California has been plagued by perilous droughts for decades. Freshwater shortages have sparked raging wildfires and killed fruit and vegetable crops. And California is not alone in its danger of running out of water for farming; parts of the Southwest, including Texas, are battling severe drought conditions, according to the North American Drought Monitor. These two states account for 316,900 of the 2 million total U.S. farms.
But even as farming becomes more vulnerable due to water shortages, the world's demand for food is projected to increase 70 percent by 2050, according to Guihua Yu, an associate professor of materials science at The University of Texas at Austin.
"Water is the most limiting natural resource for agricultural production because of the freshwater shortage and enormous water consumption needed for irrigation," Yu said.
As scientists have searched for solutions, an alternative water supply has been hiding in plain sight: Water vapor in the atmosphere. It is abundant, available, and endlessly renewable, just waiting for the moment that technological innovation and necessity converged to make it fit for use. Now, new super-moisture-absorbent gels developed by Yu and a team of researchers can pull that moisture from the air and bring it into soil, potentially expanding the map of farmable land around the globe to dry and remote regions that suffer from water shortages.
"This opens up opportunities to turn those previously poor-quality or inhospitable lands to become useable and without need of centralized water and power supplies," Yu said.
A renewable source of freshwater
The hydrogels are a gelatin-like substance made from synthetic materials. The gels activate in cooler, humid overnight periods and draw water from the air. During a four-week experiment, Yu's team observed that soil with these gels provided enough water to support seed germination and plant growth without an additional liquid water supply. And the soil was able to maintain the moist environment for more than a month, according to Yu.
The super absorbent gels developed at the University of Texas at Austin.
Xingyi Zhou, UT Austin
"It is promising to liberate underdeveloped and drought areas from the long-distance water and power supplies for agricultural production," Yu said.
Crops also rely on fertilizer to maintain soil fertility and increase the production yield, but it is easily lost through leaching. Runoff increases agricultural costs and contributes to environmental pollution. The interaction between the gels and agrochemicals offer slow and controlled fertilizer release to maintain the balance between the root of the plant and the soil.
The possibilities are endless
Harvesting atmospheric water is exciting on multiple fronts. The super-moisture-absorbent gel can also be used for passively cooling solar panels. Solar radiation is the magic behind the process. Overnight, as temperatures cool, the gels absorb water hanging in the atmosphere. The moisture is stored inside the gels until the thermometer rises. Heat from the sun serves as the faucet that turns the gels on so they can release the stored water and cool down the panels. Effective cooling of the solar panels is important for sustainable long-term power generation.
In addition to agricultural uses and cooling for energy devices, atmospheric water harvesting technologies could even reach people's homes.
"They could be developed to enable easy access to drinking water through individual systems for household usage," Yu said.
Yu and the team are now focused on affordability and developing practical applications for use. The goal is to optimize the gel materials to achieve higher levels of water uptake from the atmosphere.
"We are exploring different kinds of polymers and solar absorbers while exploring low-cost raw materials for production," Yu said.
The ability to transform atmospheric water vapor into a cheap and plentiful water source would be a game-changer. One day in the not-too-distant future, if climate change intensifies and droughts worsen, this innovation may become vital to our very survival.
The coronavirus pandemic exposed significant weaknesses in the country's food supply chain. Grocery store meat counters were bare. Transportation interruptions influenced supply. Finding beef, poultry, and pork at the store has been, in some places, as challenging as finding toilet paper.
In traditional agriculture models, it takes at least three months to raise chicken, six to nine months for pigs, and 18 months for cattle.
It wasn't a lack of supply -- millions of animals were in the pipeline.
"There's certainly enough food out there, but it can't get anywhere because of the way our system is set up," said Amy Rowat, an associate professor of integrative biology and physiology at UCLA. "Having a more self-contained, self-sufficient way to produce meat could make the supply chain more robust."
Cultured meat could be one way of making the meat supply chain more resilient despite disruptions due to pandemics such as COVID-19. But is the country ready to embrace lab-grown food?
According to a Good Food Institute study, GenZ is almost twice as likely to embrace meat alternatives for reasons related to social and environmental awareness, even prior to the pandemic. That's because this group wants food choices that reflect their values around food justice, equity, and animal welfare.
Largely, the interest in protein alternatives has been plant-based foods. However, factors directly related to COVID-19 may accelerate consumer interest in the scaling up of cell-grown products, according to Liz Specht, the associate director of science and technology at The Good Food Institute. The latter is a nonprofit organization that supports scientists, investors, and entrepreneurs working to develop food alternatives to conventional animal products.
While lab-grown food isn't ready yet to definitively crisis-proof the food supply chain, experts say it offers promise.
Matching Supply and Demand
Companies developing cell-grown meat claim it can take as few as two months to develop a cell into an edible product, according to Anthony Chow, CFA at Agronomics Limited, an investment company focused on meat alternatives. Tissue is taken from an animal and placed in a culture that contains nutrients and proteins the cells need to grow and expand. He cites a Good Food Institute report that claims a 2.5-millimeter sample can grow three and a half tons of meat in 40 days, allowing for exponential growth when needed.
In traditional agriculture models, it takes at least three months to raise chicken, six to nine months for pigs, and 18 months for cattle. To keep enough maturing animals in the pipeline, farms must plan the number of animals to raise months -- even years -- in advance. Lab-grown meat advocates say that because cultured meat supplies can be flexible, it theoretically allows for scaling up or down in significantly less time.
"Supply and demand has drastically changed in some way around the world and cultivated meat processing would be able to adapt much quicker than conventional farming," Chow said.
Lab-grown meat may provide an eventual solution, but not in the immediate future, said Paul Mozdziak, a professor of physiology at North Carolina State University who researches animal cell culture techniques, transgenic animal production, and muscle biology.
"The challenge is in culture media," he said. "It's going to take some innovation to get the cells to grow at quantities that are going to be similar to what you can get from an animal. These are questions that everybody in the space is working on."
Chow says some of the most advanced cultured meat companies, such as BlueNal, anticipate introducing products to the market midway through next year. However, he thinks COVID-19 has slowed the process. Once introduced, they will be at a premium price, most likely available at restaurants before they hit grocery store shelves.
"I think in five years' time it will be in a different place," he said. "I don't think that this will have relevance for this pandemic, but certainly beyond that."
"Plant-based meats may be perceived as 'alternatives' to meat, whereas lab-grown meat is producing the same meat, just in a much more efficient manner, without the environmental implications."
Of course, all the technological solutions in the world won't solve the problem unless people are open-minded about embracing them. At least for now, a lab-grown burger or bluefin tuna might still be too strange for many people, especially in the U.S.
For instance, a 2019 article published by "Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems" reflects results from a study of 3,030 consumers showing that 29 percent of U.S. customers, 59 percent of Chinese consumers, and 56 percent of Indian consumers were either 'very' or 'extremely likely' to try cultivated meat.
"Lab-grown meat is genuine meat, at the cellular level, and therefore will match conventional meat with regard to its nutritional content and overall sensory experience. It could be argued that plant-based meat will never be able to achieve this," says Laura Turner, who works with Chow at Agronomics Limited. "Plant-based meats may be perceived as 'alternatives' to meat, whereas lab-grown meat is producing the same meat, just in a much more efficient manner, without the environmental implications."
A Solution Beyond This Pandemic
The coronavirus has done more than raise awareness of the fragility of food supply chains. It has also been a wakeup call for consumers and policy makers that it is time to radically rethink our meat, Specht says. Those factors have elevated the profile of lab-grown meat.
"I think the economy is getting a little bit more steam and if I was an investor, I would be getting excited about it," adds Mozdziak.
Beyond crises, Mozdziak explains that as affluence continues to increase globally, meat consumption increases exponentially. Yet farm animals can only grow so quickly and traditional farming won't be able to keep up.
"Even Tyson is saying that by 2050, there's not going to be enough capacity in the animal meat space to meet demand," he notes. "If we don't look at some innovative technologies, how are we going to overcome that?"