by Vikay Pande, WIRED UK
The new discipline of bioengineering is going to dramatically impact how we produce and consume our food. The petroleum era ushered in many of the marquee companies and manufacturing processes of our generation – names such as IBM, BP and Texaco. But we are increasingly aware of the impact these processes have had on the environment. We know that we need to reinvent manufacturing to improve our planet and our health.
Bioengineering – which uses a range of approaches from electrical and mechanical engineering, computer and material sciences and, of course, biology – marks a shift in our ability to change nature itself. In 2020, we will see biology “eat” the manufacturing world. New companies will spring up to reinvent the processes by which our food is grown, made and distributed.
Biology is already being engineered to reinvent many of the food processes and products born out of the petroleum era. Take Apeel, which uses plant-derived technology to apply nature’s own protective “peel” material to fruits and vegetables, allowing them to last up to three times longer without refrigeration. This isn’t just about keeping your strawberries fresh; Apeel is revolutionising logistics, as in many cases a cold chain is no longer needed, greatly decreasing cost and increasing optionality – and directly addressing worldwide food waste.
Other companies have engineered products such as non-browning apples, by editing the gene that causes the apple to brown. These kinds of products are better for consumers – and help our global systems by extending global trade routes, opening up new markets and reducing food waste on a global scale.
And of course we are seeing a move into plant-based “meat”. Companies such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are already gaining traction with consumers. They have created an alternative to meat without the downsides of the traditional meat industry, such as methane production, consumption of grain, and E coli contamination. In 2020, we will see this industry shift further into bioengineered meat made directly from animal cells and requiring neither the birth nor slaughter of more animals.
This approach to manufacturing will spill over into many other food products. Dairy alternatives are already being produced in ways that don’t involve cows, from new plant products such as oat milk to milk products that can be grown in plants instead of secreted by cows. Fish, too, will also increasingly be grown from these techniques, helping to address problems such as overfishing, environmental concerns and toxic materials in our aquatic ecosystems.
These products, designed by humans using nature’s own processes, will be revolutionary in the impact they have on our global economies and the world’s health. And the way they are produced will spill over into other sectors. As bioengineering “eats” our food system, the biology of our food will in turn “eat” more of our manufacturing. Companies such as Mycoworks and Bolt are already using materials such as mushrooms to create “leather”, and we’ll see much more of that — things like tree lights and houses that are grown instead of built. We are now seeing the first wave of a coming era in biological innovation, and companies in the sector will become as big as those that came before – a bio Del Monte or Cargill for the 21st century.
In 2020, the advances in bioengineering in academia and in industry mean that we will finally have the capability and technology to replace the world’s faulty systems.