ROUNDTABLE | Expanding Stable, Sustainable Food Production for Eliminating Hunger
Stable access to safe food is a prerequisite for all human activities. According to a UNICEF report, about 45% of under-five deaths in developing countries are caused by malnutrition and nearly 800 million people around the world struggle to get enough food each day. Regional disparities are also extremely high.
In recent years, there have been frequent droughts and floods caused by climate change and other factors, resulting in extensive agricultural damage. In Japan, the fishing industry is in decline due to the aging of fishermen and management difficulties, and fishery resources are also dwindling mainly due to changes in the environment and overfishing. And yet, one-third of all food, totaling 1.3 billion tons, is thrown away around the world every year.
There are various food issues to be tackled. In this interview, we ask four prominent food researchers in the Innovation Center about how Yokogawa is helping to expand stable, sustainable food production.
Food Shortages and Waste Are Both Global Challenges
― Mr. Tsubota, what is your view on the challenges related to food production?
Without food, people would die, so we need enough food. But food waste is also a serious issue. As you mentioned, one-third of food is thrown away around the world. There are two aspects to this issue.
In developing countries, some food is discarded before it reaches consumers, mainly due to the lack of suitable storage facilities. Improving the infrastructure such as building warehouses is a promising solution to this issue.
In developed countries on the other hand, a lot of food is wasted by consumers. To address this issue, a logistics system called the cold chain has been introduced to manage the quantity and timing of food production, shipment, sales, and consumption. The cold chain delivers food products to consumers while maintaining freshness and quality by controlling the temperature during distribution. This logistics system is designed to reduce food waste caused by mismatches between supply and demand as well as due to deterioration of quality during distribution.
Since other companies are already involved in this, Yokogawa looks at the cold chain system from a different perspective, as I’ll explain later.
― Food waste seems to be a simple matter, but I now understand that the situation, reasons, and solutions differ in regions and circumstances.
Growing Need for Plant Factories to Alleviate the Impact of Climate Change on Agriculture
― Ms. Hatsugai, heat waves and torrential rains seem to be getting worse each year. How do they affect agriculture?
Climate change is causing increasing damage to agriculture, and open-air cultivation in particular. To overcome this problem, we are developing plant factories that use natural or artificial light.
In a plant factory, the environment, including light, temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide concentration are controlled to maintain stable quality and yield for cultivation and harvesting. If the global climate continues to change, food supplies will certainly decrease within 10 or 20 years. Plant factories are needed to reduce this risk.
A System for Sustainable Fisheries
― Regarding fisheries, fish catches in Japan have been decreasing. Mr. Nakanishi, what are the issues for the fishing industry?
The world’s population is now about 7.8 billion, and is expected to grow to 9.7 billion in 30 years. The demand for food in 2050 is estimated to be about 1.7 times the current level, due in part to economic growth in developing countries.
One way to respond to this rapid increase is to reduce food waste, which Mr. Tsubota is tackling. I believe it is also important to increase production.
Land accounts for about 30% of the earth’s surface, but most of the arable land is already used and cannot be increased substantially. On the other hand, oceans cover about 70% of the earth’s surface but fishing is conducted only in 10% of the total ocean area. This is because waters rich in marine life are limited to coastal areas and some offshore upwelling areas. The remaining 90% is unexploited because these offshore areas lack enough nutrients for photosynthesis. This makes it difficult for phytoplankton to thrive and kick-start the food chain. However, there is a lot of nutrient-rich water deep down in such areas. If we can make good use of it, we will be able to create new marine resources.
― I understand we need to think about not only the immediate future but also a sustainable food supply system in the future.
A Balanced Social System Is Needed for Stable Food Production
― Dr. Murayama, what are the various issues related to food production?
Production is based on a good balance between supply and demand. It is important to build a balanced social system. Production, logistics, consumption, and waste reduction ... sustainable production will not be achieved unless this cycle is carried out effectively.
Mr. Tsubota is working on logistics, Ms. Hatsugai on agriculture, and Mr. Nakanishi on fisheries. I’m focusing on consumption.
The issue of consumption is complex and intertwined with many other issues, and it is difficult to find a solution. This is true on the supply side, too. In order to solve it, we first need knowledge, and that requires measurement. That’s why I am developing sensors for measurement.
― So you are focusing on measurement, which is Yokogawa’s strength.
Yokogawa is Tackling the World’s Food Problems as an Expert in Control
― Mr. Tsubota, how do you think Yokogawa can help expand stable, sustainable food production?
Yokogawa is famous for its control technology, often called “Yokogawa the Control Expert.” So far, its research and development has focused on factory control and machine control. But when dealing with food, controlling machines is not enough; we need to consider how consumers actually live and behave. In addition, other important factors are involved in food production, such as fish, agricultural products and other living things.
In the future we will have to consider how to control these creatures. This research field is somewhat different from Yokogawa’s territory and we will have to address various challenges. But I believe Yokogawa can solve them as an expert in control.
― I agree. Yokogawa has developed control technology for a wide range of fields, and I think it can apply that knowledge and expertise to various new fields.
The Challenge of Measuring Deliciousness to Humans
― Ms. Hatsugai, to what areas do you think Yokogawa’s research is applicable?
With its image as a control expert, people in the agricultural industry seem to have high expectations for Yokogawa in terms of control and measurement. Although measurement methods have been established for factories, this is not the case for agriculture, especially open-air cultivation, because of the inability to control the environment. Therefore, cultivation has been based on experience and expertise instead of controlling the environment based on data, so we have started working on measurement in agriculture.
Ultimately, I want to be able to measure deliciousness. For example, lettuce farmers eat a lot of lettuce every day, so they can tell which is tasty, but they can’t explain it objectively. The taste may vary with the amount of water and fiber contained, or perhaps the surface texture. It would be easier if we could measure and know whether something is tasty by using existing measuring instruments. The sense of taste is subjective and intuitive. We need to devise a way to quantify it.
If we can find how to make delicious food, we can create and control the cultivation environment. There are still many phenomena in agriculture that have yet to be measured, so I’d like to make full use of Yokogawa’s measurement technology and knowledge.
― People expect a lot from Yokogawa in terms of measurement and control, so the company needs to develop new measurement technologies. If we can take measurements even in places where the environment is not constant, we will get closer to the goal of expanding stable, sustainable food production.
Yokogawa’s Technology Will Enhance the Natural Cycle
― Mr. Nakanishi, how do you think Yokogawa can help the fishing industry?
Fish and other marine products come from the ocean and are used for food. Thus, we can look at the ocean as a food factory that uses natural resources to produce food. I hope to improve its productivity with Yokogawa’s measurement and control technology. We are not trying to control nature; rather, we will understand the ocean, stimulate and enhance the production process, and strengthen the ecological chain.
― The ideal is to understand nature and give it a helping hand to ensure the natural cycle functions smoothly.
Yokogawa Will Use Its Measurement, Control, and Information Technologies to Design a Social System in Terms of Food
― Dr. Murayama, how do you think Yokogawa can help increase food production?
Yokogawa’s core technologies are measurement, control, and information, and I believe we can design a social system with them. Creating a social system in terms of food will enable us to find new approaches to food. Yokogawa can help design social systems by leveraging its experience and technologies. We are currently building the foundation for this work.
― Yokogawa has helped build infrastructure for the process industry, and it will also be able to offer the same service for food production. This interview has revealed various possible dreams in the future.
Next, I’d like to ask all of you about your research on the theme of this interview, which is “Expanding stable, continuous food production.” I’d like to hear how your research is helping solve the issues related to food production.
AI-based Agriculture Will Achieve a Stable Food Supply Independent of Climate Change
― Ms. Hatsugai, you are working on using AI in agriculture.
Yes, we are studying plant factories that use natural or artificial light. By controlling the environment, these factories will be able to provide a stable food supply regardless of climate change and global warming.
Special seeds for plant factories are not available yet, so we selected ones suitable for hydroponic cultivation from among those for open-air cultivation. Ideally, seeds should be developed specifically for each type of factory. Our goal is to breed seeds optimized for plant factories by using data on vegetation and the environment obtained from plant factories.
By accumulating data on the growing environment in plant factories and collecting harvest results for each seed, we are trying to develop seeds with stable quality that are less susceptible to climate change. It usually takes six to ten years to develop a single breed. If we can shorten that time, we may be able to keep ahead of climate change, leading to a stable food supply.
― I understand you’re not just trying to improve the current state of agriculture but also considering how to ensure a sustainable food supply in the future.
A Marine Ranching System for Creating New Ecosystems and a Sustainable Food Supply
― Mr. Nakanishi, you are conducting research on a marine ranching system.
In recent years, marine resources have been dwindling and it is increasingly difficult to catch wild fish, so aquaculture has become more common. However, this type of farming has no future because aquaculture feed is made from wild fish, the scarcity of which will greatly affect the sustainability of aquaculture. In other words, we need to increase the amount of fishery resources across the globe.
As I said earlier, biological productivity is extremely low in 90% of the world’s oceans but in fact deep down these waters are rich in nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. If we can bring these nutrients to the surface, they will help phytoplankton with photosynthesis, which will attract zooplankton, which will feed small fish and then larger fish. Stimulating and accelerating this food chain will create new marine resources. As a first step, we are working on pumping up nutrient-rich deep water to enable phytoplankton to grow.
― So you’re looking at a part of the oceans as a factory and not controlling but trying to boost the natural cycle.
To Solve Complex Challenges, We Must Know. To Know, We Must Measure
― Dr. Murayama, your research area is ultra-sensitive spectroscopy. Could you explain the relationship with food production?
Understanding what is happening is the basis of research, and not just in food production. I am developing measurement methods to help us understand. Spectroscopic sensors can obtain both physical and chemical information at the same time. By using these sensors and physically and chemically analyzing what is happening, we can use the findings for control and management. In addition to food products, we expect the measurement results to be useful for various applications.
― Yokogawa has advanced measurement technologies. Measurement is also important for food production, so we hope your research goes well.
Adding Deliciousness to the Cold Chain to Achieve Food Sustainability
― Mr. Tsubota, you are involved in research and development of the cold chain. What are you doing to help boost stable, sustainable food production?
When you hear the term “cold chain,” you probably imagine a supply chain where the temperature is controlled. But in fact, it is the quantity of goods that is controlled. It is crucial to deliver the necessary goods in a timely manner, otherwise any excess food has to be thrown away during the distribution process. Also, in marine ranching systems and AI-based agriculture, it is important to precisely control the quantity, and we’re working on various ways to do that.
However, in terms of sustainability, we must consider what happens after foods reach consumers. It is pointless if they are wasted. But if the food tastes great, it is less likely to be discarded. I believe that, in addition to quantity, the factor of taste should be considered and maintained in the supply chain.
Good taste is not fixed, but is perceived by consumers. We need to consider taste from the consumer’s point of view, not from the manufacturer’s or logistics side. In addition, the sense of taste is subjective and varies from person to person, so it is necessary to take individual differences into consideration.
You may think that taste has nothing to do with the cold chain, because it is a matter of human senses. But I believe it is an important parameter to achieve a sustainable food supply.
To identify what good taste means and to control it, we first need to quantify the human senses. By measuring and assessing brain waves, facial expressions, and verbal descriptions, we’ll be able to correlate these data with good taste. Our goal is to achieve food sustainability by creating a place where people can enjoy delicious food at any time.
― It’s an intriguing way of reducing food waste that goes beyond the food chain and into the realm of the human senses.
Thank you very much for your time today. I hope you will continue with your research to help solve the challenge of expanding a stable, sustainable food supply.