The science-fiction farm of tomorrow… today

News
Aug 9, 2013
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Contrary to the popular image of farmers and livestock producers as the quaint personas of Grant Wood paintings, agriculture and its participants are often at the cutting—or even bleeding edge—of technology adoption and exploration.

There are so many ways in which agricultural research is turning science fiction into science reality.

The areas of ag- and foodrelated innovation are numerous and often hard to track down, but here are a few examples of interest which have the potential to make big waves in the lives of livestock producers and farmers.

Meat

Lab-grown burger: The story of the lab-grown hamburger has been covered in WLJ in the past when it was in-progress, but now the burger of the future has been finished, fried, and feasted upon. At more than nine months overdue, the entirely lab-grown beef burger patty was the creation of Professor Mark Post of the Maastricht University in the Netherlands and his team. The burger was fried up publicly in a London eatery last Monday and taste-tested by a pair of volunteers.

Reports vary on the exact nature of the burger, with some sources saying it was more akin to “cake than steak” while others suggested it was a close approximation to the real thing.

Josh Schonwald, author of “The Taste of Tomorrow” and one of the two tasters, told Bloomberg the 5-ounce burger patty lacked the fattiness of a regular burger. Hanni Ruetzler, a food scientist and the other tasting volunteer, said the surface was crunchy and the inside was “very close to meat.”

The burger has been called the most expensive burger in history, costing approximately $350,000 to create. The process to create it, which started back in February of 2012, involved the creation of thousands of tiny lab-grown strips of beef muscle tissue and fat. The in-vitro meat tissues were grown in a solution using stem cells from a slaughtered animal.

Post was motivated to pursue the project because of his beliefs that livestock production for meat is an unsustainable venture, particularly in light of the expected increase in the population over the next few decades.

“Right now, we are using 70 percent of all our agricultural capacity to grow meat through livestock,” Post told the British paper The Independent. “You are going to need alternatives. If we don’t do anything, meat will become a luxury food and will become very expensive.”

“We are catering to beef eaters who want to eat beef in a sustainable way,” Post said at the burger debut in London.

He explained that his vision of the future would still require the raising and slaughtering of cattle for beef (or hogs for pork, or chickens for chicken, and so on) as the system requires the stem cells of slaughtered animals.

“Eventually, my vision is that you have a limited herd of donor animals which you keep in stock in the world. You basically kill animals and take all the stem cells from them, so you would still need animals for this technology,” he said.

Printed meat: The advent of 3D printing technology is certainly sweeping the world and many have called it the next industrial revolution for what it could mean for traditional manufacturing. To date, countless items have been printed using additive manufacturing technology. From plastic knickknacks, to mechanical parts, to fully functioning cars, to even prosthetics and replacement body parts for people and animals, 3D printers are making the likes of Star Trek into reality.

One additional area that is getting attention, research, and funding dollars is the potential to print meat. In May, NASA announced it was working on 3D printing technology which might furnish astronauts with “fresh” foods rather than the shelfstable foods they have used in the past in which nutrients decay. Something like a 3D food printer which could create “fresh” foods would be necessary for the potentially five-year trip it would take to get a manned mission to Mars.

While NASA’s announcement didn’t specifically mention meat printing in its announcement of its efforts, the father and son team over at Missouri’s Modern Meadow have set out with the goal to create printed meat and leather. Dr. Gabor Forgacs and Andras Forgacs cofounded Modern Meadow in 2011 and in the same year were able to offer a tasting of their cultured meat.

The process of printing meat or tissues is called “bio printing” and operates much in the way standard 3D printers work; the printer lays down tiny droplets of “ink”—in this case, a solution of living stem cells from the target animal—in strips. The cells, once laid, naturally begin to fuse together into a tissue. As with the lab-grown burger, the process still requires living animals to act as donors for the cells which go into the “ink.”

Plants

Nitrogen plants: Legume cover crops such as alfalfa and clovers have long been known and valued for their ability to fix nitrogen from the air into the soil. This is a specific ability of legumes. But researchers in the University of Nottingham have been working on a way to transplant that nitrogen fixation technology into other plants. This has the potential of creating a whole line of crops which, rather than needing fertilization, help fertilize the ground for themselves and later crops.

“Helping plants to naturally obtain the nitrogen they need is a key aspect of World Food Security,” said Professor Edward Cocking, director of The University of Nottingham’s Centre for Crop Nitrogen Fixation. “The world needs to unhook itself from its ever increasing reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilisers produced from fossil fuels with its high economic costs, its pollution of the environment and its high energy costs.”

As described on Phys.org—an online science magazine—the process Cocking went through in his discovery came from bacteria and sugar cane. After experimenting with inserting nitrogen-fixing bacteria into the cells of non-legume plants’ roots, he discovered that a bacteria particular to sugar cane could be inserted into plants and effectively colonize the entire plant, making every cell in its structure capable of fixing nitrogen from the air.

The technology—named “N-Fix”—has been found to work in “all major crop plants” and has been licensed to Azotic Technologies Ltd by the University of Nottingham. Azotic Technologies will develop and commercialize N-Fix globally on the university’s behalf for all crop species.

Particularly interesting, since this is coming out of the UK, which is well known for its aversion to anything genetically modified, is that the technology is not genetic modification or bioengineering. Treated crops would come in the form of seeds coated in the nitrogen-fixing bacteria so that when the seed germinates, a symbiotic relationship is established between the bacteria and the plant.

Spray-on drought tolerance: Researchers at the University of California, Riverside (UCR) have been working with a chemical which could help farmers in drought-stricken areas. The chemical, named “quinabactin” by the researchers, mimics naturally-occurring stress hormones in plants. Both quinabactin and the natural hormone help plants deal with drought conditions.

“When you spray it on plants it delays wilting, reduces water loss and improves stress tolerance,” said Sean Cutler, an associate professor of plant cell biology at UCR who led the research.

The naturally-occurring hormone has long been known for its drought-tolerating abilities, but reproduction of the hormone directly has been cost prohibitive. The new chemical, however, is much more cheaply created and could be easily commercialized.

“Drought is a major source of crop loss every year so the need for innovations like this is only going to get stronger,” he says.

“Spraying a chemical is one strategy but there are a lot of different approaches being pursued in parallel. It’s likely there will be better crop yields under adverse conditions in the future as these approaches converge.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor

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