effects of the disruption to post-Covid efforts to restore the efficiency of the supply-chain system. We’ve looked at the enormous effort being made to restore Ukraine’s ability to resume exports and avoid further damage to global food security.

But the D2D staff is unanimous in its judgment that the Ukraine conflict is the story of the year for food and agriculture. It is a story that reaches far beyond the borders of Ukraine, with implications that ripple across the economics of our food system, our continuing climate and environmental needs, and a whole host of simple day-to-day events important to how our food system performs.  Let’s consider just a few examples.

The Economic Story

  • Higher energy costs mean higher cost of food production and distribution
  • Rising commodity prices raise raw material costs for food manufacturers
  • Economic shocks along the food chain eventually show up as food price inflation

Higher costs and price instability translate into higher and more unpredictable prices for consumers everywhere.

What makes the Ukraine conflict an economic story?

  • Simple laws of supply and demand. Ukraine is a major player in global markets for corn, wheat, rapeseed, sunflower oil and other commodities that are cornerstones of the modern system. The sudden subtraction of millions of tons and billions of dollars worth of commodities from the market saw prices skyrocket – wheat up by more than a third, corn by more than 20 percent.
  • Energy is fundamental to food production. Ukraine conflict also helped drive sharp increases in energy costs around the world – and nowhere no more so than agriculture. Fuel costs for driving equipment, crop drying costs, sharply higher prices for nitrogen-based fertilizers – all these energy-related farm expenses cut deeply into farmers’ bottom lines. Transportation costs to deliver food around the world also increased.
  • High prices beget even higher prices. Even as commodity prices drifted lower as the conflict continued and some exports resumed, the overall trend upward remained. Food manufacturers had to pay more, inevitably showing up in prices at the grocery store for consumers. Food inflation during the year reached levels not seen in 40 years, with predictions of an annual increase of 11 percent led by rises in beef, poultry, eggs, dairy, fruit – virtually every major food category.

The Climate

Climate change remains one of our world’s top priorities. Perhaps no other public policy issue has consumed more time, energy and money in recent years, and 2022 saw that focus grow even more intense.

This year’s Convention on Climate Change brought together more than 100 heads of state and government for intense discussions on climate priorities, metrics and timetables.

While a lack of some specific commitments disappointed many, the conference nonetheless marked a major reaffirmation of the global community’s commitment to facing up to the challenges of climate change.

The Environmental Story

  • Dealing with climate change remains a top priority around the world, as global temperatures expect to reach the 1.5-degree C warming level within the next 5-10 years.
  • The entire ag sector increasingly came together during 2022 to address climate change with an aggressive agenda of innovative solutions
  • The Ukraine conflict highlighted our continuing dependence on energy (and fossil fuels) – and the potential for an energy crisis to shift attention and energy away from environmental priorities

2022 saw momentum building within the ag community for collective effort to become an active agent for good in environmental matters.  Ukraine highlights a potentially significant challenge to maintaining that momentum.

Similarly, a collaborative international effort to assess progress in corporate efforts in Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) maintained pressure on the private sector to address climate and other issues deemed important to responsible corporate behavior.

This year’s report examined records from 350 companies and found greatest progress in Europe, followed by Asia. The United States and Australia trailed those leaders but showed noteworthy compliance levels nonetheless. Agriculture is one of the most active and committed sectors in the battle. In 2022, producers, processors, and CPG companies increasingly embraced better farming techniques and new technologies designed not just to protect the water, soil and air but equally to enhance them.

Farm, commodity groups, academic institutions, the private sector, investment groups and other funding sources converged in a shared effort to deal with food waste, greenhouse gases, improved water management, new technologies for every segment of the food chain – and more.

Regenerative agriculture became a newsworthy movement. No till, cover crops, crop rotation, and carbon sequestration is becoming a practice to enhance the soil, protect crops from drought and flooding, and increase yield.

2022’s notable events

  • Supply chain renewal. The pernicious effects of the Covid pandemic lingered through 2022, in many ways. One of the hidden stories of the year may well be the quiet, relentless effort to restore the smooth functioning of our food supply system. Few headlines were devoted to such things as efforts to add more trained labor, incorporate more innovative new transportation and handling technologies, rethink operational systems, rebalance a severely disrupted ocean freight market, and more.
  • Technology investment. It’s an old cliché: Food may nourish the world. But money makes it grow.  During 2022, enormous amounts of money were invested in developing new technologies appropriate to a completely revitalized global food system. Major areas of focus include such areas as crop health, animal health, crop protection and operational management, controlled environments, data science, automation and robotics, just to name a few. Estimates of investment across the spectrum vary and almost defy precise definition.  But with venture capital investment alone last year exceeding $11 billion, estimates of hundreds of billions of dollars flowing into ag technology seem very plausible.
  • Diversification in all its dimensions. Much of the innovation growing throughout 2022 centers on finding new and better uses for agricultural commodities, and the development of new ways of serving emerging societal needs. A recap of the year should not ignore the continuing efforts to advance development of alternative proteins, biofuels, non-chemical plant nutrients, improved seed varieties and other important elements of an evolving global agricultural system
  • It’s the science, stupid. A prominent U.S. politician once gained widespread attention by reminding voters of the key issue in the upcoming election: “It’s the economy, stupid.” 2022 may be the year in which a paraphrase of that sentiment began to gain real traction. Around the world, sometimes small news reports began to track a shift in sentiment among more people and many institutions, away from suspicion and emotion toward acceptance of scientific fact and reality. More and more stories began speaking of the need for intelligent and responsible use of good science as a critical tool in meeting growing food demand. At Dirt to Dinner, we view that trend as one of the most significant positive signs from 2022 for agriculture and consumers everywhere.

Other Noteworthy News

2022 saw far too many newsworthy events to catalogue here. So let’s look for the big news trends they may represent:

  • Quiet efforts to renew and revive our post-Covid supply chain.
  • Massive investment in all kinds of new and innovative ag-related technology right for the 21st century and beyond.
  • Thinking beyond the traditional – in how we use our commodities, the kinds of food we need, and how to produce them.
  • Growing trust in science – based n recognition of its critical role in feeding a bigger, hungrier world.

2022 saw momentum building within the ag community for collective effort to become an active agent for good in environmental matters. Ukraine highlights a potentially significant challenge to maintaining that momentum.

What about 2023?

Hard as it may be to believe, we at Dirt to Dinner don’t have a magic crystal ball that tells us the future. But we work hard to pay attention to what’s going on in the world of food and agriculture. We try to anticipate what is important and newsworthy – topics that might help our readers to know more about our global food system and to make better decisions about the food we all eat.

We have some ideas about what lies ahead in 2023, and we will be keeping our eye on a number of events, trends and noteworthy efforts at innovation and accomplishment across the food chain. We welcome your ideas about what’s to come, and what you would like to see us cover.

To help spur your thinking, let’s wrap up this special year-end review with a very short list of some of the things we’ll be watching in 2023.

  • Resolution of Ukraine conflict. How do we get back to where we were before all this started?
  • Regenerative ag. How is this important new approach to making agriculture a pro-active agent in addressing environmental concerns progressing?
  • Biofuels. What role can agricultural play in reordering our energy system to reduce dependence on fossil fuels?
  • Water management. How do we make smarter use of water?
  • The Farm Bill. Where are we placing our priorities for the future? How does such a proven successful mix of policies need to adapt for the future?
  • Alternative proteins. We need so much more protein for a healthy world. How are we going to produce it?
  • China and its food security challenges. China is front and center in major global agricultural markets. But the country faces enormous food security challenges – rising population, softer economy, climate and land use issues, growing political tensions, and more. What should we watch for?
  • Ag’s stake in labor, immigration and migration issues. Where re we going to find all the people we need to make our huge agricultural system work?
  • Trends in human, animal and plant nutrition. What’s the best way to think about how we provide all the different kinds of nutrients involved in our food system?
  • Trends in food consumption. What are the emerging trends, issues and interests shaping the food decisions made by consumers?
  • Unpredictable but newsworthy events. Holy cow, I never saw that coming. But I better pay attention.

Digging In: Mark McCall, iSelectFund

iSelectFund was created to help solve a complex web of interrelated challenges with food and human health. By connecting investors with the innovative companies fixing these industries, iSelect provides the network to create investment opportunities that are making a real impact on the future of our world.

Mark has over 25 years of experience in investing, executive leadership and business development while growing six early-stage funds/companies. He has extensive experience in impact investing, as an investor, developer, and operator. Most recently he was EVP Business Development for Cadenza Innovation, a leading energy storage technology company.

Previously, Mark was CEO of HPA Sonics, an early stage specialty materials company developing a clean process for the production of a key LED raw material. Prior to that, he was CEO of Greenleaf Biofuels (now American Greenfuels). At Greenleaf, he and his partners built the largest waste-to-biofuel plant in the Northeast U.S. Formerly, Mark was an investment banker at Progress Partners where he led the clean energy practice, and a Managing Director of two long/short equity hedge funds that he helped grow to $500M in combined assets.

Science or Suspicion: Which Dictates Gene Editing’s Future?

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Rule Britannia

This summer, the United Kingdom took the issue of biotechnology and genomics out of the shadows and back into the public limelight. The Tory government introduced legislation that would effectively exempt certain crops and animals from the stringent regulatory constraints currently in force regarding CRISPR.

The U.K.’s action is made possible by its exit from the European Union, where what many consider the draconian regulations severely inhibit the development of new plant and animal genetic advancements. In the E.U., the Genetically Modified Organism Directive issued in 2001 still applies, allowing any of the more than two dozen member states to completely ban the growth of GMO crops or imports of GMO organisms. The University of Dusseldorf’s Sarah Schmidt recently told Science magazine that getting a crop through the E.U.’s regulatory maze “would take years and about $35 million.”

But even outside the E.U. regulatory framework, the proposed U.K. changes to genetic regulation have renewed the same intense opposition. Opponents of the U.K. legislation cite familiar fears of unintended environmental consequences, economic harm to farmers and rural communities, too much market power by commercial interests, lack of transparency to consumers in product labeling, and more.

Genetic optimists hold that despite the clamor, the public opinion pendulum is swinging in what they consider the right direction. Opposition to GMOs remains strongest in Europe, while America and many other countries seem to be moving – at a snail’s pace to many – to recognize and gently embrace the potential within gene editing, CRISPR in particular.

They also point to the willingness of some countries in Africa and other areas most in need of increases in agricultural productivity to consider broader use of GMOs. The threat of imminent food insecurity seems to be a powerful pro-science motivator.

“The advent of new breeding innovations has presented Africa with…innovations [that] will improve the ease, speed, precision, cost and generation time of higher-yielding, superior varieties and breeds with durable resistance to pests, diseases, efficient use of water and nutrients, and adaptable to climate change.”

– Margaret Karembu & Godfrey Ngure, Breaking Barriers with Breeding, ISAAA 2021 Report

GMOs and CRISPR      

While GMOs and CRISPR are both gene editing tools, they differ in their technique. GMOs take a gene from one organism and insert it into another organism. CRISPR edits the gene within an organism. CRISPR offers a way to cut and paste genes within a plant or animal to correct flaws or mistakes or improve how the organism functions. It promises to be simpler, cheaper, and faster than other, more radical approaches to wholesale genetic manipulation and monumentally faster and less haphazard than natural selection. It also requires less cumbersome regulation when compared to GMOs.

Perhaps most appealing to many scientists, it seemed to undercut the hyperbolic fears of “Frankenfood” along with social and environmental degradation and general predictions of universal doom and midnight gloom advanced by anti-science critics.

The technique could help speed the development of more and better plants and animals, with specific benefits to the environment and better nutritional offerings. Imagine new and effective treatments for cancer and other devastating illnesses, altering the breeding patterns of disease-spreading mosquitoes, or the use of animals as much-needed organ donors.

To the curious scientific mind, the possibilities seem almost unending. 

And all the while, farmers could boost productivity and profitability, while hungry consumers everywhere could reap the benefits of more plentiful and nutritious food. Crops could be developed with characteristics that advance the growth of eco-friendly biofuels and plant-based proteins. Animals could be bred to be more productive, more resistant to disease, and less needy of antibiotics. Farmers could expand production into specific crops and animals important to all sorts of additional uses, including answers to climate change challenges. The highly efficient, productive, responsive, sustainable, resilient global food system everyone from Albania to Zimbabwe most wanted seemed tantalizingly close.

Source: bio.org

Promises, Promises

But a decade on, the promise within gene editing still seems more elusive than many would like, especially in global agriculture.

The Philippines last year gained attention when the country approved Golden Rice – a genetically modified rice variety bred to provide additional nutrition, including vitamin A to combat childhood blindness. (Bangladesh also is closely examining the value of allowing Golden Rice to be planted.) At the same time, the Philippine government also approved the use of Bt eggplant for food, feed and processing.

Previous efforts to introduce something this simple prompted violent street protests and burned crops. The intensity of the resistance puzzled many scientists and politicians alike, especially in the Asia region, where rice makes up as much as two-thirds of the daily diet of the average person (and even more among the poor).

The slow pace of adaptation isn’t unique to The Philippines. Gene editing – whether it is GMO or CRISPR – remains the source of animated and often extreme opposition from dedicated cadres of those adamantly opposed to genetically modified organisms in any form. Many environmental groups are at the forefront of opposition, citing fears of unforeseen environmental damages, economic threats to producers, and as yet unrecognized health issues, among other matters.

Many scientists and politicians see rays of sunshine peeking through the gray clouds of doubt and cynicism spun by anti-science factions. Global food and health organizations cite the slow but steady expansion of the roster of nations growing GMO crops.  

GMO crops are grown by about 17 million farmers worldwide, mostly in developed countries. Roughly 70 countries import or grow GMOs, and 29 biotech plant crops.

Top GMO crop-producing nations, in descending order, are the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and India. These five industrial countries produce the largest volume of GMO crops.

The remaining are in the developing world. 19 developing nations – where food needs are arguably greatest – now account for 53 percent of the world’s GMO crops.

Find more details on GMO crops around the world here.

The Data Tell the Tale

Advocates also point to the recently updated genetically engineered regulatory standards from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. After a multi-year review process, the USDA in 2020 issued a new rule called SECURE – the Sustainable, Ecological, Consistent, Uniform, Responsible, Efficient rule – that relaxes some of the more onerous requirements of previous regulations, but far from all of them. (There is no indication which took longer – the review of the genetic science, or the creation of the tortured acronym.)

The new regs sought to give greater developmental leeway for organisms with low-risk levels – those where conventional breeding techniques have demonstrated an acceptable level of safety.

While far from perfect for many in the scientific community, the new rule nevertheless reflects a slow movement toward recognition of the potential value of application of responsible genetic science to an evolving global food system.

GMO proponents also cite a recent letter from 110 Nobel laureates and over 3,500 scientists worldwide calling on GMO opponent Ice International to “re-examine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and food improved through biotechnology; recognize the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies; and abandon their campaign against GMOs in general and Golden Rice in particular.”

Adapt…Or Else

Britain is…doing something good for the world. It all adds up to a cause for optimism to most people. Our food system is in the midst of an important era of continuing adaptation to meet a more complex and demanding set of expectations.

It’s a lot to ask. But science – as CRISPR and GMOs in general indicate – can help us create the optimal food system. We want our food system to do far more than simply feed us. We want it to sustain and regenerate our environment. We want it to provide food that continues to become safer, more nutritious, and delivered in ever-greater choices that match our changing lifestyle.

We want the food system to be fair to all involved, and transparent for all to see how what they eat is produced, processed, and delivered. We want our food system to fight climate change, not contribute to it.

The Rise of Alternative Proteins

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Imagination is a wonderful thing. It is even more incredible when you can realize your dreams. Did you ever think you would eat meat and get your protein from air…yeast…peas…and even mushrooms? These are new sources of protein that replicate the livestock, fish and poultry many of us eat every day…and they taste like the real thing, too.

Which would you choose?

Most consumers don’t yet realize that there are three different types of alternative proteins that achieve the desired amino acid profile.

Plant-based Proteins

Most people are familiar with plant-based burgers such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat.  Impossible is sold everywhere from Target to Starbucks to Walmart to your local grocery store. The perception is that it is healthier than regular meat because it is made from plants. In truth, it depends on the burger, how it was made, the nutritional profile introduced, and the number of ingredients.

Despite all the marketing, the consumer places alternative burgers slightly behind your traditional black bean and veggie burger which may be why Morningstar Farms has the largest unit sales in the frozen section. Chicken alternatives like Daring and Abbot’s Butcher come in third. Interestingly enough, of those surveyed, 66% of consumers prefer to get their alternative meat when they buy their groceries.

Cultivated Proteins 

Egg whites without chickens, fish without the fins, and meat without the animal are all examples of cultivated protein. Instead of being raised on a farm or in the sea, scientists take cells directly from an animal, or bird, or fish, and grow the cells in a lab bioreactor. It is a complicated and safe technology that puts together the animal cells, mixes it with the right speed, and then adds in aeration and various nutrients. These added nutrients are expensive and there are many: glucose, 20 essential and non-essential amino acids, fatty acids, phosphate, trace minerals, and various vitamins, hormones, and other growth factors.

Some of the benefits touted for these proteins are that there are no pesticides, antibiotics, or any ingredients associated with feeding animals. The knowledge and technology are prolific at various companies and university labs all around the world.  Although it could take quite a few years to scale up enough cells to feed 10 billion people eight ounces of protein each day for the same cost as animal-based meat.

Despite its challenges, Singapore’s FDA equivalent was the first regulatory agency to approve cultured meat grown by Esco Aster in partnership with Eat Just.

Fermented Proteins

In this case, it is milk without the cow, or fermenting mushrooms to make dairy, meat, protein powder, and food ingredients, or turning sugars from grain into burgers, chicken, noodles, and snacks. Fermented protein technology is difficult, but the concept is as old as the the creation of beer, wine, sauerkraut, and yogurt.

In ancient times, fermentation used microbes in food, and still uses that same method today. And to make protein alternatives it ferments a variety of live microorganisms to make anything that can be made from an animal, plant, bird, or fish.

What does the future hold?

Each year the technology gets stranger and more real. According to Pitchbook, since 2010, alternative protein start-ups have raised $11 billion, with $8 billion of that raised in just the past two years.

By 2035, Boston Consulting, and other firms, predict that there will be $290 billion invested. That is more, as of this writing, of the market cap of two large protein companies: Tyson and JBS combined. However, these proteins make up less than 1% of the total protein we consume. According to Statista Consumer Market Outlook, the average U.S. per capita consumption was about 0.6 pounds a year, projected to go to 1.7 pounds a year by 2035.

Governments and NGOs are embracing it with investments. The Good Food Institute, a nonprofit is ‘reimagining meat production which is building a world where alternative proteins are the default choice.” In addition, the USDA gave $10 million to Tufts University to develop cultivated meat. The USDA has also given $2.7 million for five alternative protein projects. The National Science Foundation gave $3.5 million to UCLA for their cultivated meat program. The Netherlands announced $65 million for cultivated meat and precision fermentation. Given that Mark Post, one of the originators of cell-based meat is in the Netherlands, this is no surprise.

Another hairy audacious goal

Getting rid of animals entirely? It is one thing to have the technology, it is another thing to change consumer behavior. It will be challenging to ask billions of people to fundamentally change their dietary patterns and habits that consumers know and enjoy. Will alternative protein burgers and steaks still sizzle on the grill for the summer barbeques?

Alternative meat companies – and the financial supporters – are enthusiastically promoting new meat technologies. Patrick Brown of Impossible Foods has said that their mission is to replace the use of animals as food by 2035. ReThink, a think tank, also predicts the demise of the farm animal. Their premise is that by 2030, precision fermentation and production called ‘food as software’ will supersede the animal production system of today.

Max Rye, co-founder of cell-based protein company TurtleTree, told McKinsey that cell based meat can save 78 to 96 percent of GHG compared to traditional agriculture.

Andre Menezes, co-founder of Singapore-based, Next Gen Foods, added: “we don’t have time to wait; we are in a late-stage extinction crisis.”

So what does the consumer say?

We turned to Mintel, a consumer research company for the answer. In Europe, the U.K. and the U.S., many have incorporated plant-based meat into their diet but they still eat animal and bird based protein. For those who choose alternative proteins, they eat according to their values.

“The next five years is a pivotal time for the category. In the shifting socioeconomic environment, the challenge is to meet consumers’ multifaceted value expectations.”

– Dasha Shor, Global Food Analyst at Mintel

The environmental and personal health concerns bring consumers closer to the lab. According to YouGov surveys, 48% of consumers eat meatless meat about once a month and do so because they think it is healthier for them and better for the environment.

According to Mintel, consumers are worried about sustainability and 70% of US consumers agree that food/drink companies/brands can be leaders in protecting the environment.

In addition, Mintel continues to stress that consumers need to feel that they get value for their protein. As inflation rises, alternative protein has to beat animal protein on the price. For instance, Alpha Foods is promoting their plant based Chik’n Nuggets as less expensive than regular chicken to draw people to their category.

But having said all that, 52% of Americans have never tried it.

How does this scale?

This won’t be a simple light switch change as technologies, infrastructure, and supplies must match current production. To create proteins from air, or chickens that don’t live in a hen house, or meat made in a fermentation tank will take years to scale.

Mintel analysts went on to stress the importance of innovation: “meat alternatives will be challenged to deliver not only on health, taste, and price but also attract consumers with hyper-convenient offerings beyond burgers and sausages.” Fermentation technology, and eventually cellular agriculture, will be important solutions to addressing meat alternatives’ taste and texture challenges and meeting the protein needs of the growing global population.

The size of the global protein business is massive. In 2018, the world ate 69 billion chickens and turkeys, and 304 million cattle and pigs. As consumers around the world increase their income they naturally eat more protein. In 2020, that was about 467 million metric tons of animal protein. That would be about 93 pounds per human on earth. In the United States, we have held steady for the past three years eating about 225 pounds of protein per person, per year. That is a lot of protein!

What does the future hold? Both!

Today’s consumers, regardless of their age, are not ‘either/or’ on their protein. Consumers are still excited to eat animal protein as well as look forward to including plant or alternative proteins in their diets. Initial innovation and acceptance will mostly be in Asia-Pacific. This is no surprise due to their high population growth and need for food security.

Will the animals that feed us today become obsolete in eight to 13 years? Probably not. But will technology keep improving and the ability to scale become easier? It is in the human DNA to keep improving and striving forward. We have come a long way from cooking brontosaurus burgers over the fire.

Can genetically engineered salmon save the world?

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Disclaimer: Dirt to Dinner has no commercial interests or links to the organizations or enterprises we write about – only a desire to call attention to innovative approaches to dealing with challenges facing our food system.

We last spoke with AquaBounty President and CEO Sylvia Wulf and CCO David Melbourne in December 2020, just before Covid’s global eruption. Much has happened since then, including the announcement of the opening of a new facility in Ohio and the first distribution of their genetically engineered (“GE”) salmon into the market. We sat down with Sylvia and David again recently to talk about all that’s happened in the last two years.

The formation of genetically engineered salmon

Founded by Elliot Entis in the early 1990s, AquaBounty has been committed to manufacturing the first commercially produced GE salmon. However, the first salmon AquaBounty harvested in 2020 was conventional salmon, which was done to commercialize the Indiana farm before GE salmon eggs were stocked.

Their main facility is in Albany, Indiana – a 122,000-square-foot property that raises 1,200 metric tons of salmon each year. They’re currently sending head-on, gutted fish direct to customers and working with several processing partners who produce fillets required to fill customer orders.  But this will change when AquaBounty opens its new, first large-scale commercial salmon farm in Pioneer, Ohio in 2023.

Pioneer, Ohio groundbreaking event: Jason Robertson, CRB; Tim Derickson, JobsOhio; Lu Cooke, Governor’s office; Megan Hausch, WEDCO; David Kelly, Innovasea; Leonard Hubert, Senator Portman’s office; Sylvia Wulf, AquaBounty President and CEO; Sam White, CRB; and Ed Kidston, Pioneer Mayor. 

With this new facility, AquaBounty will fully manage the filleting process for the salmon. When they do, they’ll start looking for uses for the unused part of the fish, including composting. Pioneer will not only have RAS, or Recirculating Aquaculture System, technology but will also be close to AquaBounty’s major markets, continuing to allow it to generate  a lower carbon footprint than what we see in salmon produced overseas and flown in.

During the Covid shutdown, AquaBounty continued to grow their conventional fish, but the drop in demand created by closed restaurants helped drive up AquaBounty’s inventory. In response, Sylvia and David elected to donate the entire conventional harvest – about 52,000 pounds of fish – to food banks. The decision helped feed people during difficult times. It also provided time to test, learn, and refine their salmon harvesting techniques. These lessons paid off with the very first harvest of GE salmon that followed.

Exterior plans for Pioneer, Ohio facility. 

Sustainability and Technology

AquaBounty’s production method is also more sustainable and better for the environment than catching salmon from the ocean. Land-based harvesting has shown to be more sustainable long-term than harvests that rely on sea cages. AquaBounty salmon also has a lower carbon footprint since they’re not using air freight for distribution, and they use fewer natural resources since production is in a controlled environment.

The technology that AquaBounty uses allows for a more sustainable fish, as well. They use a recirculating aquaculture system (“RAS”), which means that the water is constantly recirculated, cleaned, and filtered, and then goes back out cleaner than when it came in. This not only allows for cleaner water but also uses less water since it’s recycled. The new farm in Pioneer, Ohio, will draw on the latest technology in RAS and will also give the company opportunities for green and renewable energy down the road.

RAS fish are different from other farmed fish because the clean, recycled water removes some unwanted matter from inside the fish. This helps give it the clean, mild flavor. The technology AquaBounty uses has also allowed them to better understand the fish’s microbiome and how it can be changed in the feeding regimen. The consumer can be assured a clean, nutritious fish that’s sustainably produced and will help meet the growing demand for seafood.

Who’s buying GE salmon?

Personally, I haven’t seen a “GE” label or “bioengineered” disclosure on any of the salmon in grocery stores, so where is this GE salmon going? AquaBounty says that its primary focus for distribution is currently on the foodservice channel, seafood distributors, and wholesalers. They’re currently selling all  of their GE salmon to distributors and wholesalers, and being the only company in their specific market, they’re selling out weekly.

So, are we unknowingly eating GE salmon at a restaurant? Maybe. Restaurants don’t have to disclose the source of their seafood offerings (Yes, it could be from a fish farm in China or any other lesser-traced supplier.) Nor do restaurants have to tell you that you’re eating AquaBounty salmon.  It is important to note, however, that the salmon AquaBounty sells to its customers is labeled as GE and contains the Bioengineered disclosure. Taste alone won’t help, either – GE salmon may even taste better than some of the salmon being served to us today.

What do consumers think?

AquaBounty conducted a survey in 2019 to find out what consumers think about GE salmon. The results: most consumers don’t even know what a GMO really is or what it means to be “genetically engineered.” Many consumers also said that they know they’re not supposed to like foods that have been genetically engineered, but they’re not sure why. Seventy percent of consumers said they had the intention to purchase this salmon.

The concern is not the ingredient profile but the environment. Some consumers worry that the GE salmon will escape from their indoor tanks and end up in the oceans and genetically mix with wild salmon. But AquaBounty is land-based, not ocean-based. Their fish swim in tanks with seven layers of containment, meaning the chances of the fish escaping are nearly impossible.

Environmental benefits aside, will consumers taste a difference? It’s not widely discussed, but land-based fish can often have a ‘muddy’ flavor that some consumers contend doesn’t taste ‘clean.’ AquaBounty doesn’t have this issue.

At harvest time, AquaBounty fish are removed from the grow-out tank (where they are fed and, well, grow), then placed in a clean-tank conditioning unit with fresh water.

For the next 12 to 14 days, the fish swim around in waste-free water. The result: a clean flavor: “Seafood that has a strong seafood flavor can be a turn-off to consumers, so people enjoy the mild flavor,” says Melbourne.

From a nutritional standpoint, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference either. AquaBounty GE salmon essentially has the same nutritional profile as other farmed salmon from Norway or the Atlantic Ocean. The only slight difference you may see is in the fat content. Farmed salmon, in general, is fattier than wild salmon, meaning it has a higher omega-3 concentration. And we want this omega 3 fatty acid in our diet for its myriad benefits.

However, it still is a very slight difference. In fact, when the FDA did their review of AquaBounty’s GE salmon, they found that it’s not any different at all than regular farmed salmon.

Why do we need companies like AquaBounty?

Our global population is growing at an alarming rate. By 2050, we’re expected to have a world population of up to 10 billion people; that’s a lot of mouths to feed. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that it’ll take 60% more food to feed these extra two billion people.

The American Heart Association recommends that everyone eat seafood twice a week to lower the chances of developing diet-related illnesses, especially heart disease. Salmon is not only one of the most highly recommended kinds of seafood to consume, but it’s also already second in per capita consumption in the U.S., with shrimp being number one.

So, let’s do a little math here. If there are 10 billion people on the planet, and they all eat the recommended two servings of seafood per week, which would be 104 servings in a year, that’s over one trillion total servings per year. That’s a LOT of fish.

If people start eating the amount of seafood they need every week, where will we get it from? The oceans, rivers, and lakes are already overfished. We need innovations and new solutions; otherwise, there won’t be enough. This is the reason why AquaBounty does what it does.

We can’t shun or turn a blind eye to innovations and ways to grow or produce our food. Companies like AquaBounty will be the reason we have enough food to feed the world. We need new technologies and innovations to constantly keep up with growing demand through a myriad of solutions, without vilifying one another.

Forbidding genetically-engineered foods will not make the world healthier; it’ll just make it a less fed, more hungry, and food-insecure place.

What does the future hold for AquaBounty?

First, AquaBounty embraces e-commerce and wants to sell its fish directly to consumers. Through a sales channel like this, they will be able to sell more fish to the consumer, allowing them to build a relationship and learn how to engage the consumer with the product they’re providing. This includes educating the consumer on their product and the process.

An elevated look inside the planned Pioneer, Ohio facility. 

Sylvia and David also noted that the two things that the world sees as a negative actually helped AquaBounty – Covid-19 and climate change. They found that Covid allowed people to understand the benefits of biotechnology and its targeted way of solving challenges while also being safe and effective.

In terms of climate change, they found that people finally began to understand if we don’t think about our food and supply chain differently, we not only won’t be able to feed the world, but we definitely won’t be able to do it in a way that’s sustainable.

“We can’t eliminate the tools that will allow us to feed the world sustainably.”

– David Melbourne

There’s also a large opportunity for growth for AquaBounty. They’re looking at opening four to five more salmon farms in North America and possibly expanding to the Middle East and South America, as well. Will this allow the United States to hit pause on China, where we get the majority of our seafood?

AquaBounty also says there’s an opportunity for other species to be raised using this kind of technology — not genetically engineered per se, but with similar land-based RAS technology.

Two of these species include shrimp and tilapia. For shrimp, AquaBounty says it can apply its expertise in land-based farming and the understanding they have of biology and water technology to produce more sustainable shrimp.

If AquaBounty can farm tilapia like their land-based salmon, they can produce a more economical fish that’s produced locally and is safer than what we import from China.

As AquaBounty continues to grow and build more salmon farms, their technology will continue to improve. The capital costs will come down, making their GE salmon more attainable for consumer consumption and possibly less expensive than other fish we find in the grocery store. We can’t wait to see where the future takes AquaBounty.

We’ve got questions for you, 2022…

Dear D2D Readers,

We have rounded the corner of the New Year. While we don’t have a crystal ball, we are curious about what the future will hold for food and agriculture as it continues to innovate with new technologies, advances in scientific discoveries, and better information along the value chain from the farmer to the consumer.

Governments and companies are changing the way we address food security, the environment, and consumer health. At D2D, we have covered some of these subjects previously but are now looking harder at how the future will be shaped by those who grow, trade, process, and consume food.

Here are the key questions we see shaping agriculture and our food system in 2022. We’ve included a few links to our previous posts to provide some background information on these topics, but only by exploring ideas can we find meaningful solutions to these challenging questions.

Geopolitical: Trade

What are the trade implications of Xi and Putin, leaders who are looking for homogamy, to expand their borders through military presence as well as social and economic pressure? What does that mean for tariffs, trade, and agribusiness overall? What food and agriculture imports and exports with the United States prevent them from going too far?

As countries expand their reach to acquire cornerstone commodities such as energy, food, and rare minerals, what will be the U.S. and European response? Are sanctions enough?

What does food security mean for China and the rest of the world?

What does agriculture look like in a communist, socialist, and democratic country? What works and what doesn’t? What lessons can we learn from Venezuela?

What does the United States trade? What are the interesting storylines with imports and exports?  What happens in those different markets?

What role does the FDA and USDA play? What does the consumer need from government regulators?

Climate & Agriculture

How can we sustainably feed the world without expanding agriculture’s footprint?

The cattle industry is under attack for emitting methane. What innovations will continue to improve feed digestibility and methane digesters for cattle and dairy?  What is the role of cattle for grasslands and soil?

Will carbon become a new currency? Will the consumer be trading carbon credits? Will the farmer benefit from sequestering carbon in their fields? What are the economic implications along the entire food value chain – from dirt to dinner?

Will regenerative agriculture scale to make a meaningful difference in creating and building up our soil? Can large-scale farming truly sequester carbon?

How will our understanding of the soil and human gut microbiome give us better farming practices as well as nutritional health?

How are the Environmental, Social, and Governance goals of companies changing how food is grown? What are the implications to both the farmer and the consumer?

How soon will rural America have access to stronger internet, such as broadband?

Consumers: Health & Nutrition

Which companies reward their employees to make the connection between the food they eat and health care costs? By focusing on employee and family food plans, which companies have alleviated short-term sick days and long-term illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer?

What advances in genetics will help scientists and doctors tailor nutrition for individual needs?

Will food continue to unite us culturally and individually or simply become another means of highlighting our different agendas and interests?

What does the future hold for the alternative protein industry? Will they continue to be adopted by the consumer?  Will they significantly displace dairy, poultry, beef, and pork? Will the consumer adopt them wholeheartedly or will people eat a mix of proteins? Which countries have the most innovation and acceptance?

What will the aquaculture industry look like? Will the consumer demand more transparency on imported, wild-caught, or farmed fish?

Consumers want to know where their food comes from. What advancements will be made regarding food traceability? Blockchain, DNA testing, and sensors for animal traceability are just a few of the technologies that will bring full disclosure to the consumer.

How can the food system shape and create a healthy narrative for the consumer? Which companies are taking the lead in creating healthy and ‘good for you’ foods that can be found in the center of the grocery aisle?

Home delivery is not just the milkman or your favorite Instacart shopper. What are creative and innovative delivery solutions for both groceries and take-out meals?

What are you particularly concerned about as we move into 2022? Write to us at info@dirt-to-dinner.com to add in your own ideas!

Supply Chain, Inflation & Climate Change

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2021 is, in many respects, a continuation of 2020’s dominant story – the global Covid pandemic. But much of what occupied our attention this year on matters of food and agriculture involves the effects of the pandemic rather than the disease itself.

Jump ahead to:  Inflation    Climate Change    Trade    Supply   Tech    …and, um, these stories

The Supply Chain Mess – No Easy or Quick Answers

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, according to the old adage. 2021 helped reveal what happens when several links in the supply chain from dirt to dinner show a weakness.

Most immediately visible to consumers, perhaps, was the sporadic lack of select food products. A shortage of as many as 80,000 truck drivers helped leave store shelves thinly stocked or even empty from time to time.

Trucks handle more than 70% of our domestic freight, and “nearly every good consumed in the U.S. is put on a truck at some point,” according to the American Trucking Associations.

Our food supply is no exception.

Images of ocean vessels waiting to unload at ports showed how the transportation problems extended far beyond the local store to the entire global marketplace. Costs for ocean shipping, domestic barge cargoes, and trucking rates soared across the board, reflecting the imbalance in transportation supply and demand. Demand for food remained robust, despite the system disruptions.

The big problem wasn’t a shortage of products as much as the inability to maintain the smooth, reliable delivery system that makes our food system normally so efficient. In recognition of that reality, the Federal Trade Commission has demanded information from nine major food retailers as part of a planned investigation into the reasons behind the disruption.

A persistent shortage of workers in meat plants, dairies, and row-crop farms also played a role in disrupting the system, as the effects of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions and extensive government supports played out over the year.

Frustrated farmers, plant managers, and others across the food chain reported difficulty in finding the willing workers needed to harvest crops, maintain herds and flocks, service machinery and equipment, and all the other seemingly countless chores that go into growing, harvesting, storing, processing, manufacturing and distributing the $1.8 trillion dollars spent on food in the United States each year.

Just to put that number in context, note that the much-ballyhooed infrastructure bill passed by Congress this year costs about $1 trillion. So, when America’s food supply chain has problems, everyone sees the effect in the food choices available day to day – the prices paid for that food.

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Inflation – Up, Up and Away

No one needs to be told the cost of food has been going up. We see it every day, in the prices paid at the local grocery store and the bill as the local diner, and everywhere else, for that matter.

The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) pegs the annual inflation rate for food running at 6.8%.

Soaring energy costs account for a significant portion of the increase. But the cost of disruption to the supply chain, higher commodity prices, and other factors also have been playing a role in a steady rise in food costs in the second half of the year, and economists across the public and private sector caution that inflationary pressures will continue across the economy well into 2022.

What’s so significant about 6.8%Consider this fact…

At 6.8% annual inflation, your food bill would double in less than 11 years. At the “normal” annual rate of food inflation over the past 20 years – roughly 2% – it would take 35 years to reach this level.

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Climate Change – For the Better

Concern with global warming accelerated during 2021, from the halls of international organizations and national governments all the way to the farm gate.

Efforts to assess the role played by agriculture in dealing with greenhouse gases, and other climate-related issues dominated the public-policy arena and the minds of farmers everywhere.

The 26th United Nations Climate Summit in Glasgow attracted as many as 30,000 supporters and political leaders from 197 countries, where delegates reaffirmed an international commitment to reducing gas emissions and limiting the projected increase in global temperature. The meeting produced lofty words, but many observers noted that much of the actual work being done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is being done at the local level.

Farmers, often working with various environmental groups and businesses, expanded their adoption of no-till, expanded grassland and crop rotation, and various other regenerative production techniques that help keep carbon in the soil rather than the atmosphere.

Government support for the development of carbon markets also helped drive farm-sector support for these “carbon smart” practices, as an investment in improved technology and environmentally-friendly equipment expanded sharply. The Department of Agriculture’s commitment of $633 million for “climate-smart” infrastructure investment in rural America only added to the momentum.

2021 may well be remembered as the year the ag sector’s role in climate change shifted in public perception from being a cause of global warming to emerging as a critical part of the solution to climate change.

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Trade – An Unquestioned Bright Spot

Despite the gyrations of the domestic market, U.S. agricultural exports are projected to reach record levels in 2021.

Department of Agriculture projections for FY2021 indicate total exports could reach a record $164 billion – up almost $28 billion (21%) from last year.

The United States also continues to rely on numerous food imports, turning to foreign suppliers for about 15% of our food, including about one-third of our fresh vegetables, half our fresh fruit, and more than 90% of our seafood. The fruit and vegetable market in 2021 is estimated at about $5.2 billion, and the seafood market at $3 billion.

Perhaps unlike 2020, the politically contentious issue of U.S.-China agricultural trade seemed to recede from the daily headlines. U.S. officials continue to press China to live up to the purchase commitments made in the 2019 trade agreement, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently expressed concern with the declining U.S. share of total Chinese imports.

But out of the media spotlight, China remains our largest customer, buying almost 18 percent of total U.S. agricultural exports, valued at $28.8 billion.

The trade data makes an important point for producers and consumers alike. Demand for U.S.-grown commodities and food products continues to grow. The world needs food, and the United States exports more food than any other country in the world.

Even when conditions complicate the task of bringing food from dirt to dinner, rising populations and robust economies continue to drive demand – and the U.S. food and agricultural sector consistently comes through in helping to meet it.

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Supply – Enough to Go Around

The supply news from 2021 is good. Despite production challenges created by drought, floods, pandemics, continuing urbanization, political unrest, and so many other factors, we continue to produce enough food to satisfy the caloric needs of a growing world.

Total global production of wheat is up slightly from last year (at 773 million metric tons). Feed grain production is projected to rise to a record 780 million metric tons. Palm oil crops are projected at about 75 million metric tons and soybeans as roughly 60 million.

With the U.S. corn and soybean harvest virtually complete, the Department of Agriculture reports “excellent” national results. Final figures won’t be available until the new year, but initial results indicate a very slight decline in soybean and corn yields from last year, due largely to drought conditions in select growing areas.

The take-away on supply: We continue to produce enough to satisfy a growing world demand for food.

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Technology – No Flashy Headlines, But Important Nonetheless

It rarely gathered headlines in the popular media. But it sure attracted investment dollars in 2021 – and investment drives improvement, according to economists.

2021 helped drive home an important truth: farming is a technology-dependent activity. Better technology can offset labor issues and enable the better productivity and operational efficiency critical to solid bottom lines.

Investment dollars continue to flow into a constantly expanding array of digital and material technological development. Consider just a small sampling:

  • Enterprise software
  • Drones
  • Water management tools
  • Remote sensing
  • Data collection, management & analysis
  • Robotics and automation for crop production, food processing, storage, and transportation
  • Genetics and CRISPR
  • Resource recovery & waste reduction
  • Food sampling and safety

Even before the onset of the Covid pandemic, the global agricultural artificial intelligence market alone was estimated at just over $600 million – with projected annual growth rates of 25 percent in 2019-2025.

It’s not often shouted from the rooftops, but technology may be the single most important factor in the dramatic productivity increases of the past decade.

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And now for something completely different…

From time to time, we also noticed items that didn’t quite grab headlines in the mainstream media or elsewhere. To celebrate the end of 2021 and welcome the new year, we share some of our favorite news items that few seemed to notice.

Joey Chestnut routinely grabs headlines when he wins the annual July 4th Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. This year was no different when the 37-year-old American scarfed down 76 hot dogs (and buns) in 10 minutes to win for the 14th time in his career. Less noted: Women’s champion Michelle Lasco managed to down 30 and ¾ hot dogs in the same time span. Yup, together that’s nearly 100 hot dogs in 10 minutes. It’s also close to 29,000 calories – or over 10 times the daily caloric intake of the typical person. Is this a great country, or what?

A Brazilian cow, unhappy with its prospects as a future delicious dinner, escaped and sought safety in a nearby water park, where it managed to take one last fling at fun by sliding down the park’s lengthy waterslide into the cool and refreshing pool below. Officials reportedly denied the fun-seekers request to “do it again, do it again…” but the happy animal was given a consolation prize of spending the remainder of what we all hope will be a long and happy life courtesy of a kind-hearted rancher 500 miles west of Rio de Janeiro. And BTW, the cow’s new name: Toboga, Portuguese for “waterslide.”

The fine folks in Austin, Minnesota, for years, have enthusiastically observed the glories of the pork delicacy SPAM, with parades, cookouts, and sundry celebratory events. Dirt to Dinner actually has attended this august event and can honestly report it to be one of the finest examples of true Americana anywhere. But we also must note that word has spread about another “Spam Jam” – this version found on Waikiki in Hawaii, where 7 million cans of Spam are consumed each year as a self-proclaimed “cultural tradition.” Cans of the pork delicacy are donated to local food banks if that helps explain the event’s real allure. Let’s ALL go…

And from our friends across the pond, we have this item from the village of Wonersh in Surrey, England. Police report a serial baked-bean bandit, who has a penchant for pouring the product everywhere, from doorsteps to mail slots to cars. Neighborhood watch groups apparently are on stand-by, but the bandit remains as elusive as the wind. There is no word on what snacks may be on hand or if toast also is involved. Sounds like a waste of good protein to us.

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How safe is our food from cyberattacks?   

The United States arrests two foreign nationals months after largest cyberattack on American infrastructure.…

The U.S. Department of Justice announced this week it arrested two men, one a 22-year-old Ukrainian national, the other a 28-year-old Russian national, for their role in the cyberattacks in June that disrupted businesses and government entities in the United States. The DOJ says it also seized more than $6 million in ransom traced back to the hackers.

The arrests come on the heels of two new cyberattacks on agriculture. In September, the cyberhackers hit farm cooperatives in the Midwest, Iowa-based NEW Cooperative and Crystal Valley in Minnesota. Both entities were attacked by what experts believe is the same group that launched the ransomware attack against JBS SA, the nation’s largest meat processor, in June. This comes less than six months after President Biden said he told Russian President Vladimir Putin 16 categories of business, industry, and critical infrastructure in the United States are  “off-limits” to Russian hackers.

Food & Ag in the Crosshairs

At the summit with Putin, President Biden did not reveal what the 16 categories were, but experts believe they are likely the same ones designated as “critical” by the Department of Homeland Security, as shown below.

That’s why alarm bells went off when, after Biden’s warning, the hacker group, known as “BlackMatter”, hit NEW Cooperative for $5.9 million and Crystal Valley for an undisclosed amount? American news outlets report the Russian group posted that they didn’t think NEW Cooperative had enough volume to be a critical company.

New Cooperative disagreed about their volume, telling Modern Farmer the company “provides software to 40 percent of American grain production, as well as feed scheduling for millions of livestock animals.”

The arrests could signal to cyberhackers that future attacks won’t be tolerated.A hit on any part of the food and agricultural sector can not only harm our ability to feed ourselves but to our economy as a whole. The American food and agricultural system accounts for approximately 20% of our nation’s economy. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA) reports food and ag consist of over 2 million farms, almost 1 million restaurants, and more than 200,000 “registered food manufacturing, processing, and storage facilities.”

Many people first heard of cyberattacks, ransomware, and anonymous Russian hackers hitting America’s critical infrastructure when the hackers’ work generated major headlines this past June. But this type of technology terrorism has been around for a while. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has been keeping a detailed timeline of cyberattacks. CSIS says crimes of this nature have been happening since 2006. They only track cyber hacks that hit world governments, defense, high-tech companies, or other economic crimes that cause loss of more than 1 million dollars. That certainly includes the recent attacks on the co-ops as well as the attack this June on JBS SA, the world’s largest seller of meat.

Targeting the Big Players

The Wall Street Journal reports JBS SA paid the hackers $11 million dollars in bitcoin to stop the attack and prevent further damage not only to their company, but to their clients as well. “It was very painful to pay the criminals, but we did the right thing for our customers,” JBS CEO Andre Nogueira told the Journal. In a statement the company released to the press, Nogueira added, “we felt this decision had to be made to prevent any potential risk for our customers.”

Security experts estimate that JBS SA was one of 800-1,500 businesses to be hit by cyberattacks this summer. The hackers also targeted the Keystone pipeline and other government infrastructures. CNBC reports in 2020 that these attacks cost companies $350 million in cryptocurrency, a more than 300% jump from the year prior.

Breakdown of a Cyberattack

Here’s how the cyberattacks work: hackers, mostly from Russia, break into a company’s technological infrastructure using sophisticated software and take their data hostage. The hackers then threaten to cause disruptions, release private information, or delete it unless a ransom is paid (hence the name “ransomware”). These attacks are different from physical attacks on infrastructure in that it is the threat of damage, not the damage itself, that gets companies and governments to react.

Few Americans had ever heard of JBS SA, NEW Cooperative, or Crystal Valley before this year or likely understood how high-tech and sophisticated farming has become. In America, there can be a nostalgic view of farming. Farming has come a long way from the horse and plow. Farmers have tractors working off of GPS, sophisticated technology that enables them to manage their crop inputs, and access to markets to assess the futures market at harvest time. That means our ability to keep grocery store shelves filled with affordable food could be more impacted by technological disruptions than extreme weather events.

Bringing in the Experts

Cybersecurity experts, such as Susan Duncan (right), predict this is just the beginning of ransomware attacks on our nation’s critical infrastructure, with food and agriculture being a high-value target for hackers.

Susan Duncan is the Associate Director for the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station and Director of the Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture at Virginia Tech. Her work is focused on technology and innovations developed and used in agriculture, food, and nutrition.

D2D interviewed Duncan to understand how the food supply chain is recovering from this summer’s ransomware attacks, how vulnerable agricultural technology is, and what’s being done to limit disruptions from hackers.

D2D: Did the ransomware attack carried out in June against JBS surprise you?

Susan: I wouldn’t say [the ransomware attacks] surprised me in the sense that all of us are vulnerable. Also, it wasn’t the first one that happened. Over the past several years, other agriculture and food companies have had ransomware attacks. They just didn’t receive as much publicity, and the general public was less aware of them.

D2D: Now that the average consumer is more aware of the threat, how should we understand the role technology plays in the food we find in the grocery store?

Susan: You are asking about the connection of technology with our food supply, grocery stores, and the restaurants where we typically find our food. Of course, we all recognize that apples come from orchards, bread from wheat, and the meat cuts in the refrigerated unit at the supermarket came from an animal, but what you might not recognize is that we have the technology behind all of that. Those products likely had some form of technology used on the farm, such as drones, robots, sensors, computers on tractors, computer-controlled irrigation systems, and guided technology for managing animal feeding.

These technologies on the farm level generate data, which can be analyzed and translated into information to alert farmers or help them make decisions about how to manage their farm, protect the environment, and protect their crops and animals from extreme weather events like frost or drought. [It can also tell farmers] when to harvest and sell their crops or animals, so the quality and productivity is the highest. They are using technology to watch for weeds and pests growing in their field crops.

D2D: How vulnerable are these technologies? How secure are the systems?

Susan: Great question. We think incorporating agricultural technologies is safe and needed, but some changes are happening that introduce risks that we haven’t previously thought about or focused on. The connectivity of technology, the increased opportunistic and malicious players that seek access to data and computer-controlled equipment, the lack of awareness for protecting the equipment, computers, and software [all] increase vulnerabilities.

The agriculture and food system is huge, complex, and very diverse. As we saw, major companies, like the meat producer and processor JBS, have vulnerabilities. If you operate a small farm with one computer used to manage your business, store your drone data, analyze your crop data, you may not have sufficient financial resources, personal capacity, and experience to secure your computer. But at the same time, you most likely will not be a target. Cyber thieves are looking for targets with a lot of assets. Farmers should continue to use data and technology – the benefits still far outweigh the risks.

D2D: What questions should the farmer be asking upfront when they purchase technology then?

Susan: If [a farmer] purchased an inexpensive drone, what do you know about the security of the data? If there is backdoor access for control where the data from the drone may be used by a company in other way? How could a cyberattack affect your capacity to manage your business operation? Can you trust the drone data? Is the data corrupted or modified, and how might that influence your decisions for the appropriate management of your crops or animals?

These are all hypothetical questions. We don’t see this happening in the marketplace right now. However, I ask these questions so farmers know to read the fine print on all their technology and make sure they know how their data is being used. Overall, we want farmers to continue to use technology and we believe the benefits outweigh the risk by a significant amount.

Farmers using their technology resources and how to use them is just a smart protection measure. I compare it to wearing a seatbelt while driving. Overall, our risk of a car accident is very low, but we still wear a seatbelt. Well, that’s what we advise farmers to do. Read the fine print, understand how your data is collected, used, and secured. It’s precautionary and wise.

As agriculture is increasingly influenced by computers and becomes more reliant on digital data, we want to address the gaps in awareness and skills that are created. These are the most significant sources of vulnerability.

D2D: There is a need then for more education and awareness for farmers?

Susan: Awareness is important. Knowing the technology vendor and what the small print of the contract says is essential. The data you generate from the tractor, drone, sensor, or other technology may actually be owned by the company, and you don’t own your own farm data. Older systems probably need software upgrades to improve security. You know we all went through that experience with our computers. Haven’t we all experienced the situation when our old computer or smartphone couldn’t use the new software or apps? Old software, with its outdated security and coding systems, may not work on our new computer. It’s best to check on the security and get updated software and security systems on computers.

D2D: What else do farmers and processors need to think about as they deliver their products to market?

Susan: We have to think about how the organization or farm transfers information and knowledge to other entities within the food supply chain. There’s that gap between what you did in your company or what your farm might need versus what the upstream or downstream companies might be introducing.

Are you prepared to accept the risks imposed by the company that you work with if they are not attentive to the security of their technologies and computers? The security of our technology is really dependent on the age of the system. It’s also dependent on the amount of expertise within the company, how much they focus on security, and whether or not they’re willing then to take steps so that they have at least that fundamental baseline security process in place. Because most of the agricultural network comprises small and medium-sized farms and companies, they don’t necessarily have all those resources.

D2D: As farmers become more aware and ask the right questions about their technology, what is being done in the agricultural industry to prevent and protect from cyberattacks?

Susan: Several years ago, a colleague who had worked for years in national security talked with us about cyber biosecurity, which is a developing domain at the intersection of cybersecurity, biosecurity, and cyber-physical systems with applications in the life sciences such as agriculture. That introductory conversation has led to a pretty intensive and expansive engagement for us and at a significant time for our country. This is relevant to securing our production agriculture, biotechnology, and food supply chain and making certain that U.S. consumers and people worldwide do not suffer from a lack of food due to malicious cyber-attacks. Academia, the private sector, and government agencies at the state and federal levels are all working together to ensure our farmers and food can remain safe. It is a continuing effort and not one that has a specific beginning and endpoint. There is also not one solution but a myriad of options from better data management to security to preventing the attacks altogether.

D2D: How safe then is our food supply system?

Susan: Our agricultural food system is extremely safe. It’s not just safer from food borne illnesses, but we are building the technology and public/private infrastructure to address these cyberattacks. Sure, these attacks are scary. But the agricultural community has been through worse, and we’ve always come up with solutions. While bad actors will always be in the world, American farmers are responsive and adaptive, and we are tackling this problem head-on. Farmers and consumers should know there is large community of private and government entities working together to address the vulnerabilities in our food system.

Investing in Food for Health @ Crusonia Forum

Dirt to Dinner is pleased to have Carter Williams contribute his knowledge and expertise to our site. Carter Williams is CEO and Managing Partner of iSelect Funds, an early-stage venture firm investing in companies addressing critical global issues. Carter has spent his entire career working on innovation as an engineer at McDonnell Douglas, then at Boeing managing R&D and starting Boeing Ventures. After Boeing, he was President of Gridlogix, which was later bought by Johnson Controls.

Prior to leading iSelect, Carter served as Senior Managing Director at Progress Partners, an energy and technology investment banking firm, and was a Managing Partner at Open Innovation Ventures and a Director at Clayton Capital Partners. Carter is the past President and Founder of the MIT Corporate Venturing Consortium and Co-founder of the MIT Entrepreneurship Society. He has an M.B.A. from the MIT Sloan School and a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Crusonia Forum Brings Together the Changemakers Driving the Future of Food

“We are here to showcase a new wave of companies that are effectively applying technology to improve, disrupt, and transform agriculture, food and health for the better. We have no idea if a future Amazon is in our midst today, but looking back on it we really had no idea that Amazon would be what it has become.

“In 1996, we just stuck to our belief that the effective, focused and thoughtful application of technology was going to lead to something very big, something very important, and most importantly something better. And we were right.”

With those words, Crusonia executive producer Paul Noglows kicked off Crusonia Forum BKLYN 2021, which brought together the investors, entrepreneurs and thought leaders transforming the global food system.

From the roof of Brooklyn Grange, one of the largest rooftop farming companies in the U.S. with 135,000 square feet of cultivated rooftop space across New York City, Noglows and the iSelect team spent the day discussing food innovations, changing consumer demands, new agtech products and more, with presentations from 15 companies working on solutions in each of these areas and more.

This is all happening because, in the U.S., the cost of treating food-related diseases has begun to exceed the cost of the food itself. We spend about $1.6 trillion a year in the United States on food. We spend between $500 billion and $1 trillion on nutrition-related health care. We’re eating ourselves to death and then trying to medicate ourselves out of it, and it’s not working. Diet-related diseases like diabetes, obesity, heart disease and more are among the leading causes of death every year with no signs of slowing down.

The challenge for innovators is solving these two problems — unhealthy eating and expensive healthcare — at once.

The good news is that consumers are clearly ready for change: 39% are actively trying to incorporate more plant-based food into their diet and 67% are open to changing their eating habits that adversely impact the environment. But transforming the global food system for the better can only be accomplished through increased innovation, education and investment.

As iSelect CEO Carter Williams explained: “The world’s population is going to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, and that’s happening because people are living longer. We’re also seeing billions more people moving into the global middle class, and when that happens they want to eat differently. They want to be healthier. They don’t want to eat carbohydrates all the time any longer, they want protein. But protein production is not terribly efficient — two and a half pounds of protein needs to go into the pig to give you a pound of pig to eat.”

That’s just the beginning of the inefficiencies of today’s food system. Based on healthcare spending for diet-related diseases, buying a hamburger today for $1.70 could turn into a lifetime cost of $1.90 for the impacts of that burger over time. The disconnect there shows up in the debate around “fixing” healthcare.

Rather than simply changing how we pay for healthcare or how much those services cost, the way to fix healthcare is to fix the food we eat.

That will reduce the need for expensive healthcare down the road and create a $3.6 trillion market that is going to be transformed over the next 20 years, as today’s small startups grow into the leaders of a new food system.

Here are some highlights from the forum, as well as the presenting companies offering solutions in the space: 

The Next Investment Arbitrage: Food Is Health

Carter Williams: “We have two food systems in the United States today. The first was the very practical system established after World War II. The goal in those days was global stability and feeding a growing population by producing vast amounts of food cheaply, largely based on corn and soy. The second system is more focused on fresh, nutritious foods but access is limited because it costs so much to produce those products today.

“The notion of the future food system is one that is high yield, tasty and nutritious — so that people will want to eat it — but it has to be able to scale. So the question is: how do you get the price down? Innovation is a fundamental, deflationary force that will drive down those costs and create a system that is better and cheaper, more protein-dense with fewer carbohydrates.”


How Did We Get Here? Food System Evolution

Nancy Roman, President and CEO, Partnership for a Healthier America: “We are in the midst of a dynamic, societal revolution in food that will no doubt bring changes to American life as big as the cotton gin and the steam engine. But, as with every transformation in human history, along with new possibilities come consequences, some intended and some unintended.

“We are aware of the incredible power of food to build or destroy our health. I know that those of you who are together today are coming at this from different angles. Some of you lead food companies, others are investors, but all of us are thinking about the future. I challenge you, wherever you sit, to not go into this next decade of change without asking what you can do to keep the connection between food and health front and center.”

“As we innovate in and around agriculture, as we learned painfully the last time around, it is also very difficult to come back and correct the unintended consequences later.

So let’s be intentional now, and don’t hesitate to reach out if you have an idea of how we can drive food equity in this country further faster.”


Food is Health: What’s Your Fix?

Robert H. Lustig, M.D., M.S.L., Professor emeritus of Pediatrics, Division of Endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco: “You probably know that Dannon and Unilever underwent a sugar reduction exercise in the last year and they both touted their success at removing 14% of the added sugar from their portfolio. Well, I’m working with an international food conglomerate called KDD, Kuwaiti Danish Dairy, and they sell sugar in various forms. They sell it in yogurt. They sell it in ice cream. They sell it in juice. They sell it in tomato sauce. As part of my work with them, we have convened a scientific panel and we have determined that we are going to be able to get 78% of the added sugar out of their products by next year. 

“And the reason we can do that is because KDD is not on any stock exchange. It’s privately held. That’s the reason. We’re going to serve as a model for the rest of the food industry. Any food company can do this, but you need data science to analyze every single item in the catalog in order to figure out what’s actually in the food. What do we have to fix? Do we have to get rid of cadmium out of the cocoa? Do we have to get rid of rBST? Do we have to get rid of mercury glyphosate? What sugars need to come out?”


“We’ll be able to actually put data science to work to completely not just to re-engineer, but re-imagine entire food companies. You cannot solve a problem if you don’t know what the problem is.”

Investing in Food Is Health: The View from Wall Street

Brian Holland, Managing Director & Senior Analyst, Cowen: “I think education is the biggest key. An example that comes to mind as far as a segment that has differentiated itself is plant-based beverages because there’s a need state there. Upwards of 80% of consumers in Asia, for instance, are lactose intolerant. So there’s a need state that exists. There’s a value proposition. And that’s ahead of plant-based meat from a merchandising and quality standpoint. Certainly, the plant-based meat space has made tremendous strides to improve the quality in the past decade, but plant-based beverages have been a little bit ahead of that.

“And then again, it goes back to size and scale. Until we get to a point of mainstreaming we can’t think about the consumer treating these products differently or consuming them differently.

“Right now we can define the baskets of alternative products around which everyone’s competing, but ultimately we need to see how the consumers behave once they are better educated about these products.

“Right now I know these products are cleaner. I know they’re more sustainable. I’m making a decision based off of that myself. When we start to see that happen more broadly is when consumers will start to look at these products as being different from the incumbents.”

Panel on investment opportunities and challenges in Food is Health. Left to right: Carter Williams, CEO, iSelect; Sanjeev Krishnan, Chief Investment Officer, S2G Ventures; Matt Crisp, CEO & Co-founder, Benson Hill; David Lee, President, AppHarvest.

Learn more about Crusonia Forum and register for future events at CrusoniaForum.com.

21st Century Fermentation: Disrupting More Than Our Food

On the run? LISTEN to our post!

I just got out of the lake this morning after a long swim. It was lovely…blue skies, a bit of early morning breeze, and a loon calling nearby. Afterward, I am always starving, so I dutifully made my post-workout smoothie. As I blended my easy and quick protein powder mixed with milk, hemp hearts, yogurt, avocado, and fruit, I started to think of the new technology on the block – Synthetic Biology.

Moving beyond the lab…

What if my milk and yogurt didn’t come from a cow, an almond, or an oat, but really from fermented yeast? What if the steak I planned to cook for dinner was made from mushroom roots? The same food we know and love, but just made a different way. But make no mistake about the term ‘synthetic’.

The word ‘synthetic’ can make people fear companies are making ‘fake’ food…but that is not what is happening at all. It is really taking food proteins and putting them through the fermentation process. Similar to Kombucha, or the beer we drink on the weekend, fermentation technology has been around for thousands of years. Today, we have just adapted fermentation to the 21st century. Though there are about four different methods of synthetic biology, for the purposes of food, we are mainly talking about the fermentation process.

So how can these innovations be used in food and agriculture to feed the growing population sustainably and nutritionally? Synthetic biology seems to have some of the answers. So much so, that by 2030, it is predicted that most people will have eaten, worn, or used something created by synthetic biology. McKinsey predicts that the annual direct economic potential ranges between $2-4 billion, with around $1 billion of that attributed to material changes in agriculture, aquaculture, and food. Markets and Markets has an even higher prediction; that by 2026, the market will reach $31 billion.

The SynBioBeta report ranks the food and food ingredients industry as the second-highest in the number of investments, behind therapeutics and before life sciences, agriculture, and energy.

Solutions in agriculture range from fully utilizing the soil microbiome to aid in sustainable and increased agricultural production.

And solutions in food are replacing traditional meat, poultry, and seafood with meat created in a lab either by growing cells in a petri dish or fermenting bacteria or yeast.

Some of the companies that create these unique products state they are more sustainable for the environment and can address animal welfare issues.

…and into your fridge

If any of you have eaten the Impossible Burger, then you have experienced food made with synthetic biology. Remember when you took a bite and it was red and juicy, just like a hamburger? This was accomplished by isolating the leghemoglobin protein in the soybean plant that carries oxygen to the root nodules via the protein heme.

In animals, hemoglobin is essential and carries oxygen from the lungs to the cells. That is the part of the hamburger from a cow that ‘bleeds’. Scientists at Impossible Foods make the heme with the leghemoglobin and fermenting it with genetically engineered yeast.

Let’s say you want to make ice cream or cream cheese, but not use milk from a cow. A company called Perfect Day teamed up with agricultural company ADM to create milk proteins without the milk.

Perfect Day orders the necessary milk proteins, whey, and casein from a company with a genetic database that can send you actual genes in the mail. Scientists at Perfect Day combine these proteins in a fermentation tank with a specific synthetically-engineered microflora that ‘supercharges’ the proteins. Then the substance we think of ‘milk’ is created. They even have a non-fat ‘fat’ called Epogee to make the ice cream taste delicious without the calories.

Who would have thought fermenting fungi could create an edible protein? The company Enough also uses fermentation technology to create a meat-like substance, called ABUNDA, by fermenting fungi with sugar feedstocks from grains. This fermented meat substitute has fiber, all nine essential amino acids, vitamin B12, zinc, and iron.

Partnering with Unilever, Enough’s website states that producing one million tonnes of ABUNDA will replace five million cows, over 1.2 billion chickens and reduce more than five million tonnes of CO2.

Broadening synthetic applications

Of course, cows produce much more than just meat that we eat. At least 47% of the cow is used for leather, garden fertilizer, jet engine lubricants, tallow…the list is endless. Much of these synthetic materials replace the traditional cow hide, alligator skin, or spider silk. In one case, even jet engine lubricants.

The leather coat you wear, or the belt, even the shoes, all come from an animal – most likely cattle. Modern Meadow, however, is replacing animal-based leather with biofabrication using bio-engineered proteins and fermentation. They grow their protein cells with a yeast culture into collagen which, in turn, goes into making various materials (check out their very interesting process here).

A backpack out of mushrooms? Ecovative Design grows material using the familiar button mushrooms. By fermenting the mycelium – the root structure of the mushroom – they can turn proteins such as cellulose, lignin, collagen, or non-spider silk into strong, soft silk, leather, or even whole-cut meats.

The interesting phrase here is ‘whole-cut meats’. Normally, cell-based meats (those made in a lab) or plant-based meats lack the ‘scaffolding’ to hold it all together. That is why most of the alternative meats are made into a ‘hamburger’. But these fermented mushrooms from Evocative Design can grow into a structure that can help create a steak or a specific cut of meat.

Working in conjunction with Bolt Threads, the British fashion designer Stella McCarthy created a ‘leather’ purse out of the mycelium. Bolt Threads has created manmade spider silk ‘stronger than steel and softer than a cloud.’

Synthetic biology can now supercharge your vegetables, too. For instance, we all know that broccoli is good for us. Today, that saying has never had more meaning. Scientists in Singapore used synthetic biology to restructure a common and benign form of E. coli, Nissle, that is found in our gut. They engineered the bacteria into a probiotic that attaches to the cell of a cancerous tumor in the colon. These bacteria then secreted an enzyme – found in broccoli – into the cell. This concoction became an anti-cancer agent killing up to 75% of tumors in mice. In the future, this could be used as colon cancer prevention or a way to ‘mop up’ cancer cells after surgery, something just plain old broccoli can’t do.

Unfolding and reconstructing DNA

We have come a long way from Gregor Mendel when he began experimenting with crossbreeding pea plants in 1865.

DNA is the blueprint for every single organism. Synthetic biology can rearrange DNA to make whatever material or organism we want. This may sound confusing but let’s start with the basics.

We are familiar with computer coding using a combination of 0s and 1s. It always amazes me what you can do with just two numbers. Well, take four chemical building blocks identified primarily as their letters: A, C, T, G.

These chemical building blocks, called DNA, come together to form genes that instruct our cells to function how we want.

Our genes give us the color of our eyes, our height, and all the genetic codes that make us human. Remember Legos? You could build whatever was in your imagination: an airplane, a motorcycle, a spaceship, the list was endless. Think of the four letters in DNA as four different colored and shaped Lego pieces. Synthetic biology allows us to recreate the DNA in our food and other materials, essentially making our own Lego designs with whichever instructions we choose.

Mail-order genes?

What makes this easy – relatively – are companies that specialize in synthesizing and selling genes. They have what is called a genetic library. We used to go to a library to check out books. Now we look online to find the gene we want and get it delivered to our lab or office.  Twist Biosciences “gives you the flexibility to get the DNA you want, the way you want it. Think bigger, expand your design scope, and accelerate discovery”.

Illumina is sequencing the genes of all living organisms.

If someone is designing and building new products, Illumina provides the infrastructure to figure out the genetic pattern of the A, T, C, & Gs. Like the Legos, you need to make a structure so Illumina will tell you which genes you need.


A company like Ginko Bioworks will restructure the ‘Legos’, or genes, into what you want. But you can’t make the Lego airplane without knowing which pieces you need.

A company doesn’t need to have the technical skills to be a gene sequencer or a protein builder to make milk or meat – they only need certain starter feedstocks, usually sugars that come from grains. Then it goes through the fermentation process to make the desired proteins. For instance, if a company is an expert in fermentation, then they can order the genes they need from a company like Ginkgo Bioworks to make any kind of meat, milk, fabric, or building material.

The world needs protein!

Synthetic biology can synthesize parts of DNA to make plants more resilient to disease, have greater nutrition, and be resistant to climate change.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the most well-funded companies in the synthetic biology space are all focused on feeding people. A high-protein diet is more than a new eating craze — it’s essential to our health. Protein is essential not just after we run, jump, swim, or left weights.  It is the basic building block of life that “keeps the lights on” in our bodies.

Our growing world needs to fuel itself with protein. As COVID-19 continues to rage, it’s more important than ever that humans produce and consume enough protein to boost their immune system, heal from illness and injury, and move and store nutrients throughout the blood.

That is probably why the amount of protein consumed by the world is such a staggering number. The world eats about 467 million metric tons of protein a year. If you put all that meat in rail cars, how long is that train? It would go around the Earth’s equator almost two times.

And by 2035, those 532 million metric tonnes of protein will go around over two times, which is essentially adding a train of railcars going from coast to coast 2.5 times across the United States. The world needs to grow a lot of protein!

Precision fermentation won’t replace all protein, but it will certainly help fill up the rail cars. While we just focused on protein, the market has significantly more potential via the broader technology of synthetic biology.

There is a race between Europe, China, and the U.S. to have the most competitive technology and capture the most of the potential $31 billion in global revenue. That competition will spur excellence, innovation, and an expediated timeline.

This means sooner, rather than later, we may soon have our broccoli spears fighting cancer and grown in a lab down the road.

Can Rural America Lead in AgTech?

Lucy recently spoke at a Boy Scouts of America event hosting community business leaders and politicians in Pennsylvania. She chose to speak about rural America’s potential to pave the way for the future of agricultural innovations.

Below is her speech.

Thank you for the introduction, Jeff Homer, President of Grovedale Winery. And thank you to the Andaste District Scouts for having me here tonight to speak to all of you about my favorite subjects: agriculture, food, and the technologies that lead us.

Even though my experience as a Girl Scout was very brief, the Boy Scouts are near and dear to my heart because my husband is an Eagle Scout and has remained involved with the Scouts for years. In fact, the Scouts are one of the reasons we are married.

When he asked my father to marry me, surprised for sure as we had only been dating a couple of months, he said no. But then, when my parents discovered that Mark was an Eagle Scout, they embraced him warmly.

So, my advice to you is to forget match.com – just become an Eagle Scout and make sure your future wife’s family knows it. You see, being a Scout – especially an Eagle Scout – still means something in this world. It signaled to my parents more than anything that Mark would be a good husband and father.

The Scouts are about character. Your values: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent –set you apart from many in our country. You cannot be a leader with virtue. What the scouts teach are the virtues needed for children to grow into good citizens.

I love how these values coincide with the American farmer. Every day we can thank a farmer for what is on our plate. America has one of the most affordable, clean, safe, and efficient food systems in the world. This is accomplished by hard-working people who have a strong purpose to bring food to your table.

I think a lot about agriculture, science, and food…

My interest in food really solidified when I had children. Two of them, including myself, have a blood disorder. To keep our immune systems strong, our pediatrician told me to make sure we ate well. What did that mean? I thought that it simply meant organic. But as I investigated further, I began to understand that there are many ways to bring healthy, safe, clean food to the dinner table.

The grocery store was – and still is – telling me that hormones are terrible in milk (all cows have hormones), GMOs are frankenfood , glyphosate – the main chemical in the weed killer Roundup – is poisoning our food, gluten is causing everything from allergies to back pain, and chickens raised indoors, cattle at the feedlot, and dairy cows in the milking parlor are experiencing animal welfare issues.

So other than starve to death – what was I supposed to do?

I started visiting farms, feedlots, dairy farms, and saw that none of this was true. Sure, some farmers and farms are better than others, but this dichotomy made me uncomfortable, and I wanted the truth to be told That’s why I started my blog, Dirt to Dinner. Our mission is to inspire curiosity, knowledge, and action about our food from the farmer’s field to the dinner table, using science as our guide.

I recently had the chance to think about agriculture from a unique perspective…the seat of my motorcycle. My husband, one of our sons, and I love to ride through the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside on our bikes.

As the wind was whipping by me and the rows of corn and dairy farms faded into a blur – I started thinking about how important our farmers are who grow our corn, meat, dairy, soybeans, fruits, and vegetables to feed the 7.71 billion of us on Earth. In less than four years, that number will jump to over 8 billion. This global increase of 400 million more people is more than the population in our entire country – in less than four years.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that we need 60% more food to feed the extra two billion people by 2050. It sounds like a long way away. But for those of you who are teenagers, you’ll be in your 50s. You are the ones that will shape the world you inherit.

How are you going to make sure the world is what you want it to be?

Will the farmer growing the corn I whizzed by have fresh water? Will he, or she, create and maintain healthy soil? Will we be eating meat from animals or foods made in a lab? And if it is grown in a lab, what does that mean for rural America and the farming communities that sustain it? At D2D we talk a lot about technology and how that is shaping our food system. It is the future. And I wonder if we are all prepared?

Logically, you might think that to produce more food, we need more land to farm. The good news? We can do this on existing agricultural land because of innovations in agricultural technology. And, personally, I love companies that solve problems and deliver solutions.

In the ’90s, someone told me that I would have my own personal phone number that would be carried around with me. I thought, ‘What is wrong with our house phone?’ Look at what sticks in our back pocket now. It is not just our phone number: it is movies, games, the internet of things. That is in my adult lifetime. Think of agriculture as making the same leaps.

Examining the challenges of sustainability

Sustainability means that our generation leaves your generation with clean water, healthy soil, no child labor, fair labor practices, animal welfare, enough water, clean air…the list is endless. Basically growing food with Scout values – meaning – Do the right thing.

And the first place to start answering that question is by starting at our feet. The next time you’re outside around dirt – pick up a small handful – and take a good look. Did you know that you would be looking at more microbes than all 7.8 billion people on Earth today? A small handful of soil has more diversity than all the frogs, plants, monkeys, birds, panthers, miniature elephants, and other billions of species in the vast, vast Amazon Rainforest.

Stop. Think about that for a minute…just in a handful of soil. All these fungi, insects, bacteria, and algae happily coexist in the soil keep us alive by growing our food. They control pathogens, reduce plant disease outbreaks, give plants nutrients, keep them resilient, give them energy to pull carbon out of the air, make land less prone to wind and water erosion, clean and filter water, and finally are a source of human medicine.

Here’s a great example of a very well-educated farmer who makes the most of his soil. Last summer we rode our motorcycles down to Trout Run to see Dave Albert’s farm, Misty Mountain.

Dave is the sixth generation of his family to farm the land. His ancestor and his wife immigrated to Philadelphia from Germany. After they got acclimated to their new country, they walked 200 miles to Trout Run pushing a wheelbarrow with their belongings.

Today Dave has a successful beef operation growing corn, soybeans, oats, barley, and canola to feed their cattle, sheep, and pastured poultry. How?

Dave became a soil expert reading about regenerative ag and is applying that to his farm today. He knows his soil is healthy because he can achieve the same yield per acre as conventional farmers with little to no herbicides and pesticides. He understands the power of the mighty microbes.

There’s more than one way

Big multinational companies, like Bayer and Mosaic, and smaller start-ups, like MyLand and AgBiome, are also changing the way we look and use soil.

Each farm has its own microalgae in the soil – just like we all have our own gut microbiome. Mine is different from yours and yours is different from your siblings. This company looks at which algae is essential to that specific farm. They then grow those algae in small vessels with lights and correct temperature. They make millions of cells – and sprays it back onto the soil using the farm’s irrigation system. in a tractor-trailer housed on the farm. The farm then uses less fertilizer, less water and increases their yield and thus their revenue.

Another company looks at all the soil microbes that kill insects, fungus, and weeds. They sequence the DNA, grow them in a lab, and take them out to spray on the field to have healthy crops – without pesticides and herbicides. Healthy soil, healthy planet.

These companies are leading agriculture to sustainability while making the difference between profitability and bankruptcy for family farms.

Animals can benefit, too…

It is not just soil that has excellent new technologies with sustainability. Animal welfare – taking care of our animals whether they are in a feedlot getting fat for our dinner plates, giving us milk to drink, ice cream, and mozzarella cheese, or chickens giving us eggs or chicken salad sandwiches is the right thing to do.

How do we keep track of all these animals? If one is not feeling well, they might tell you by a droopy head, not eating, not socializing. But when a farmer has hundreds of cattle on the range or in the dairy barn – it is hard to tell how each one is feeling. And often when they are sick, it is too late and you have to call the vet.

Today, it is not going a problem to keep track of them. Anyone wearing an Apple Watch or Fitbit?

Great – so is the cow.

Just like our watches – the cow version of fit bit is a necklace they wear. Where they are (important on the range), whether they are socializing, their body temperature, how much they are eating, and if they are a dairy cow, how much milk they are producing. One company does facial recognition for dairy cows instead of a necklace – because necklaces fall off.

These technologies relay information to sensors on gates and after leaving the milking parlor, if a cow is deemed to have a problem, she is automatically sorted into a ‘sick pen’. The herd manager immediately receives a text on his phone and goes to attend to the cow so she can be taken care of before she gets so sick that she needs antibiotics. Or if it is cattle on the range, the herd manager also receives this information on his phone. He, or she, can even move the cattle from pasture to pasture from sensors on the gates.

This unique technology is not only a more humane approach; it enhances the margin for the farmer by keeping their animals healthy which then makes the farmer more competitive in the market.

Alt meat’s place in the global food system

Of course, no conversation about cows would be complete without including alternative meats.

The world is also full of carnivores. According to Research and Markets, alternative meat consumption, mostly alt-poultry, beef, and pork, is projected to have a compounded annual growth rate of 7.4% through 2025. Did you know Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America will drive 83% of this growth?

As more and more people come out of poverty thanks to the free market, they can afford and consume more meat. Once people begin making more than $5,000 a year – yes, a year – they start incorporating protein in their diets.

Right now, the world eats about 300 million metric tons of meat a year. That doesn’t include sheep and goats. If you put all that meat in a rail-cars, how long is that train? It would go around the Earth’s equator almost two times.

I am so curious as to what will happen with the future of meat. Will this industry be entirely disrupted? It just might. There are four different ways to get meat.

How many of you have had the Impossible Burger or Beyond Burger? These are burgers made out of pea protein, potato protein, water, coconut or canola oil, and several other ingredients. They are not necessarily healthier or cheaper than a lean beef burger but they have created a lot of excitement. It is a great ‘meat’ option for vegans and vegetarians. And both CEOs are committed to improving the technology.

The other non-meat option is grown in a lab. It is called cell-based meat. For instance, Upside Foods, takes cells from a particular part of a cow, duck, and chicken and grows them in a lab to make flank steak, duck breast, or chicken thighs. We went to visit them in San Francisco. It was an impressive lab for sure. But this technology is challenging as you need science technicians to literally babysit the cells, cull out the bad ones, and feed the good ones so they can grow into a meal.

The cell-based meat was initially about $5,000 a hamburger. So, you haven’t seen it on the dollar menu at McDonald’s.

Not yet…

Finally, there is synthetic biology. This is the future. Many of you are familiar with the 0s and 1s used for computer programming. It always amazes me what you can do with just two numbers. Well, take four letters instead: A, C, T, G.

They make up our DNA – and all DNA of every single living organism. Your DNA is the blueprint for your body. Each one of your cells holds this six-foot-long strand tightly wrapped and folded within the nucleus.

Synthetic biology can change the genetic code within an organism and make it do something it might not do otherwise. Or, put another way, we can create food, medicine, lumber, clothing in entirely unconventional and different ways.

Ginkgo Bioworks can make vegan ice cream by programing and fermenting yeast to create the perfect milk protein. Ecovative Design ‘grows materials’ with mycelium – the root structure of a mushroom to grow meat that tastes like crab cakes or bacon.

We need all tools in our toolbelts to thrive

As I said before there are four ways to make meat. Don’t buy into ‘canceling’ out an entire industry. We can’t say, “Oh it’s better for the earth if we just make our food in a lab” and then wipe out traditional ways of raising meat. Because that does more than remove cows and chickens from our diets – it removes much of rural America’s way of life. Also, we will need all ways to feed a growing population who need protein in their diets.

Food can unite people – let’s not let it divide people. My point here is we do not need a protein war like we have a political and culture war between our very own shores.

The technologies I have just discussed are all successful – today. But they were generated on the backs of many, many failures. Rumor has it Edison tried 1000 times for the lightbulb. Everyone who has had success has failed. I certainly have.

Being a leader means stepping out and just get started.

I was worried about starting D2D. Take a risk my uncle said! If it doesn’t work – then shut it down. So far – so good. We are trying to take a leadership role by encouraging and embracing new and safe technologies that can increase our yield and grow our food in the most sustainable and healthy way.

Being a leader means taking the values you cherish as a scout and making a difference in your community – your world.

One of my favorite D2D stories is about Farm Link. During COVID, a college-aged boy was sitting around at his kitchen table – maybe a bit bored. His mother said, go out and do something – make a difference. So he and three of his friends linked the food waste problem in our country with food banks. Food waste is a serious issue: if you were to grow a garden the size of a football field, take all the food from the 40-yard line to the goal post – and throw it away. That is how much food is wasted every day.

The goal of Farm Link is simple: to rescue wasted and surplus food from farms and connect them with food banks around the country in need of food. This was especially poignant during Covid.

The time is now

Here is where you can come in. One of the worries for our country is the decline of income in rural American. I see the problems of rural America when I fly my Super Cub over the countryside. (I also love to fly airplanes). Even from 500 feet over the ground, you can tell that some farms are thriving, and some are struggling or non-existent with junk in the front yard.

Much of our manufacturing has moved to China. A bigger worry is that we have put cheap pharmaceuticals, furniture, clothes, and almost everything we buy ahead of American jobs. But the one thing we have not exported is our food.

We grow enough food to food 350 million people plus many in the rest of the world. But we can’t if we don’t accept technology and try new things. America exports our corn, soybeans, meat, fruits, and vegetables.

How can you link the need for income growth in rural America with our food security? Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, Texas North Carolina are all states that are attracting businesses. Why not Pennsylvania? Why not change the tax and regulatory code in the county where you live to bring in new types of business thus creating jobs and income?

Why not grow fish in the middle of our state? The oceans are certainly getting overfished. You really don’t know whether you are eating cod or grouper? Is your fish really Chilean sea bass or something grown in China? Honestly, we have no idea. How about home-grown fish in rural America? It is a unique idea for sure, but why not grow salmon, shrimp, tilapia all indoors in a clean safe environment and truck them fresh to the grocery store?

A high percentage of Americans are obese, have diabetes, heart disease, or cancer. Much of that can be changed with our diets. Just eat five to seven servings of fruits and vegetables a day. But access to affordable produce is tough. It is cheaper to eat a box of macaroni and cheese with a hamburger than eating your required fruit and vegetable servings. So how to make it easier, more affordable, and more accessible? What about vertical farming? Nutritious fresh produce delivered that is grown hydroponically right to the market is wonderful – especially in the wintertime. This is a new and expanding industry that grows lettuce and other produce year-round?

We can reinvigorate rural America – places where traditional manufacturing and industry have abandoned our towns and counties – but we can only do this by being open to new and innovative ways of doing old things…— it starts not with governments or industries but us – people just like you…

It will take pioneers – friendly and courteous and educated and helping one another along the way…you can be today’s pioneers. You don’t have to be Elon Musk or Richard Branson.

Millions of Americans have gone before you and done it. They were not all wealthy. Most had no connections and had left behind everything they knew – think of Dave Albert’s ancestors. Scouts, you can create your own legacy of making the world a better place. That is the definition of a good life and what all people of character strive for.

Thank you all for your time tonight.

The Protein Blues: Confessions of a Confirmed Carnivore

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I love a good piece of beef. Maybe a steak on special occasions, or just a hamburger off the grill in the backyard. But I’ve also been known to chow down energetically on Mom’s Sunday pork roast, and I still say her fried chicken is the undisputed Food of the Gods. There are probably a few dried-out, half-gnawed chicken nuggets under the driver’s seat in my car, too.

Yup, I’m a carnivore. 

I’m also intelligent enough to see the merit in all the hoopla about meat and its role in health and the environment. I’m not what most folks would call a ‘woke’ kind of guy, but I’m not exactly ‘sleepy,’ either. I understand the importance of making smart choices about the proteins in my daily diet for my own good and that of the planet. I accept that moving forward, plant-based proteins – and plants in general – are likely to play a much larger role in the choices I make about what I eat. I find myself asking a lot more questions about the proteins I consume and where they should come from. I have choices to make.

Right off, I could choose to stop eating meat altogether. Ain’t gonna happen. 

It’s a personal choice. I like meat. It tastes good and gives me a happy, warm feeling and a sense of after-dinner contentment. It provides essential amino acids, some very difficult to find in plants, and satisfies many other nutritional needs.

It requires the use of environmental resources, sure, and like a lot of other things, has some carbon footprint.

But I’m far more inclined to look at those more as an investment than a cost, especially when I see the growing clamor for protein from meat by hungry and undernourished people around the world, not to mention the efforts being made across the animal production industry to better manage the use of resources.  

What’s more, I still struggle with the idea of where all this will end. The beef industry obviously is in the cross-hairs of a lot of people, and it’s already having an effect when profit-minded retailers and restaurants make marketing hay out of a very public decision to no longer sell or promote beef products. Pigs and chickens require water and feed and create environmental issues, too. Maybe not as much as cows, but there are a helluva lot more of them than there are cows on the planet.

Do we simply accept the logic of the argument and say animal protein’s day on the consumer’s plate is over?

To me, all of life has an environmental cost of some sort, animal and human alike. Our day-to-day lives are not perfectly aligned with the environment. For instance, most of us discard our mattresses after a couple of years – and doing so makes up 450 million pounds of waste a year. Since the beginning of Covid, we are all now addicted to hand-sanitizing gel that degrades slowly and accounts for 60% of all drugs in sewage and wastewater.

The question is the value created, measured against the price we pay. I’m happy to listen to all arguments and sides on the issue. I’ll consider your case. But I reserve the right to make my own choice – to find my own balance point in the debate. But my second option is much tougher…

Do I increase the non-animal portion of my caloric consumption? 

I can make vegetable-based and laboratory-produced protein products part of my personal menu. I’ve tried lab-grown meat products, as well as some produced solely from plants, all in the name of intellectual curiosity and discovery. Some of them were okay. I might eat more of them from time to time. But I just couldn’t shake the sense that I was eating something artificial, something more lab-based than nature-based. 

I know the science that supports the products, but I still have this ingrained sense that I like a real hamburger a lot more than chemically-manipulated grass or a burger fresh not from the grill but the petri dish.

Irrational in some way, probably. But very human.

The smart side of my brain says this is most likely the best course for me moving forward. But I still have a few mental hurdles to get over before I go all-in on this option. Remember, I still have nightmares from time to time about the movie Soylent Green, and whoever came up with the damning label “Frankenfood” is a stone-cold marketing genius for the anti-meat, anti-GMO, and anti-science crowds. Enough said about the psychology of the fear of food.

I didn’t blink at all when I read about the report at the elite World Economic Forum in Davos that cited weeds as a potentially significant source of food for a hungry world. I’d already seen promotions from various back-to-the-earth groups (and maybe a few survivalists) making the same point, some offering actually to sell me weed seeds, presumably, so I could get a head start on the trend and avoid having to scrounge on my own along roadsides, in ditches, and almost everywhere in my neighbor’s lawn.

I couldn’t help but think about all those hours I spent as a kid destroying this invaluable food source when my parents made me pull weeds from our backyard garden for hours on end, either to build my character or punish some filial sin or probably both. 

Maybe I think even bigger and go all European in my approach.

The European Union’s food regulatory agency recently issued approval to the use of mealworms in animal feed – and as a human food. Other parts of the world embraced insects as food long ago. Nothing says “oh, yum!” to me more than a heaping plate of grubs, maybe with a side of worms and a nice side salad of dandelions and other home-grown weeds.

In our childhood – age 14, actually – my younger brother once ate three worms on a dare, and we all know how that turned out. He still can’t do eights and nines in the multiplication tables. 

Going European also would make it easier to leap to the next level of protein management.

Why not just man up and go vegetarian or vegan?

Put aside a Pavlovian liking for meat that goes back to the Eisenhower Administration. What kind of plant-centric diet should I follow?

Start with the basics. Vegetarians consume some animal-derived food products, such as milk and eggs, and vegans don’t. But I’m not exactly au courant on the ins and outs of vegan eating, so let me do a quick search in cyberspace and see if that offers any helpful guidance.

Right out of the Google gate, there’s what’s called the Whole Food Vegan Diet. This diet allows me to eat fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. The Raw Vegan Diet also seems to involve no animal products – I suppose meaning fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and so on, only not cooked. Except for some foods that are allowed to be cooked to 104 degrees, for some reason. One set of Raw Vegan devotees apparently follow the diet up till 4 p.m. every day. After that, I suppose, anything goes.

A so-called Gluten-Free Vegan Diet just adds gluten to the list of what not to eat. Next, my search engine gives me the Fruitarian Vegan Diet, in which I’m supposed to avoid plants and eat only fruits, nuts, and seeds. Except some Fruitarians also prohibit the consumption of seeds since they contain future plants. 

The Paleo Vegan Diet restricts me to the pure and unprocessed foods consumed by my Paleolithic ancestors. That would let me eat lots and lots of fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, seeds, and nuts, but no grains or legumes, since they weren’t around as food options for the Stone Age connoisseur. 

And a Freegan Diet permits consumption of processed vegan foods, including mock meats and vegan ice cream, whatever the hell that is.  

Now I don’t mean to disparage people who want to tailor their diets for health, environmental, religious, ethical, or other reasons.

But all I see in this search is a lot of “don’t eat this” and “don’t eat that,” at least at certain times or on specific days, and certainly never when Taurus the Bull is astrologically ascendant or some Kardashian hasn’t opined on the matter.

Try as I might, I suspect my efforts at plant-centric eating would leave me underfed, undernourished, and underwhelmed. 

Maybe I just avoid the whole subject with others…

…my friends, relatives, coworkers, church members, LinkedIn communities, Instagram and Twitter followers, neighbors, extended warranty salespeople, therapists, and anyone else I ever meet. If trapped into some comment on the subject, lapse into the double-talk and non-sequiturs I sometimes use to convey senility, or if absolutely necessary say all the politically correct things needed to get me out of the immediate pickle.  

I then retreat to my basement or my garage or my two-man tent in the backyard or my sofa-cushion fort in the rec room, where I surreptitiously chow down like the hungry dog I am on year-old frozen meatloaf, Slim Jims, Vienna sausages, Spam, BBQ chicken wings, and any other meat product I can hoard.

I join the growing legions of the Meat Underground, secure in my knowledge of the secret handshakes and high fives its members use to connect with like-minded but guilt-ridden meat junkies. There’s no 12-step program for us, so we just have to do the best we can, one day at a time.  

Maybe I just stop eating altogether.

My health plan is pretty good, so maybe I could simply opt for regular intravenous feedings of essential nutrients. That sounds like a pretty efficient, Spockian way to deal with the matter. 

I can’t face the final years of my life as a social pariah because I made the wrong choice about what kind of protein I consume. And it sure seems right now that any choice I make – short of not eating at all – is going to be morally offensive, irresponsible, perhaps sinful, environmentally callous, unscientific, irrational, politically charged, or just flat-out wrong to all the experts so eager to guide me to the truth on questions of food, nutrition, the environment, social responsibility, humanism, science, and morality.  

I just don’t know what to do. Other than, of course, grilling a hamburger while I ponder the matter further. And maybe a nice cold beer would help, too.

Let me get back to you on this one. 

Food Transparency Starts With Farming’s Digital Transition

man controlling drone flying above field

We are pleased to have Drew Slattery publish his article on Dirt to Dinner. Drew is the Human Dimensions of Change Lead for Farm Journal’s Trust In Food, where he applies human dimensions theory to empower agricultural producers in the U.S. to continuously improve their operations’ environmental, financial, and social outcomes. 

A lack of transparency into food production is one of the fastest-rising concerns among U.S. consumers. Plenty of people want to know they are buying food products that were ethically and sustainably produced – and for good reason. General Mills, Walmart, and McDonald’s are just a few of those companies whose sustainability reports are showing transparency in their supply chains.

But building this transparency from grocery store shelf to farmgate isn’t as easy as it sounds.

What you might not realize is that asking farmers for data about how they produce their harvest is akin to asking someone to show you their family’s detailed medical records. Would you be comfortable if your friends and neighbors had access to a detailed report on your health? Even if farmers are willing to open their record books, the supply chain systems that rely on agricultural products are incredibly complex, and that data can be lost along the way.

Enter: Agriculture’s digital transition.

By collecting data each season through digital tools and managing that data through a software platform, farmers are helping make transparency easier for the supply chain to achieve, all while improving the efficiency of the decision-making processes for their operation.

The companies involved are significant. As an example, Project Mineral, formerly Google X, has a robotic buggy that roams the fields capturing data to enhance farm productivity.

And John Deere has a field-sharing data management system to fully integrate equipment used for tilling, planting, and harvest.

And then there is Descartes Labs which has geospacing technology that consolidates information such as crop yields in certain parts of a country. And this is a very short list of companies in an ever-expanding industry.

Balancing Transparency With Privacy

Privacy is a major concern for the American farmer – and really, for the vast majority of all Americans. In Trust In Food’s most recent survey of farmer perspectives on this topic, 73% of respondents said they don’t trust private companies with data on their farm’s production while 58% don’t trust the government with this data.

Those perspectives closely mirror average Americans’ data concerns – in a 2019 study, for example, 79% of Americans expressed concerns over how companies use their data, while 64% expressed concern over government use of data.

In many farmers’ eyes, the details of how they manage the production on their farms is private. Trust In Food’s research has shown that in certain cases, up to half of producers don’t think consumers and supply chain actors have a right to know how their farm products were managed.

For many farmers, this data represents proprietary business plans and trade secrets. In the Midwest where the farmland market is incredibly competitive, there have been reports of farmers who implement regenerative soil health practices yet have their land scooped up by others who want to benefit from their years of work to build soil health. So for many farmers, it feels safer to keep their cards close, especially if they have good things to share.

Challenges Abound With Agriculture’s Digital Transition

More than half of the farmers we surveyed this year (62%) said that they don’t use a digital (software) platform to manage their farm’s production data.

Put another way, only about 38% of those we surveyed are able to consider providing the transparency the food supply chain requires in today’s connected world.

Without digital collection and management of farm-level data, there is no way for the supply chain to provide transparency for the final product consumers purchase.

In addition, many farmers could be missing out on insights available to them through a digital platform. Although this is an incredibly complex environment for farm businesses to operate within, here are three of the key drivers that might explain why farmers aren’t using digital tools more universally, based on our research:

  • The cost associated with setup is too high, especially since there is not always a guarantee of a return on investment for farmers. Oftentimes, these data and insights don’t provide farmers with any benefit, such as a financial premium for providing greater transparency into the food products they grow or raise. Instead, organizations downstream in the supply chain reap the benefit.
  • It is a technically complex process, and many farmers lack the training and understanding to do it alone.-At the same time, the support network of advisers and service providers to help farmers transition to regenerative practices using software systems to capture data illustrating that transition, is limited as well.
  • Trust is a challenge. Farmers don’t want to see their detailed production data fall into the hands of groups they don’t trust.

Patience Is A Virtue

What does all this mean? Consumers are pushing for more detailed transparency into on-farm production, and as a society, we are transitioning by focusing our buying power more and more on sustainable products. Yet the data bridge onto the farm remains hard to cross. In a way, we can’t blame them. Going back to the example of sharing your medical data – how farmers farm is as personal to them as sharing our cardiovascular report would be to our community.

The encouraging news for the public and for farmers is that many producers are embracing digital ag and rushing into the future because they are in agriculture and food for the long term. They see a future in which incentives will shift and farmers will indeed be rewarded for their stewardship and transparency into farming practices, in a responsible, safe and privacy-protected way. Additionally, many organizations are working to support them, ensuring farmers don’t bear all of the costs for outcomes that benefit our environment and society at large.

Cyberattack at JBS: Understanding Meat Technology

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The best part of the conversation with my friend was her honesty. “Lucy when I think of how we get our meat, I think of Yellowstone, the TV series. It’s Kevin Costner and a bunch of hot cowboys rounding up cattle under a gorgeous setting, herding the cows into a warehouse where they come out the other side as my Bubba burgers. So I’m pretty unaware of how technology plays into this”.

After we got done laughing, I realized that was a fair point. After all, the food supply chain is not visible to most and the technology used in ag is not something people think about on a regular basis.

I assured my friend the cyberattack did not make our food unsafe and that there wouldn’t be any shortages. I told her I would use this week’s blog post to explain the entire cattle-to-meat process, the role technology plays, and what the ransomware attacks did. And, I even promised to sneak in a photo of those hot cowboys from Yellowstone.

What Happened to JBS?

Let’s start with the basics. Brazilian-based JBS, the largest meat supplier in the world experienced a ransomware attack. The FBI believes that REvil, one of the most advanced Russian cybercriminals in the world, hacked into JBS computer systems and either encrypted its files or shut its system down in all U.S. beef plants, as well as its meatpacking facilities around the world.

In return, the hackers wanted money; JBS ended up paying them $11 million in ransom. The payment was in bitcoin.

In the past, criminals kidnapped people in exchange for money. Today, it seems that kidnapping computer systems in return for U.S. dollars or cryptocurrency is a more lucrative business.

What Does Technology have to do with Cattle?

Think of processing cattle like an auto assembly line, but in reverse. When a car is made, 30,000 parts must be assembled before it gets shipped to the auto dealership. Cattle, on the other hand, get taken apart into over 1,000 SKUs. We eat about 63% of the animal and the rest goes into just about every other industry imaginable. Most people don’t think of cattle when imagining the ingredients used in medicine, pharmaceuticals, soaps, fine bone china, leather, and even asphalt.

It’s Very Complicated

In the United States alone, more than 100,000 cattle are processed six days a week. JBS produces between 20%-25% of global volume — further evidence of South America’s rapid growth in livestock production. The technology involved to create the assembly line of 1,000 SKUs is intricate and complicated.

First, the cattle need to be trucked from the grasslands or the feedlot to the processing plant. An inventory management system is needed to purchase the cattle. As they are waiting outside, they are individually tagged and identified. Each animal has its own identification code that follows the various body parts at every stage. For instance, a particular code is associated with the ground beef you buy at Walmart and the steak at Kroger’s. And the tongue that is sent to Japan. And the liver that winds up in Egypt.

After the hide is stripped off the animal, the carcass goes into a washing station. Think of a car wash. It gets cleaned and the goal is to remove and kill all pathogens. Computer settings control the amount of water, spray, and heat. After the wash, USDA employees use computer-driven scanners at each processing plant which inspect for pathogens, grades each carcass and make sure the facility meets strict HACCP requirements.

Technology is critical to managing the 2,000-plus employees in the facility. Each employee in these meat-processing plants stands next to a large, precise, and sophisticated assembly line. The line keeps moving so each worker has to keep pace by cutting their specific parts such as the tenderloin, ribs, and strip loin, etc. The technology tells the plant manager how many workers are present, how productive they are, and if there is any wasted meat.

Quiet on the Set

As in Yellowstone, the typical meat plant is much like a movie studio, with hundreds of people all doing different jobs to create the final product, a polished cinematic gem. Everybody has a part to play and a carefully crafted script to follow, and that script is run by technology.

If the lights are wrong or the sound isn’t perfect, or the sets or costumes aren’t completed or the actor flubs a line, the whole process grinds to a halt. Cattle processing demands the same coordinated ballet.

Plant managers depend on computers for that coordination and control – to pull dozens if not hundreds of actions altogether, effectively, and efficiently.

After this incredible coordination of processing the animal –where does all the beef and the over 1,000 different SKUs go? Managing and sending all those parts is definitely not executed with an Excel spreadsheet and a fax machine. Complex automated inventory management systems send each item boxed and shipped around the country and throughout the world. In the average meat facility, about 5,000 animals go through the system every day.

And each animal produces about eight boxes of beef which must be invoiced and sent to the right locations. While there are giant coolers that hold about 100,000 boxes of beef, the product can’t sit there for more than 24 hours. Every day, about 60 trucks come to the facility to pick up the 40,000 boxes that must be trucked out to their customers.

Every step from the ranch and/or feedlot through the processing plant to the grocery store or restaurant is handled with a complex data management system. When that breaks down as it did in the case of the JBS hacking, it halts the entire beef production – from steaks to animal feed. This time the hackers picked an exceptionally good time to infiltrate JBS’s system.

For the next three months, beginning on Memorial Day, meat consumption is at an all-time high, and the number of cattle that get processed each week increases by about 10%-15% to meet the needs of worldwide grilling, barbecues, and overall summer fun. It is very encouraging to see how quickly JBS was able to respond and get its systems up and running.

Keep Calm and Carry On

According to NPR, REvil has indicated that the agricultural industry will be a target. So far, Mondelez, Molson Coors, Campari, Arizona Beverages, MGP Ingredients, Wendy’s, Huddle House, Caribou Coffee, Dunkin’, and Sonic have all had cybersecurity incidents within the past few years.

It looks like this is just something corporate America has to live with. Given that these were not as well-publicized as the JBS attack, we can assume that this will be an ongoing issue where the company will handle it and keep its business operational. It is a matter of who has the better technology.

Saving Our Soil…One Billion Microbes at a Time

“We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.”

– Leonardo da Vinci

The Dirt

Soil microbes are hard to see and understand, yet we know that they have a significant impact on plant health, your health, and the Earth’s health. New microbial research and technologies are beginning to change how we understand and direct the soil microbiome to increase soil fertility and plant health, which then help our understanding of your microbiome.

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Pouring algae on the soil, sequencing soil DNA, and measuring soil diversity are just a few of the new technologies used to keep our soil from becoming just ‘dirt’. And it seems as though diversity is the key. When I hold a teaspoon of healthy soil in my hand I squint and try to see the billions of microbes. Apparently, in this little amount there are more microbes than all 7.8 billion people on earth today. This handful has greater diversity than all the animals and insects in the Amazon Rainforest. This is a powerful group made even more exciting when you think they originated from our celestial bodies.

Since the beginning of time, these soil microorganisms are fungi, insects, bacteria, algae, and more than happily coexist in the soil. They control soil pathogens, reduce disease outbreaks, keep plants nutritious and resilient, give plants the power to pull carbon out of the air, make land less prone to wind and water erosion, clean and filter water, and are a source of human medicines.

As a D2D reader, you have likely read about the projected increase of the global population to 9 billion people in just 30 years. That means more fruits, vegetables, and row crops needed to feed more animals and more humans. To achieve this growth, the traditional thought has been that farmers will need more and more pesticides and fertilizer to eliminate bugs and increase their yields. Or do they?

A Booming Agricultural Microbial Market

New entrants in the biostimulants space. Sources: iSelect Funds, IDTechEx.

Think of the microbiome in the soil like the one in your gut. Similar to your health, plants need diversity in the soil to keep you healthy and strong. Microbial technology is a serious solution that uses bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoans, and yeasts instead of conventional agrochemicals.

Companies in this niche produce biostimulants. These include biopesticides, which are natural materials like canola or baking soda that eliminate pests, and biofertilizers, natural fertilizer compounds such as manure, algae, or decayed material that increase the availability of nutrients to the plants.

Additionally, since microbial crop protection poses fewer risks using than conventional pesticides, the EPA generally requires less data and has shorter review times before the various solutions can be used in the field. This reduces the timeline to development by years and the cost of product development by millions of dollars.

According to Research and Markets, the global agricultural microbial market is expected to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 12.5% and reach $11 billion by 2025 from approximately $6 billion in 2020.

Innovations in the microbiome tech space have to address the challenges of soil needs.  The goal is to increase yield and reduce pests, and weeds with less chemical inputs – all while enhancing the soil microbiome. While this is a highly fragmented market, it is dominated by just a few players.

Innovations in soil microbiome technology

Here are four examples of new technologies that make our soil healthier…

AgBiome partners with the microbial world to improve our planet.  Started in 2017, the company is focused on discovering and developing innovative biological and trait products for crop protection. On March 23rd, Mosaic Fertilizer Company and AgBiome announced a collaboration to develop biological alternatives for soil health.

AgBiome is sequencing a library of microbes sourced from environmental samples from across the globe. As of today, the North Carolina company has more than 90,000 sequenced microbes and identified 3,500 insect control genes from that collection. Their technology can discover microorganisms and proteins that kill insect pests, fungal pathogens, and weeds.

For instance, Howler, the first of AgBiome’s biological fungicides, harnesses the power of the plant microbiome to create an efficacious fungicide with multiple modes of action that provide preventative, long-lasting activity on a broad spectrum of soilborne and foliar diseases.

Biome Makers measures the biological quality of soil to deliver agronomic insights to farmers. Based in Sacramento, Biome Makers was created to solve a fundamental problem facing the future of food: How do we recover the microbial diversity in today’s modern agriculture system?

Using an AI system, Biome Makers assesses the health of a field based on a farmer’s current practices as well as the soil functionality for any crop. What is the right soil microbiome community for a specific farm and farmer?

Working with Bayer and about 70 other ag input manufacturers, they will help farmers understand what works well and how it affects their soil’s health. It’s about measuring crop health and functional biodiversity by using DNA sequencing and intelligent computing.

Their team reads more like a Silicon Valley group with experts in genetics, software engineering, microbiology, agronomy, and data science. We are not in Kansas anymore…

Pivot Bio provides a clean alternative to synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. In April 2020, the company raised $100 million co-led by Breakthrough Energy and Temasek. Their technology reduces nitrogen fertilizer and increases crop yields.

Fully half of the world’s food supply is dependent on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, yet overuse, misuse, and runoff can bring serious environmental impacts such as dead zones and C02 emissions. Our atmosphere is 78% nitrogen – and the only crops that can take it out of the air and convert it into a nutrient are soybeans, alfalfa, and cowpeas.

Wheat, corn, and rice don’t have this ability – therefore they need fertilizer.  As Pivot Bio explains: “Nitrogen is essential to life. It’s a building block of proteins, DNA and amino acids. When plants have the right amount of nitrogen, they grow well and yield abundantly. Pivot Bio makes nitrogen fixation as natural as breathing for the microbe. Microbes inhale nitrogen gas from the atmosphere and release ammonia to plants. Enabling nitrogen-producing microbes as a crop nutrition tool for farmers will transform agriculture.”

MyLand replicates algae in native soil to grow as fertilizer. “Building strength beneath the surface,” explains Board Member, Bill Buckner, in reference to the company’s purpose. MyLand takes live, native microalgae from the farm to improve soil health, increase crop yields, and capture carbon.

Each farm has its own naturally specific algae – just like we have our own gut microbiome. MyLand technicians go out and take samples and isolate which algae are the most suitable for multiplication. They grow the algae in small vessels with lights and correct temperature. They make millions of cells and it is put back in the soil through the farmer’s irrigation system.

As a result, farmers use approximately 25% less fertilizer, 15% less water and reduce tillage by 40%. Voila, yield increases by about 25% and revenue by 40%.

Beyond farming and onto human health

Direct contact with the soil is key. When my oldest son was just a toddler, he was my garden helper. He would happily eat handfuls of dirt and my pediatrician assayed my worries and told me it was good for him. Now I understand why. As humans have evolved over time, we have had a close relationship with the earth first through hunter-gatherers then through farming, and now to our children crawling and running around the garden.

Humans and soil share common bacteria such as lactobacilli which breaks down our food and soil’s organic matter. We can even look to soil to give us new antibiotics that would kill multidrug-resistant pathogens such as MRSA.

But for more than half the global population living in cities and suburbs, this gut connection to the soil is missing. We primarily receive our microbiomes from the food we eat.

The above chart illustrates the difference in human contact with the soil from pre-industrial days to today.

Hot topic: The link between soil health to human health

We eat what we sow, so to speak. The essential nutrients, such as hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, that we need to thrive as humans come from the soil (originally from the stars). In speaking with Dr. Stephen Wood, Sr. Scientist of Agriculture and Food Systems at The Nature Conservancy and Lecturer at Yale, “Very simply, plants receive their micro and macronutrients from the soil.

“In order for humans to thrive, we receive those same nutrients that come from the plants.” Dr. Wood highlighted studies undertaken in parts of Africa that show a correlation between low selenium and zinc in the soil with low levels in the blood of the local population who ate the local rice.

But he is quick to point out that this is not as simple as low levels of nutrients in plants equate to low levels of nutrition in humans. While there is emerging research, the actual evidence where “soil management impacts human health through changes in crop nutrient densities is small.”

In Africa, where nutrition and food scarcity are real issues, studies have been done but the correlation is not always strong. The chart below shows the inconsistencies of zinc in the soil versus in the corn, cowpea, millet, and sorghum.

Even so, we want healthy, not degraded soil, to produce a higher yield of crops to feed a growing population. It is because of the nutrients in the soil that the plants receive their nutrients. While industrial fertilizer gives specific nutrients to help crops grow, increasing the organic matter helps build the microbes in the soil to increase yield.

Regenerative agriculture practices such as cover cropping, no-till farming, and adding livestock from time to time all help increase the diversity and abundance of microorganisms.

How do changes in microbial soil affect the future?

There are benefits to increasing the microbial content of soil – but it is not a perfect science. The added microbes only live in the soil for about three months and can easily be taken over by other microbes. They are hard to apply – which is tough for small holder farmers. Finally, if too much is applied for too long, they can saturate the soil of salts and nutrients.

That said, the technologies keep improving. If we can grow our food with healthier soil and less fertilizer runoff and create better nutrients in our plants and soil we will have a healthier planet and healthier people.

Covid’s Effect on New Tech in Our Food System

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Grocery delivery has boomed since COVID hit. Gone are the days of waving at the milkman from the kitchen window as he dropped your glass milk containers off for the week. Recent innovations will soon allow online supermarkets to bring food to your door in a sophisticated, temperature-controlled, bacteria-killing environment. How will they maintain perfectly chilled meat, produce, dairy, and other perishables?

The New “Big Box”

Walmart offers an option: together with HomeValet, they are testing temperature-controlled smart boxes that can be stationed outside your home so your groceries are delivered contact-free at any time of day, even without having to be home. According to HomeValet, the UV-C LED disinfection method creates “an inhospitable environment to microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, molds, and other pathogens.”

To the right: the smart box technology uses a UV-C light inside the box, where items are sanitized before removal to ensure cleanliness before you bring them inside.

Like HomeValet, many grocery retailers are experimenting with different ways to meet growing consumer demands, like providing online ordering, mobile apps, and QR (Quick Response) codes that let consumers pick up goods curbside, drive-through, via same or next-day home delivery, or even in secure lockers at convenient locations. While these options are exciting to see and are a welcomed change in efficiency and safety, they have significant implications for the greater supply chain.

Supply Chain Disruption Demands Flexibility

Here’s some context: shifts brought on by COVID-19 have put tremendous pressure on (and new opportunities for) our food supply chains. According to a customer research study, 54% of consumers bought fresh food online this past year, and 70% of shoppers intend to continue online grocery shopping for the foreseeable future.

What’s more, over 100,000 restaurants and bars in the US have closed permanently due to COVID, according to the National Restaurant Association. Fewer restaurants, lower bar-food demand, rising demand at the grocery store, and new delivery options create a market where grocery supply chains must be more flexible than ever.

Flexibility needs to come in many shapes and sizes: personal shoppers must know how to pick out the perfect tomato, shipping and packing technologies should be designed to handle last-minute shifts in distribution networks, and inventory planners need to keep track of what will be stocked in-store and what can ship directly to consumers. It is surmised that this need for elasticity will remain a critical component of a successful supply chain, even long after Covid has gone away.

We’re probably not taking off our masks and heading to concerts anytime soon. These changes may last years, making grocery delivery here to stay for the foreseeable future.

E-grocery businesses can only be effective if automation at the warehouse and distribution centers have the capability to shift from a business-to-business channel to a direct-to-consumer model. With 80% of consumers having grocery-shopped online since the start of Covid, being able to shift from one channel to another is critical. Significant automation is needed for delivery as well. With over 40% of essential items now being ordered online (think toilet paper), the delivery portion of supply chains has to accommodate larger volumes, as well as extra hours for cleaning and sanitizing.

A Look at Several Solutions

Now picture yourself picking up your favorite soup, and it’s the last one on the shelf. Behind you comes a little self-driving robot, scanning labels on shelves, checking stock levels, and alerting employees of low inventory. That is exactly what Simbe Robotics has developed. Schnucks Markets in the Midwest is one of the first to use the technology.

Meantime, Broad Branch Market — in partnership with Starship Technologies — has integrated their automation system with six-wheeled self-driving robots that have sensors aiding delivery to customers.

Almost 2,000 Walmart stores use Brain Corp’s robots to clean and sanitize, opening up employee hours for the workforce to focus on stocking and shipping online grocery orders.

Knock, knock! Who’s there? Robots with your food order!

Some major grocery chains are partnering with inventory management kings to help with grocery shipping and fulfillment. Amazon assists with same-day delivery at Whole Foods and Kroger’s, which are both rapidly expanding their networks to meet rising grocery delivery demands.

Other fulfillment solutions include the expansion of robotic handling. Albertsons Co., for example, has created a series of “micro fulfillment centers” providing a scalable model for rapidly filling thousands of grocery orders daily. These are large warehouses with integrated picking, packing, and shipping robots that provide more efficient work than human workers can offer in-store. The centers store popular items that have historically bottlenecked at a shipping level due to shipping delays. Having this type of inventory in an automated store warehouse has helped to avoid that bottleneck and helped turn the product around to consumers faster.

Thank goodness I can find my two-ply and burger meat in-store anytime now!

Narrowing the Transit Window

For the first time, in 2019, a self-driving truck delivered goods from Cupertino, CA to Quakertown, PA, almost 3,000 miles away. Plus.ai, based in California, has developed this truck to help out when there’s a shortage of drivers and provide a touchless option.

Talk about a change from the neighborhood milkman, now we will be waving to cars with no drivers! I’ll take it if it means increased safety, and increased turnaround time!

Much like the fulfillment challenges, narrowing the time to get products from the processor to the warehouse to the distribution center to the grocery to the consumer has created logistics strains. With next-day air shipping raising expectations for greater speed and “panic buying” necessitating a need for quick processor-to-retailer turnaround to keep shelves stocked, the previously ‘easy’ delivery planning is a thing of the past. Having speed-to-shelf also depends greatly on having inventory in the right locations, and having those locations align with available trucking capacity.

The ground-based transportation industry, which moves goods from processor to retailer to consumer, is under unique stress. They are dealing with staffing challenges due to nationwide emergency drivers needed elsewhere, drivers leaving the industry for higher-paying jobs with better benefits, and drivers making important decisions about pausing their employment to preserve their health amid Covid concerns. Trucking connects all links in the food chain.

Agility with Inventory

The key to addressing each link in the chain is to have end-to-end inventory visibility. This allows the entire supply chain to react quickly to demand without chain-wide disruption. A major component to this is labor flows and resource allocation—or identifying how to be most efficient. This will allow for our food orders to reach us faster and increase our likelihood of reordering. One way grocers are doing this is by cutting their product offerings. Because consumer brand loyalty has all but gone out the window with COVID — with over 75% of consumers having changed brands during the pandemic due to convenience, or availability — consumers are now just taking what they can get as grocers are implementing a more streamlined product offering.

According to a report cited by Food Dive, “the average number of product offerings in grocery stores declined 7.3% during the four weeks ended June 13 … The drop came across a range of product categories, with frozen down 8.5%, deli slipping 7.7%, meat posting a decline of 7.1%, and dairy falling 6.6%.” For example, some grocery stores now offer only four choices of toilet paper, where prior to COVID they carried about 40 varieties.

By trimming away less profitable products that may be more complicated to produce and/or ship, factories and distribution networks can cut down on labor and time. Room on grocery store shelves is then opened up to products and inventory that is more reliable and can quickly meet consumer demand. A good example of this comes from PepsiCo, which decided to stop producing one-fifth of its products during COVID for efficiency reasons and will maintain a 5% reduction in its Frito-Lay snack division.

Transparency in the Produce Aisle

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I have been working in the agriculture industry for a long time. Over 30 years to be exact. But it wasn’t until I entered the highly-perishable fresh produce sector a decade ago that I gathered a true appreciation for how complicated – and how powerful – a transparent supply chain can be.

For many deep-rooted and emotional reasons, consumers have a close relationship with their fresh produce, scanning the produce aisle high and low for just the right piece of fruit to take home. And if at a farmer’s market, they’ll often quiz the farmer on how the product was grown, what crop protection products were used, and when was it picked. Arguably, the consumer’s relationship with fruits and vegetables is the most complicated one in the supermarket.

Those are the old days. Or at least that is the past, and singular, view of how consumers connect with the most perishable of products in their shopping cart.

The promise of technology and its impact on transparency will forever change the produce aisle, just like moving from 3G to 5G technology.

Different Views on Produce

When I speak to consumers about transparency, they reflect with varied responses. Some will say they want to get to know the specific grower that produced the beans or apples. What type of land was the crop raised on? What chemicals were sprayed, if any? What similar products can I purchase from that particular farmer?

When I speak with growers, transparency means building deeper loyalty with retailers and the consumers they serve (with hopes the loyalty is returned). But equally important, it’s a way to keep track of the product in case of food safety inquiries and also ensuring the quality of food arriving at its final destination — a nudge for growers to improve transparency.

A Push for Transparency: Savings & Security

Like with most technologies, there must be a benefit for increased transparency to become more ubiquitous. The most tangible benefit is financial, of course. That could come in the form of cost savings by eliminating a portion of the supply chain, or through increased margin at the checkout stand demanded by a premium label.

At the same time, it could also be an opportunity to protect market share. We’ve all seen the many recalls for romaine lettuce. We’re told of a few brands and bar codes to be aware of, but how do they know? The ability to trace-back a product to a particular warehouse or field is very important for a retailer and the consumer.

In the case of a food safety incident, quick trace-back can mean the difference between a small recall involving one or two growers, or a larger investigation that involves tens of millions of dollars of impacted product. And, if consumers fall ill from the incident, a bruised reputation for the retailer or brand, regardless of the outcome.

A Tool for Telling a Story

According to a 2020 study by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and Label Insight, shoppers have higher expectations for transparency when shopping online compared to in-store. Think back to the early days of COVID-19. According to FMI, online grocery purchases soared to 27% of all grocery spending for the March/April period of this year, compared to 14% in February.

This increase in online sales will undoubtedly drive consumers’ interest in a more transparent system. Why? In the store, you can look and feel the product you are about to purchase. Online, you need something more to tell the complete story of a product – how it was grown, when it was picked, size, and other quality attributes. That’s where transparency fills the gaps.

When you go to a grocery store, what do you want to know about your fruits and veggies? Why would you pick a particular brand of berries over another? Or what is it that you like about a particular store’s produce section? We often look for certain benefits when we purchase a product. It starts with the basics of getting a good product at a fair price. But beyond that, transparency helps the consumer make a purchase.

According to IRI Research, “consumers are more concerned than ever about where their food comes from. They are not only making their concerns widely known on social media; they are editing their shopping lists based on those concerns”. Not a surprise to see that the food transparency trend is growing, especially in the younger generations.

A Demand from Millennials

The effect of transparency on purchase decisions is even starker among the Millennial generation. According to a Snacking Trends Report, this demographic is increasingly making purchasing decisions based on “the tenets of self, society, and planet”, which feeds into sustainability.

Millennials have a real connection to the betterment of the planet, and brands need to be careful not to miss this. They must embrace the new level of transparency that Millennials have elevated. Just “talking the talk” will no longer cut it.

Farmers Demanding Price Visibility & Insights

Farmer acceptance of transparency technology is growing for multiple reasons. In the case of fresh produce, transparency allows the grower to look for efficiencies in the supply chain. Not only with their operation, but in the part of the chain above and below them.

Through an open purchasing platform, a grower may learn what the distributor pays the manufacturer for inputs, which puts them in a better negotiating position with the distributor, or even directly with the manufacturer.

Going the other direction in the supply chain, a grower may be able to directly access consumer insights on their products and brand. In the past, that information may have been maintained by retailers or distributors that, in turn, passed it along to the grower. The net result of this shift is quicker and better-informed decisions about what to grow.

And more importantly, they can look for particular attributes to provide the highest return from the marketplace. Similar to the consumer, it often comes down to economics: can I increase my revenue or lower my costs through the use of new technology that pulls up the shades somewhere else in the supply chain?

Promising Technologies in the Works

New technology has a way of telling the story of ‘what’s possible’. Here are two promising examples:

Founded in 2013, a Californian company called safetraces developed DNA “barcodes” that can be added to fruits and vegetables via a liquid spray or wax. What’s so special about that? The company takes a small piece of synthetic DNA from organisms not typically found in the produce section – like seaweed – which they mix with trace amounts of sugar and create a sprayable solution. According to the company, the spray is odorless, tasteless, and poses no food safety risk.

If a problem with the product arises, the DNA on the surface can be swabbed and identified within minutes. Placing the DNA barcode directly on fresh produce significantly reduces the potential for traceback information to be lost. Produce boxes, which traditionally carry the tracking information, are discarded long before anyone catches on to a problem.

In a different twist on innovative traceability technology, software company HarvestMark partnered with iFood Decision Sciences to create a solution that allows consumers to not only view each step along the supply chain, but to provide feedback and reward those brands they feel are doing the best job of transparency.

The product information is collected and shared with the consumer on an item-level basis. The consumer has instant feedback linked to the product’s age, origin, and location. This allows the grower to see how a specific product performs on the grocery store shelf and then make short and long-term production decisions.

In addition to the quality and analytical measurements provided to the grower, like temperature control, inventory monitoring, and supplier notifications, this traceability system also provides a mechanism for product recall in case there is a food safety incident.

The real power of the HarvestMark technology comes through the integration of both the consumer and analytical supply-chain feedback. A highly perishable raspberry variety, for example, might have great flavor and visual appeal according to consumer feedback. Through the analytics of the traceability software across the supply chain, the grower can maximize the shelf-life of the raspberries and reduce perishability at the store level. The result is increased income for both the grower and the retailer…and a happy customer who returns for repeat business.

The promise of this technology will be optimized even further using blockchain applications, which enables the industry to share data up and down the supply chain while maintaining the integrity of the data at each source.

5G’s Revolution: Will Ag be Ready?

Cropduster airplanes are a familiar sight in the skies over farms worldwide — spreading fertilizers, surveying crops, and keeping an eye on cattle herds. But, as drones and other unmanned aerial systems have grown in popularity, innovative companies have begun finding new uses for these “eyes in the sky.”

One example is SlantRange, a company based in San Diego that is working to improve agricultural efficiency and productivity by flying drones over farms and using remote sensing and analytics to provide on-demand crop performance data and real-time insights. Agriculture producers are using its platform to better target their precision ag efforts, doing everything from measuring stress conditions across fields, determining plant sizes, surveying infestations, and more.

It’s a powerful tool, but it’s facing one significant challenge: connectivity.

“At a bare minimum, we’re using imagery that can distinguish individual leaves in the field,” explains SlantRange CEO and co-founder Michael Ritter. “To do that, we’re talking about a resolution on the order of a centimeter or smaller, and that translates into several gigabytes of raw data per acre.”

Many farms, especially those in remote agricultural regions with poor internet service, just aren’t yet ready to handle this type of network load. To date, SlantRange has used mobile computing solutions – effectively setting up a local network in a truck and parking it near the field while its drone works to support the connection – but there is a better solution on the horizon that could throw open the doors to advanced new applications for agriculture: 5G.

With this next-generation technology, the company hopes to make “digital farming” a reality, implementing state-of-the-art cost and time-saving solutions, like:

  • Cameras capable of up to 5x the resolution of today’s hardware
  • Sensors that gather spectral band information to isolate key markers of plant health
  • Imagery that adapts to sunlight and weather conditions to ensure accurate prescription management and forecasting

All these benefits will make farming much more efficient. Less chemical applications, better crop knowledge, more efficient water usage, better crop breeding information.

What is 5G?

There has been a lot of talk around 5G in the news lately, but little discussion of the actual definition. Right now, your voice, the photos you share, and all data that leaves your computer travels through the atmosphere. It is all in one piece when it leaves your phone and computer – but then travels in a disarray of atoms through the air. It must come together in a readable or listable form at the receiving end.

The best way to explain this technology is to think of Legos. Legos, you say? Yes. Visualize 4G as a simple Lego airplane. It leaves intact, the parts fly through the air separately, and then must be put together right before it lands. Now take a table-sized Lego spaceship. 5G will allow this complex structure to leave, disassemble, fly through the air, and come together much faster than the airplane. The real value of 5G is that massive amounts of data will be transmitted through the air and at faster speeds.

At the most basic level, 5G is the fifth-generation mobile network that debuted in 2019, replacing the 4G networks that provide data connectivity to most current smartphones and mobile devices. Its big selling point is capacity and speed. 5G will extend high-speed mobile service into new areas, effectively bringing full, uninterrupted internet experiences to every customer – regardless of the rural destination. Farmers will be able to have instant access to all the crop, soil, and weather information on their fields.

Think of 5G like Wi-Fi, but instead of being tethered to your home or office, it’s available everywhere – all the time.

5G is expected to positively affect all industries, but may have a greater impact on the food industry, in particular. Logistics can finally go digital, supply chain tracking can be fully realized, energy companies will have better insights into the grid, and much more. 

5G on the farm

5G will be especially groundbreaking on the farm. “5G technology will allow farmers to cultivate their crops in a more ecologically responsible manner,” says Ryan Douglas, a cultivation consultant who works with cannabis companies. Access to this type of connectivity will greatly improve producers’ ability to track inventory, which is of particular concern for cannabis companies that need to keep up with regulatory tracking demands.”

But regulatory tracking is just the beginning. Douglas continues, “Drones equipped with 5G technology can be used to monitor large outdoor crops for nutrient deficiencies, pest infestations, and disease outbreaks. Problem areas can then be spot-treated, instead of applying fertilizer or pesticides to the entire crop.”

It will also enable 24/7 drone monitoring of fields, allowing farmers to pinpoint the exact moment to harvest based on supply chain needs and adjust fertilizer and irrigation needs on a plant-by-plant basis to maximize yields. Real-time soil analysis can help producers decide where and when to plant to ensure the best possible crop for their current and expected conditions, while autonomous tractors can manage the harvest themselves, circling the fields while the farmer sleeps based on data being gathered and analyzed by remote sensors.

Implementation in the Field

While the agriculture industry has been slow to adopt other new technologies, 5G is coming along at a good time, after many farmers have adopted farm management software, 4G sensors, and other new tools. They’ve seen the power of these platforms; the expanded bandwidth of 5G will only make them better.

Dr. Kuang-Ching Wang, a professor of engineering at Clemson University who was involved in the development of the first-generation Internet, explains, “we have been working closely with agriculture to push a vision of the future of food production, all the way from building smart farms, to connecting them through these new networking technologies, to all the other systems technologies that will be built on top of these network capabilities. Our goal is to make agricultural production much more efficient and also to integrate artificial intelligence into this whole picture.”

5G can bring a lot of promising applications to life, he says, by focusing on data-enabled systems to help make agriculture more efficient. For example, when developing smart farms, it’s one thing to invest in farm robotics and the Internet of Things (IoT). But, how do you deploy massive numbers of sensors into your environment and then consume the data that they collect right there? Not in an office somewhere, but right in the field. You need a powerful remote connection to make that happen.

It’s the same with automated agriculture. The technology exists to gather sensor data and manage automated harvesting systems, but it will take 5G coverage to get those robots all talking to each other and the farmer.

A number of startups are working to solve this problem, and legacy brands like John Deere are on board, as well, partnering last year with Verizon to expand the 5G use cases for agriculture. This built on John Deere’s 2017 acquisition of Blue River, an artificial intelligence company that is now developing new machine learning, deep learning, and robotics tools for the company’s farm equipment.

Challenges remain

There’s a lot of promise here, but another problem exists: 5G is just part of the puzzle. To get these new ag applications off the ground, the underlying fiber optic networks will have to be extended out to rural areas, as well. In addition, all the sensors that capture the data will have to be upgraded to handle the speed and data capacity.

“It’s a whole ecosystem that has to be transformed,” says Dr. Wang. “But the promising note is that we do see these efforts happening, not just driven by the 5G industry but rather by this new global awareness of the data-driven future of agriculture.

Getting the fiber to the farms is difficult, but there are some projects underway to make it happen.”

This includes the National Science Foundations’ Broadband 2021 effort to boost broadband infrastructure, as well as the $400 million the organization committed in 2016 in support of the White House’s Advanced Wireless Research Initiative, which continues to fund new wireless technologies and applications to support widespread adoption and more robust networks for commercial use. And in December 2019, the United States Department of Agriculture made $550 million in funding available to deploy high-speed broadband internet infrastructure in rural areas across the country. Just this month, the Federal Communications Commission voted to offer $16 billion in subsidies for rural broadband buildouts this year as part of its Rural Digital Opportunities Fund.

“There is a clear consensus that, for us, the next challenge is really not about just pushing a faster network or cooler applications in the cities,” Dr. Wang says, “but rather how you bring together complete broadband capabilities, including the rural communities.”

But is 5G Safe?

Further challenges exist within the field of personal safety.  Because the emerging 5G technology is essentially packed with higher levels of energy radiation than 4G, the major fear is the potentially adverse health effects on humans and animals.

The most pressing question that scientific and health organizations, like the World Health Organization, are currently exploring is finding out if the type of radiation emitted by 5G is safe non-ionizing waves, like radio waves and infrared, or harmful ionizing waves, like x-rays and gamma rays. Current studies on 5G’s radiation type are not clear cut.

Even if 5G emits non-ionizing radiation, we still have to consider how much more radiation we’ll be exposed to. The Environmental Health Trust believes that currently, “5G will require the buildout of literally hundreds of thousands of new wireless antennas in neighborhoods, cities and towns.” However, according to Dr. Steve Novella, a professor at Yale, and editor of Science Based Medicine, the amount of radiation we are talking about is a frequency less than light. “You go out in the sun, and you’re bathed in electromagnetic radiation that’s far greater than these 5G cell towers.”

Public Opinion: A Misguided Discussion on GMOs

rumor gossip

It all started as pleasantries in a small-town parking lot, but when GMOs came up, the conversation took a turn for the worse. What happens next is a clash between science and public opinion, and why what we think matters so much in building a sustainable food system…

In the small-town South where I live, it’s not just expected but almost obligatory that you speak to anyone who passes within 30 feet of you. It doesn’t have to be anything profound – just an acknowledgement of the importance of simple human contact as a civilizing force in our existence.

So I never gave it a second thought when I walked out of my locally-owned and operated food store and strolled past two well-dressed, well-groomed ladies of a certain age, standing between their two late-model SUVs, locked in animated discussion on some topic or another, each with one hand on the other’s arm, as all Southern belles used to be taught is only polite.

Find something good to eat?” I asked benignly. Not a particularly creative conversational gambit, I admit. But standing outside the premier local source of organic foods, it seemed as safe and appropriate as anything else I could think of.

Good…and healthy, too,” the one dressed in green chirped, as they both turned to me with the same beatific smiles my mother used to bestow on those who crossed her path.

Then things took a very different turn.

And not a GMO in any of it,” the other dressed in blue added.

Oh, you don’t like GMOs?” I decided to play this one carefully.

Who does,” came the response. “They are the worst things in the world for you, you know.

And how did you learn that,” I asked.

Oh, everyone knows that,” green lady responded with a small chuckle. “It’s all over the internet.

I asked where on the internet such wisdom could be found, and to my surprise (maybe shock), the pair began reciting a list of websites that they assured me would set me on the path to enlightenment, and probably a lot longer and healthier life.

Now, I’ve been around the discussions and debates over which foods are healthy and which foods aren’t. There’s lots of information about that subject, and opinions will differ. You have to respect other people’s point of view, and the decisions they make about food, and pretty much everything else in life, too.

But I still pray that everyone makes informed decisions – decisions made on the basis of facts and reason, drawn from sources that have some degree of science and rationality behind them. 

What came next caused my faith in informed decision-making to shake its core…

So I guess that means you don’t think GMOs have any place in our food system,” I observed as non-judgmentally as possible.  “Are they really that evil?

You have no idea how dangerous they are,” the lady in green observed.

Or how much they have taken over our food supply,” the one in blue added.

What do you mean?” I asked. It seemed the obvious question to ask as a follow-up.

Green lady jumped at the chance to teach: “Do you like corn?

Sure,” I replied. There’s nothing better, especially straight from the garden. (Hey, it’s the South. We all have gardens here.)

Well did you know that the FDA doesn’t even define corn as a plant anymore,” she informed me authoritatively. “The FDA says it’s a pesticide.

Wait, a crop is a pesticide? I could no longer hide my surprise. Or my suspicion, I suppose. “How is that possible,” I asked with genuine and profound interest in hearing her answer.

Here’s the answer I was given. Honestly, this is it:

Our corn supply has all been genetically modified. It’s called ‘RoundUp Ready’ corn. It’s been modified so it produces its own RoundUp as it grows. That means all those chemicals are in the corn – just growing and growing and growing as the corn matures. No one want us to know that. But I’ve read it on some websites. Go to these sites, and you’ll see.

At this point, my childhood lessons in southern civility kicked in, overpowering my sense of incredulity at what I had just heard. I thanked the ladies for helping me understand more about food. They beamed with satisfaction at having done their good deed for the day, and one of them actually reached out and touched my arm. That’s more of that belief in the power of actual human contact at work.

I knew the odds of having any kind of counter-argument or divergent point of view was probably a lost cause given the array of web-sourced expertise already on display. But I still thought it worthwhile to stir the pot, if only just a little.

You know, I read a few websites about food, too,” I casually mentioned. “You gave me several to look at.  Maybe you’d like to see some of the stuff I’ve read, too.

I mentioned a couple website I consider fairly balanced and truly credible on food, like Cornell University’s Alliance for Science, Genetic Literacy Project, The World Health Organization, and a few others that might begin to tell a different story about GMOs and the important role played by genetics in feeding our world. I doubt seriously any of them will succeed in changing the minds of these two fine ladies who crossed my path today.

But I smiled anyway and excused myself with the honest truth that my pick-up pizza was waiting for me. But as I walked to my car, something came over me. I’ve got to at least try.

I can’t let that kind of stupendous misinformation go unchallenged, or just walk away from the super-colossally wrong conclusions they can produce in the average intelligent and well-intentioned person.

I turned on my heel and called out to them, both still deep in conversation in the soft late-afternoon sunshine.

Be sure to look at a website called Dirt to Dinner,” I said. “They write a lot about food, and GMOs. You might like it.” That last part was a stretch, I know, but it seemed the polite thing to say.

Dirt to Dinner?” the green lady called back. “That’s easy to remember. We all need dirt, don’t we?

They tittered at the wit of the response. Or maybe it was me they found funny. Doesn’t matter, as long as they remember the site name.

Public opinion –the level of understanding held by the average person – matters in building a sustainable food system. We just can’t afford to accept a common public dialogue on food based on this level of knowledge and opinion. There’s just too much at stake to ask the public – the voter – to help set food policy when perfectly normal people walk the streets thinking RoundUp Ready corn is a pesticide, rather than one of the bedrock crops for a global food system.

My long-suffering spouse listened patiently as a I recounted my parking-lot adventure and brought me a paper bag to breathe into. Just calm down, she advised. If you don’t like what you heard, go tell the story you think needs to be told. If you don’t, who will?

She’s no doubt right.

Long live Dirt to Dinner.

Can Technology Save Urban Farming?

vertical urban farm farming

Population growth, more food production, loss of arable land, water resources, and CO2 emission concerns are all on the forefront of food producers.

Given the fact that the U.N. predicts that 86% of the developed world’s population will live in cities by 2050, shifting food production to urban centers would seemingly solve all of these problems. Vertical farms have begun to sprout up like skyscrapers, packing massive production scale into an area as compact as a city block. While today, they are mostly used for microgreens, optimism prevails where existing rooftops could be repurposed to grow row crops. Vacant lot spaces could find a new use feeding the population.

According to Pitchbook, about $250 million has been invested in the top 25 Indoor Farms and related technologies. Environmental sustainability is a draw for impact investors. AeroFarms has four farms in Newark, New Jersey, one of which is the largest in the world: 70,000 feet and harvests up to 2 million pounds per year using 95% less water than field farming. Another contender, Gotham Greens, supplies Whole Foods in the New York City metro area with pesticide-free produce from their rooftop greenhouses.

Consider the potential impact:

  • Urban farms can be set up next to its consumers, eliminating greenhouse gas emissions associated with transportation and storage
  • They take up far less space than traditional, land-based farms, enabling them to create far more end product per acre and potentially making up for the loss of arable land
  • They can reduce the need for pesticides, eliminate the risk of extreme weather, and be built to conserve water and other traditional inputs 
  • They can be built effectively anywhere people live, bringing high-quality, nutritious food to growing communities all over the world, no matter the climate or land quality

A Promise Delayed

At least that’s the theory.

But, in reality, urban farming continues to lag behind its potential to disrupt the food system due to a range of shortcomings. Firstly, we eat more than just lettuce. Indoor farming is excellent for tasty greens, but expanding to staples in our diet, like fruits and vegetables will be tough with the technology that exists today.

And does this method actually reduce farming’s carbon footprint? Vertical farming operations might actually be more resource-intensive than outdoor production, given their reliance on artificial lights, water distribution, and climate control.

That’s on top of the fact that most urban farmers still can’t make a living at it, according to a 2016 study published in the British Food Journal.

As of today, urban farming – particularly the vertical farms that are envisioned to occupy skyscrapers and rooftops all over the world – is too expensive, too resource-intensive and too niche to truly reach its potential as a revolutionary new form of agriculture.

The Future of Food?

Could new technologies rebalance this equation and bring urban farms into wider use?

That’s the hope of a new generation of farmers and innovators working on ways to bring the power of Silicon Valley to the food we all eat, whether it is grown on an outdoor farm or in a warehouse. These efforts include everything from combining big data analytics and machine learning with genome editing to design better crops; creating robots that can pick apples, raspberries and other foods; and even using drones to gather insights that farmers and ranchers can use to more accurately plan and manage their facilities.

These new capabilities include:

Big Data Analytics: “Leaders in the agriculture industry have begun to use machine learning as a competitive advantage,” says Yochay Ettun, CEO and co-founder of cnvrg.io, a startup platform that is working to help data scientists manage and build machine learning models. For food producers, this has the potential to improve efficiency by offering everything from more accurate crop yield prediction to species recognition.

 “Machine learning has the ability to disrupt every industry, from agriculture to finance to travel. If society continues to invest and support its data science teams even in the agriculture industry there can be changes as drastic as the industrial revolution.”

– Yochay Ettun, cnvrg.io CEO & Co-Founder

The Internet of Things (IoT) is also making inroads in the controlled environment of indoor agriculture, in part because there is so much about farming that’s universal. From temperature to water, to nutrients, humidity and more, every single farm or indoor operation is managing the same seven to 10 different functions. The only difference is the scale of what they’re doing.

IoT can bring any scale down to size, adding in automation features that help small operators scale.

“Just think about how much more efficient your business can be when you can know what’s going on and be able to control your system remotely without staring at the plants all day,” says Dan Nelson, CEO and co-founder of Grow Computer, a company that is developing what it calls “an operating system for indoor agriculture” that will enable operators both large and small to harness the full potential of IoT and automation for ag applications, regardless of the hardware they’re using.

The five functions Grow Computer is providing to growers right now include monitoring, controls, automation alerts, and data, all of which can be managed from any internet-connected device. The idea is that a farmer can choose their own component tree, their own layout, their own processes, and then layer the software on top of it all, basically functioning like Microsoft Windows for everything that goes into an agriculture system.

“The biggest challenge that we see in urban farming is that, unless you have a tremendous amount of investible capital to build out your system, it’s really hard to be profitable,” Nelson explains. “You don’t get the benefit of these systems that large international agriculture companies get when you’re the small grower that’s trying to convert a small warehouse into a farm.”

“What we’re hoping for is that we’re going to help people build better vertical farming businesses at any size by helping them optimize their systems, getting them to the point that their competition is.”

– Dan Nelson, Grow Computer CEO & Co-Founder

Sustainable Lighting: According to Prof. Marc van Iersel of the Horticultural Department at University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences, the typical indoor farming operation has to dedicate as much as 60% of its budget to energy costs alone, usually due to the artificial lighting that is required to support the system. As of 2019, this electricity is costing U.S. indoor farmers as much as $600 million per year.

This puts urban and vertical farmers at a disadvantage to their outdoor competitors, who get their light from the sun – for free, not to mention the substantial carbon footprint that goes into that power production.

A number of companies are currently working to address this shortcoming, building sustainable, LED-based lighting systems that are cheaper to run and designed to better support the plants they’re illuminating. New advances in LED light technology can, according to the Washington Post, do everything from change “how plants grow, when they flower, how they taste and even their levels of vitamins and antioxidants. The lights can also prolong their shelf life.”

Sananbio, the sister company of the world’s largest LED chip maker, Sanan Opto-Electronics – is bringing this promise to market with its photobiology technology, which is based on the interactions between light and living things. Its core focus is the optimization of lighting spectrums to allow plants to thrive at all stages of growth.

Per the company: “Our unique spectra has been trialed on a multitude of cultivars and our results have shown that by optimizing the spectrum based off of the cultivar we are able to increase nutritional value, drive unique genetic expression, increase active naturally occurring chemical compounds, and shorten flowering times.”

And that’s just one example of how smarter lighting can make things easier for vertical farmers.

Automated lighting systems, which can control when lights are on and off as well as optimize these cycles to maximize yield, can help operators not only cut down on management costs but prolong the life of the LED lights themselves.

The average LED lasts for about 50,000 hours, or more than 13 years if used for 10 hours per day. Optimization systems can improve the impact of these on periods to extract maximum plant benefits while extending the lives of the lights themselves.

Big Companies are Taking Notice

These innovations aren’t isolated to startups and growth companies either. Some of the largest technology providers in the world – including household names such as GE and Bayer – are also working on innovations for indoor agriculture.

Logiqs, for instance, a global logistics provider that has been designing and building warehouse automation and horticulture systems for more than 40 years, has introduced GreenCube, a modular indoor growing system that incorporates standard components from the company’s existing pallet storage systems and other growing racks. It is designed to work with the company’s automation equipment and sensors, which are also standardized, in order to keep the function of the entire system as simple as possible.

As Logiqs explains: “The goal of our design was to make a truly sustainable vertical farming system, from both an environmental point of view as well as from a financial standpoint.” And it’s worth noting that major food brands are buying in, as well.

“By partnering with urban farms, we can reduce our footprint, increase food security and livelihoods, and improve biodiversity,” says John Tran, Director of Sustainability & Responsibility at Pernod Ricard, the European alcohol conglomerate that today owns Absolut vodka, Jameson Irish Whiskey, Kahlua coffee liqueur, and other brands. The company launched its “Sustainability & Responsibility Roadmap for 2030” this past April.

“We’ve seen an increased use case for urban farming in 2019,” Tran says. “While limited space poses a challenge for high-scaled consumer products, we view it as supplementing traditional farms while also solving for some of the most pressing issues in highly dense urban areas. Urban farming provides a total value, increasing biodiversity and reducing ecological impact, which will help us improve our agricultural footprint and achieve our sustainability goals.”

Are GMOs Bad for the Environment?


I have a lovely, peaceful vegetable garden in our backyard. Though I spend a lot of time weeding and watering, my very small garden is only for our friends and family to enjoy. If my tomatoes or peppers fail, then my back-up plan is to run to the grocery store or the farmers’ market. The entire vegetable garden experience is for fun, and also a lesson in patience for my children. I don’t depend on the food in my backyard to feed my family of five.

However, for those farmers whom we depend on to feed all 7.9 billion of us, there is no back-up plan when weeds and pests destroy their crop. Weeds strangle plant growth by stealing water, sunlight, and soil nutrients that crops need. Insects defoliate young shoots and leaves faster than you can say “pesticide.”

As a result, farmers must constantly manage the economic and environmental balance between overspending and over-spraying pesticides on crops. Fewer passes through the fields with sprayer equipment means burning less fuel, fewer carbon emissions, and less compaction of the soil. A win-win-win!

So, how does genetic engineering play a role on the farm? These technologies help farmers use less pesticide, less water and less landMatin Qaim and Wilhelm Klumper at the University of Goettingen, Germany completed a 2014 meta-analysis on the global impacts of GMOs.

  • They discovered that GMOs have made incredible changes to our agricultural performance:
    • Reduced agricultural chemical use by 37%
    • Increased crop yields by 22%
    • Increased farmer profits by 68%

Additionally, a 2017 report, Environmental impacts of genetically modified (GM) crop use 1996-2016, focused on the pesticide and greenhouse gas emission reduction from genetic engineering, primarily with canola, corn, cotton, and soybeans. Using these GM crops reduced the Environmental Impact Quotient by 18.4%. It also cut down on farm equipment fuel usage via fewer pesticide sprays and no-till farming practices. In 2016, this decrease was equivalent to removing 16.7 million cars off the road. To put this in perspective, this is more than all the cars registered in California!

Less Pesticides

In Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, 80% of the food supply is produced by small-holder farmers – farms with 25 acres or less. Plant biotechnology is finally making it possible for them to feed their families and communities, improve profits and dramatically reduce pesticide use.

In India, farmers depend on brinjal, or eggplant, as a significant source of food and income, but it comes with a cost. A small-holder farmer growing brinjal needs 85-120 insecticide sprays during a growing season, harming both the farmer and the environment. Despite all this effort, the eggplant fruit and shoot borer insect can still destroy up to 80% of the crop.

Feed the Future, a global partnership of research and educational institutions, introduced the Bt eggplant by genetically-engineering four different eggplant varieties to produce a protein from an organic pesticide that targets the pests.

According to Tony Shelton, Cornell professor of entomology and director of the Bt Brinjal Project, these new varieties of GMO eggplant now only need about seven sprays a season to control the insects, resulting in pesticide reduction of 92%!

The engineered eggplant is no longer desirable to the pest, thus stopping crop loss. Even more important, the protein does not damage or kill the beneficial insects in the farmer’s field.

In Uganda, 300 small-holder farmers recently grew GMO blight-resistant potatoes for the first time in 2017. Without this technology, they would spend about 15% of their income to spray their crops up to 15 times a season with insecticides, while still losing close to 60% of their crop. Now these potato farmers can increase their income and put less insecticide in the air, soil and their clothing and skin – an environmental triumph.

Nigeria. After almost 10 years of study, Nigeria has approved its first genetically-engineered crop. Black-eyed peas, otherwise known as cowpeas, are an important source of energy, protein and fiber. Nigeria’s small-holder farmers grow about 58% of the world’s supply. Growing cowpea is not easy, as it is susceptible to multiple insects, fungi, bacteria, and viruses, which can cause as much as 90% crop loss. The Institute for Agricultural Research in Zaria, in collaboration with a world-renowned institute in Australia, found that a protein from the soil bacterium can control the pest. This genetically-engineered crop reduced pesticide use and increased yields by about 20%.

Less Pesticides and Healthier Soil

What is often overlooked in the GMO debate is that genetic engineering can create healthier soil and a cleaner watershed next to the farms. How? Let’s go back to my home garden. When I have weeds surrounding my tomatoes, I can just pull them up or hoe them back into the soil. In a small garden, this works perfectly. On acres of land, when farmers till the soil, the water evaporates more quickly, and the soil can blow away.

When a farmer uses Roundup Ready crops, i.e., crops that are tolerant to Roundup herbicide, they can practice no-till farming. No-till farming means farmers do not have to turn over soil to rid it of weeds. This prevents the soil from water evaporation, puts nutrients back into the soil, and keeps the soil dense with organic matter to avoid the soil blowing away. Finally, fewer emissions are released since a tractor doesn’t need to drive back and forth to turn over the soil.

Source: www.GMOAnswers.com

Despite recent controversies regarding Roundup or glyphosate, it has been proven effective to dramatically reduce pesticide applications. Read here for more information on glyphosate safety.

Less Water

Globally, food and agriculture use about 70% of our fresh water supply. While there is the same amount of water today as there was millions of years ago, clean and usable water is not always available to grow crops. According to the FAO, droughts have affected more people worldwide in the last 40 years than any other natural hazard.

Certain GMO seeds can help agriculture use less water and grow more drought-tolerant crops. Scientists believe wheat, corn and soybeans can be genetically modified to require less water. For instance, by altering a plant’s stoma – the microscopic pores in leaves and stems – to save water, these food crops could be extremely resourceful as we attempt to feed our rapidly growing population.

Let’s illustrate this using rice, a vital crop for much of the world, particularly in Asia and Africa. Scientists have taken a gene related to cabbage and mustard and inserted it into rice as a strategy for plant improvement. Why? Inserting this gene allows for drought resistance, salt tolerance and thicker leaf production, which then increases photosynthesis.

For corn, Monsanto has created a DroughtGard variety to help the plant resist drought stress. This allows the corn to maintain some water without needing to draw as much up from the root system. Drought-resistant corn could increase harvests in Africa by an average of 20%.

Just like my own garden, whether it is vegetables or flowers, it is much more cost-effective and less toxic to my watershed when I grow tomatoes or roses without chemicals. Genetic engineering helps large and small holder farmers around the world do just that.

The Case for New Breeding Technologies

dna corn gmo

Joan Conrow is a longtime journalist, editor and communications consultant specializing in agriculture and biotechnology. Her clients include the Cornell Alliance for Science. She resides in Santa Fe, NM, with her two rescue dogs.

With the global population expected to top 9 billion by 2050, and climate change impacts likely to reduce crop yields 25-30% in that time, the question increasingly becomes how to keep everyone fed.

That query assumes particular urgency in light of a new global report that calls for revolutionary changes in agriculture and other key areas to ensure that people aren’t pushed further into hunger and poverty, leading to increased conflict and political instability.

The Time is Now

The report by the Global Commission on Adaptation noted that climate change is already worsening food insecurity, and urged governments to promote “climate-smart” interventions to boost agricultural productivity.

Technological innovations, such as gene editing and synthetic biology, offer tools for developing crops that can withstand climate change impacts, such as drought, heat, intense rainfall and plant diseases — if they are allowed to move forward.

“Food production today continues to face old and new threats in ways that are more complex than ever imagined,” said Nassib Mugwanya, an agricultural communications expert from Uganda who is now pursuing a doctorate at North Carolina State University. “The situation gets even worse in developing countries, where much of the food production is reliant on an increasingly changing climate and less productive farming practices. The urgency needed to address these threats requires opening doors to all options that can be of help.”

Bill Gates, the co-chair of both the Global Commission on Adaption and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, expressed similar views in a statement that accompanied the release of the report.

“People everywhere are experiencing the devastating impacts of climate change. Those most impacted are the millions of smallholder farmers and their families in developing countries, who are struggling with poverty and hunger due to low crop yields caused by extreme changes in temperature and rainfall. With greater support for innovation, we can unlock new opportunities and spur change across the global ecosystem.”

– Bill Gates, co-chair of Global Commission on Adaption

Though Gates and the Global Commission outlined specific steps for achieving these revolutionary changes, such as investing in crop research, the call for using new breeding technologies (NBTs) to help agriculture adapt to climate change is not new.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization issued a similar endorsement in its 2016 report: “Biotechnologies, both low- and high-tech, can help small-scale producers, in particular, to be more resilient and to adapt better to climate change.”

More recently, Petra Jorasch of the International Seed Federation published a study that underscored the need for plant breeding innovations to effectively address challenges associated with climate change and a growing population.

Improved plant varieties developed through NBTs have a better capacity to withstand pests and diseases while using fewer resources, her report noted. They also offer stable yields in an unstable climate.

“The new tools of breeding, such as oligonucleotide mutagenesis or CRISPR-Cas9 are more helpful than the previous techniques because these tools allow breeders to do their job in an even more precise and efficient manner,” Jorasch wrote.

 “New breeding technologies have a great potential in tackling major threats to food security in more promising ways than old technologies. Closing doors to these new breeding technologies is like stopping a major required ‘software upgrade’ in food production, which may lead to a ‘freeze’ or serious crash in the system.”

– Nassib Mugwanya, Ugandan agricultural communications expert

A Global Front for NBT Innovations

Innovations in plant breeding can also help agriculture shrink its sizable environmental footprint by making more efficient use of limited resources, such as freshwater, and reducing the need for nitrogen fertilizers, the manufacture of which results in substantial carbon emissions. Equally important, these crops have the potential to deliver good harvests by improving the efficiency of photosynthesis, as an example. Achieving better yields on existing acreage can reduce the pressure to bring wildlands, such as the Amazon rainforest, into production.

The United States, Japan, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, and other countries have streamlined the regulatory process for these new breeding techniques, and China is investing heavily in gene-edited crops in a bid to feed its 1.4 billion citizens.

However, the European Union and some developing nations in Africa and Asia are lagging behind, in part because they either have a regulatory system that is cumbersome or none at all. In an effort to support gene editing, the African Union recently began exploring ways to harmonize the biosafety regulatory framework among its 55 member nations.

Elizabeth Wangeci Njuguna, a plant molecular biologist who is currently pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Cape Town, South Africa, sees that as a positive step toward embracing NBTs.

“If Africa does not adopt new breeding technologies, I think it will lose a great opportunity to improve its agricultural production system to ensure food security and the general wellbeing of its people,” Njuguna said. “Economically, this will be a poor decision since an enhanced agricultural production system, coupled with vast land and favorable climatic conditions throughout the year, would not only ensure a thriving local food market and employment for Africa’s people but would also give individual countries a competitive edge in the world food export market, making the continent the world’s breadbasket.”

Gene editing also can make a significant contribution to food security, in part by improving the so-called “orphan crops,” like cowpea, pulses, and cassava, that are nutritious staple foods in developing nations, seven international researchers wrote in a recent article in Science. These crops also represent an important source of income for smallholder farmers, thus helping to alleviate poverty, the article noted.

Supporting Innovations for Generations to Come

Albert Caraan, a pioneer member of UP Grains, an organization that offers informational workshops on biotechnology concepts to high school students in far-flung agricultural communities in the Philippines, sees other potential benefits.

“Adoption of NBTs could, in some way, entice the youth to be involved in agricultural research,” he observed. “Gen Z has more affinity for new technologies, thus giving them the chance to get hands-on experience in this field and possibly bringing more young people to agriculture.”

This is important, since many of the world’s farmers are over the age of 60, and young people, including Gen Zers, have been reluctant to pursue the economic uncertainty and hard physical labor that often accompanies farming.

Njuguna also believes that people will welcome NBTs — provided they are accompanied by adequate public education. This includes information about how the science works, safety procedures that are in place and the various benefits that these breeding technologies hope to confer.

“I think that there will be great expectations among the people since this touches on their food and livelihood,” Njuguna said.

“In my opinion, people will expect that the new technology will be a game-changer and solve a good number of challenges that they are currently facing. For instance, farmers will expect most pests and diseases that affect their crops and livestock will be eradicated for good and they can also grow plants that survive drought and salinity. Pastoralists will expect that they don’t have to walk miles to find fodder for their livestock. I also think that most end-product consumers will expect that the technology will result in higher amounts of foodstuffs available throughout the year at affordable prices. For the growing middle class that is more aware and cautious with their food, they will expect that the new breeding technology will result in food produced safely for consumption, with higher nutrient content and more variety at fair prices.”

– Elizabeth Wangeci Njuguna, plant molecular biologist, International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, Cape Town

Ultimately, Caraan said, NBTs likely hold the key to preventing the “push into poverty” that the Global Commission on Adaption hopes to avoid.

“I believe that the adoption of new breeding technologies in agriculture will boost global efforts to eliminate poverty and hunger,” Caraan said. “Embracing NBTs will provide a powerful tool in our arsenal to combat the negative effects of climate change by expediting the breeding processes. However, strict and stringent regulations will hamper our chances in achieving global goals, most importantly, no poverty and zero hunger.”

Solein: A Space-Age Protein

Wait, what is Solein, you may ask? Well, to put it in its most basic terms, it’s a protein-rich powder made from carbon dioxide-eating bacteria, and with just a touch of space dust. Put it all together, and poof, you have a bland compound that can be mixed with practically anything to give it substantive nutritional value – and with all essential amino acids, to boot! But that’s just the beginning.

A Stellar Feat for Protein

We know most good things come from the land, but the idea for this protein began in space! Based in Finland and founded by CEO, Dr. Pasi Vainikka and his colleagues, Solar Foods got its start in 2017 from VTT, a Finnish research institute.

The original intent of the project was to provide a continuous supply of protein for astronauts en route to Mars in the NASA space program. From there, the founders further refined their process at VTT and the Lappeenranta University of Technology.

Completely disconnected from agriculture, Solar Foods plans to feed the world while also reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

What is Solein?

Solar Foods has a vision to solve the world’s food crisis beyond agricultural limitations. Dr. Vainikka and his team found a way for bacteria to eat CO2 instead of sugar, thus completely changing the dynamic of protein conversion. Another factor that makes Solein wholly unique? This protein source is devoid of any agriculture involvement – no arable land, no irrigation…no problem!

Solein, a complete protein, is created from the combination of a proprietary bacteria, CO2, water, and electricity. The fermentation process is entirely natural and similar to the production of yeast. But instead of sugars, their unique microbes consume CO2 and hydrogen for energy via water electrolysis, a process of splitting water cells using electricity. Other nutrients are added, too, such as potassium, sodium, and phosphorus.

All this occurs in a bioreactor, from which the team must continually remove the liquid that the process creates. Once the liquid dries, what remains is the elusive Solein powder. Currently, Solar Foods produces about one kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of Solein per day.

Solein Applications

You may be wondering what this airy powder might look like. Well, it looks like wheat flour – quite a nondescript ingredient. But with its nutritional profile of 50% protein, 20-25% carbs, and 5-10% fat, it has a slightly savory taste that’s similar to eggs. Despite this unctuousness, the product is also vegan.

With a versatile texture and profile, you can expect this product to be in almost anything and everything, from shakes to cultured meat in the coming years. Given its malleable consistency, Solein protein powder can be used as an added ingredient in yogurts, breads, drinks, and pasta. Not much different than a protein powder we may use in our shakes, but with fewer ingredients and demanding fewer natural resources.

Solein can also contribute to the dizzying array of alternative meats, making these products even more protein-dense while keeping the mouthfeel intact. It can even be 3D-printed to give it a more textured look and feel. And because Solein has all of the essential amino acids, it can feed cultured meat cells in lab-grown environments.

Sustainability with Solein

Perhaps the most compelling part of Solein is that there’s no limit to the supply. Solein can even be produced anywhere a lab can be sustainably built, including on land where conventional protein production has never been possible – like deserts and the Arctic.

Also compelling? Instead of adding to greenhouse gases, Solein actually consumes carbon dioxide. Moreover, Solein is produced by using renewable electricity such as hydropower. And given its lower energy demand, this process can be adapted for other alternative energy sources, such as solar or wind power.

And there’s no need for arable land or irrigation, either. Dr. Vannika states that Solein is “completely” disconnected from agriculture. The soil microbes used for their proprietary bacteria only require collection from natural land just once. From there, the microbes are grown in a lab, and the inorganic nutrients they use are obtained from mineral deposits that don’t require the use of fertile land.

Production metrics show Solein’s substantial impact, or lack thereof, on natural resources. Solar Foods conducted research at its lab and reported the following findings:

Solein is reported to be at least 100 times more climate-friendly than any animal or plant-based alternative. And unlike conventional protein production, which can use over 2,000 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of meat, Solein only needs just over a gallon of water. 

Furthermore, Solein is 10 times more efficient than soy when measured by protein yield per acre.

Plans for Growth

With a pilot lab already underway, Solar Foods appears to have an aggressive roadmap for their planned global commercial launch in 2021. The first factory producing Solein is scheduled to open at the end of 2021, producing 50 million meals per year, scaling up to two billion meals by the end of 2022.  Their picture on their slide show would be good here.

Solar Foods plans to price Solein powder between $8 and $11 per kilogram, which Dr. Vainikka hopes will compete with current plant- and animal-based proteins. Though this price seems reasonable to us consumers, keep in mind this pricing is for food producers that will integrate Solein into their product line. They will then sell their end product to consumers, so the price by that point will most likely be higher than conventional protein sources, or at least initially.

Can this really work?

But our tastes and purchase patterns have everything to do with the long-term success of a product like this. With all the hype and media attention, it’s easy to see Solein as an answer to many of our global woes. But some consumers may have a hard time eating a lab-grown protein like this, as we don’t like the thought of our food coming from anything other than a farm or garden, no matter how eco-friendly the product.

And some critics find the scalability of this powder unachievable:

“This is a technological marvel, perhaps, but it’s not a food system,”

– Peter Tyedmers, Dalhousie University

At one kilogram per day, Solar Foods’ low production yield concerns food expert Peter Tyedmers, a professor in the School for Resource and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. He doesn’t believe Solar Foods can even begin to dent the production yields of our current agricultural system. And even if yields were impactful, the price for Solein would still be too high to decrease global hunger levels.

But should large-scale production be feasible, a product like Solein would be a feat for humankind. And it will take all kinds of protein sources to feed our growing population: plant, cell-based, air-based and animal proteins alike. Ingenuity, technology, and innovation are the key to our future. The key component will be getting consumers on board with eating alternative protein whether it is made in a lab or grow in a feedlot.

How Blockchain is Disrupting the Ag Supply Chain

Consider the lone chicken.

The modern poultry farm is a vast and complex place, a maze of houses, yards and transportation centers that can easily support more than 14,000 animals at a time. All part of an industry that raises more than 50 billion chickens annually.

But, even in such a large space, there are reasons to pay attention to each individual chicken. Maybe we want to keep track of what that bird was fed over the course of its lifetime. Maybe we need to maintain a record of the antibiotics it was given (or not given) and its associated disease history. Maybe we simply want to prove to the end consumer exactly where that chicken came from and how it was raised.

Because the path from farm to plate today is far from a straight line.

The poultry supply chain starts in the coop: when that chicken is hatched it begins its life on the farm. Then, over the course of the next three to five months, it grows into a mature bird, packing on several pounds of new weight and prepares for harvesting.

At that point, its time on the farm is over and it enters the production chain. Depending on what it will eventually be used for – maybe it will be sold as a whole broiler, or maybe it will be broken up into individual parts, or maybe it will be turned into something entirely different – the chicken is sent to a production facility, processed and sent on its way to the retailer. That retailer, also known as your local grocer, is the last step in the chain, finally delivering that chicken to the end consumer.

That’s a very high-level overview, and even at that level, there are a lot of moving pieces in the process that can cause problems.

Maybe that chicken was not raised in an organic manner but ends up on the wrong truck to be sold as an organic broiler.

Maybe it was fed a high-quality, low-grain diet that cost the poultry farmer extra, but that fact didn’t earn them anything extra at the sale because they couldn’t prove it to the wholesaler.

Or maybe that chicken contracted a disease somewhere along the way that went unnoticed, and it ended up being combined with healthy chickens from elsewhere and contaminating them as well.

Whatever the case, the industry has a problem. It needs a way to accurately and securely track and monitor the entire supply chain, and it needs to be scalable to handle the needs of one of the largest logistical operations in the world. After all, agriculture, on the whole, is a massive industry worth $1 trillion and accounting for 5.4% of U.S. GDP in 2017.

The solution is waiting in a somewhat unlikely place.

A new frontier for technology

The last few years might as well be renamed “the age of blockchain.”

What was, until fairly recently, a subject only well known among tech enthusiasts and cryptocurrency buffs burst into the mainstream in the fall of 2017, during Bitcoin’s epic run-up to $19,000 and beyond.

Seemingly overnight, everyone suddenly had an opinion on cryptocurrencies and the obscure technology underpinning them. Because that’s how blockchain technology got its start in 2009: as the fundamental technology on which the cryptocurrency market is built. Blockchain is defined as: “a digital database containing information (such as records of financial transactions) that can be simultaneously used and shared within a large decentralized, publicly accessible network.”

Essentially, it’s a way to digitally prove who you are and what you have that’s permanent and cannot be altered or forged. The information is recorded on a public ledger to ensure transparency.

When applied to cryptocurrencies, this functionality is very straightforward. Blockchain is a way for me to prove to you that I have the coins I say I do and, when I send them to you, is a verifiable way for you to prove that value has been transferred to you.

But blockchain has other applications across industries that are just starting to come to the surface.

For example, banks are using the technology to better facilitate cross-border financial transfers and speed up digital transactions. Western Union, for instance, has been using blockchain to power its money transfers for more than a year.

IBM is using it to create iron-clad “digital identities” and prevent identify theft.

And governments are even using it to improve public services and crackdown on crime.

But it’s in agriculture that the true power of blockchain technology might fully come to life, enabling all of the tracking and security measures that the industry has been working on for years while simultaneously stepping up to meet today’s consumer demands.

Adapting to a more engaged consumer

“The industry has been moving toward traceability for years, with the advent of natural and organic and so on and so forth,” explains Steve Sands, VP of Protein at Performance Food Group (PFG), one of the largest food distributors in the U.S. “But most of those systems were affidavit based, so they were only as good as the guy who signed the piece of paper saying, ‘I raised my animal this way.’”

That worked for a while, but in the face of new customer expectations and tastes, it just wasn’t enough.

“For us as a food distributor, we want to make sure that the brands that we own are infallible in those claims,” Sands says, “and that led us to introduce an extra layer of infallibility, or auditability, to ensure that we weren’t making claims that we couldn’t back up. In a $20-billion company like PFG, you better be doing what you say you’re doing.”

– Steve Sands, VP of Protein at Performance Food Group

Over the years, PFG has developed a number of processes to help make this a reality, establishing verifiable standards for the farmers it worked with, auditing the records, tracking the DNA of the animals it was purchasing and more. Blockchain is a natural evolution of these efforts.

“I think [blockchain] has different applications for different food products,” he explains, “so it might be better suited to things like produce that travel through the supply chain largely intact but may go through many different hands before ending up at a restaurant.”

That’s opposed to something like a 550-pound animal carcass that will be cut up into hundreds of different products and then combined with hundreds of other products before being shipped out. In those cases, DNA might be a better tool, but blockchain still addresses a need.

“Where blockchain would come in handy is on the live side, because that live animal may trade several times before it gets to the point of slaughter,” Sands says. “Typically, a cow-calf operation is going to try to sell that animal once it’s weaned, and off to a rancher who will put it on grass and let it grow for a year before selling it off to a feedlot. Every time that animal changes hands, blockchain would be very useful because it would be a way to maintain that chain of custody without having to go to the expense of DNA at every step, which you really can’t do.”

And PFG is far from alone in this.

IBM has teamed up with companies including Dole, Driscoll’s, Kroger, Nestle, Tyson, and Unilever on the so-called IBM Food Trust, which is leveraging IBM’s computing platform to improve data traceability and speed up results for all involved. According to reports, the time it takes to trace an individual item from a grocer’s shelf to the field where it was produced has been trimmed from seven days to as little as 2.2 seconds, enabling companies to quickly identify and isolate contaminated supply chains and issue recalls in real-time.

Starbucks is working on a new “bean to cup” program that’s built on the blockchain to promote ethical sourcing in the coffee industry.

French retail chain Carrefour in 2018 launched what it called Europe’s first food blockchain in order to track the one million-plus free-range chickens it sells in its stores every year, with plans to extend the technology to 8 more animal and vegetable product lines in the coming year.

And last Thanksgiving, Cargill expanded its popular “blockchain for turkeys” program to 30 states, offering consumers direct access to information about 200,000 turkeys from 70 farms under its Honeysuckle White brand.

What’s next?

If that is any indication, the potential applications of blockchain technology are broad and the industry is just beginning to scratch the surface. From traceability to verification, to sourcing, quality and more, blockchain stands to revolutionize not only the agriculture supply chain, but what consumers can expect from it going forward.

But questions remain, according to Christophe Uzureau, a blockchain and token analyst with Gartner and the co-author, along with Gartner colleague David Furlonger, of the book “The Real Business of Blockchain: How Leaders Can Create Value in a New Digital Age,” which discusses the pitfalls and possibilities of the technology for businesses.

“Today we’re at the stage of adoption where we’re reaching critical mass,” he says, “so now we need to complete the blockchain in order for it to reach its full potential. We’re moving in that direction, but we’re still only likely to see maturity post-2020, or more likely 2023.”

– Christophe Uzureau, Gartner analyst

In Uzureau’s view, there are five elements that need to be in place before blockchain can truly revolutionize the ag supply chain: trust, distribution, encryption, tokenization, and specialization, all of which the industry has up and running in at least their early stages. The next step, then, is what he calls the “enhanced blockchain,” which is when the technology gets fully integrated with existing ag system, including Internet of Thing (IoT) sensors, artificial intelligence and more.

“That’s the fundamental next step,” he says, “and it’s clearly a challenge, but the potential for what it could mean for the supply chain could be very big. Farmers today have many different sensors and capture lots of data. By bringing all of that information today and using it to make better decisions about the supply chain, even the smallest players in the market could contribute directly to the whole system. It would revolutionize what the supply chain can do.”

Now imagine reconnecting with that lone chicken in your grocery store. On its packaging label, you see a QR code. With your phone, you scan the code and immediately see the chicken’s farm, feed and medical information – the power of blockchain demonstrated for consumers and processors alike.

Packing Social Concerns in the Lunchbox

Dirt to Dinner is excited to feature Dr. Sarah Evanega’s post on our site. Dr. Evanega earned her PhD in plant biology and science communications from Cornell University, where she now directs the Alliance for Science and serves as Senior Associate Director of International Programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She resides in Ithaca with her husband and three young children.

The Cornell Alliance for Science works to ensure global access to life-improving agricultural innovations that can shrink farming’s footprint, deliver food security, reduce the drudgery of field work that often falls on women and children, provide rural families with sufficient income to educate their children, and inspire young people to pursue a career in agriculture and science.

As a child, I highly anticipated the return to school, the thrilling day when my siblings and I headed over to campus to pay our fee and look on the bulletin board to see which teacher we were assigned to and which of our friends would join us in class. The hallways had a distinct smell that we barely noticed during the school year and nearly forgot over the summer break, which meant the odor of paper and gymnasium hit us hard as we walked in the front door after months away. Back to school meant buying supplies, the hope of getting a Trapper Keeper with a cool design, and maybe even a new pair of jeans or shoes.

Today, as a mom of three young kids, back to school means shifting from the laid-back rhythm of summer to a tightly tuned schedule of early-to-bed, early-to-rise, the regularity of dinner, bath and bedtime books, and early mornings. After the coffee is on, I pull out three lunch boxes and face the challenge of packing lunches that will both appeal to my kids and my sense of what’s healthy and socially just.

As I pull together sandwich fixings, carrot sticks and fruit, I’m aware that our well-stocked refrigerator and cupboards are a luxury that many families throughout the world do not share: that my choice of what to pack, and what to leave out, is not available to the millions who struggle with the hunger and poverty that accompanies failed crops. I know my children won’t have to skip school to hand-weed the family’s fields or miss class entirely because a miserable harvest left no extra money to pay tuition.

As a plant scientist who works in international programs at Cornell University, I’m fully aware that fussing over the ever-growing list of food items restricted in schools is very much a “first-world” problem, as are the half-eaten apples and the sandwich crusts my kids bring back home at the end of the day. Hunger, the frequent companion of far too many children in developing nations, always trumps the pickiness that leads to food waste.

I know that many other American parents share my concern about hungry children, others and our own, and that they want to see a world that’s just. But because of my job, I know something they may not—that technology exists to solve some of the problems that face us all…

I’m talking about using genetic engineering to improve crops, boost the livelihoods of smallholder farm families, enhance nutrition, reduce climate change impacts, even remove the pesky protein that makes the classic PB&J sandwich an unwelcome allergenic addition to lunch boxes across the country.

Yes, the same technology that can reduce the use of pesticides in crops can also render peanuts hypoallergenic. The same technology that can eliminate the need for nitrogen fertilizers that generate greenhouse gases can keep cut apples from browning. The same technology that can add essential nutrients like vitamin A to staple foods like bananas and rice can silence the gluten proteins that make life miserable for those with celiac disease.

Sadly, this technology has been pushed to the sidelines, dismissed as a dirty three-letter word: GMO. Never has a plant breeding technique been so reviled, so falsely accused of everything from solidifying corporate control over the food supply to making people sick. The demonization of this technology funds numerous NGOs and has even become a cottage industry of sorts. American supermarkets are filled with products that bear the badge of misinformation—the trademark butterfly of the “non-GMO verified” label. This marketing ploy tricks consumers into believing GMOs are somehow bad, and so they should pay more for products without them — even products like salt and water, for which there is no GM equivalent. Sorry—those tricks don’t work on scientist moms like me. And they shouldn’t work on you.

As Americans, our ideologies and shopping habits reverberate around the world. And when we say no to GMO, we’re simultaneously depriving smallholder farmers and consumers in developing nations from exercising choice about what to grow, what to eat. Or in too many cases, about whether they will eat.

Would you say no to GMO if you knew it could save orange trees from the devastation of citrus greening disease, bananas from the scourge of wilt, crops from succumbing to drought or cattle to heat? Would you push it away if you knew this technology could help keep cacao, the primary ingredient in chocolate, from going extinct?  Would you get on board if you knew it meant that kids could safely munch a bag of peanuts without risking anaphylactic shock, be spared the blindness of vitamin A deficiency? Would you have a change of heart if you knew that biotechnology could increase the income of a smallholder farmer in Bangladesh six-fold — enough to send his children to school, buy a propane stove so his wife didn’t have to prepare food over a cow dung or charcoal fire?

Or to bring it back home, would you embrace this technology if you knew it meant the daily challenge of packing a school lunch could be immensely simplified with hypoallergenic peanut butter spread on gluten-free wheat bread and accompanied by an apple that retained its fresh, white flesh, even hours after slicing?

Some of these products, like the Arctic Apple, are already available. Others are moving forward and many more are in the works, ready and able to do their part to end hunger, shrink agriculture’s outsized environmental footprint, increase crop yields, reduce pesticide use, withstand the temperamental and often extreme growing conditions that characterize climate change, and curb food waste. Even more products are likely now that the science has advanced through the precise, predictable use of gene editing tools like CRISPR.

But these new plant varieties, created by scientists working in public institutions like me, won’t advance without our support, our recognition that they have a role, just like organics and conventional and natural, in keeping our planet healthy and our kids fed. They aren’t backed by the multinational corporations that can pay $100 million to move a genetically-engineered crop through an unreasonably onerous regulatory process. They need consumers, people like you and me, to say that we want scientific evidence, not ideology, to determine what enters the food supply.

These are the thoughts that enter my mind as I sip coffee, pack lunches, prepare my children for another day in the school environment that I loved. I want them to have the same opportunities that I enjoyed, and I want those opportunities extended to kids across the globe. And from where I sit, access to the healthy, affordable food that genetic engineering can provide is a huge part of that.

As we bid farewell to the unstructured days of summer and re-enter the school year routine, let’s remember that the decisions we make each day in the grocery store reverberate not only in our children’s lunch boxes, but all around the world.  

What Does the Market Hold for Alternative Proteins?

alternative protein burger

Burger King recently ran into a surprising problem: it ran out of burgers.

Well, not exactly. The restaurant still had plenty of ground beef and other traditional ingredients on hand, but at the end of June, the burger chain was running low on the new, meatless burgers from Beyond Meat that had been added to its menu last year, according to The Wall Street Journal.

What’s changing? Consumers.

And Burger King wasn’t alone. Burger chain White Castle, which added Impossible Foods’ meatless burgers last year, reported similar shortages, as did restaurants including TGI Fridays, Del Taco, CKE Restaurant Holdings’ Carl’s Jr., Red Robin, and others.

That’s right, consumer demand for alternative meat products has officially arrived.

In fact, White Castle leadership credited the 4 percentage point increase in same-store sales to its Impossible Sliders. As of this spring, a full 15% of U.S. restaurants offered meatless products, according to market research firm Technomic, accounting for nearly 20,000 locations nationwide, a figure that was up 3% year-over-year.

Younger shoppers, in particular, are looking for healthier, more sustainable alternatives to the usual meat-and-potatoes menus of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. According to Technomic, 71% of consumers now eat seafood at least once a month and 50% eat vegetarian or vegan dishes at least once a month. Meatless burgers and other alternative proteins are one way for restaurants to reach these diners.

“This desire for flexibility highlights the fact that dietary lifestyle choices are often not all-or-nothing decisions for consumers…Semi-vegetarian and flexitarian diets appeal to those who aspire to eat healthier while still providing leeway to splurge on meat or seafood occasionally. To cater to shifting behaviors, operators can offer protein substitutes for certain dishes or create a handful of build-your-own options that give consumers an even greater level of control.”

– Bret Yonke, Manager of Consumer Insights at Technomic

These findings line up with what Chris Kerr, Chief Investment Officer with New Crop Capital, a venture capital fund focused on investing in plant-based alternative protein technologies, has been seeing on an anecdotal basis in the market for the last year-plus. In Kerr’s view, it all comes down to awareness, price, taste and convenience, and we’ve reached the tipping point on all four.

R&D advancements in recent years have led to massive improvements in alternative protein taste and texture. That’s attracted new investment capital to support marketing and product design efforts. And that has brought about new consumer awareness and interest.

“It’s just a self-feeding loop that is basically allowing all this to happen,” Kerr says. “What it’s demonstrating is that there’s all this pent up demand, and now that all of these dollars are finding their way into the market it’s bringing in more attention and the large food companies are playing a role in [alternative proteins] in a way that they haven’t for the last 50 years.”

And that fact matters a lot, because the leading global food providers are large, diversified corporations that can make or break new markets like these.

Consumers demand taste and variety

Buyers today are more concerned about their health, more socially conscious and aware of where their food comes from. Because of this, they are more accepting of alternatives to meat, dairy, eggs and other proteins than previous generations as a result. However, taste is still king, and without it, these products won’t succeed.

Explains Kerr, “If taste doesn’t drive this, everything else fails. I think what’s really happened is that companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have convinced people that they don’t have to settle for plain old quinoa burgers anymore.

It’s not that there’s a huge new population becoming vegan. According to Gallup, less than 10% of Americans adhere to either a vegetarian or vegan diet and those numbers have been steady for years. But what has changed is a new acceptance of alternative proteins in the marketplace.

“Many people today are embracing this idea that we don’t have to eat meat as our sole source of protein,” says Kerr, ”and I think that’s the real driver behind what’s going on right now. From gay rights to cannabis, a lot of social stigmas have changed, and I see plant-based eating right in there as well. That wasn’t the case even five years ago. That’s the tipping point.”

A growing market

Of course, there’s far more to the alternative protein space than just well-known names like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. A fast growing segment, the plant protein market value is expected to grow 55% in just six years, according to Persistence Market Research.

Source: Statista.com.

For one thing, established industry players like Tyson and Cargill have gotten into the game, as well. Tyson Foods recently announced their plans to start selling pea protein nuggets this year, in addition to a blended pea and beef burger, potentially bringing alternative proteins to a huge new market. Cargill has invested in lab-grown meat startup Memphis Meats, pea protein producer PURIS, and Calysta, which is developing methane-based proteins. Even Ikea, the Swedish purveyor of flat-packet furniture, is getting into the game with a new plant-based version of their iconic Swedish meatballs.

The science behind alternative protein technology is far from a new development, considering that companies like Kraft and Kellogg have been selling for years. But it is only now finding broad consumer reach and appeal thanks to a range of new developments and innovations.

Atlantic Natural Foods, the manufacturer of Loma Linda®, Neat® and Kaffree Roma™ brand products, produces alternatives for seafood, beef and pork products. The company aims to create affordable, sustainable and healthy sources of plant-based protein, with a focus not only on what today’s shoppers are looking for, but also what is driving future trends.

Laura Lapp, innovation brand manager explains:

“Plants are remarkable in the way the texture, size and shape can be made to mimic traditionally animal-based foods. We’ve gotten really creative with soy and have now produced what looks just like conventional tuna. We’re using real seaweed too, which has the flavor of the ocean, but doesn’t harm the ocean.”

Equinom, an Israeli seed-breeding company, is working a step up the alternative proteins supply chain, breeding various grain crops with an eye toward bringing better protein to the world.  While it used to focus on crops for feed and biodiesel, it has turned its eye toward human health. Currently, it is working to create 50% more protein from already high protein crops, such as soybeans, pea, sesame and chickpeas. Others that have potential are cowpeas, green peas, mung beans, and quinoa.

“We believe we could reduce the cost of plant-protein also as a viable cost-effective alternative to meat protein with better taste and functionality,” Dana says. “We want to make it clear to the market that plant protein are here to stay and this is not a trend.”

Looking ahead

In such a fast-moving industry, we’ll continue to see many players challenging the alternative protein space. For instance, did you know you can create protein out of thin air? It sounds impossible, but clean tech experts from Finland, Solar Foods can build edible proteins with just CO2, electricity, and water!

At the end of the day, the market for alternative proteins is facing a perfect storm event – product quality has reached a point where even meat eaters are looking at plant-based proteins as tasty options, interest in health and wellness have moved front and center for many buyers, and demand for protein in all forms continues to rise worldwide along with rising standards of living. The challenge is aligning the resources, along with the manufacturing and distribution capabilities, to make it all a reality.

Organic Farming & Gene Editing: Oxymoron or Tool for Sustainable Ag?

organic, veggies, vegetables

This post is written by Rebecca Mackelprang and is posted on Cornell Alliance for Science, an initiative based at Cornell University, a non-profit institution. Their mission is to promote access to scientific innovation as a means of enhancing food security, improving environmental sustainability, and raising the quality of life globally.

The original article was published at The Conversation as Organic farming with gene editing: An oxymoron or a tool for sustainable agriculture? and has been republished here with permission from Cornell Alliance for Science.

A University of California, Berkeley professor stands at the front of the room, delivering her invited talk about the potential of genetic engineering. Her audience, full of organic farming advocates, listens uneasily. She notices a man get up from his seat and move toward the front of the room. Confused, the speaker pauses mid-sentence as she watches him bend over, reach for the power cord, and unplug the projector. The room darkens and silence falls. So much for listening to the ideas of others.

Many organic advocates claim that genetically engineered crops are harmful to human health, the environment, and the farmers who work with them. Biotechnology advocates fire back that genetically engineered crops are safe, reduce insecticide use, and allow farmers in developing countries to produce enough food to feed themselves and their families.

Now, sides are being chosen about whether the new gene editing technology, CRISPR, is really just “GMO 2.0” or a helpful new tool to speed up the plant breeding process. In July, the European Union’s Court of Justice ruled that crops made with CRISPR will be classified as genetically engineered. In the United States, meanwhile, the regulatory system is drawing distinctions between genetic engineering and specific uses of genome editing.

I am a plant molecular biologist and appreciate the awesome potential of both CRISPR and genetic engineering technologies. But I don’t believe that pits me against the goals of organic agriculture. In fact, biotechnology can help meet these goals. And while rehashing the arguments about genetic engineering seems counterproductive, genome editing may draw both sides to the table for a healthy conversation. To understand why, it’s worth digging into the differences between genome editing with CRISPR and genetic engineering.

What’s the difference between genetic engineering, CRISPR and mutation breeding?

Opponents argue that CRISPR is a sneaky way to trick the public into eating genetically engineered foods. It is tempting to toss CRISPR and genetic engineering into the same bucket. But even “genetic engineering” and “CRISPR” are too broad to convey what is happening on the genetic level, so let’s look closer.

In one type of genetic engineering, a gene from an unrelated organism can be introduced into a plant’s genome. For example, much of the eggplant grown in Bangladesh incorporates a gene from a common bacterium. This gene makes a protein called Bt that is harmful to insects. By putting that gene inside the eggplant’s DNA, the plant itself becomes lethal to eggplant-eating insects and decreases the need for insecticides. Bt is safe for humans. It’s like how chocolate makes dogs sick, but doesn’t affect us.

Another type of genetic engineering can move a gene from one variety of a plant species into another variety of that same species. For example, researchers identified a gene in wild apple trees that makes them resistant to fire blight. They moved that gene into the “Gala Galaxy” apple to make it resistant to disease. However, this new apple variety has not been commercialized.

Scientists are unable to direct where in the genome a gene is inserted with traditional genetic engineering, although they use DNA sequencing to identify the location after the fact.

In contrast, CRISPR is a tool of precision.

Just like using the “find” function in a word processor to quickly jump to a word or phrase, the CRISPR molecular machinery finds a specific spot in the genome. It cuts both strands of DNA at that location. Because cut DNA is problematic for the cell, it quickly deploys a repair team to mend the break. There are two pathways for repairing the DNA. In one, which I call “CRISPR for modification,” a new gene can be inserted to link the cut ends together, like pasting a new sentence into a word processor.

In “CRISPR for mutation,” the cell’s repair team tries to glue the cut DNA strands back together again. Scientists can direct this repair team to change a few DNA units, or base pairs (A’s, T’s, C’s and G’s), at the site that was cut, creating a small DNA change called a mutation. This technique can be used to tweak the gene’s behavior inside the plant. It can also be used to silence genes inside the plant that, for example, are detrimental to plant survival, like a gene that increases susceptibility to fungal infections.

In genetic engineering, a new gene is added to a random location in a plant’s genome. CRISPR for modification also allows a new gene to be added to a plant, but targets the new gene to a specific location. CRISPR for mutation does not add new DNA. Rather, it makes a small DNA change at a precise location. Mutation breeding uses chemicals or radiation (lightning bolts) to induce several small mutations in the genomes of seeds. Resulting plants are screened for beneficial mutations resulting in desirable traits. Rebecca Mackelprang, CC BY-SA

Mutation breeding, which in my opinion is also a type of biotechnology, is already used in organic food production. In mutation breeding, radiation or chemicals are used to randomly make mutations in the DNA of hundreds or thousands of seeds which are then grown in the field. Breeders scan fields for plants with a desired trait such as disease resistance or increased yield. Thousands of new crop varieties have been created and commercialized through this process, including everything from varieties of quinoa to varieties of grapefruit. Mutation breeding is considered a traditional breeding technique, and thus is not an “excluded method” for organic farming in the United States.

CRISPR for mutation is more similar to mutation breeding than it is to genetic engineering. It creates similar end products as mutation breeding, but removes the randomness. It does not introduce new DNA. It is a controlled and predictable technique for generating helpful new plant varieties capable of resisting disease or weathering adverse environmental conditions.

Opportunity lost – learning from genetic engineering

Most commercialized genetically engineered traits confer herbicide tolerance or insect resistance in corn, soybean or cotton. Yet many other engineered crops exist. While a few are grown in the field, most sit all but forgotten in dark corners of research labs because of the prohibitive expense of passing regulatory hurdles. If the regulatory climate and public perception allow it, crops with valuable traits like these could be produced by CRISPR and become common in our soils and on our tables.

For example, my adviser at UC Berkeley developed, with colleagues, a hypoallergenic variety of wheat. Seeds for this wheat are held captive in envelopes in the basement of our building, untouched for years. A tomato that uses a sweet pepper gene to defend against a bacterial disease, eliminating the need for copper-based pesticide application, has struggled to secure funding to move forward. Carrotcassavalettucepotato and more have been engineered for increased nutritional value. These varieties demonstrate the creativity and expertise of researchers in bringing beneficial new traits to life. Why, then, can’t I buy bread made with hypoallergenic wheat at the grocery store?

Loosening the grip of big agriculture

Research and development of a new genetically engineered crop costs around US$100 million at large seed companies. Clearing the regulatory hurdles laid out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, EPA and/or FDA (depending on the engineered trait) takes between five and seven years and an additional $35 million. Regulation is important and genetically engineered products should be carefully evaluated. But, the expense allows only large corporations with extensive capital to compete in this arena. The price shuts small companies, academic researchers and NGOs out of the equation. To recoup their $135 million investment in crop commercialization, companies develop products to satisfy the biggest markets of seed buyers – growers of corn, soybean, sugar beet and cotton.

The costs of research and development are far lower with CRISPR due to its precision and predictability. And early indications suggest that using CRISPR for mutation will not be subject to the same regulatory hurdles and costs in the U.S. A press release on March 28, 2018 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that “under its biotechnology regulations, USDA does not regulate or have any plans to regulate plants that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques” if they are developed with approved laboratory procedures.

If the EPA and FDA follow suit with reasonable, less costly regulations, CRISPR may escape the dominant financial grasp of large seed companies. Academics, small companies and NGO researchers may see hard work and intellectual capital yield beneficial genome-edited products that are not forever relegated to the basements of research buildings.

Common ground: CRISPR for sustainability

In the six years since the genome editing capabilities of CRISPR were unlocked, academics, startups and established corporations have announced new agricultural products in the pipeline that use this technology. Some of these focus on traits for consumer health, such as low-gluten or gluten-free wheat for people with celiac disease. Others, such as non-browning mushrooms, can decrease food waste.

The lingering California drought demonstrated the importance of crop varieties that use water efficiently. Corn with greater yield under drought stress has already been made using CRISPR, and it is only a matter of time before CRISPR is used to increase drought tolerance in other crops. Powdery mildew-resistant tomatoes could save billions of dollars and eliminate spraying of fungicides. A tomato plant that flowers and makes fruit early could be used in northern latitudes with long days and shorter growing seasons, which will become more important as climate changes.

The rules are made, but is the decision final?

In 2016 and 2017, the U.S. National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) voted to exclude all genome-edited crops from organic certification.

But in my view, they should reconsider.

Some organic growers I interviewed agree. “I see circumstances under which it could be useful for short-cutting a process that for traditional breeding might take many plant generations,” says Tom Willey, an organic farmer emeritus from California. The disruption of natural ecosystems is a major challenge to agriculture, Willey told me, and while the problem cannot be wholly addressed by genome editing, it could lend an opportunity to “reach back into genomes of the wild ancestors of crop species to recapture genetic material” that has been lost through millennia of breeding for high yields.

Breeders have successfully used traditional breeding to reintroduce such diversity, but “in the light of the urgency posed by climate change, we might wisely employ CRISPR to accelerate such work,” Willey concludes.

Bill Tracy, an organic corn breeder and professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, says, “Many CRISPR-induced changes that could happen in nature could have benefits to all kinds of farmers.” But, the NOSB has already voted on the issue and the rules are unlikely to change without significant pressure. “It’s a question of what social activity could move the needle on that,” Tracy concludes.

People on all sides of biotechnology debates want to maximize human and environmental outcomes. Collaborative problem-solving by organic (and conventional) growers, specialists in sustainable agriculture, biotechnologists and policymakers will yield greater progress than individual groups acting alone and dismissing each other. The barriers to this may seem large, but they are of our own making. Hopefully, more people will gain the courage to plug the projector back in and let the conversation continue.

Rebecca Mackelprang is a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. This article originally appeared on The Conversation.

GMOs are Confusing: A Recipe for Understanding

banana bread

Banana Bread Starts With A Recipe Of Basic Ingredients

My son has a hankering for homemade banana bread, and suddenly the whole family wants a slice, including me. So I go to the kitchen to whip up a loaf. While the oven is preheating, I put the ingredients on the counter: bananas, butter, baking soda, salt, sugar, egg, vanilla, and flour.

For the best taste and consistency, mixing the ingredients in order is important. I mash the bananas and the butter together before folding in the rest, and end with the flour. Then, I pour batter in a loaf pan and bake. We patiently let it cool, then slice it up and everyone gets a homemade treat.

Our family loves banana bread and I also want to give them extra nutrition. So I add flaxseed for omega 3 fatty acids and yogurt for protein and calcium.

How Is Banana Bread Similar To A GMO?

First, the plant breeder starts with a plant they want to modify. Let’s take rice as an example, a staple food for more than half the world’s population. Many people, particularly children, in the developing world are deficient in vitamin A which can compromise their immune system and cause night blindness. The International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines created a more nutritious food by enabling rice to express its beta-carotene gene, the precursor to vitamin A.

Golden Rice technology was based on the premise that rice already has the ability to make beta-carotene, but this conversion was only in the leaves. In order for the beta-carotene to be present in the rice itself, rice breeders added two new genes to basic rice: one from corn and one from a commonly ingested soil bacterium. Together, these genes enable rice to synthesize the beta-carotene found in the leaves. Now a cup of rice a day can keep children healthier and fortified. Breeders in Uganda are working on a similar process to make golden bananas.

What Is The Process?

GMO infographic

1. Banana Bread Recipe = DNA

Just like banana bread, rice (like every living organism) has a recipe.  Just as the directions to make banana bread is in the recipe, the directions to make rice is in its DNA.

2. Banana Bread Ingredients = Genes

When laid out on your counter, the ingredients for banana bread don’t mean much. However, when combined together, they yield a delicious treat. On a much simpler scale, when you mix the banana bread ingredients in a different order and with different ingredient amounts, you get a different recipe all together – banana pancakes!

All living organisms have the same concept. Each human, plant, or animal has thousands of genes that create their living structure. What makes a human a human and rice- rice is that 99% of the genes – otherwise called the genetic alphabet – are written in a certain order. For instance, humans are made up of approximately 23,000 genes compared to rice which contains around 32,000 genes. Per the gene graphic above, if the sequence on the right was changed from red-purple-red-yellow-yellow to yellow-red-red-purple-red it would be a completely different organism.

DEEPER DIVE ON GENETIC CODE: Each gene consists of three out of four known nitrogenous bases: guanine, cytosine, adenine, and thymine (G, C, A, T) Think of a long string of beads where each bead is a letter. The order of these beads are important. Change the order around and you will have a different creature altogether. On a much simpler scale, when you mix the banana bread ingredients together in a certain order, it gives the desired structure and texture to the bread. 

3. Nutritional value from Banana Bread Ingredients = Proteins

With banana bread, picture the nutritional profile that come from the ingredients, such as omega 3, fiber, and vitamin B.  In a plant, it is the genes which ultimately give instructions to proteins. The purpose of the proteins is to create a specific type of cell. Should the cell be a root cell, a leaf cell, or a rice kernel cell?

4. Banana Bread with omega-3 = Golden Rice with beta-carotene

Genetically modifying an organism happens when one gene is taken from one organism and is added to the thousands of genes in another organism.  Just as you might add flaxseed to banana bread to give it more omega-3s, researchers added two genes to rice to create a healthy biofortified food.

A Simple Explanation Of Genes And DNA:

Keeping The Integrity Of The Plant

Just like banana bread with flaxseed or yogurt as an added ingredient, the bread is still banana bread; it just has enhanced nutrition. Making a GMO is similar. It is adding a gene into an organism that already has thousands of genes. The rice is still rice, it just has the added ingredient to make vitamin A.

Whether a GMO has been created to resist insects, herbicides, or viruses, the plant is still the same plant and the integrity of the thousands of genes are the same. There is just a new gene, generally from another organism, inserted into the string of letters to add value.

Genetic Changes Happen Naturally, Too

Changing the genetic structure of a plant through gene additions from another organism isn’t a novel idea. It happens in nature all the time. In fact, scientists recently discovered the first GMO created 8,000 years ago. It was the sweet potato! Scientists at the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru discovered that a certain bacteria gene inserted itself into the white potato created the sweet potato we love today.

What’s in a name? In this case, quite a bit.

grilled hamburgers in bun with bacon and cheese

The world needs more protein.

Population growth and rising standards of living will increase the demand for animal meat and vegetable proteins in the decades ahead. Experts say we will need 50% more protein by the year 2050 to provide adequate protein for everyone.

What are the alternatives to animal production?

Many argue for a greater consumption of vegetable proteins. Indeed, plant-based protein products, such as Beyond Meat are now a significant factor in the marketplace.

But entrepreneurial scientists have recently generated another alternative: cell-based meat, where cells from an animal are cultured and grown in a lab.

Dirt-to-Dinner examined “meatless meat” in A New Burger. Since that report, the science and industry behind this new source of protein continue to develop. Companies such as Memphis Meats, Mosa Meats, and Modern Meadow also report positive feedback of cell-based meat as a legitimate player in the protein sector.

“At Memphis Meats, we have a “big tent” philosophy, and collaboratively work with consumers, regulators, mission-oriented groups and major meat companies to help feed a growing planet in a sustainable way. This is a goal that everybody shares.” Uma Valeti, CEO Memphis Meats

Trending today is a positive reaction from consumers on texture, taste and other matters important to consumer acceptance of the product.  Production advances are slowly working on bringing the price point and availability for the product into a range acceptable to consumers.

Grilled Duck, Memphis Meats

But one key element of the developmental process remains unresolved – and is a source of high emotion, intense debate and competition…

It’s what to call this innovative meat!

“Cell-based meat” is a leader within the industry. Cell-based is a neutral, scientifically accurate term that is commonly used by proponents, detractors and neutral observers alike. It references the composition of the products in this category. It parallels and creates a clear distinction from “plant-based protein” and “animal-based meat.”

“Cultured meat” has been discussed in the nomenclature debate. After all, the meat is produced from a cultured sample of the cow, chicken, pig, fish or other target animal. But “cultured” is used in fermented foods such as yogurt and even cured meat, so could lend itself to consumer confusion.

“Laboratory meat” or “lab meat” may conjure up images from a sci-fi movie. Consumers like foods that invoke happy images of a well-fed and satisfied family, not a science lab.

Another contender, “clean meat”, calls attention to the lab’s sanitary conditions, but is yet another unsavory mental image for the shopper. The term, “clean”, also draws objections from those who fear it suggests other types of meat aren’t clean and are therefore somehow suspect.  Consumer advocacy groups worry if the product is called “clean meat,” consumers may assume it is safe and won’t take adequate precautions in preparing it for consumption.

With the innocence and cyber-world orientation that comes with youth, a 12-year-old listened patiently to the debate and responded with a different approach to the type of name that seems right.  “You’re talking about a new kind of protein, really.  You know, Protein 2.0.”

The roster of possible names goes on and on, as do the objections and concerns.  Some animal producers even question whether the product should be called “meat” at all. Take our poll and let us know what you think!

Why is this naming debate so important?

The name serves as the frontline effort to introduce this important new source of protein to the global marketplace. For most of the public, the product’s name will be the first step in building its awareness and introducing its value to consumers. A name that turns people off will do as much to impede or accelerate acceptance of the product as any other single factor. To understand this challenge, look no further than the difficulty of the public acceptance of GMOs. 

What would you call this new protein source?

The survey results are in! Responses were accepted from January 10 thru February 14th, 2018. There were 101 responses. Leading the pack of suggested names (with 6 or more respondents) were:

Cultured Meat
Cell-based Meat
Protein 2.0
Craft Meat
Lab Meat
Eco Meat
Neat Meat

Other names suggested (5 or under respondents) were: Clean Meat, Franken Meat, Alt Meat, Fake Meat, Stem Cell-Based meat, Cheat Meat, Nutrimeat, InVitro Meat, Synthetic Protein, Fake Meat, CIL (Created in Lab) Meat, Lab-Cultured Protein, NuMeat, NuCaro (Latin), and Alternative Protein, “Do NOT call this meat”, and “If this meat does not have active vitamin B12 it is harmful to humans”.

Would you eat a product made from cell-based meat?

Our survey indicated that most respondents would!

In an ideal world, this new source of protein – whatever it is called – shouldn’t be used to promote one type of protein over another (e.g., “superior” in terms of value, quality, economic cost, natural resource demands, ethicality or humaneness). A name that seems to disparage another protein source could provoke an unhealthy competitive environment within the sector when a collaborative effort to boost protein production is most needed.

The name also has implications for the relationship of this emerging industry with government. In a November 2018 statement, the FDA and USDA proposed a ‘joint regulatory framework wherein FDA oversees cell collection, cell banks, and cell growth and differentiation, and the USDA will oversee the production and labeling of food products derived from the cells of livestock and poultry.”

Feeding the World: One Byte at a Time

landscape of farmland against blue sky

Cornell has started the Cornell Initiative for Digital Agriculture (CIDA) to solve some of the world’s most pressing questions by connecting disciplines within and outside of Cornell.

  • How can Cornell impact the agri-food system to help feed close to 10 billion people by 2050?
  • How does changing consumer demand and demographics affect the global food system?
  • What will the impact of climate change have on agriculture?
  • How can our crops be more resilient to weather and pests?
  • How can we improve water and fertilizer usage?
  • How can we reduce foodborne illnesses around the world?
  • How do we solve food waste?

“Great things in business are never done by one person; they’re done by a team of people.” – Steve Jobs

What makes Cornell unique?

As a university, Cornell’s approach to Digital Agriculture represents a unique collaboration between five of their own colleges on campus with businesses and government off campus. The purpose is to develop, change and improve the way we grow our crops and supply our food.

The Cornell Workshop on Digital Agriculture (CIDA): “Transforming Agriculture and Food Systems” is led by Susan McCouch, the Director of the new Cornell Initiative for Digital Agriculture (CIDA) and the Barbara McClintock Professor of Plant Breeding and Genetics, along with Associate Directors Abe Stroock, Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Hakim Weatherspoon, Associate Professor of Computer Science.  Kathryn Boor (Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences), Lance Collins (Dean of the College of Engineering), and Greg Morrisett (Dean of Computing and Information Science) have been champions of the evolving Initiative and faculty efforts.

Importantly, CIDA represents a cross-university collaboration with faculty members from CALS as well as the Colleges of Engineering, Computing and Information Science, Business, and Veterinary Medicine where students and faculty will work together to use digital agriculture to answer these challenging questions facing agriculture today.

CIDA is combining agriculture with data solutions partners such as Microsoft and IBM. The USDA has committed to hiring 12 new researchers at Cornell as part of this collaborative effort. Additionally, Cornell is a Land Grant College – which means they work with farmers around the world helping to research and develop solutions for their specific crop and country. The result of this broad approach is to develop direct solutions to manage water delivery to plants, improve animal health, and enhance plant breeding and soil science.

What is Digital Agriculture?

Digital Agriculture is all about using data and information to maximize the food and agricultural supply chain. That would be from dirt to dinner! It means digitally collecting all the information on the farm and within the food supply chain. Solutions for animal and crop health, farm profitability, yield management, food production, and social welfare will be found with big data management and artificial intelligence.

The success of agriculture can be seen through the improvements that have been made in the Dairy industry. Today, each cow can produce 2,429 gallons of milk per year. That is a tall order compared to the 548 gallons per cow produced in 1944. Digital Agriculture will enable these kinds of efficiencies.

Cornell is well suited for CIDA. Some of the types of programs that are underway are using robots and sensors. LoveBeets, a U.K. company which focuses on just beets, and Cornell are collaborating to improving beet production and weed reduction with new yield algorithms and drones. Recently, a research project has been developed so a robot can touch a vine ripe with grapes and determine the leaf to fruit ratio as well as estimate the yield before harvest time.  Another group has developed their own sensor which helps apple orchards deliver water only where it is needed.  Research on indoor farming is underway to reduce the labor and lighting costs as well as to understand the effects of CO2 on plant yield.

FarmBeats is a collaborative program with Microsoft. Utilizing the Microsoft Cloud and artificial intelligence, farmers are able to improve yields on their crops while lowering overall costs and their environmental impact.

Digital technology and the grocery store – what this means to you

Does anyone else dislike dragging themselves to the grocery store after a long day to pick up items for dinner? Well, next time you are there, think about how lucky you are to have all these amazing food choices right at your fingertips.

And it all starts on the farm. Every single food item at the grocery store begins in the soil on a farm.Now, take a macro look at this. The Earth is not getting any bigger and we can’t keep cutting down forests and encroaching on open space to grow more food. Digital technology can help us make the most of the farmland we have today. It can help farmers become more profitable and efficient. What happens on the farm affects the water we drink, the national parks we visit, the biodiversity of life surrounding the farms, and the price and quality of the food we eat.

What’s the Difference between GMOs & CRISPR?

gmo-crispr concept using scalpel and scissors shown with vegetables

What is a GMO?

GMOs (genetically modified organisms) involve transferring a gene from one species to another to provide an organism with a new trait – like pest resistance or drought tolerance. GMOs are also referred to as “transgenic,” for transfer of genes.

Bt corn is an example of a GMO crop that helps reduce pesticide use against the European Corn Borer, a pesky caterpillar that eats the crop. Genes from a naturally occurring soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, are inserted into corn leaves. Bacillus thuringiensis produces proteins with insecticidal properties that specifically target the European Corn Borer. When the worm starts munching on the corn leaves, it ingests the soil bacterium and dies. The plants produce the toxins in their tissues and there is no need to spray synthetic pesticides or apply Bt mixtures topically.

GMOs involve transferring a gene from one species to another to endow an organism with a new trait – like pest resistance or drought tolerance.

What is CRISPR?

CRISPR is a very precise way of altering or deleting DNA from the same species to obtain the desired outcome. CRISPR allows scientists to shorten the natural evolution of plants by years.

Drought resistant corn, for example, is CRISPR engineered and will enable corn to grow and thrive with limited water. As the climate changes and water becomes scarcer, this will be very important to this major world crop. Another example is the non-browning mushroom, where the gene responsible for browning is silenced. The mushroom enjoys a longer shelf life and there is less food waste.

CRISPR involves editing a gene within the same species to achieve the desired outcome.

Gene-edited crops have the potential to make plants that are higher yielding, drought tolerant, disease resistant, more nutritious, or just better tasting.

CRISPR technology can also be applied to human and animal health and welfare. Scientists are working on cures for Type I DiabetesAlzheimer’s and other human diseases using CRISPR technology. With regard to animals, dairy cows can be saved the pain of manual horn extraction (disbudding) by introducing genetics from Angus cows, which are born without horns.

Both GMO and CRISPR technologies have the potential to provide healthier, more nutritious food, and allow farmers to grow crops with fewer agricultural chemicals and less water.  Additionally, CRISPR is emerging as a promising tool not only for plants and animals but also for human health.

In the News: European Court Hinders CRISPR Technology

crispr technology concept

The Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ), which represents all 28 countries in the European Union, has set back progress by regulating the genetic engineering technique, CRISPR, to such an extent that it will stifle growth in agricultural innovation.

As a surprise to almost everyone, the court ruled that crops produced from CRISPR-Cas9 must face the same rigorous, time-consuming and hugely expensive evaluative process as genetically modified crops.

In contrast to the European Court, the USDA recently issued a statement that the agency does not plan to regulate plants edited with CRISPR technology. The USDA deemed a distinct difference between edited genomes and genetic modification. This decision only applies to crops with genes removed by the technology or added if the genes are commonplace in the species. GMOs and other transgenic crops, with DNA modified from another organism to make the crop pest-resistant, for example, will still be closely monitored by the USDA.

“Genome editing…can introduce new plant traits more quickly and precisely, potentially saving years or even decades in bringing needed new varieties to farmers.” (USDA Press)

Why are we concerned about what the European Union does with gene editing?

Imagine for a moment that we still used a horse and plow to grow and harvest the food we eat. We would all be hungry. Food production has kept pace with population growth due to ongoing seed, planting and harvesting technology. Seeds resistant to pests and diseases, GPS-driven tractors, and precision irrigation are some of the technologies that have helped to increase crop yields, preserve and improve soils, and produce healthier foods.

Since the 1940s, corn yield has increased to roughly 170 bushels an acre from 30. This has saved over 2.7 billion acres of land, globally. In 1990, the average farmer fed 100 people. Today, the average farmer produces food and fiber for 165 people annually, both in the U.S and abroad!

Food would not be as plentiful today if we kept to horse and plow methods of cultivation.

Modern tractors are efficient and use precise GPS technology to manage fields and crops.

The EU Ruling Causes Frustration.

The Court’s ruling, which the French government requested, has not received much public praise. This decision shocked many in the business and academic communities regarding its questionable logic.  Even European editorial pages sympathetic to the anti-GMO position expressed incredulity with the decision.

Until now, Europe’s regulatory approach to genetic engineering was simple: Anything that could occur naturally should not be as heavily regulated, but “unnatural” processes, like GMOs, require strict regulation. GMOs are considered “unnatural” as they use a transgenic process of inserting genes from one organism into another organism.

CRISPR, on the other hand, uses the organism’s own genetic material, therefore the change could occur naturally. There are no transgenic properties in CRISPR. It is just a faster and more precise way to breed better crops compared to what farmers have been practicing for centuries. CRISPR can help plants resist pests and disease, and survive in higher temperatures and drier soil conditions.

So, by stating that CRISPR must now undergo heavy regulation, the ECJ has contradicted itself on the topic of genetic engineering. In fact, they’re creating even more confusion. For instance, did you know the EU considers radiation as a “natural” process and therefore is not as regulated? This “natural” process is called conventional mutagenesis and includes the use of chemicals or radiation to cause mutations within the plant for future breeding purposes. How is radiation, an imprecise method of breeding, any more “natural” than CRISPR?

“By any sensible standard, this judgment is illogical and absurd.  For a start, it argues that crops should be judged not on the safety of their traits but only by the technology that was used to create them.  It also maintains that the highly precise technology of gene editing is somehow more risky than past, imprecise techniques. This is simply untrue.” (The Sunday Observer, July 29, 2018)

The Court’s decision ignores this critical scientific point of difference. Additionally, this ruling further mystifies the already complex issue of GMOs. As we saw with GMOs, some countries may follow Europe’s lead on this ruling. This will be especially detrimental to the developing world, with concerns about food security with a growing population. Basing those policies on poor science and an over-abundance of caution could forestall the very improvements in farm productivity needed around the world.

“To classify gene-edited crops as GMOs and equivalent to transgenic crops is completely incorrect by any scientific definition.  Precise modern gene-editing technologies allow accurate, predictable changes to be made in a genome.” (Nick Talbot, molecular geneticist. University of Exeter, United Kingdom)

A Loss for Europe’s Ag Sector

Immediate effects from the ECJ ruling.

The ruling will have immediate and long-term effects on Europe’s farmers and ranchers. As of now, all ongoing trials of gene-edited crops and animals in the EU must cease, halting valuable research findings and turning ag R&D spend into sunk costs for many. To get a field study up and running, the EU now requires that they first receive authorization.

As for crop and animal sales, the European Food Safety Authority must review any plants or animals affected by these gene-editing techniques before for approval. The approval process must demonstrate that the organisms are safe for consumption as well as the environment; the EU then grants final authorization for commercial use.

Once approved for commercial distribution, genetically edited plants and animals will require special labeling indicating its GE status, and all products must be traced back to its source.

Europe to fall behind in global competition.
Another consideration of this ruling is that it will now be prohibitively expensive and out of reach for smaller companies and institutions to enter this globally-competitive market. Taking just one gene-edited plant through the European regulatory process costs about $35 million, which is only accessible to the largest of companies. This will force many to either give up or move out the E.U.

“[This ruling is] the death blow for plant biotech in Europe.’ (Sarah Schmidt, Heinrich Heine University of Dusseldorf)

This will also have a broader effect on the European agricultural market.  Their crops will become increasingly more expensive to produce while other global producers offer better, less expensive crops for customers worldwide. Use of bio-engineered crops is expanding steadily around the world, especially in the United States and throughout South America, where they’re competing for lucrative foreign markets. In addition, trading with Europe will be increasingly difficult since the labeling laws will be different.

Effects on global food supply. The FAO reports that we need to grow as much food in the next 50 years as we have in the past 10,000 years combined.  This means the world’s farmers will have to grow about 70% more food than what is now produced. How are we going to do this without continuing to advance technology?

How will CRISPR impact our food?

non-browning crispr mushrooms - Penn State
The CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing system is revolutionizing food and will be used in the near future to address global hunger, create more nutritious food, and grow more sustainable crops. It has the potential to positively impact all aspects of our global food system.

What is CRISPR?

CRISPR is a gene-editing technology that actually mutates a gene within the plant itself.  Jennifer Doudna, University of California, Berkeley, the co-inventor of CRISPR, likens gene editing to editing a word document using the “find and replace” function. This means that CRISPR locates a specific gene within the plant genome and changes it in order to alter the traditional outcome. (Want more information on CRISPR technology? Read our post here).

You are probably wondering what the difference between GMO and CRISPR technology is? To put it simply, GMOs enhance a crop by taking a gene out of another organism altogether and inserting it in the crop, while CRISPR edits the existing gene within a crop.

This ingenious technology has the ability to expedite our traditional plant crossbreeding process. Remember: the food we eat today is not how it was found in the wild; plants have been cross-bred for millions of years to become the edible fruits and veggies we now know and love. CRISPR allows us to breed these plants sooner by at least three or four years.

From turning gene expression on and off to fluorescently tagging particular sequences, this animation explores some of the exciting possibilities of CRISPR.

“CRISPR is as profound a shift in thinking as genetics was in the 1970s.  Looking back from the future it will seem obvious.  We are just now comprehending the possibilities.” -Carter Williams, CEO, iSelectFund

From turning gene expression on and off to fluorescently tagging particular sequences, this animation explores some of the exciting possibilities of CRISPR

“CRISPR is as profound a shift in thinking as genetics was in the 1970s.  Looking back from the future it will seem obvious.  We are just now comprehending the possibilities.” -Carter Williams, CEO, iSelectFund

CRISPR is just one of the technologies shaping the future of the food supply chain.

The Dirt-to-Dinner team speaks with Craig Herron from iSelectFund at the Davos on the Delta Conference.

The Dirt-to-Dinner team recently attended an iSelectFund sponsored agricultural technology conference, called Davos on the Delta. We learned about what our food and agriculture system might look like in the future as technology advances. We met and heard from a number of innovative companies that are already revolutionizing the way we farm and the food we eat. At the helm of the conference was Carter Williams, CEO of iSelectFund, who hopes to encourage consumers to accept these revolutionary technologies all along the food supply chain.

As we listened to the speakers during the conference, it became clear that three critical innovations: CRISPR, microbiota and big data on the farm will affect the way we grow, process and eat our food. Stay tuned for more on microbes and big data.

What are some of the applications of CRISPR technology?

Scientists from AgroParisTech reviewed 52 peer-reviewed agricultural applications of CRISPR in order to better understand how CRISPR technology has been applied to various crops from 2014 to 2017.


It is very interesting that rice is the largest CRISPR application in a crop to date and is primarily being studied in China. The United States comes in second with CRISPR crops from the mustard plant, presumably because these crops can easily be tested and understood as a precursor for other crops.

How CRISPR will affect crop production

CRISPR will enable farmers to grow more dynamic crops, as opposed to the traditional corn, soybeans, cotton, and canola. They can mature faster, require less water, contain more nutrients…or even all three! Today, there are 30,000 different types of crops available, but our overall food system only relies on about 30 and, interestingly enough, 66% of our calories come from only eight crops.

Benson Hill Biosystems is a biotech company that helps farmers differentiate their crops with unique traits as well as predict crop trait outcomes by combining artificial intelligence and big data. They work closely with consumer products companies to make specialty foods; for instance, heat resistant chocolate from the cacao plant. Benson Hill has also patented a way for corn to enhance the photosynthesis process so that it can take more carbon out of the air while growing more quickly.

Using CRISPR to expand the geographical range of important food crops – Dec 2016

Scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York are changing the way we appreciate tomatoes. Using CRISPR, the tomatoes flower and mature two weeks earlier than traditional tomatoes. This means that farmers can grow two crops per season, inevitably becoming more profitable. This also gives consumers more tomatoes and allows farmers to grow the crop in more northerly latitudes. The best part? No more mealy tomatoes in the wintertime!

Corteva Agriscience (a merger of Dow AgroSciences and DuPont Pioneer) is growing the next generation of waxy corn. What is waxy corn, you ask? It has a high amylopectin starch that is used for consumer and industrial use. For instance, when you next enjoy a printed picture on high glossy paper, you can thank waxy corn for that!

Crops grown for industrial use will expand beyond starch, ethanol, and biodiesels. For example, your tires may soon be made from dandelions. Another small biotech company, Kultevat, has identified a Russian Dandelion that can make rubber exactly like the rubber from a tree. It is easier to grow, more sustainable, less expensive, and its byproduct can be used for fuel.

A more familiar name in this space, Monsanto, invested in Pairwise in order to address global food challenges via gene editing technology. They will initially focus on the major crops of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and canola. They licensed editing technology from Harvard University, but Pairwise will also work with other agriculture and food processing companies.

How CRISPR can solve global hunger

We need about 40 known nutrients to live healthy lives and right now there are 2 billion people globally who don’t have enough nutrition in their bodies when they go to bed, millions of those are children. Nutrient deficiencies prevent brain development, increases the chance of infections, and have serious social and economic repercussions. This doesn’t just apply to those in the developing world. For instance, many of us are literally starving ourselves of essential vitamins and minerals when we choose to eat an abundance of unhealthy foods over healthier options. Now with advancements in CRISPR, farmers will be able to grow crops that are biofortified – making crops more nutritious and shelf-stable.

Biofortification is when scientists breed crops to have more micronutrients and vitamins. You may already be familiar with the GMO-developed golden rice, rice made with Vitamin A to prevent night blindness and even death among those severely deficient in the vitamin. Rather than using transgenic technology, CRISPR is helping the larger agriculture science companies develop staple crops such as sweet potatoes, legumes and maize with iron, zinc, amino acids and proteins by tweaking the genetic code of the plant itself to make it more nutritionally diverse for those who have a monotonous diet.

Additionally, because of the long lead time to develop a crop, the larger agricultural science companies are better suited using CRISPR technology for biofortification.

Some of the companies leading the way with biofortified foods.

CRISPR in your grocery cart.

Some CRISPR edited crops are simply just to keep fruits and vegetables fresh and appealing. The non-browning mushroom from Yinong Yang and his team at Pennsylvania State University was the first to come to market. Harry J. Klee from the Plant Innovation Center at the University of Florida found the 13 important flavor components in a variety of different tomatoes. Editing the tomatoes to meet those components means an even better tasting tomato – especially in the wintertime.

Anti-browning mushroom developed by plant pathologist Yinong Yang using CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology.

Nutraceuticals are also becoming a possibility. This means better health from the daily foods we eat. The Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in Spain has created gluten-free wheat for those with celiac disease that will soon be coming to our own grocery shelves. According to the WSJ, DowDuPont will soon be selling CRISPR corn for healthy salad dressings and Calyxt will sell healthier vegetable oil.

What are the regulations surrounding CRISPR?

Currently, the USDA has chosen not to regulate CRISPR crops because there are no transgenics involved and the CRISPR results could have been done through cross-breeding. They do not see a risk present with CRISPR, not to mention that there is no way to tell the difference between a CRISPR crop or one which has been cross-bred. We hope this leads to a swift adoption of this amazing technology to make our crops more efficient, healthier, and more sustainable.

While the possibilities are exciting, the patent process is also something to keep your eyes on. Jennifer Doudna from University California Berkeley vs. Feng Zhang from The Broad Institute (M.I.T. and Harvard) have gone to court over who receives the patent over CRISPR- Cas9. The disagreement will continue in agriculture as Corteva (DowDuPont) is using the patent from UC Berkeley and Pairwise (Monsanto) signed a deal for their CRISPR/Cpf1 technology with Harvard and M.I.T.

In the News: Bill Gates gives GMOs a vote of confidence

Bill Gates

Leading scientists around the world have been saying it for some time: genetically modified technology is safe. But many consumers still have their doubts, and GMO critics are a powerful and very vocal group.

Recently, Bill Gates (yes, that Bill Gates) weighed in on the discussion on an “Ask Me Anything” thread on Reddit.

GMO foods are perfectly healthy and the technique has the possibility to reduce starvation and malnutrition when it is reviewed in the right way. I don’t stay from non-GMO foods but it is disappointing that people view them as better.”

Gates wasn’t simply throwing flame on the fire. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation takes on some of the toughest challenges facing developing countries: poverty and malnutrition. They allocate funds to innovative companies and organizations that can help provide solutions to these problems. This includes supporting new techniques and crops, such as Green Super Rice, to help farmers in developing countries successfully grow more food and earn more money.

Predictably, his comments prompted a fairly wide-spread reaction in the media. Scientists and global organizations— such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the European Commission, and the National Academy of Sciences— applauded Gates for calling attention to the important role GMOs play in helping provide affordable, safe food to feed a world that is projected to grow to almost 10 billion people by 2050. Without the productivity-enhancing advancements made possible by genetics, they point out, the task of providing food for another 2-3 billion mouths could prove extremely difficult, if not insurmountable.

Unsurprisingly, GMO critics weren’t won over, despite Bill Gates’ respected reputation for forward thinking and societal insight. In fact, some critics even chose to use his comments as a platform for continuing to argue against GMOs— despite the growing roster of studies, organizations, and individuals who echo Gates’ comments.

There are many opponents to GMOs, including the highly visible Non-GMO Project and GMO Awareness Organization. Anti-GMO propaganda has gone so far as to include Jennifer X, a Russian Bot, who has been responsible for spreading anti-GMO disinformation through social media. Since many consumers have GMO-related anxieties to begin with, these messengers have been extremely effective in perpetuating fear towards genetic engineering technology.

Non-GMO = Big Business

According to the Genetic Literacy Project, a site dedicated to promoting science literacy, there are more than 35,000 food products certified as “GMO-free,” representing sales of about $16 billion annually. We now have what can be termed as a “non-GMO food supply.” GMO-free food has now become big business— not just a passionate if sometimes ill-informed cause.

Meanwhile, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the European Commission are among the blue-chip entities that have publicly concluded that GMO foods are safe to eat. Most notably, a large 2013 study on GMOs found no “significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.”

Gates’ comments may not single-handedly change the opinion of the hardcore anti-GMO constituency— but, they add a respected global name to the pro-GMO community and stir up more public attention to the importance of genetics and genomics in the modern food system of today and tomorrow.

The more people know about the science behind GMOs, rather than just the emotions surrounding GMOs, the more effective our policies and decision-making will be with regards to our global food supply.

Are Insects the Future of Food?

Grasshopper, Fried insects

News about insects is buzzing and consumers in North America are starting to listen. As discussed in Insects: A New Protein Source, insects are a complete protein (meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids) and they are a strong source of vitamins and minerals. So, now it’s time to walk the talk. The D2D team decided to give some of the most popular products on the market a try.

Follow us as we put these products to the test and try cricket protein powder, chocolate covered insects and cricket protein bars…

Test 1: Cricket protein powder

We are not the biggest fans of traditional protein powders. We prefer getting protein from the source itself (i.e. chicken or beef) but this is not your typical protein powder. The only ingredient is dry roasted crickets have been ground up! So, this would count as a natural animal protein and is a great option for a smoothie when you’re on the run.

Our recipe:1 cup unsweetened almond milk
1 tablespoon chia seeds
2 tablespoons cricket powder
1 tablespoon almond butter
½ banana
½ cup frozen blueberries

The consistency of the protein powder was very fine, similar to that of traditional whey or vegan protein powders. But smell at your own risk!


While there were some mixed reviews amongst our team, the protein powder was relatively mild and easily incorporated into our smoothie. By adding the other yummy ingredients, the taste of the powder was masked nicely. Definitely worth a try.

Test 2: Chapul Protein Bars

Chapul – a Utah-based producer of cricket protein bars and flours – received $50,000 in funding from Mark Cuban after their appearance on Shark Tank.

And the review:

The protein bars were more to our liking. With less hassle and added flavor, they went down easier than the cricket smoothie. The Chapul flavors were good and the texture resembled that of an Rx Bar. These protein bars also contained 2x the B12 than salmon and 3x the iron found in spinach!

Test 3: Flavored Cricket Snacks

For our snacking taste test, we ordered toasted coffee and sriracha crickets and a chocolate cricket bar. While the visible crickets tasted better than we thought, there was an issue with the “ick” factor as we could see very clearly that they were bugs! The products were more difficult to stomach. We recommend them to the fearless!


And the review:

The chocolate masked all cricket flavor and the crunch reminded us of a Nestle Crunch Bar. Yum!

Who eats bugs, anyway?

You might be surprised to learn that we’re not the first to hop on this recent insect-crazed bandwagon. Although insects have been eaten around the globe for millennia, they have recently been becoming more acceptable in the West. Restaurants from Los Angeles to Brooklyn are turning their protein features into bugalicious treats with surprising success.

“There are more than 1,900 edible insect species on Earth, hundreds of which are already part of the diet in many countries. In fact, some two billion people eat a wide variety of insects regularly, both cooked and raw; only in Western countries does the practice retain an “ick” factor among the masses.” (National Geographic)
Infographic: littleherds.org

And that’s not all— they’re becoming even more mainstream than just specialty restaurants. Going to a game? How about swapping that hot dog for some cricket tacos? The Philips Arena, home of the Atlanta Hawks, recently added these alternative protein tacos to their stadium food options!

And on the business side of insects…

AgFunder News recently reported that Protix raised $50 million in the largest insect farming investment to date. Furthermore, alternative proteins have also been a big area of investment interest given the amount of land and resources livestock farming requires.

Insect farming is a sustainable protein source— they are fed unsold fruit and grain, and require less water and land than traditional livestock—  but it isn’t without its fair share of difficulties. In order for this farming potential to succeed, it needs proper support. Insect farming requires a lot of capital in order to build factories with proper food safety standards. And while consumer demand remains relatively low in the United States, we still have a lot of growing to do.

But how easy is it to incorporate this affordable and nutrient-dense protein into your daily routine? Will insects be the chosen protein source for the generations to come? The UN has estimated that our population will exceed 9 billion people by 2050. And we need to be asking ourselves— how can we feed everyone?

Let’s Byte into Ag

computer programming language on a computer screen

In today’s global agricultural system, we are collecting, sorting, analyzing, and acting on data. Data mining is now integral in the universal effort to improve the quantity, quality, and sustainability of our food supply—now and into the future.

Feeding the world while protecting the environment is a science— a data-driven science. Data allows us to find practical solutions that deliver better results across every segment of the food chain.  While the role of data and intelligent data management may seem to be invisible to most of us, it is essential to assuring that today’s consumers—and future generations—don’t just eat, but thrive.

Intelligent, innovative data management is already a critical core competency in feeding animals and people with wholesome, safe, and affordable food. 

Statistics on the amount of data being created every day is mind-boggling

Many data science experts support the notion that we risk “drowning in data,” when what we really want to do is “swim in knowledge.”  Data scientist Abdelbarre Chafik highlights that every day, more than 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created. (That is 2,500,000,000,000,000,000 bytes!)

AppDeveloper magazine recently stated,

More data was created in the last two years than the previous 5,000 years of humanity. In 2017, we will create even more data in one year alone, creating more challenges around consuming that data to make strategic and tactical decisions. Yet, recent research has found that less than 0.5 percent of that data is actually being analyzed for operational decision making.

Bits and Bytes and the Agricultural Sector

What has changed, however, is the sheer volume and variety of data that is now available to the agricultural sector through the emergence of new information technology. In order to use data effectively, we need to be collecting with purpose.

The value of an idea lies in the using of it.
—Thomas Edison

Collecting data is to drive better decision-making at every step along the food chain.  What’s more— this emerging focus on data management is rapidly becoming a core competency for all members of the food system.  Data holds the potential to make every segment of the food chain work better.

Because this is a new and rapidly growing market, many companies are trying to find their niche. It will be very interesting to see how this market place develops and which agriculture and data companies are able to work together in order to find the best solutions.

There are many companies competing in the agricultural data space. Source: AGC Partners

Data isn’t new to agriculture

Farm data has been collected for centuries— first as hieroglyphics etched in stone, followed by hand-written entries in dusty ledgers. Data is stored everywhere: in grain elevators, on commodity exchanges, in the basement of barns, on the rolling handwritten inventories of food stores, and countless other places along the food chain.

Farmers used basic facts and figures about input costs, pest controls, machinery expenses, yields, market bids, etc. to help themselves better produce their crop in future seasons. Commodity merchants tracked market trends, historic demand, crop estimates, stocks and other factors important to buying and selling farm products at a profit. Food manufacturers took careful note of stocks, purchase needs, ingredient prices, market demand and more. Food consumers also had a role to play in data management, even if only to stay within their household budget.

Today, the difference is that all of this information from the farmers, merchants, distributors, food processors, and the grocery store can be loaded into algorithms to provide consolidated information from farmer to consumer.

But, at every step along the way— all the players have different objectives. The farmers want to grow their crops with the best yield and the least inputs (pesticides, herbicides, and water). The commodity traders want to buy low and sell high. The food processor wants to buy food from the farmer and efficiently process it into a different product (for example soybeans into soybean oil.) And the consumer wants affordable, healthy, and safe food that is accessible daily.

Let’s imagine a few things can be done by harvesting this volume of data

As a consumer:

  • Scan the label on your produce or fruit to learn about the farmer who grew your food.
  • Scan the label on your meat packaging and know exactly what the cow was fed throughout its life.
  • Supermarkets can manage their end of life products and notify consumers and food banks who could use them.
  • Restaurants can use Food Genius to gather the popularity of over 22 million menu items to see what sells to which type of consumer – and then tailor their own menu.

As a farmer:

  • Know the exact locations on the fields that have heavy water, normal, or drought conditions and manage pesticide applications.
  • Know the approximate yield, around the globe, of their crop so they can decide whether to sell their crop at harvest or store it on site until prices are more favorable.
  • Know the exact moment to plant their crops through weather and soil analytics.
  • Program the driver-less tractor to manage the fields.
  • Purchase the right seed each year for today’s climate and soil.
  • Use big data to provide crop insurance for farmers regarding crop yields and weather patterns.

As the food producer:

  • Be able to instantly track all the ingredients and their prices that come from around the world.
  • Have instant access to sales at the grocery store so inventory can be managed accordingly.
  • Know about every animal that is purchased for your farm and have access to what it was fed pre-purchase.
  • Streamline transportation logistics in order to get optimal pricing to send product via rail, ship, or truck.
  • Increase understanding of all food inputs to effectively manage margins.

How can we use data to improve food sustainability?

As we discussed in Farming from the Thermosphere, technology is becoming increasingly important in farming practices. Data becomes knowledge, knowledge becomes insight, and insight should inevitably become action.

But of all the data that is captured, it is important to discern what kinds of data are important to agriculture. While the internet and subsequently the Internet of Things (IoT) has allowed for better data collection, there is room for improvement. Here are some areas within the food supply chain that will benefit from improved data collection and management:

One of the most important questions to be resolved in a brave new data-driven world is— what we do with the data once we have it?

Many companies are trying to answer this question. In fact, 2016 Global Opportunity Report cited “smart farming” as the top-ranked opportunity.

The idea that agriculture is now a tech industry is firmly established. The farming community knows they have to embrace this. —Roger Royse (Silicon Valley attorney)

Farmers Edge specializes in precision agronomy and helps enable farmers to better monitor their fields and collect effective data. IBM’s artificial intelligence product, Watson (IoT), is attempting to transform precision agriculture by utilizing predictive weather analytics to help farmers. The platform also offers real-time plant and field monitoring. Bayer Digital Farming uses Amazon Web Service to help feed a growing population. In 2014, John Deere introduced SeedStar a mobile application that gives farmers a row-by-row assessment of their field and its performance. Moreover, John Deere recently (Sept 2017) acquired See and Spray Robotics, which sees, diagnoses, and executes on something as small as seedlings. Monsanto bought The Climate Corporation, which uses big data to predict weather and climate change. Cargill invested in Descartes Labs, which uses satellite imagery to help with crop forecasting. U.S. Foods bought Food Genius— and the list goes on…

Source: IBM

As technology enables the creation of larger amounts of data, determining which data is relevant, complete, and honest grows more difficult. Unfortunately, it is easy to twist data to support a pre-conceived idea, and data alone is often fuel for argument and debate.

In an age in which consensus about important issues (such as climate change, water use, and topsoil depletion) has become bogged down in rhetoric, claims, and counterclaims, objective data management enables informed decision-making. More and more effort is being devoted to sorting through competing data analysis methods and conclusions. But finding critical data— and true insights within reams of legitimate data — remains very much a work in progress.

CRISPR: An Innovative Technology in Ag

genetic code crispr

CRISPR, short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, is a technology that can affect anything – or anyone – that has a gene. It has the potential to make monumental changes in human medicine, animal health, and agriculture. Although human trials are not fully underway, editing a human genome to cure cancer and/or eliminate blood diseases, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s is just one example of the medicinal and human health genetic possibilities scientists are currently exploring with this gene editing technology.

Genome Editing with CRISPR-Cas9. McGovern Institute for Brain Research, MIT

The gene editing future is so optimistic that scientists are even attempting to convert an Asian elephant into a wooly mammoth to combat climate change. Additionally, scientists at MIT are combating the Zika virus by either changing a gene within the mosquito so it cannot host the Zika virus or making susceptible mosquitos sterile so they cannot breed and further spread the virus.

Curious about eliminating the food allergy gene in eggs or peanuts? What about virus free pigs? The laundry list of opportunities for CRISPR is tremendous and expansive. As a first look at CRISPR, D2D will focus on some of the CRISPR possibilities that will affect agricultural plants and animals.

How does CRISPR work?

Let’s take a moment and go briefly back to high school science. DNA is a double-stranded molecule that contains a genetic code. Essentially, there is a set of “instructions” stored in DNA that dictates how a human, animal, or plant is constructed from multiple amino acids (the building blocks of proteins).

The messenger RNA (mRNA) is the exact single strand replica of the DNA, except its role is to carry out the instructions of the DNA, and tell the proteins what to construct. These proteins build muscle, give us the color of our eyes, and help assemble all the genetic traits any organism with DNA carries. Think of the DNA as the architect creating the blueprints for a new house and mRNA as the contractor who takes the blueprints and directs the plumber, electrician, and woodworker to build the house to the exact specifications.

Traditionally, any changes made to an organism’s DNA has to come through years of selecting specific characteristics and then cross-breeding those traits into specific varieties. CRISPR accelerates the process by precisely creating the new DNA sequence, cutting out the existing DNA that needs to be replaced and using the Cas9 protein to guide the mRNA to the specific spot to make a genetic change.

Each cell has DNA. Sections of DNA can be naturally altered if it is malfunctioning or if it needs to be changed. The CRISPR process can take these specific DNA sections, cut them out, and/or replace them with another code. The Cas9 protein specifically cuts out a section of the existing DNA and then existing cellular enzymes insert the new DNA sequence.

Rewriting the Code
Scientists can use the gene-editing technology called CRISPR-Cas9 to correct disease-causing mutations. Here’s how it works: (Source: Innovative Genomics Initiative. Credit: John Gould/The Wall Street Journal)

A chunk of RNA is programmed to look for a specific problem segment of DNA. It is paired with a natural protein called Cas9 taken from bacteria, where it functions as a genetic scalpel.

Once inserted into a cell, the RNA/Cas9 combination looks for a DNA sequence that matches its RNA.

When it finds a match, the Cas9 cuts both strands of the DNA.

Repair enzymes can fill and seal the gap in the DNA with new genetic information to change the underlying genetic code.

Let’s go back to the architect/contractor example. If there is a flaw in the framework, rather than tearing the whole house down and starting over, the general contractor (mRNA) identifies the flaw compared to the blueprint and directs the woodworker (Cas9) to cut it out, and replaces it with a perfect frame. The two videos below provide more detail.

Video by Jennifer Doudna, biochemist at UC Berkeley who created the CRISPR-Cas9 editing sequence.

Science is the future of agriculture

Today’s agricultural goals are to grow enough food to feed a growing population on our current land while enhancing sustainable environmental goals. Crops grown to resist pests and weeds with fewer chemicals, less water, and higher yield are considered the ‘holy grail’ of farming. Animals grown with strong immune systems, more muscle, more milk, and being conscious of the environment and animal welfare is critical for today’s farmer. Selecting the best traits using conventional breeding often takes decades (sometimes generations) to get the desired result. However, with a population increasing to 9 billion by 2050, we don’t exactly have time on our side. Now with gene editing techniques, producing and selecting these traits can be much more precise and achieved in a shorter period of time. Here is a sample of some agricultural companies that are either partnering with gene editing companies or independent working in the gene editing field.

Recombinetics is focusing on using gene editing to combat world hunger by focusing on animal genetics, human health, and human life. Some of their projects include Foot and Mouth disease resistance, milk composition, and production in dairy cows, or better feed conversion to yield more meat. One simple example goes toward animal welfare in cows. For instance, just about all cows are born with horns and (in modern agricultural systems) horns are an undesirable trait for safety and animal welfare perspectives. Removing them is important for herd animals, but it is a difficult, wieldy, and uncomfortable process for both farmers and cows alike. Through CRISPR, they have created the first hornless cows. Rather than breeding a Holstein horned cow with a hornless Angus cow, they just edit the gene in the traditional Holstein cow to create hornless Holsteins.


Source: Genetic Literacy Project

DuPont has invested in Caribou Biosciences, a spin-off from Jennifer Doudna and the University of California, Berkeley. They are currently working on modified starch corn production, drought resistance in corn, and hybrid wheat to increase crop yield.

Source: Caribou Biosciences

The University of Missouri and Genus, an animal genetics company, are among the first to use CRISPR-Cas9 to breed pigs to be resistant to the porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus (PRRSV). In 2013 alone this virus killed more than 10% of the entire U.S. herd.

Source: Scientific American

Archer Daniels Midland has partnered with Synthetic Genomics to produce a consistent supply of Omega 3- DHA from CRISPR edited algae.

Source: Synthetic Genomics

The Regulatory Process

Because gene editing techniques are more closely associated with natural genetic processes, the USDA is currently considering whether to regulate it or not. To date, they have given several gene editing plants a pass on the food safety assessment.

As we have mentioned, GMOs are the most highly tested agricultural product on earth. The fact that CRISPR products are not going through the same regulatory process is certainly interesting. For example, scientists at Penn State successfully deleted the browning gene in a mushroom genome. The removal of this enzyme reduces the browning process in mushrooms, thus increasing their shelf life. Removing the discoloration from fruits and vegetables reduces the millions of tons of food that is wasted every year. Because the CRISPR-Cas9 edited mushroom did not have any foreign DNA inserted, the USDA has determined that it does not require further testing or regulation.

The decisions around the regulatory process are critical to the success of CRISPR. Will CRISPR follow in the footsteps of GMOs? Or will the USDA and FDA consider it the same as traditional breeding and eliminate regulatory approval? Whatever the answer, it is critical that the rest of the world is on the same page because the food supply from the United States is an integral part of the global food system. CRISPR will certainly have implications on trading, importing and exporting food around the world.

A “New” Burger

meat in a petri dish

Consumers are asking for new sources of protein.

Veggie burgers have been around since the early 1980s, but they are beginning to take on a new life. This may be somewhat surprising given strict vegans and vegetarians only account for roughly 3% of global consumers.

However, according to Mintel Market Research, 59% of consumers in the United States eat a “protein alternative” at least once a week. If you fall into this category, you are considered to be a “flexitarian.”

Through extensive polling, Mintel has found that there are four possible motivators for consuming meatless protein:

  1. Environmental effects of raising cows, hogs, and chickens.
  2. Food safety concerns regarding E. coli O157: H7 and Salmonella.
  3. Meat-related allergies—although these are rare, meat avoidance can be related to food allergies and intolerance.
  4. Health and wellness concerns associated with super-fruits, super-greens, super-grains, and raw food.

Meatless meat

In response to consumer health and environmental concerns, there are two kinds of meat innovations:

  • meatless meat that looks and tastes like ‘real’ meat, sourced from vegetable proteins, and
  • “farming” meat from animal cells, without slaughtering a full animal.

Large food processing companies are hopping on the meatless bandwagon.  Tyson Foods has invested a 5% stake in Beyond Meat. Google Ventures invested in Impossible Burgers, whose signature is  a plant-based iron molecule that makes this burger look “bloody.” Some other companies include Gardein, known for their bestselling meatless meatballs and fishless fish fillet.

If you are substituting a vegetable-based protein with a meat or chicken option, are you still getting the name nutritional content…?

Meatless vs Meat: is it better for you?

Humans are carnivorous. Our digestive system is made to properly digest meat. Meat protein has an essential combination of protein, vitamins, and minerals to help keep our bodies healthy and strong. The nutrients from meat help our blood cells form, enhance our immune system, help our muscle tissue growth, and support our nervous systems. Keep in mind that while a meatless option is a good alternative, it might not meet the same amino acid, vitamin, and mineral, and antioxidant profile that you can find in an eight-ounce piece of red meat.

By eating real meat, you can know that you are receiving many important nutrients.

While there are a few products on the market that may be able to provide an equal serving of protein, how does the rest of the nutritional profile measure up?

For example, you can get 100% of your daily intake of vitamin B12 from one serving of red meat, whereas the Beyond Meat “Beyond Burger” will only account for 20% of your daily intake of B12. The reverse is true with iron at 25% and 12%, respectively.


Source: Beyond Meat

Looking again at the Beyond Meat “Beyond Burger,” there is 380 mg of sodium. That’s about 20% of the recommended daily value! To put this into perspective, a McDonald’s plain hamburger contains 125mg of sodium and a freshly ground beef burger (80% lean) contains 64 milligrams of sodium.

How does the taste of meatless options compare to the real thing?

While all of these meatless meat options have branded their products very well, we were still a bit skeptical. Is it possible that a meatless hamburger can compare to a lean ground-beef burger? We decided the only way to determine this was to try them ourselves. The D2D team took a field trip to Whole Foods and bought an assortment of meatless products. We report, that overall, prepackaged meatless meat fell short of the real thing. Depending upon the cooking process, the meatless burgers did not elicit the same positive response that a cheeseburger typically does from our hungry families at dinner.

Mintel’s research found that while consumers are willing to give it a try, about 45% of “meatless” consumers think that the meat-substitute is overly processed and/or too high in sodium. Roughly 72% of all global consumers are interested in what the meatless meat is made of— whether it is corn, soy, wheat, or vegetables and what other ingredients have been added to it.

The Future of Meat: Cultured Meat

The food technology that can recreate the similar taste and health claims of traditional meat is “cultured meat.” This growing technology was examined in the International Conference on Cultured Meat in October 2016 in Maastricht University (Netherlands). The conference focused entirely on creating meat grown in a lab. Topics included: tissue engineering and 3D printing, cell production, mass production of avian muscle cells, and technologies needed to bring cultured meat to market.

Two companies are working to get cultured meat to our dinner plates:

New Harvest, a 501 (c) (3) research institute ‘accelerating breakthroughs in cellular agriculture’ invested $50,000 in Dr. Mark Post who created the first cultured burger at the University of Maastricht.  The focus of New Harvest funding is on growing muscle cells in an animal free environment.  This is backed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin

The US-based company leading work on cultured meat is Memphis Meats. Memphis Meats believes, “instead of farming animals to obtain their meat, why not farm the meat directly fromhigh-qualityy animal cells?

 “We envision that our production process will provide everyone with meat that is consistent,
fresh and delicious.“ 
Dr. Uma Valeti, CEO, Memphis Meats

Memphis Meats is developing the process of taking true meat cells from a cow, hog, or chicken and feeding them the nutrients they need to grow into the meat. It is not an easy process and has taken months to bring the cost down from tens of thousands to just a few thousand…per meatball! The majority of this cost is from the manpower needed to “babysit” and harvest the cells that grow and discard the cells that stagnate.

The benefits, once the cost comes down, is that the meat does not have any of the E. coli O157: H7. issues that can affect beef or the Salmonella that can come with chicken. Additionally, the cultured meat does not need to be fed, housed, or watered, which ultimately provides less stress on the environment. Memphis Meats expects their products to be cost competitive (and eventually more affordable than) conventionally-produced meat.

There is room for all kinds of protein options

Memphis Meats – cultured meatball

Protein can take many forms: as animal meat, vegetable protein, and even insects. The global population today is 7 billion people, expected to grow to almost 9 billion by 2035. The projected increase in protein is approximately 250 million metric tons in just the next 15 years. Everyone needs some form of protein to maintain a healthy diet. Furthermore, as incomes rise, especially in developing countries, the demand for protein will increase.

Innovations in Indoor Farming

large commercial greenhouse growing leafy greens

Indoor agriculture is no longer just for the greenhouse…”farmland” is now on a rooftop, contained in a repurposed shipping container, and made vertical in a multi-level warehouse. Because of new technologies and consumer demand, this fast-growing industry will play an important role in our food supply chain.

Local and Fresh

As consumers, we are looking for transparency in the food supply chain. Where is our food coming from? Is it safe? How was it grown? New farming technologies help answer that for fresh greens, herbs, and some veggies, which can be grown almost anywhere.  For instance, 90% of the salad greens we eat are produced in California and Arizona. However, companies like Gotham Greens and BrightFarms let urban dwellers buy locally-grown greens as soon as 24 hours after harvest. That certainly has a lot of appeal! It is more nutritious, tastes better, and can be cheaper as it cuts out much of the transportation costs.

graphic adapted from www.indoorag.com

Making an Environmental Impact

Amid projections that the world’s population will grow from today’s 7.5 billion to 9.6 billion by 2050, the environmental pressures on our water, soil, and land are increasing. Alternative forms of agriculture offer another way to alleviate some of these stresses, especially in urban areas where adequate farmland is limited. Creating “farmland” from unused space is in the future. High-tech growers use hydroponics, aeroponics, and aquaponics methods to grow leafy greens and vegetables. Large metropolitan cities, like Chicago and New York, and cold regions with limited growing seasons, like Northern Minnesota and Wyoming, have the ability to grow local crops all year round via indoor “farmland”.

A recent report from Cornell University and several other organizations found that revenue could be up to 4000x higher in indoor farming systems because of the ability for multiple year-round harvests, higher yield per acre and higher retail pricing (a premium for local or organic). For example, lettuce grown by a conventional farmer will have 4-5 harvests each year, whereas an indoor farmer can have as many as 18 harvests per year. According to the USDA, the average yield for an outdoor farmer was about 30,000 pounds per acre and indoor farmers reported an average of 340,000 pounds per acre.

Head lettuce growing vertically hydroponically in a Freight Farm. Source: Freight Farm

In addition to this increase in productivity, indoor farming practices also significantly reduce the environmental impact compared to that of a traditional farm. Indoor farms reduce greenhouse gas emissions, minimize waste, and recycle water to produce the best, most sustainable crop. On average, they use 85% less water, 80% less fertilizer, 70% less land than conventional farming. In addition, these companies utilize sophisticated technologies to improve facility construction, LED lighting, water circulation, plant nutrient delivery, and environmental controls.

Meet the ’Ponics: Hydro, Aero, and Aqua

Because of these advancements, hydroponic, aeroponic, and aquaponic farming systems are quickly moving from the realm of “experimental technology” to verified commercial applications. Researchers and growers alike have turned indoor systems into working models of sustainable food production. According to the report “Vertical Farming Market”, the market is estimated to reach $3.88 billion by 2020, at a compounded annual growth rate of 30.7% between 2015 and 2020. The factors driving the vertical farming market include the need for high-quality food without pesticides, less dependency on weather, produce availability for an increasingly urban population, and the need for year-round production.


Hydroponic farming is a method of growing plants in water, without soil. Plants are fed minerals and nutrients directly in the water where the roots grow.  This is particularly good for greens and vegetables.

Simple hydroponics: Nutrients are added to a tank of water to create a nutrient reservoir which is kept separate from the plants. The water is then pumped up a network of tubes, and released to the plants.
image source: hydroponicsgrower

Hydroponically grown lettuce. Image source: citycrop



Aeroponics is a subset of hydroponics, but instead of the minerals and nutrients circulating within the root chamber, it is misted to the roots at regular intervals. NASA began studying the feasibility of plants grown aeroponically in 1990 as a way to have crew members grow their own food while circling Earth.

source: Aerofarms


Aquaponics works on the basic idea of a closed production system. Farmed fish produce waste that is the perfect fertilizer for plants. Plants utilize the waste and filter the water to give the fish a clean habitat. The Aztecs grew a wide variety of crops such as maize, squash, and other plants in tandem with rearing fish for food. And as early as the 6th century, Chinese farmers reared ducks, finfish, and catfish in a symbiotic cycle: the finfish were fed with duck droppings, the catfish were fed with the finfish waste, and any “leftover food” was used to supply the nutrients to the rice in the paddy fields.

image source: www.aquaponicsresource.com/

Where Do These ’Ponics Live?

Freight Farms is bringing farming to the city. image source: FreightFarms

…shipping containers

Freight Farms, based in Boston, uses the “Leafy Green Machine” (LGM), to harvest year-round in any region of the U.S. The LGM is a pre-assembled hydroponic farm inside an up-cycled freight container. The hydroponic system automatically delivers precise water and nutrients for maximum crop development and uses LED lights optimized for each stage of the growing cycle. Vertical growing towers maximize space and create a high-density growing environment.

Alaska’s Vertical Harvest Hydroponics also uses repurposed shipping containers to grow fresh greens in the most inhospitable environments. What makes shipping containers unique is that they are transportable, can fit in small spaces, and can withstand extreme temperatures without affecting the crop. The modular tower system from ZipFarms is adaptable to a hydroponic or aquaponic system and can be utilized by commercial growers and backyard growers alike.

…rooftops and greenhouses

Gotham Greens has built and operated over 170,000 square feet of technologically-advanced, urban rooftop greenhouses across four facilities in New York City and Chicago. They have partnered with Whole Foods and have built their greenhouses in strategic urban areas to distribute fresh produce within 24 hours of picking to retail operations. And their annual produce production? 200,000 pounds! Equivalent to 100 acres of conventional field farming.

Gotham Greens greenhouses in Greenpoint, Brooklyn

Bright Farms and Mighty Vine are further examples of high tech agriculture companies innovating and developing ways to grow indoors. BrightFarms finances, designs, and operates greenhouse farms at or near supermarkets, cutting time, distance, and cost from the produce supply chain. They operate three on-the-ground greenhouses in the greater Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Chicago metro areas. MightyVine, based in Chicago, grows tomatoes all year round in sophisticated greenhouses using vertical growing methods, which produce 900,000 lbs of tomatoes per month in peak season!

…in a warehouse

New Jersey-based vertical farming company, AeroFarms approaches food production with aeroponics to mist the roots of greens with nutrients, water, and oxygen. The company asserts that its closed loop aeroponic system uses 95% less water than field farming, 40% less than hydroponics, and zero pesticides. Their growing technology is very modular and can be adapted to different repurposed industrial spaces. And they harvest up to 2 million pounds per year with this system.


While no one expects that urban agriculture will never replace traditional farming, it relieves some of the pressure off rural land and satisfies some of the demands for local and sustainable agriculture.

Additionally, Green Sense Farms, from Indiana, harvests 26 times a year and since it has teamed up with grocery stores, restaurants, caterers and produce companies.

Insects: A New Protein Source

Fried Grasshoppers

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), “insects supplement the diets of approximately 2 billion people.” Moreover, roughly 80% of the world’s population incorporates insects into their diet in some capacity. In the media, using insects as a source of protein has also been dubbed as the future of food. This is partly because the world’s population is estimated to reach nine billion the year 2050! And while we may not be ready to see insect delicacies featured on our local restaurant menu, we need to ask ourselves— how are farmers and food processing companies supposed to feed all these people healthy food?

Companies like ExoChapul, and Entomo Farms are helping the U.S., Canada, and Europe successfully incorporate insects into their diet without the ‘ick factor.’ Through insect-based protein powders and bars, these companies are helping redefine what it means to eat bugs. Even General Mills is hopping on the bandwagon and investigating new ways to “use crickets as a sustainable source of protein.”

“If a family of 4 ate just 1 meal a week using insect protein for a year they would save the Earth 650,000 liters of water.”
(Entomo Farms )
That equates to 2,749,500 8oz glasses of water per year!

Preserving our farmland and water resources is extremely important if we hope to feed future generations. Insect protein is one of the most sustainable ways to provide nutrient-dense food to a growing population— without using excess water, land, feed, or energy. Today, one in nine people do not have enough food to lead a nutritionally healthy life. Raising and harvesting insects for food is a step in the right direction in the fight against world hunger.  Surprisingly, however, sustainability is actually just a bonus of insect farming. The real benefit of insect farming is the healthy, lean protein they provide.

How are insects farmed?

Farmed insects are not caught in the wild, captured, cooked, and served. Like many farm-raised animals, insects are bred and harvested. Insects can be wild-harvested (which is often seen throughout many parts of Southeast Asia) but, wild-harvesting can actually compromise your health. The wild-harvest process is not regulated, thus it can lead to health uncertainties, specifically because wild-harvested insects are not typically intended for human consumption. If you choose to consume insects, experts recommend sticking with products that have been farmed. In order to better understand the insect farming process, we spoke with Entomo Farms co-founder Dr. Jarrod Goldin who explained the Entomo approach.

Their primary concern is creating safe and clean insects. For their cricket products, Entomo Farms uses retrofitted chicken farms in order to properly cultivate their insects. Aptly nicknamed condo’s, the retrofit farms are divided into six habitats that maximize surface area for the crickets. The insects’ food is kept at the top of the condo and within it is a trough of running water. While some companies choose to use water bowls, Entomo believes stagnant water is inevitably not as clean as running water. The crickets are fed organic grain and are harvested at six weeks. In order to harvest the cricket for human consumption, the insects are immediately flash frozen with the use of dry ice. Because crickets are cold-blooded animals this process is also extremely humane. After they are frozen, the crickets are transported to the processing facility where they are washed thoroughly before being roasted.

Cricket Colony – barns and housing – Entomo Farms

Entomo Farms sent their crickets to be tested by a Government Certified Lab in order to determine the number of bacteria that were present in their cricket product. An Aerobic Plate Count (APC), is used as an indicator of bacterial populations on a sample. According to the FDA, a suitable range for frozen, chilled, precooked, or prepared food is 25-250 colonies per plate. The reported aerobic plate count for Entomo Farms Cricket Powder was roughly 10 colonies per plate. So, next time you are looking for a minimally-processed protein source, you might want to keep Entomo’s insect products in mind!

Health and nutrition profile of insects

Forbes Magazine dubbed insects “the next new miracle superfood” because of their dense protein content. Some insect species weigh in at roughly 80% protein, with a majority of species weighing in above the 50% protein by weight marker. Additionally, some insect species, like crickets, contain all nine essential amino acids. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), crickets are also very high in micronutrients, such as magnesium, iron, and zinc. Insect species are also known to be high in calcium, vitamins B12 and A, and are reported to have a nearly perfect ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids.

Source: Precision Nutrition

When you eat insects, you’re not just eating muscle, you’re also eating bones and organs, which deliver calcium, iron, vitamin B12, and zinc. It’s like if somebody ground up a whole cow and ate it!” (Daniella Martin, author of Edible)

The nutritional profile above demonstrates how 100g of cricket protein measures up to a traditional meal of steak and broccoli. It is important to note, however, that a typical serving size of cricket powder is roughly 2 tablespoons (17 grams). Therefore, it would take approximately 5 servings of cricket powder to equal a 100 gram (3.5 oz) serving of steak.

For more information on the nutritional value of insects with regards to human consumption, we recommend the following chapter from the FAO Forestry Paper, “Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security” 

According to Dr. Goldin, an additional benefit of insect nutrition is the gut microbiota. As you may recall, D2D recently reviewed the importance of gut health and its effect on your brain in our article, “Your Second Brain: Gut Microbiota.” Probiotics help facilitate the growth of native gut microbes, but in order for probiotics to be successful at their job, they need fuel— this is where prebiotics come into the picture. Prebiotics feed probiotics and insects are considered rich prebiotics because of the fiber in their exoskeleton.

It is also important to note that insects can share common food allergens with crustacean, as both species are classified as an arthropod. Unfortunately, there is very little research pertaining to insect-related food allergens as the industry is just starting to expand. Because of this, the European Food Safety Agency warns anyone allergic to shellfish or mites to avoid eating insects.

Food Safety and Regulation

In the United States, insect farming is still in its infancy stages. In fact, 2016 marked the first year a conference was held completely dedicated to edible insects. The North American Edible Insects Coalition met in Detroit in May 2016 to discuss the future of harvesting insects for food.

One major effort that is being hedged by the coalition is increased federal regulation as “best practices” within the edible insect space are still being established by the FDA. Lobbyists for edible insects have launched a campaign to urge the FDA to “add mealworms, crickets protein powder, and other insect products to the agency’s database of Generally Recognized as Safe ingredients (GRAS)” (Bloomberg News).

In order for the insect-for-food industry to become more socially accepted, there needs to be an appropriate level of regulation for these products. Although insect products made by companies like Exo, Chapul, and Entomo Farms are considered food in the eyes of the FDA, they are not clearly regulated. One way to start successfully integrating insects into a traditional Western diet would be for the FDA to deem edible insects as GRAS.

As it stands now, the FDA allows the sale of bugs if they are raised for human consumption. Insect parts or additives can be found at specialty shops but technically aren’t classified as food-safe ingredients because of their exclusion from the GRAS list. (Bloomberg News)

And while we certainly do not suggest or expect you to replace all of your chicken or beef meals with insect protein— we recommend giving edible insects a chance!

You can add the ultra-fine cricket powder to just about anything. Sprinkle it on top of your oatmeal, add it to a peanut butter sandwich, even mix it in with the stir-fry you are cooking. The powder can help make healthy or marginally healthy food even healthier without much effort.

Cricket flour cookies. image: pixabay

We see a day where people have sugar, salt, pepper, and cricket powder on their countertop…and you add it throughout your cooking, as you would those condiments. It would be a great step for their health and wellness and for sustainability.
– Entomo Farms

GMO Labeling: What’s the Point?

GMO Label on snackfood

The Dirt-to-Dinner team understands the importance of food labeling. It helps consumers understand the nutritional content, identify ingredients, and to avoid an allergic reaction!

Nutrition labels help us identify the daily percentage or specific key nutrients and unhealthy additives, like sugar. (Sugar is Sugar discusses how sugar can cause long term health issues.) But, in the case of GMO vs. non-GMO products, this is not applicable. All genetically modified produce has the same nutritional content as non-GMO food. For instance, your corn tortilla has the exact same nutritional profile regardless if it was made with GM corn or not.

Labeling GMO produce gives implies that there must be something wrong with GMOs. It is labeling initiatives like this that fuel consumers distrust of GMOs. And a lack of understanding often leads to fear, which urges consumers to select ‘made without GMOs’ foods when given a choice. But, in reality, when polled, over 60% of people are not sure what the acronym “GMO” even means!

Vermont is the first state to require labeling — will others follow?

The state of Vermont is home to the most certified organic farms per capita. Thus, it is not surprising that Vermont is the first state to require such labeling. But this arduous labeling process is not solely focused on food transparency. More than helping the consumer “know what is in their food”, Vermont’s legislation condemns GMOs. The Vermont Labeling Rule implies that the FDA has not done a thorough review of GMOs; that there is no scientific consensus on the validity of GMO research; and that they are protecting public health and food safety. But, if we simply refer to the FDA’s website, you will find the agency’s exhaustive research on genetic engineering, from plant toxicity levels to the nutritional value against its traditionally-bred counterpart.

The FDA has a very real responsibility to protect its American citizens and would not lazily let some “new food technology” slip through the cracks. But GMOs are the most highly tested food ever created without one documented negative health event. Our food is safer than ever before. Why can’t we trust the FDA, USDA, WHO, EFSA, and even the EPA, all internationally recognized organizations indicating that GMOs pose no human health or environmental risk?

Proponents of GMOs have shown crops can be grown with a higher yield per acre while still reducing pesticide, herbicide, and water use. The opposition doesn’t like the use of the pesticide, glyphosate, which is a less toxic pesticide than most. They think it poses health risks as well as reducing crop biodiversity.

For those still opposed to genetically modified foods, there are still many options. Legally, certified Organic foods cannot contain GMOs. Whole Foods has even dedicated a portion of its website on ‘How to Shop if Avoiding GMOs’. There are cost-effective ways to be a smart shopper without wasting state government resources and money to further increase GMO labeling.

Scientific Studies on GMOs

USA National Academy of Sciences (NAS)
Transgenic Plants and World Agriculture (2000) | Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States (2010)

USA Institute of Medicine (IOM) & National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies.
Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects (2004)

USA National Academies (IOM, NRC, NAS, NAE)
A Science-Based Look at Genetically Engineered Crops (The study will be ready in 2016)

USA American Medical Association (AMA)
Council on Science and Public Health Report (2012)

USA American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
Statement by the AAAS Board of Directors On Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods (2012)

USA American Council of Science and Health (ACSH)
Biotechnology and Food (Second Edition) (2000)

USA Society of Toxicology (SOT)
The Safety of Genetically Modified Foods Produced through Biotechnology (2003)

USA American Dietetic Association
Position of the American Dietetic Association: Agricultural and food biotechnology (2006)

USA Genetics Society of America
Assessing Benefits and Risks of Genetically Modified Organisms (2001)

USA American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB)
ASCB Statement in Support of Research on Genetically Modified Organisms (2009)

USA American Society of Plant Biology (ASPB)
Statement on Plant Genetic Engineering 

USA American Society for Microbiology (ASM)
Statement of the American Society for Microbiology on Genetically Modified Organisms (2000)

USA American Phytopathological Society (APS)
APS Statement on Biotechnology and its Application to Plant Pathology (2001)

USA Society for In Vitro Biology (SIVB)
Position Statement on Crop Engineering 

USA Crop Science Society of America
CSSA Perspective on Biotechnology (2001)

USA Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST)
Crop Biotechnology and the Future of Food: A Scientific Assessment (2005)

USA Federation of Animal Sciences Societies (FASS) – representing the American Dairy Science Association (ADSA), American Society of Animal Science (ASAS) and the Poultry Science Association (PSA).
FASS Facts On Biotech Crops – Impact on Meat, Milk and Eggs (2001)

USA Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
Questions & Answers on Food from Genetically Engineered Plants