Savor in safety

Food: Supplying the future

Higher yields, lower losses

Web special Fraunhofer magazine 2.2023

When it comes to food, we are used to safety and
constant availability. But crises and empty shelves have
shown we can’t take that as a given. Fraunhofer
researchers are working to achieve greater resilience.


As CURT rumbles across the field, it looks like a table that has escaped from the kitchen. This outdoor robot consists of two robust wheels – which allow it to cross even the roughest terrain – and a platform just over a meter in height. The platform bristles with high-tech equipment, including a camera that keeps CURT on track, allowing it to roll along the furrows to the left and right of the young potato plants without destroying the delicate green shoots. Or at least only destroying some specific green shoots: weeds. And it might handle pests someday, too.

In today’s conventional agriculture, weeds are often removed using an herbicide called glyphosate. However, as this agent does not distinguish between different types of wild plants, it destroys them all, reducing biodiversity and intensifying the decline in insects. In the past 30 years, insect biomass has decreased by around 70 percent.

But now CURT is here. This agricultural robot was developed by Kevin Bregler, group manager at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA as part of the Fraunhofer lighthouse project COGNAC, which involves seven Fraunhofer institutes. The CURT prototype is fully electric, and autonomously drives between rows of plants in potato fields. Fitted with laser scanners, a camera and a small GPS system, it finds its own way around the field and uses its manipulator to pull unwanted weeds out of the ground without damaging the little potato plants. “What’s special about CURT is that it is selective about which weeds it removes. This means it can leave nettles along the edge of the field while pulling up other weeds,” explains Mr. Bregler. The torn-up weeds are left lying in the field to become fertilizer. These developments are just the beginning: In the future, CURT will be put to work on permanent crops such as fruit, and there are already inquiries coming in from the coffee industry regarding use in coffee plantations.

Always enough to eat: it all comes down to resilience

In recent years, the pressure put on food producers has risen enormously: they have to increase harvests, minimize losses and make deliveries safely even during crises, all while keeping sustainability in mind. For many members of generations X, Y and Z, the coronavirus pandemic will have been the first time they realized that even in Germany, food supplies cannot be taken for granted. The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine exacerbated this feeling. Climate change and shortages of skilled workers will affect security of supply in the long term. How can food production in Germany be made more resilient? To find answers to this pressing question, Fraunhofer has formed the Agriculture and Food Industry alliance. “In this alliance, 13 Fraunhofer institutes are pooling their expertise to offer a one-stop shop for industry customers,” explains Prof. Mark Bücking, who heads up the alliance’s central office.
For years, farmers in Altes Land, the largest contiguous fruit-growing area in northern Europe, have been battling both the effects of climate change and the consequences of human activities. Due to the river Elbe becoming deeper, the water table has sunk and the soil is becoming more salinated. In the SAMSON project, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Advanced Materials IFAM are working together with the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, the hochschule 21 university of applied sciences and the Hamburg University of Technology on automated systems to expand on the expertise of fruit farmers.

For example, the trees must not bear too much fruit, as this will lead to a poor harvest the following year. If the apple grower observes 30 percent too many blossoms, he usually cuts out 30 percent − even on trees where the number of blossoms would have been appropriate. This decreases the harvest, so the researchers are taking a different approach with their technology: “We collect data on each tree individually,” says Benjamin Schulze, group manager at Fraunhofer IFAM. “Based on this a digital twin will be derived and exploited.” As the farmer drives through the rows of apple trees and carries out other work, cameras and sensors automatically capture images in the visible and infrared spectral range, measure temperatures and collect accurate GPS data. Software solutions take this data and use intelligent algorithms to generate information on how best to handle the trees − an interactive user interface then allows the orchardist to see all the trees that consistently produce a smaller harvest, or plan specific cultivation measures for each tree.

The data, which is interpreted using artificial intelligence, can also be used by robots to remove blossoms from each tree as required. “With our system, we want to safeguard harvests and make them more consistent and more predictable,” says Mr. Schulze. In the future, a project farm will be set up where researchers will drive through the rows of apple trees once a month, using the newly developed sensor box to record data. This will allow them to build a small but highly innovative fruit farm. “From summer 2023, fruit farmers will be able to test our developments there. Ultimately, the aim of the project is knowledge transfer. Specifically, we want the technologies we develop to be brought into application,” says Mr. Schulze. “We also want to ensure that fruit farming remains an attractive profession in Germany in the long term,” he adds.


The AGRARSENSE project was recently launched in January 2023: Some 52 partners from 15 EU countries (including the Fraunhofer Institute for Electronic Microsystems and Solid State Technologies EMFT) are working to develop 49 new products for 7 areas of application, from agricultural robotics and optimized soil management and fertilization to water management − a topic that has become increasingly important over the years as temperatures rise.
Fraunhofer EMFT wants to find a way to measure the ever-increasing harvest losses caused by climate change, so that the help required can be managed with precision. “When plants are under stress, whether it’s due to drought, pests or a lack of nutrients, they release volatile gases,” explains Dr. Axel Wille, the technical and scientific coordinator for the overall project. “We want to detect these by giving robots a sort of electronic nose.”
However, in order for these robots to detect these substances, their sensors must be able to get close enough to the gases. To solve this, Dr. Wille and his team are developing micropumps to suck in the gases. In the long term, this will not only be able to indicate whether a plant is under stress, but exactly where that stress is coming from, i.e., pests, or a lack of water or nutrients. It’s easy to see the benefits of this process: Water, fertilizer and pesticides will no longer need to be spread across large areas. Instead, they will be delivered to targeted plants as required.


Dr. Axel Wille, Wissenschaftler am Fraunhofer EMFT
© Sven Döring
Fresh and fast. In the FRESH project, Dr. Axel Wille of Fraunhofer EMFT is working on monitoring food products during transportation – all the way to the supermarket shelf.

Safeguarding production along the value chain

The Fraunhofer Center for Biogenic Value Creation and Smart Farming is also driving progress toward the agriculture of the future. Founded in 2022, this center is run by the combined efforts of the Fraunhofer Institutes for Integrated Circuits IIS, for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV, for Electronic Microsystems and Solid State Technologies EMFT, for Computer Graphics Research IGD and for Large Structures in Production Engineering IGP. Together, they are working to develop technologies that will ensure a resilient food supply. The German federal government and the state governments of Bavaria and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern provided 80 million euros in start-up funding for the center. “The most important thing for us is knowledge transfer – we want to make intensive use of the technologies that already exist, right along the entire value chain,” explains Dr. Susann Vierbauch of Fraunhofer IVV.

Strawberries are a good example of what this involves: Due to a shortage of skilled workers, increasing labor costs and consumer demand for high-quality fruit, there is a growing need for automation right from the planting stage. Specialized robotics could be the answer. “The latest technological developments mean it’s possible for a filling machine to put a specified amount of substrate in the planting containers. A robot then digs a hole in the substrate, uses pneumatically controlled fingers to grasp the strawberry plant by the root ball, places it in the hole and packs down the soil – without damaging the plant,” says Kai Potthoff, a scientist at Fraunhofer IGP. This is quite a challenge – for optimal development, the plants must be equally spaced and not placed too deep or high in the substrate. The researchers are currently working to ensure that the robot keeps up with the speed of the filling machine.

In order for the plants to produce as many strawberries as possible, they must then be fertilized, watered and protected. “We want to move away from using sensors that monitor all the plants in a greenhouse or field as a whole – instead, we want to measure the respective parameters on a local, individual basis,” says Christian Wald, a scientist at Fraunhofer EMFT. The solution the team hopes to develop is a data platform that measures and evaluates all the relevant factors in a specific location over time, from nutrient levels, water supply and lighting through to air conditions.

Installing large numbers of sensors in polytunnels is only the first step. These sensors also need to be able to efficiently transfer their data to a collection point. This is where the mioty® wireless technology by Fraunhofer IIS comes in: Using X-ray technology, the researchers carry out quantitative analyses of root growth in the plants, which then allows them to determine the precise environmental conditions that the strawberries thrive in. In the long term, this data will make it possible to supply fertilizer and water as needed by each specific plant.

An important factor in efficient production is detecting plant diseases such as phytophthora, mildew and even damage by caterpillars as early as possible. The expertise of researchers at Fraunhofer IGD will be important here: They can evaluate spectral images to detect damage patterns early on, so that plant protection agents can be applied in a targeted way.


Dr. Susann Vierbauch, Wissenschaftlerin am Fraunhofer IVV.
© Sven Döring
Accounting for taste. Dr. Susann Vierbauch of Fraunhofer IVV is studying food value chains - even for the humble strawberry.

Waste not, want not: Reducing waste through digitalization

When the strawberries are ripe, they are harvested with a tactile gripper. This device detects the mechanical resistance of the strawberry, and thus knows how tightly the fruit can be held without sustaining damage. “The elastomer gripping technology has already been developed and Hohe Tanne GmbH is licensing it from Fraunhofer to bring it to market,” says Dr. Vierbauch. The researchers want to optimize this approach even further. They are developing a foil sensor that not only measures the pressure on the strawberry, but will also detect ripeness and the presence of chemicals in the future. Food waste is a serious problem, with around 45 percent of fruits and vegetables currently ending up in the trash between harvest and consumption. But the team has a solution to this too: They use near-infrared sensors and optical measuring technologies to classify the strawberries and sort them during harvesting. They can then either go directly for sale or, in the case of the less visually appealing fruit, for further processing.

Edible coatings could also reduce food waste. “These are based on natural substances. When they are sprayed onto the strawberries, the barrier properties of the coatings mean that the fruit lasts longer,” explains Dr. Vierbauch. As an avocado has different requirements to a strawberry when it comes to edible coatings, the researchers adjust the coatings according to the respiration rate of each fruit.

The team is also working on improving the shelf lives of foods through other means, including processing imperfect products, such as strawberries with visual defects, in healthy ways – i.e., without adding lots of sugar. “One possibility here is drying them using vacuum expansion. To do this, we dry the fruit beforehand and then put them in a vacuum for the final drying phase, which makes them pop open. This better preserves the vitamins, makes the color of the strawberries more intense and gives them a crunch – which you won’t get with other fruit-drying methods,” says Dr. Vierbauch. In addition, the dried fruit has a long shelf life and takes up less weight and space
during transportation.

And speaking of transportation – in the long term, gas sensors will be produced in the form of bits of film that can be used to monitor specific gases, temperatures and humidity in trucks, trains and so on. Not only are these film sensors cheap to manufacture, but they can also be stuck to the product like Post-it notes and read wirelessly. “We’re currently working on developing the technology. It’s not just that we need an inexpensive sensor that consumes hardly any energy – we also need a way to transmit the data,” says Mr. Wald of Fraunhofer EMFT. “This data could be used to generate knowledge either in the cloud – meaning it’s stored centrally – or on the edge in the sensor node.” As a result, the strawber­ries would not only be produced and processed in an optimal way, but also be transported to the point of sale under the best possible conditions.

Following a resolution by the German federal parlia­ment, the Federal Ministry for Food and Agriculture is funding the FRESH project, which is coordinated by Fraunhofer EMFT. In the project, researchers are devel­oping a packaging sensor for monitoring the freshness of meat and fish. The researchers have been analyzing meat and fish in storage tests to check them for volatile sub­stances that occur during spoilage, and can thus be used as indicators of the freshness level. As the concentrations of acetoin and 3-methlybutanal were the highest, the researchers developed specific sensor materials for detect­ing these two gases. The sensors can be integrated into packaging and will change color as soon as the product spoils. When combined with electronic analysis methods, this smart packaging will allow for continuous monitor­ing and digitalization of the food supply chain. In the future, it will also be possible to identify volatile gases using miniaturized systems that are currently being developed by THE Fraunhofer Institutes for Photonic Microsystems IPMS, for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME and Fraunhofer IVV. “They are based on a mini gas chromatograph that analyzes volatile substances. The resulting device could be used as an indicator for product safety and to detect food fraud, such as counter­feit olive oil,” says Prof. Mark Bücking, head of the Trace Analysis and Environmental Monitoring department at Fraunhofer IME. This device will be no more complex than a coffee machine, mean­ing that with a little training, laypeople such as the factory gate workers that oversee incoming goods will be able to use it.

Shortening supply chains − promoting regional production

If goods are being damaged during transportation, how­ever, rather than trying to optimize this stage, the focus should be on reducing transit time. When food is produced on a more regional basis, the food supply becomes less vul­nerable to crises than global supply chains, and the costs and environmental footprint are also lowered. However, distribut ing agricultural products regionally is not that simple. Let’s take apple juice production as an example. Currently, German farmers have two options: they can press the apples themselves and sell the pure apple juice in their own farm stores within its short shelf life. Or they can sell the apples to a large producer that pours the juice into Tetra Pak cartons and distributes it to supermarkets nationwide. “There’s nothing in between,” explains Dr. Björn Moller, a futurist at the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI.

Researchers at Fraunhofer ISI and a number of Euro­pean partners hope to fill this gap in the FOX (Food processing in a box) project. The planned outcome is that farmers will be able to process their apple juice in the box, using a gentle method that would maintain the same quality but give it a longer shelf life than freshly squeezed juice. The boxed juice could then be sold in local super­markets. “One aspect of this project is about developing the technology − the project partners are working on that. And then it’s also about developing the local food value chain,” says project manager Dr. Moller. Put simply, the aim is to keep the value chain − from the farmer to the consumer − within one region, thus making it more sustainable without relying entirely on farm stores. “While food production only accounts for about 10 percent of the food value chain’s environmental impact, in 10 of the 16 categories examined, including climate change and land use, logistics and trade accounted for 75 percent or more of the impact,” Dr. Moller explains. This means it is cru­cial to keep the value chain regional. And not just for apple juice − the same applies for the energy-intensive process of drying berries and mushrooms, sorting pieces of fruit and wrapping them in environmen­tally friendly packaging and making use of residual mate­rials from food production, such as using tomato skins in tomato soup.

Björn Moller, Zukunftsforscher am Fraunhofer ISI
© Sven Döring
More regional and more profitable. Apple juice straight from the apple? Even Dr. Björn Moller of Fraunhofer ISI hasn’t managed that yet. But he wants to at least give fruit farmers the opportunity to increase value creation and lengthen shelf life when selling their products.

Breaking new ground: making production more intelligent

“As more and more soil becomes degraded, productiv­ity levels are below what they used to be,” says Prof. Stefan Schillberg, director of Fraun­hofer IME. “Then there’s also soil erosion and climate change. What’s more, pesticides and fertilizers that are used in the fields often cannot be recovered.” However, there is an alternative: vertical farming, where vegetables are grown indoors in rack systems. This method offers a number of advantages, for example, vegetable cultivation can take place year-round without using arable land, or being affected by climate conditions and the seasons. It also conserves raw mate­rials. “Vertical farming only requires 5 percent as much water − ideally, the only water loss will occur through the products themselves, i.e., when a head of lettuce is harvested, for example. It also only needs 50 percent as much fertilizer. And you can completely avoid pesticides,” explains Prof. Schillberg. However, indoor cultivation is significantly more expensive than the outdoor option.

Fraunhofer IME researchers are working to change this in the In4food project, part of the New Food Systems innovation space. This initiatives unites more than 50 partners from science, industry and society, including Fraunhofer IVV and IME and the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology IGB. “One of the things we’re concentrating on is paracress: It pro­duces the natural active ingredient spilanthol, which is used in sectors such as the cosmetics industry,” says Prof. Schillberg. Financial factors must be taken into account here, i.e., how expensive would it be to produce paracress using vertical farming? If we are to take advantage of the higher resilience of vertical farming and ensure a basic food supply in times of crisis, the costs will need to be comparable to conventional farming.

Veganz, a company from Berlin that processes pea protein to make meat substitute products, is exploring this possibility. In the past few months, the price of these legumes has shot up. If the company were able to produce peas itself using vertical farming, it could significantly improve its resilience. Not only would this shorten deliv­ery routes, as the peas could be grown in a hall right by the production facilities, but was also give the company independence from global supply chains − and the price fluctuations that come with them. On top of that, the vertical farms would be resilient against summer droughts, heavy rain and winter snow.

But is this alternative farming method financially viable? Together with Veganz, Fraunhofer IME is looking into whether this is the case, and in what circumstances. For their research, they will use a system called OrbiPlant®, developed by Fraunhofer IME. In this system, pea plants are grown on a conveyor belt that is 1.20 meters wide and 25 meters in length. This conveyor belt goes up and down at regular intervals, and the plants move along it, bit by bit. The roots hang down inside the humps, i.e., underneath the conveyor belt, where they are sprayed with a fine mist of nutrients and get oxygen from the air.

This allows the plants to grow particularly quickly. A process known as gravitropism also encourages rapid growth. Due to the winding conveyor belt, the plants have to constantly reorient themselves in the gravitational field, and this releases growth hormones. At the start of the undulating belt, there are only a few leaves, but by the end, the plants are bursting with life and covered in pea pods. Apart from the planting and harvesting, every­thing in the research facility is already completely automated.

“While lettuces and herbs grow quickly, peas take around two months to cultivate,” says Andreas Reimann, a researcher at Fraunhofer IME’s Aachen location. “What’s more, pea plants can grow to be quite large outdoors − we need to control their growth using fertilizers, light and other fac­tors in such a way that the plant is smaller and more compact but still produces plenty of peas per unit of volume.” Tests are underway to find the best way to do this, and should be completed this year. “By the end, we’ll have a very good idea of how many pea plants can be cultivated per square meter and how much that will cost,” Mr. Reimann predicts.

Andreas Reimann, Forscher am Fraunhofer IME.
© Sven Döring
The scientist and the pea. At the research facility where Andreas Reimann of Fraunhofer IME works, the little pea is taking on an importance that belies its small size. This cultivation method has the potential to reduce the impact that climate factors, global supply chains and price fluctuations have on their products.

More of a good thing: Quality ensures quantity

Ensuring a resilient value chain always comes down to quality. It is not just about getting food production lines up and running again as quickly as possible after a breakdown occurs; rather, it is also a case of ensuring the right level of quality and making sure the food is safe for consumption. If there is even the slightest doubt about the food meeting safety requirements, it cannot be distributed, which then leaves a gap in the supply chain.

This is why Fraunhofer IVV, Fraunhofer IME and the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology IPT have teamed up to detect weak points in the food supply chain and develop possible solutions in the ReSearchL innova­tion project (short for Resilient system architecture to safeguard food production). “We need comprehensive resilience management – clear communication structures and clear processes to handle disruptions,” says Dr. Marc Mauermann, Deputy Director of the Processing Technol­ogy division at Fraunhofer IVV. On the basis of selected value chains, researchers are investigating current levels of resilience in food production in Germany. Oil mills, for example, have a low level of resilience, because in central Europe, oil mills almost exclusively produce vegetable oils from rapeseed and sunflower seeds. Efforts to diversify the raw ingredients have come to nothing, which means oil production is partic­ularly vulnerable to disruptions such as crop failures.

In ReSearchL, the scientists are investigating which process chain strategies are most effec­tive at ensuring these kinds of disruptions have as little impact as possible. To do this, the team plays out different disruption scenarios for oil mills and cre­ates recommendations for action to ensure resilient pro­duction, in line with of the length of the outage. If the mill is only out of action for up to 24 hours, for example, the workers just need to halt the process of dehulling the oil seeds. The unhulled seeds can then be mixed back into the raw material. Although the press cake will then be of a lower quality, it will still meet acceptable levels.

On the other hand, longer-term supply problems require a different solution: a modular approach to build­ing oil mills. This way, if there were issues with the supply of rapeseed and sunflower seeds, production could be switched over to another type of seed within a few days – instead of being stopped completely, as is the case today. In this use case, regional supply chains could also significantly increase production resilience by acting as a supplement to global chains.


Alternative proteins: A different way to eat better

Creating a resilient food supply also involves ensuring that people get the protein required for a healthy diet. However, as a source of animal protein, meat is far from sustainable. The search is on for more environmentally friendly protein sources that could support human nutritional needs within resilient production chains. And the quest might end with plants, algae, insects and fungi − according to the researchers in the Fraunhofer lighthouse project Future Proteins, which involves the Fraunhofer Institute for Optronics, System Technologies and Image Exploitation IOSB, for Machine Tools and Forming Technology IWU and Fraunhofer IME, IVV, IGB and UMSICHT. “To do this, we’re using four indoor systems, which have already allowed the institutes to gain expertise and quickly increase technology readiness levels in the areas of vertical farming for plants, insect farming, bioreactors for fungi and photobioreactors for algae,” explains Prof. Schillberg of Fraunhofer IME.

The light source? Collected sunlight!

When it comes to vertical farming, efficient lighting is top of the agenda − it is essentially the main cost driver associated with this approach. Sunlight collectors are used to trap light and direct it toward the plants via optical fibers and mirrored light tubes while leaving the heat outside. For protein production, the researchers are cultivating various crop types, including a special kind of potato that they have removed the slightly toxic solanine from using mutations. This allows the proteins that are destroyed during cooking to be isolated from the raw, now non-toxic potatoes. Light is also the be-all and end-all when it comes to cultivating microalgae in photobioreactors. When grown in optimal conditions, microalgae have a protein content of up to 50 percent. Although they’re not suitable for vegetarians and vegans, mealworms are a valuable source of raw materials, and have now been approved as a foodstuff. New detection systems will prevent pathogens from disrupting meal­worm breeding by detecting harmful pathogens in the worms at an early stage; in the future, biochips could enable parallel screening.

The fourth cornerstone: fungi

The final cornerstone of the project is the cultivation of fungi. However, instead of the fruiting body that has been part of humans’ diets for thousands of years, researchers are focusing on the much larger portion of the fungus that grows underground. Which fungi are suitable for this purpose? To answer this question, the team is researching different varieties in terms of their growth rate and protein content. In order for the pro­duction of their new fungal protein to be as sustainable and competitive as possible, the researchers have created circular processes. They take the waste heat from one system to maintain the temperature of another, turn insect feces and dead insects into fertilizer and utilize waste product streams such as potato peels as the base of growth media. They also looking into protein process­ing, while keeping in mind the aesthetic appeal, texture and protein content of new products. “We have already manufactured the first food products,” Prof. Schillberg is pleased to report. “Foods with proteins from microalgae. Granola made from wheatgrass. And crackers made from insect proteins.”


Fraunhofer lead market agriculture and food industry

The agriculture and food industry is a major employer and an important part of the German economy. Yet they still have much more potential to offer. Innovative solutions could unlock numerous opportunities for the food industry to develop and grow, offering businesses the chance to optimize their products, increase quality and remain internationally competitive all at the same time.

Fraunhofer Agriculture and Food Industry Alliance

Innovative solutions for the food industry

Klimawandel, knapper werdende Ressourcen sowie unsichere Climate change and dwindling resources, supply chain uncertainty and rising food prices − these all pose major challenges for the global food industry. But at the same time, Germany is transforming its food sector to make it more sustainable. To meet these complex challenges, 13 Fraunhofer institutes have joined forces to find solutions along the entire value chain in the food industry. These solutions range from innovative approaches, such as in the areas of agriculture, product protection and analytics, food and logistics, to new processing technologies and developments that support sustainability and the circular economy.