As a society, we are getting more curious about our food — where it comes from, how it's made, where it goes, how it affects our world, and how technology is changing it. Of course, technology has been changing our food for decades, beginning with modern agriculture tools and genetically engineered produce. But it affects our food in more ways than we realize. Research shows about 70% of our calories come from processed food — and it makes sense when you try to pronounce half of the ingredients on the back of most any grocery store item.
Technology has changed food for the better, though, as well. Not only does it give us a chance to feed our population that's growing closer to 9 billion people, but it also offers new ways to grow food as we face a future of a changing climate. Hydroponics, aeroponics, vertical and urban farming, and lab-grown foods are all driving big changes.
Here are 10 common foods that have been powerfully altered by technology.
The wheat we consume today is not what you think it is, and it hasn't been for a while. Grain has been a staple of human diets for many centuries, but industrialized wheat milling to produce the white flour nearly everyone consumes ended up stripping wheat of parts of its kernel that were rich in proteins and nutrients.
Cross-breeding created shorter, fatter wheat plants to yield higher numbers started during the Green Revolution and have continued since. It's still up for debate, but the changes in wheat have been linked to the rise in gluten intolerance in the past 40 years — which may be instead an intolerance to chemically-altered proteins in modern wheat. Celiac Disease now affects one in 100 people, according to the Mayo Clinic, and gluten intolerance in general has increased, though no one knows for sure how many people live with an intolerance or why.
The first genetically-engineered food to become commercially available was a tomato. The Flavr Savr, created by biotechnology company Calgene, was FDA-approved in 1994. It was designed to prevent rotting by slowing the ripening process. However, they weren't economically viable and the tomatoes were off the shelves by 1997.
Nevertheless, tomatoes remain a prime example of GMOs, as scientists are trying to develop a tastier mass market product. Many biotech companies have tried various engineering techniques to change tomatoes, including sweetness-enhancing compounds, color-enhancing genes, and trying to lengthen shelf lives. Currently, scientists in Britain are developing a GM purple tomato that was made to have the same antioxidants as blueberries. It's a new type of GMO that is supposed to resonate with consumers — to make food more healthy, instead of simply increasing crop yields for farmers.
Genetically-engineered salmon is not yet commercially available as it hasn't been approved by the FDA, but several supermarket chains have already sworn it off, including Kroger, Safeway, Target, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe's. AquAdvantage is a genetically modified Atlantic salmon created by Aquabounty Technologies. It has a growth hormone additive that gets the fish — all female — to market size in half the time.
Salmon consumption is three times higher than it was in 1980, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Open salmon farms, which would use this technology, are increasingly popular and provide much of the fish you see in supermarkets, have increased use of chemicals and pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and high levels of organic and inorganic waste material.
Technology has dramatically changed corn, which accounts for more than 90% of total feed grain production and use today, according to the USDA. Most is produced in the Midwest, and about 80 million acres of land are planted to corn. Most of that is for feed for industrial livestock, but corn is of course the main ingredient in sweeteners, starch, corn oil, and alcohol. Corn production has risen because of developments in technology, specifically with the invention of crop yield monitors and precision agriculture in the 1990s.
Soybeans are second to corn in amount of farmland used and production yields — and the crop is gaining ground by the year. This year is expected to be a record year in soybean acreage, according to the USDA. The US is the largest producer and exporter of soybeans, of which most are processed for animal feed, though it is the main ingredient in soy milk, tofu, soy powder protein. As these alternatives to meat and dairy gain popularity, demand is rising, and agricultural technologies are just as important for soybeans as corn.
There's another use for soybeans that's possible through technology: oil. Biosynthetic Technologies was certified by the American Petroleum Institute for on a motor oil containing 35% of a synthetic ester, made from high oleic soybean oil. It was tested on 100 taxicabs in Las Vegas and was said to extend the life of their engines.
6. Leafy greens
At AeroFarms, one of the leading urban indoor garden systems, uses aeroponics, which is a newer form of hydroponics that uses a mist to provide plants with the nutrients they need when they need it, reducing water consumption. The system is ideal for growing leafy greens like spinach and kale. Because it's indoors, it uses no pesticides, and because it's grown in water instead of soil, there is no worry of contaminated manure or groundwater. The company said it extends the shelf life of the greens because they are grown clean and dry, not needing to be thoroughly washed, which often makes them wilt faster and contributes to food waste.
Not only can herbs easily grow outside on rooftop gardens or on your balcony, they can now grow indoors thanks to some high-tech potting inventions. Toyo Herb Pots are equipped with special LED bulbs for indoor cultivation, and can be fitted in cabinets around the house. Another option is the AeroGarden, which comes in a variety of sizes for herbs, fruits or vegetables. It compactly fits in kitchen corners or tight spaces, and uses aeroponics to grow the food.
New technologies are also changing the dairy industry. Robotic milkers and automated milking systems take the place of the farmer milking cows constantly, and are especially important in industrial dairy farming. There is also an increased usage of sensors on cows, which provide data about the cow's temperature, rumination, and activity. Milk production per cow, mostly because of these automation technologies, has risen from 9,700 pounds per cow in 1970 to almost 19,000 pounds in 2007, though the number of milk-producing cows has steadily declined. A reason for this is growth hormones — specifically rBGH, an injection that increases milk production. The US is the only developed nation that allows consumption of milk that has this growth hormone.
Climate change is threatening honeybees. And without honeybees, we not only lose honey, but also a long list of crops that are pollinated by the insect: nuts, avocados, carrots, pumpkins, and many other fruits and vegetables. Research shows that nearly one-third of all honeybee colonies have disappeared due to pesticides, diseases, and inadequate food supply.
Technology is allowing people to practice urban beekeeping, especially on rooftops or underground. Portable, horizontal beehives that function well on roofs are easy to find. Philips is reportedly developing an indoor/outdoor hive with a flower pots, an enclosed entrance, and an artificial honeycomb. One report showed that urban bees may survive longer than rural bees nowadays, and they are a definite boon to urban gardening, which is growing in cities across the US.
The industrial meat industry is thriving, at the cost of animal welfare, food security, and the environment. Cows produce up to 25% of methane emissions, which is a huge part of greenhouse gas emissions. Methane traps heat 21 times better than carbon dioxide, and the US produces way more than the EPA thought. Grazing livestock accounts for a fourth of the privately held land in the US, or 613 million acres.
To feed a rapidly growing population and cut down on these emissions, biotech companies are making lab-grown meat. Modern Meadow is perhaps the most talked about in the tech world, engineering tissue to make meat and leather, and they are using 3D printers to do it. Beyond Meat takes plant-based proteins from vegetables to structure what resembles meat in order to replace animal proteins and reach their goal of reducing meat consumption by 25% by 2020 — a hefty goal.
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Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.