#techourfuture: The Future of Nutrition – Looking Beyond the Horizon

New technological options in nutrition

From 15 October to 5 November 2020, the final three events took place in the Technologie*Begreifen (Grasp Technology) series. The third focal topic for the #techourfuture talks, which were staged virtually at the Steinbeis House for Management and Technology (SHMT) in Stuttgart, was The Future of Nutrition – Looking Beyond the Horizon. During these events, leading experts from science and industry presented a variety of potential uses for technology in the field of nutrition. All three events were broadcast live on the Ferdinand Steinbeis Institute YouTube channel. The lively discussion addressed not only questions of taste, but also the opportunities and risks for society.

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What influence does technology have on our diet? What role do CRISPR genetic scissors play in plant breeding? Will we soon be printing out our lunch on 3D printers? Will meat be produced artificially one day, and what impacts would that have? Answers to these and other questions were provided by experts from the Ferdinand Steinbeis Institute as part of the #techourfuture series, an initiative funded by the Baden-Wuerttemberg Ministry of Economic Affairs, Labor, and Housing.

The carte du jour of the future: food from the 3D printer

The first event focused on the question of whether 3D-printed food is just a gimmick for amateur cooks or whether using additive manufacturing processes in the field of nutrition has a real benefit for society. According to a quick survey conducted at the beginning of the event, the vast majority of participants believed the technology would be of benefit to society. Dr. Helga Gruber, manager of research and development at Print2Taste, provided an account of how the 3D Food Printer works and explained that food from 3D printers can, for example, make it possible to offer appealing, individually prepared food to people who have problems with chewing and swallowing. Teresa Dufter, head of R&D for foods and applications and a colleague of Gruber, gave a live demonstration of food being 3D-printed onto a plate. The small number of people who were actually able to attend the event on site were also able to discover for themselves how it tasted. As well as some tidbits of chocolate, there were also lunchtime samples of broccoli, carrot, and German meatloaf. Around 50 people tuned in to the event and there was particularly strong interest in the shelf-life of the 3D-printed food and whether it would be possible to print more than one ingredient at a time. Gruber explained that in addition to reducing production time, work is also underway to equip the printer with multiple nozzles to make it possible to print foods simultaneously with different ingredients. Neither of the experts thought it likely that 3D printers would one day replace chefs in professional kitchens. In its current format based on the latest technology, the Food Printer does however already offer a number of entirely new ways to process food. For example, it offers confectioners an alternative for producing chocolate, and 3D printing is already resulting in different options for coming up with novel shapes and special flavors.

The future of plant breeding – from Mendel to genome editing

After discussing the changes brought about by new technologies in the food processing industry, Part 2 of the series focused on the beginning of the agricultural production chain. Professor Dr. Thomas Miedaner, director of the rye division at the State Plant Breeding Institute at the University of Hohenheim, took the audience on a journey to the future of plant breeding. Miedaner explained that given global population growth, climate change, and the global spread of pathogens, plant breeding will continue to be indispensable in the future. Drawing on a number of enlightening examples from the field of rye and corn cultivation, he also explained how new approaches such as DNA marker technology, genetic engineering, and genome editing actually work. Overall, as well as accelerating the lengthy process of cultivating plants – which can take six to ten years – they can also make procedures more efficient. The difference between the various methods is that selections can be either made based on entire genomes, or individual genes from nature can be introduced to crops, or genome editing can be used to specifically modify individual genes – for example in order to reprogram genes responsible for disease resistance so they are no longer “susceptible” but become “resistant.” The topics covered during the round of discussion included the efficiency of different procedures, impacts on the genetic diversity of plant life, biodiversity itself, and its role in climate change. A Mentimeter survey was conducted at the start and end of the event to gauge the general mood regarding different methods, and it was found that the majority of participants still consider classic plant breeding a permissible intervention into nature. Roughly 50 percent of those surveyed also regard the newer methods, such as genome editing, as a permissible intervention into nature. Miedaner also confirmed that reservations regarding new technologies are now diminishing.

Clean meat – meat from the lab

The third and last part of the #techourfuture series on The Future of Nutrition looked at the influence emerging technologies can have on meat production. In 2013, the Dutch researcher Professor Mark Post presented the first hamburger cultivated in a laboratory. The price tag at the time was roughly 250,000 euros. So in technical terms, it is actually possible to grow meat in a Petri dish. But how exactly is so-called clean meat produced? What does it take to make clean meat? And does meat cultivated in the lab taste anything like conventional meat? As the event started, almost half of the audience assumed the taste would be similar. Professor Dr. Petra Kluger, Vice President of Research and professor of tissue engineering and biofabrication at Reutlingen University, who since 2019 has been conducting research with a team of scientists into the cultivation of animal tissue, explained the various steps involved in producing meat in the laboratory. During her presentation, she also addressed current challenges and the potential advantages to society offered by meat from the Petri dish, especially when it comes to factory farming and climate change. The questions posed by the audience during the YouTube live chat session included aspects relating to healthy nutrition, market-readiness, the price, the use of animal stem cells, and cooking habits. Although obvious reservations were expressed during the discussion regarding the use of animal growth serum, the majority of participants saw the value of laboratory meat as a climate-friendly alternative to factory farming.

Technologie*Begreifen – inform, discuss, understand

The pilot project, which has been funded by the Baden-Wuerttemberg Ministry of Economic Affairs, Labor, and Housing, is thus drawing to a close (see also the editorial on page 3). From a project point of view, it’s now time to review the different formats that have been tried out over the past two years and compare them in more detail. Not only will this be necessary to do justice to the original goals of the #techourfuture Technologie*Begreifen initiative, the idea is to develop a format that will allow stakeholders to find out more about emerging technologies – objectively and in a “forum of trust.” At the same time, people should be allowed to question the use of technology, discuss issues from different standpoints, and offer their own views of future scenarios. After the all-day face-to-face event on the future of autonomous flying (November 2019) and the virtual events on the future of our health (June/July 2020), it was originally planned to organize the third block of topics as a hybrid event and allow the audience to choose to take part on site or participate online. This worked out for parts 1 and 2, but part 3 was only possible as a virtual event due to the current lockdown situation. The number of participants has risen with each passing event. The #techourfuture event on The Future of Nutrition attracted the largest audience so far. The next step will be to assess the reasons for the overall trend and to try to understand how this is influenced by the topic and format chosen for each event. One initial conclusion can already be made, however: The format will continue to take the topic chosen for the event into account, as well as the target group and the prevailing situation in Germany as a whole.

Missed an event? All events in the #techourfuture series on The Future of Nutrition are available on the Ferdinand Steinbeis Institute YouTube channel and can be viewed by going to: bit.ly/3pdgwNN.


Dr. Marlene Gottwald (author)
Senior Research Fellow
Ferdinand-Steinbeis-Institut (FSTI) (Stuttgart)