Sustainable food production

Our planetary resources will not be sufficient to feed the growing world population - with current food production methods. Alexander Mathys, Professor at the Institute of Food, Nutrition and Health of ETH Zürich, is convinced of this. He is carrying out research with his group in the area of sustainable food production, and he proposes interesting alternatives for the future.

Prof. Alexander Mathys

Professor Alexander Mathys is a food technologist. He received his Ph.D. in food processing in 2008. He as been Assistant Professor in Sustainable Food Processing at the ETH Zurich since 2015, where he is focusing on more efficiency and sustainability of value chains in food and feed. Mathys is the author of 70 publications and has won several prestigious research awards. He has also served as lecturer, teacher, reviewer, and supervisor at serveral universities and organizations.

Bühler contributed financially to the ETH foundation in 2015, to establish Professor Mathys' chair.

Providing food for people in the future requires a rethink

Alexander Mathys, Professor at the Institute of Food, Nutrition and Health of ETH Zürich

Would you hazard a prediction for the future? What will you be cooking in 30 years when you invite friends around for a meal?

I believe we will be cooking a lot of new products in 30 years, from algae and insects to types of food that we haven’t even considered yet. Above all, we will have more healthy types of food to choose from, and hopefully we will eat much less meat. And we will be personalizing food for the specific needs of the relevant person.

Does that mean you would cook something different for each guest at the table? How will that be possible?

For example with a 3-D printer. I believe technology will be developed to the point where such a device will one day be part of standard kitchen equipment alongside the oven, microwave and a coffee percolator.
My vision is that we will use this equipment with healthy, relevant ingredients that come from environmentally-friendly production. For example, I can imagine algae-based snacks from home-produced cultures grown on the kitchen wall with urban farming concepts, entered directly into the 3-D printer, freshly prepared and served. We could also consider insect-based ingredients and natural classic ingredients such as cereals or pulses.

But I am sure we will still really appreciate freshly baked bread in 30 years.


To go a little further with this vision, does that mean that you will no longer be doing any cooking at some point in the future, but just press a few buttons instead?

It depends what you mean by cooking. When I put a saucepan on the hob, that form of cooking is a thermal process, whereas 3-D printing is a hermomechanical process. I can already introduce mechanical energy in a simple way when I cook, for example by using a mixer. In the future it will still depend largely on the person in the kitchen. Anyone who has the time and inclination will still put a lot of effort into cooking. I believe the key factor in the future will be taking greater care to make sure that the end product is healthy and that it comes from environmentally-friendly production.

It is said that our planetary resources are finite. And, the United Nations predicts a world population of 9.8 billion by 2050. Therefore, future consumption also depends on which products can be produced sustainably.

There are 14 million square kilometers of cultivated land in the world which we can use. That amounts to 1.4 billion hectares. And this is already fully used. We have already reached the limit in some areas. We are already in the red zone according to the planetary boundaries concept explained by Johan Rockström and Will Steffen. There is irreversible damage in biodiversity and in the nitrogen and phosphorus cycle.
Providing food for people in the future requires a rethink. One consideration here is to use areas other than farmland for primary production. I am talking about concepts such as urban vertical farms, roof plantations, innovative greenhouses or selfcontained life-support systems. My research also relates to this area. We are growing microalgae in photobioreactors which can be installed, for example, on house walls.

Can you tell us more about that?

It’s basically about producing alternative proteins. Our current level of meat consumption is unsustainable. Around two-thirds of all vegetable proteins end up as food in the stomachs of animals kept for slaughter such as pigs, cows or poultry. That doesn’t actually make sense when we think about the growing world population.
Our microalgae can become more sustainable after a few optimization processes, and together with other types of food such as insects or pulses it could help to meet the requirement for protein in the future. In concrete terms, we use a self-contained ecosystem in which the algae filters carbon dioxide from the air and produces oxygen to breathe. It grows quickly and is therefore very productive. A microalgae project which we are carrying out together with the Institute of Space Systems at Stuttgart University will take a bioreactor to the International Space Station (ISS) this autumn to test whether the life-support system will work in space. That does not mean we are saying that people should live on Mars in the future. We would like to use these concepts especially here on earth.

So are we moving towards self-sufficiency? What role will today’s food processors play?

The fact that we are talking about these systems and that they are being tested in many locations around the world does not mean that industrial production will no longer be needed in the future. On the contrary, it will still provide most of the food.
Therefore, food processors are extremely important. This is because they have a special place in the value chain. They work closely with farmers and they have contact with consumers. They could play a key role when it comes to minimizing the environmental impact of primary production and having an influence on society by talking directly to consumers and meeting their needs.

There is much to suggest that we will eat more things in the future without being able to see at a glance what they are made of. Does that really meet consumer needs?

Novel food does not necessarily mean that we know more about what is in it. Traceability must be guaranteed even with these products. But we need to be open to new things. If we cannot see at a glance what our food consists of, that just means that it is a type of processed food. And we are already familiar with thousands of processed foods.
Bread is processed. I harvest cereals, transfer them for intensive mechanical processing and grinding; then I move the raw material on for biotechnological processing, then comes the yeast which allows fermentation, and then I pass the raw materials on for intensive thermal processing – the baking process. And if I show consumers a loaf of bread, they will always say that it is a natural food. I believe that new products can also be accepted by consumers.

I believe we should invest, above all, in the development of completely new products and processing technologies.

Alexander Mathys, Professor at the Institute of Food, Nutrition and Health of ETH Zürich

You emphasize that food should be healthier in the future. Is this really what people are trying to get in everyday life? What they really care about in the end is wether it tastes good.

That is true, everyone wants a nice meal and pleasant life. And yet fitness apps, for example, are extremely successful. This shows that people really do care about their health. We eat a lot of unhealthy food because we need it quickly. But what if my personalized smart watch tells me that this option is not ideal? And if it offers me an alternative which is equally delicious? You can already measure blood sugar levels with a sensor on the skin.
We are not far from developing an individual nutrition app which supports people in their choice of food based on personalized health data.
Even now I always have various options when I want to eat, and quite often I don’t know why I favored something particular in the shop. Perhaps because it was especially well presented? Perhaps a tip from the personalized smart watch would sometimes be enough to prompt me to decide on a healthier and more environmentally-friendly alternative.

Another subject which is often discussed is meat grown in a laboratory. Do you think these products will take off?

People love meat even if there is no objective reason why we should eat animals. Meat is environmentally harmful and unhealthy when consumed in excess. And there are enough products which provide the same protein content.  Therefore, it is only a matter of enjoyment. Meat grown in laboratories is currently at a very early stage in the innovation cycle. As with all innovations, they are starting here with an inefficient process with no optimization.
They can already demonstrate that it works in the laboratory but not much more than that. Burgers produced in this way do not have an optimized structure and they are expensive. That will certainly change as things develop. Of course, the social element will play a part here. Many people reject meat grown in a laboratory – they even refer to it as a Frankenstein burger. But the economy sees gigantic potential in it. Start-ups in this sector are able to attract a great deal of risk capital.
But, I do not believe this will be the only solution. Products that resemble meat can be made from a vegetable base, for example, textrudates made with soy. Such products have already found acceptance on many continents.

In the realm of vegetable-based meat substitutes there are numerous start-ups that work with genetic engineering …

The most prominent companies in the biotech sphere come from Silicon Valley. Impossible Foods is one of these players. Not only have they managed to replicate the structure of meat – they distinguish their products from those of their competitors in terms of the taste and color. The company produces a special protein which normally occurs in soy roots from genetically modified yeast cells.
One thing is important to me when it comes to genetic engineering – full transparency. And unfortunately we don’t get that everywhere. We must not forget that people who want to avoid meat are frequently also those who reject genetic engineering, at least in Europe.

People in North America are somewhat more open-minded about this.


Is genetic engineering absolutely essential, or could we manage without it?

Now, up to 80 percent of cheese in Germany is made with enzymes that come from genetically-modified yeast. But what is the alternative? Should we kill countless calves to win over the laboratory for cheese production? As I have already said, I think transparency is the key issue with these products. We should also do more research concerning the risks associated with genetic engineering.
There are too few long-term studies about the effects. In the case of soy plants, for example, weeds have already developed resistance. Is the product then still as efficient as we imagined?
I also believe we should invest above all in the development of completely new products and processing technologies.

For example?

I have already mentioned two examples, our microalgae in the photobioreactor or insects. And there will certainly be many other possibilities that we simply haven’t thought of yet. There must have been a time when the first loaf of bread was baked an the first beer brewed. These are now traditional products even though they are heavily processed.
We should invest in research to develop new processing methods for safer and more healthy food. This is where industrial production has a key role again. Raw ingredients must be presented in an attractive form to meet consumers’ taste.
This can be done by means of various processes. I see great potential, for example, in extrusion where people now make pasta or textrudates. New structures can be created with the technology. An important factor with all possible processes is efficiency, for example, it must be possible to produce large quantities with low use of resources.

We must not forget the consumers because they decide what to accept on their plates.

Alexander Mathys, Professor at the Institute of Food, Nutrition and Health of ETH Zürich

Where do you think the most innovative solutions will come from? Research by universities, start-ups or big technology companies?

Solutions will probably come from all stakeholders. Companies like Bühler will play a central role in the sphere of technologies. Basic research will definitely continue in universities, and start-ups often have innovative thinkers. I think it is important, especially in the food sector, that the authorities come on board at an early stage. After all, new types of food required their approval. And we must not forget the consumers because they decide what to accept on their plates.

What does Bühler need to do from your point of view to stay at the forefront?

CUBIC Innovation Campus from Bühler in Uzwil, Switzerland

Bühler is already very well set up. The company works closely with all players in the value chain, agriculture, food processors, consumers, universities, and applied research centers. It has a hub function and it operates proactively.
Bühler invests approximately 5 percent of its turnover in research and development, an impressive figure in comparison to many other  companies. Moreover, it has an outstanding position in markets such as Asia and Africa where, according to statistics, the biggest growth will take place in the coming decades.
If all players engage in synergistic cooperation, we will succeed in creating a sustainable nutritional base for the future.

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