Work Group 6
Agriculture & Food

By 2030, the technology to feed a world population of 10 billion, push back food-borne illness, and reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture, fisheries and aquaculture needs to be in place. Photonics has already contributed to the supply of safe, nutritious and affordable food and established a sustainable value chain from farm to fork. The access to data is of the highest priority and is necessary for a gradual approach for when the Internet of Things is fully established.

Market outlook 2021-2030 and potential for change

  • Feeding a global population estimated to reach 10 billion by 2050 will require dramatic increases in food production. With agriculture already responsible for 70% of global water use, 24% of greenhouse gas emissions and environmental degradation on a planetary scale, boosting food production using current practices is unsustainable.
  • Consumers are placing much greater emphasis on food safety, quality and value chain transparency. Food waste is a growing concern: one-third of all food produced is wasted during production, processing, distribution or at the point of consumption.
  • Europe is the world's largest exporter of agricultural and food products, with the sector responsible for 7% of all jobs and 6% of European GDP. Export of food processing machinery is vital to several European economies.
  • Europe is in the vanguard of high-tech precision farming, where photonics is central to a significant technological shift in the way farmers grow food.
  • Photonics technologies provide a powerful toolbox for solving these challenges: 'agri-photonics' is already established as a fast-growing discipline in precision farming and environmental management.
  • Relevant tools include lasers and LiDAR (light detection and ranging), hyperspectral imaging and many other kinds of sensors, as well as energy-efficient LEDs. These technologies can monitor soil health and hydrology, predict protein levels in grain harvests, determine when to pick fruit, map water quality to check the health of fish stocks, and screen for contaminants in produce.
  • With the development of precision farming, optical technologies can provide information for individualised, more efficient food production, for example by controlling sectoral irrigation, the use of fertilisers, the application of selective plant protection (in farming or supervising livestock) and initiating timely and targeted treatments at the onset of diseases in individual animals.
  • To make food processing safer, more efficient and less wasteful photonics technologies such as optical sensors, imaging and labelling play an important role. At the point of sale and consumption, the broader use of scanning and spectrometry will enable food content, spoilage or potential toxins to be identified with far greater accuracy.
  • The global market for precision farming equipment and services is expected to grow from $3.3 billion in 2016 to $ 5.9 billion in 2021, with an annual growth rate of 12.4%.
Photonic sensors aboard automated drones are used for field and soil monitoring

In a future of efficient high-tech farming, vertical farming, aquaculture and food processing, photonics will play an increasingly important role in raising supply, lowering resource use, curbing environmental degradation and reducing waste throughout the value chain.

In pushing back food-borne disease and contamination – and as consumers become increasingly concerned about the provenance, quality and safety of their food – photonics will be crucial for creating a system that securely monitors the entire value chain from farm to fork and certifies the origin and content of what is served on our tables in order to achieve full transparency and traceability of the complete food chain.

  • On a farm, sensitive imaging can detect the earliest onset of fungus, mildew, pests and disease, reducing the need for agricultural chemicals. Spectrometry and laser scanning can detect produce ripeness and determine the optimum time to harvest and ship food. In food processing, hyperspectral imaging combined with intelligent software makes it possible to identify and remove defects and foreign matter that traditional cameras and laser sorting machines have missed.
  • Fluorescence spectroscopy can monitor amino acids, vitamins, allergens and other components in foods.
  • At a retail and consumer level, spectrometers connected via smartphones have already appeared on the market but are still limited in their functionality. With the next generation of sensors, retailers and consumers will be able to pinpoint the likely origin of produce based on a unique "fingerprint" of parameters such as sugars, phenols, amino acids and anti-oxidants without taking a sample or breaking the package. Photonics will, therefore, guarantee a high-quality European food production, increase trust between producers and consumers, and empower citizens to make better food and nutrition choices. Photonics will enable a leap forward in protecting the European Union's 'Guarantee of Origin' system against cheap substitutes and counterfeit products.
  • Food and farming, including hydroponics and aquaculture, are a vast and complex area where photonics technology has already been widely deployed across many areas along the value chain.

Further information

The detailed Photonics21 Work Group Agriculture & Food photonics research and innovation priorities are outlined in the Photonics Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda.

The Work Group Agriculture & Food further has a dedicated section in the Photonics21 member area.