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Sustainable agriculture is quickly becoming the wave of the future as we find ways to feed a world of 10 billion by 2050. Our BIO5 researchers are developing novel solutions that enable the production of more food with less use of resources. Using the framework of sustainable agriculture, Dr. Joel Cuello is looking up for answers in the form of vertical farming. Dr. Cuello is a professor of agricultural-biosystems engineering, applied biosciences, and arid lands resources sciences, as well as a BIO5 member.
BU: Why might the way that agriculture is currently being or has historically been done fail to meet the needs of our growing planet today and in the future?
I'd like to start with what you just said – it’s because our planet keeps on growing. In terms of population, as you alluded to earlier, our current population is about 7.6 billion, and by 2050, it’s going to go up to about 9.7 billion. That's like adding another Europe and another Africa to our current planet in terms of population, so that's a lot of people to feed.
That is why the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization has projected that to be able to meet the food demand by 2050, we need to increase our food production by 70%, and in terms of crop production, we have to double it.
That's a tall order, especially because our current way of producing food is very resource intensive. There's a lot of input that is required, and currently our food production is already responsible for 70% of all freshwater withdrawals. We're already using about half of all habitable land on the planet, and the food supply chain and food production accounts for about 30% of all energy expenditures. So just imagine if we're going to increase our food production by another 70%, where are we going to get all of our production input that is required?
It's a tall challenge, and the only way to be able to address that is to innovate and come up with new and innovative solutions that we hope will also be sustainable and therefore can minimize the inputs that are needed - basically producing more out of little or less.
PG: Your solution to the problem is vertical farming - can you describe what that looks like and what benefits it has?
Vertical farming is the antithesis of open agriculture or open farming. With vertical farming, basically you're doing agriculture and crop production in a closed space or closed environment. The main advantage of that is that you control the environment inside, and as such, you become independent of the season, the weather, geography, and climate, so you can do this 24/7, 365 days a year, which is a powerful idea.
PG: Are there certain crops that are better suited for vertical farming?
The innovation of vertical farming originated from the space program at NASA that was in preparation for life support systems for astronauts in the future who would be going for a long duration mission to the moon or Mars. They would need to be able to produce their own food on site, so that is how this form of agriculture or crop production was originally developed. I did my postdoctoral fellowship at NASA Kennedy, so I had the privilege of being exposed to it early on, and then over the decades it's been commercialized, initially in Japan and now worldwide.
Vertical farming is benefiting from the convergence of all of these innovations that have been developed in the last 20 to 30 years, with light emitting diodes, data analytics, artificial intelligence, automation, and robotics. All of these innovations not only make it possible but make it feasible.
Back when I was a postdoc about 27 years ago, NASA had already grown all types of crops in a vertical farming prototype - you know salad type crops, cereals, wheat, barley, potatoes, tomatoes…everything. Commercially there's nothing that prevents any vertical farming company from growing any of these crops, but it's a matter of economics. Right now it's the high value crops that are favored economically, but not the commodity crops because commodity crops are produced in large quantities and they're generally low cost in the global market.
It's hard to compete with commodity crops, so right now vertical farms are focused on the high value crops.
PG: Can you talk more about your postdoc research at NASA?
It was exciting because we were designing innovations and technologies for a future human habitat or colony in an extraterrestrial environment. Plus, I was doing this at NASA Kennedy Space Center where I was able to witness the takeoff of the space shuttle and the landing.
What I really appreciated about my exposure to NASA and working on life support systems is treasuring and valuing and really recognizing the critical importance of sustainability. When you work for designing a food system for extraterrestrial applications where you don't have running water on the moon or Mars and the radiation is deadly and the temperature is swinging wildly between night and day, you really have to be able not only to control your environment, but be able to recycle as much as possible all of the input resources that are needed.
That extreme scenario really helped me appreciate the importance of sustainability and applying that here on Earth in terms of food production.
I would like to add again that we have to innovate so that we can meet the rising food demand by the middle of the century. Another innovation that really is now emerging in the marketplace is what is known as cellular agriculture. Part of this is plant-based protein.
Most of us like meat, however, production of meat is quite problematic because it produces a lot of greenhouse gasses which contribute to the changing climate. In fact, 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions can be traced to food production and the supply chain, and 75% of that is accounted for by animal production.
I mentioned earlier that we're already using about half of our habitable land on the planet for food production…well, 75% of that is devoted to animal agriculture. It does not refer only to the land occupied by the animals - that's relatively small - but the rest is for growing the crops that are needed as feed for the animals, so it's a really resource intensive enterprise to be able to grow meat.
With cellular agriculture, one avenue is cell-based meat, so you don't grow whole animals. You take some cells from an animal and then you culture that in the lab and mass produce it in bioreactors. Then you harvest the cells and reconstitute them into meat products like a burger, for instance.
With this you save on land by as much as 98%, and you save on greenhouse gas emissions by about 95%, and you save tremendous amounts of water in the process as well.
The other one is plant-based meat, which is not real meat, but with food technology now, they can make it taste like regular meat and have the same texture. It’s healthier - both for humans as well as for the planet.
BU: I really enjoy incorporating plant-based meats into my diet, but how do we approach educating the public, especially those populations that may be very emotionally, culturally, or preferentially biased towards meat and don't want to adopt more of these sustainable and healthier options?
To me, it’s not one or the other – meat will not go away. On the other hand, given that our global population is continuing to grow, we need to supplement it with something else. We need to supplement with something that tastes like and has the texture of meat but is more sustainable to produce. That’s where cell-based meat and plant-based meat come in.
BU: You’re also involved in a startup called AlgaeCell – can you tell us more about the company and your technology?
I also work with micro-algae production in bioreactors because my doctorate work was in bioreactor design. Now, I have the opportunity of working together with my grad students in my laboratory group to design original forms or designs of bioreactors. We've been quite successful in that we've already patented three original bioreactors.
These bioreactors have been exclusively licensed to this company called AlgaeCell, which now has been contacted by companies in Japan, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom to produce algae for various applications, one of which is for spirulina, which is a protein source that can be used for plant-based protein.
PG: Where does your passion for this line of work come from?
First, I learned to value sustainability. The only way that we can go on as a civilization, as a species, as a planet, is by taking sustainability very seriously as part of our value for our human existence. Without that, the future is bleak.
Second, I’m a professor, and it’s a real privilege to be imparting knowledge to young people. But it’s not just a matter of imparting knowledge, it's really equipping them and training them to become value creators or innovators because that's what we need today on our planet.
We're faced with so many grand challenges, and the only way that we can address them and, at the same time, advance the global economy, is true value creation or innovation. To me, it's really satisfying and very rewarding to be able to work with young people and train them in being able to have the ability to create value, which is a great help and value to society and to the human race.
PG: We like to think of our researchers as superheroes, so if you were a superhero, what would your superpower be?
My view is that all of us are superheroes - we're all meaningful contributors to society, helping one another.
If I were a superhero, I would like to keep the same superpowers that I have now, which are the abilities to create value and to work with young people and impact them. Also, to help people think in a sustainable, resilient, and equitable way - I think that's how human civilization can progress.
About the University of Arizona BIO5 Institute
The BIO5 Institute at the University of Arizona connects and mobilizes top researchers in agriculture, engineering, medicine, pharmacy, data and computational science, and basic science to find creative solutions to humanity’s most pressing health and environmental challenges. Since 2001, this interdisciplinary approach has been an international model of how to conduct collaborative research, and has resulted in disease prevention strategies, innovative diagnostics and devices, promising new therapies, and improved food sustainability. Learn more at BIO5.ORG.
About the Technology and Research Initiative Fund (TRIF)
The Technology and Research Initiative Fund (TRIF) that helped launch BIO5 in 2001 continues to be a catalyst in enabling effective, cross-disciplinary bioscience research and innovation at the University of Arizona, where initiatives and projects are carefully chosen to align with areas of state and national need. Since 2001, over $50M has been invested in building critical facilities and research services that UArizona is leveraging today to respond to the world’s greatest scientific challenges. TRIF resources are also instrumental in funding events and programming that promotes STEM education, outreach, and training.