Latest in agri-food tech


Dr Ong Mei Kying (left) and Dr Tan Ji

THE human population is expanding, and it is estimated that the world would have nine billion people to feed by 2050.

This would require an unprecedented 35% increase in food production by 2030 despite the challenges of dwindling resources, climate change and sustainable development.

Humans have risen to similar challenges during the Agricultural Revolution, which introduced numerous technological advancements that have since been refined. But today, newer technologies – categorised based on agricultural and food processing perspectives – are available to tackle food security and sustainability issues.

Agricultural perspective

Selective breeding, or artificial selection, is a process of choosing parents with desirable qualities (e.g. large fruits, fast-growing livestock) to be bred so that the offspring with better or more desirable characteristics (e.g. larger fruits, even faster-growing livestock) can be produced.

This technique has allowed humans to greatly improve agriculture productivity in the past.

However, conventional selective breeding is an inefficient and laborious process, often requiring multiple generations of breeding to truly stabilise a desired trait.

This is because many traits of economic value are often the result of complex genetic interactions and may not manifest as expected with normal breeding.

The need for precision in selective breeding has led to the development of molecular breeding, which is the identification of DNA regions within a genome that affect an economical trait.

Molecular breeding, or marker-assisted breeding, is possible with the advent of DNA and genome sequencing, allowing scientists to gradually discover the location and function of genes, how they interact with each other, and how they are inherited.

Unlike the controversial genetically modified organisms (GMO), molecular breeding does not involve the introduction of foreign genetic material into an organism and is considered as safer and ethical.

In molecular breeding, parents of a cross will have their genetic potential scientifically assessed over multiple disciplines before any actual cross breeding is performed, allowing the selection for relevant traits of today like higher productivity and tolerance to climate change and diseases in either crops or livestock.

New breeds of plants could then be “mass produced” using plant tissue culture, and livestock animals via cloning or subsequent rounds of selective breeding.

Food processing perspective

Food processing is defined as the transformation of agricultural products into food or food products and the industry is considered as being essential worldwide.

Nevertheless, with 1.3 billion tonnes of food wastage or loss, representing 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 recorded yearly, climate-smart food systems that provide a balance between environmental and dietary sustainability are a necessity.

As consumers become more health and environmentally conscious, more would opt for a plant-based diet for dietary, ecological and ethical reasons.

This trend has gained traction over the years with in-vitro cell and tissue culture technologies making meat substitutes possible.

Current research also indicates that consumers prefer plant-based meat over lab-grown meat as a source of dietary protein. Three-dimensional (3D) food printing has also garnered much attention as a technology that may revolutionise the food manufacturing processes.

The process promotes the reuse of materials and valorisation of food industrial waste, greatly diminishing the carbon footprint of transportation and food manufacturing activities. Contemporary applications of 3D printing technology include biodegradable packaging cases made from rice husk and coating pigments prepared from eggshell wastes. These latest trends towards food security and sustainability are further driven by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which introduces smart biosensor technology, machine learning, computer vision in robotics, and artificial intelligence.

Imagine the ability to keep track of the health and requirements of each crop to maximise growth rates and yield. Imagine the ability to not only track and monitor food from farm to plate, but to also detect food contaminants or adulterants, food fraud and pathogens during the process, lifting food quality assurance and safety to a whole new level.

Imagine smart machines not only capable of showing food, but also its nutritional facts and formulation ingredients.

With technology being implemented and used like never before, humans are now as ready as ever in meeting challenges of food security and sustainability in the years to come.

ASSISTANT PROFESSORS

DR TAN JI and DR ONG MEI KYING

Department of Agricultural and Food Science

Faculty of Science

Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR)

DON'T MISS IT

Oct 21 (10am – 11.30am)

Future with STEM

> Free webinar: “Towards Food Security and Sustainability: Latest Trends in Agri-Food Innovation and Technology”.

> The webinar will be divided into three parts: Importance of food security and sustainability; molecular breeding in agriculture; and climate-smart food technology.

> Presented by UTAR Department of Agricultural and Food Science, Faculty of Science, speakers: Assistant Professors Dr Tan Ji (Specialty: Biodiversity and molecular taxonomy) and Dr Ong Mei Kying (Specialty: Food preservation, functional foods, food product innovation and post-harvest technology).

> Details: cccd.utar.edu.my/Upcoming-Events.php

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