Newsletter: January 15, 2019

It’s been one year since Food Technology magazine’s editorial team launched the IFTNEXT Newsletter, which explores what are, arguably, the next big things in the science of food through original reporting of scientific breakthroughs, leading-edge technology, novel food components, and transdisciplinary R&D.

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Solar foodsStart-up plans to create protein from air and electricity
A Finnish company has developed a process to create edible protein from thin air. Well, that’s a slight exaggeration, but start-up Solar Foods has come up with a process that requires only carbon dioxide, water, and electricity plus a few trace elements to create a unique single-cell vegan protein that its developers hope to see used to feed space travelers to Mars. Already the company has been invited to develop a proposal for food production as part of the European Space Agency Business Incubation Program.  
Pasi Vainikka, CEO of Solar Foods, likens the process to fermentation minus the yeast and sugars. “We disconnect completely from the use of land,” said Vainikka, speaking in a Deeptech Showcase talk at SLUSH, a start-up event held last month in Helsinki. “We don’t use sugars that originate from plants.” Instead, he explained, the company electrolyzes water to make hydrogen, takes CO2 from the air, adds some vitamins and minerals and combines it all in bioreactors where naturally occurring microbes “eat the hydrogen as a source of energy and the CO2 as a source of carbon, and then they grow and multiply. You take the liquid out and dry it and then you end up with a powder.”  
The powder produced via the bioreactors has a protein content of 50% and looks and tastes like wheat flour. Potential applications include pasta, bread, pizza, shakes, breakfast cereal, and more. It could even be used in cultured meat production, Vainikka says.
A former energy engineer, Vainikka envisions a future where electricity will be the primary fuel for food production—an environmentally friendly approach that will address the issue of greenhouse gas emissions from farming and livestock production, which together are responsible for 20% of the current global carbon footprint.
The protein powder project is currently in the testing phase. Solar Foods is targeting commercial protein production in 2021 and plans to soon seek regulatory approval for use of the new protein as a food ingredient. The process is based on the research initiatives of VTT Technology Research Centre of Finland and Lappeenranta University of Technology in Finland.


Greenhouse challenge winner blends algorithms and agriculture
CucumbersA team of experts in artificial intelligence and horticulture from Microsoft, Wageningen University & Research, and the University of Copenhagen grew the best crop of cucumbers in an autonomous greenhouse competition sponsored by Wageningen and internet company Tencent. Teams from around the globe were challenged to grow cucumbers from long distance, developing algorithms to regulate cultivation and installing sensors and cameras in Wageningen greenhouses to track growth and control climate and fertilization. Once the equipment was installed, team members could not set foot in the greenhouse over the course of the four-month challenge.
The winner, Team Sonoma, defeated four finalist teams chosen this summer from a field of 15 teams. Silke Hemming, head of the Wageningen Horticulture Technology research team, says the winning team had an effective climate strategy, successfully using artificial light and optimizing temperatures. A reference team comprised of Dutch vegetable growers served as a control for the competition, growing cucumbers using manual methods.
The competition was judged by an international jury. To determine the winner, three key factors were evaluated: net profit (sales price for the harvested cucumbers minus the costs for energy, water, labor, etc.); the use of artificial intelligence (i.e., was the algorithm new? was the computer program robust?); and sustainability (water, carbon dioxide, and energy used per kilogram of cucumbers).
Hemming notes that the growing process was not fully autonomous and that achieving that level of autonomous production was not the goal of the competition. Rather it was designed to provide a benchmark as to where things stand in terms of the use of artificial intelligence in greenhouse crop production. “There was a lot of human hands-on intervention [in the crop production],” Hemming notes. “Our labor was real and human inside the greenhouse although our workers were digitally instructed by the teams remotely.”

Using artificial intelligence to support crop production has the potential to make a valuable contribution to global agriculture, Hemming notes. “In many countries, there is very little knowledge about complex plant production,” she says. “Artificial intelligence can help people make complicated decisions, so they can locally produce vegetables and fruits with fewer means. The higher yield and production are especially important in view of the growing global population.”


Curbing the stink of stink bugs
Stink BugIn the state of Virginia, certain crops are constantly under attack by stink bugs, causing farmers to use pesticides to address the invasions. Researchers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University may have discovered a way to mitigate crop damage from stink bugs without the use of any pesticides at all.
The brown marmorated stink bug devours grapes, sweet corn, and apples while the harlequin stink bug voraciously consumes cabbage. What the two stink bugs have in common is how they communicate and invade crops: via pheromones. Stink bugs use pheromones to communicate with each other and ring the proverbial dinner bell, effectively inviting other stink bugs to join them in a crop feast. Researchers at Virginia Tech have gained new insight into how stink bugs communicate via pheromones, which may lead to better pest management strategies.
In a recent study, the researchers discovered that stink bugs utilize an innate enzymatic process to make pheromones, contradicting the previous understanding of how stink bugs developed pheromones (i.e., from symbiotic microbes or host plants). This new insight paves the way for researchers to develop alternative pest control systems such as creating lab-synthesized stink bug pheromones that can be used on expendable crops to lure stink bugs away from crops that are valuable to farmers and the food industry. The discovery also may lead to the possible use of genetic editing to disrupt stink bugs’ ability to produce pheromones.