An Innovation Driver for the Food Industry

EIT food: A network of more than 50 universities, research institutes, and companies, including Siemens, has been commissioned by the EU to use new technologies to help make food production more sustainable and more resource-conserving. A total of €400 million shall be available for reaching these ambitious goals.


by Hubertus Breuer

A look at the status quo in this area is sobering. Although the food industry feeds the world, it is also the source of many problems. According to the Washington, D.C.-based World Resource Institute, a quarter of all global carbon dioxide emissions are generated by the production of food. In addition, the food industry consumes 70 percent of the freshwater used worldwide, and agriculture occupies 37 percent of all useful land. Moreover, the paths leading from food producers to consumers are fragmented and inefficient. A total of 32 percent of all food is lost on the way from production to consumption. It spoils during transport, in supermarkets or in private households or lands in the trash as leftovers. All of that has to change soon, for the good of our planet and its inhabitants. This will not be an easy task, especially since, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 60 percent more food has to be produced by 2050 in order to feed an expected world population of nine billion people.  

How can this be done? In November 2016, the European Institute of Innovation & Technology (EIT) of the European Union, which is based in Budapest, announced the winner of a Europe-wide competition to create a “knowledge and innovation community” focusing on the food of the future. The winner was a consortium called “FoodConnects.” The consortium initially consisted of a core team of four partners, including the Technical University of Munich. By the time it submitted its winning program, it had grown to comprise 50 universities, research institutes, and companies located in 13, mostly European, countries. The German members of the consortium, besides the TU Munich, include the Fraunhofer Society and Siemens.

One of the central goals is to reduce the waste of food during production processes and along the path to private consumers.

Over the next seven years, the group will be financed by more than €400 million from the EIT, as well as €1.2 billion from members of the consortium, which will be called “EIT food” in the future. The consortium’s own contribution from its members will be earmarked primarily for the support of existing projects and internal development work, the results of which will be channeled into EIT food. This involvement reflects the consortium participants’ conviction that the goals as formulated are necessary, promising, and favorable to business.

Making the vision a reality

The plan is ambitious: EIT food proposes to completely rethink the system of global food production, restructure it in a more sustainable form, and motivate consumers to practice healthy nutrition. With the approval of the EIT, the participants now are designing and executing concrete projects that will make this vision a reality – with the help of new and improved technologies as well as concrete initiatives and projects. “Siemens is focusing on digitalization and automation. The main contribution we can make here is to provide software solutions based on Teamcenter, COMOS or MindSphere,” says Rudolf Sollacher, who coordinates the activities for EIT food at Siemens in Munich-Perlach. 

One of Siemens’ central goals is to reduce the waste of food during production processes and along the path to private consumers. If everything goes according to plan, food waste in Europe will be reduced by a minimum of 30 percent. One possible measure is to use what is regarded as food waste as a secondary raw material. For example, the production of oats generates residual materials that are still rich in dietary fibers and proteins. These residual materials can be used for muesli or animal feed. The technical processes that would be needed already exist, but they have not yet been developed for industrial-scale application. Another idea is to use sensors to detect whether food in the supermarket or the refrigerator is still edible. This would prevent food that has passed its “best before” date but is still good from being unnecessarily discarded.

"Siemens uses its MindSphere solutions. This enables us to create a digital twin for food products.”

Restoring customers’ trust

EIT food also aims to help ensure that genuinely healthy food reaches consumers. To reach this goal, it’s helpful to know the path that a product has followed through the machinery of the food industry. This path-tracing project at EIT food, in which Siemens is also playing a role, is called “Digitalizing Food Supply Networks.” “In this project, Siemens uses its MindSphere solutions. This enables us to create a digital twin for food products. This digital twin can be read to find out what the product is, where it comes from, how it was produced or which constituents it contains.”

One of the possibilities is to make vegetables or meat traceable with the help of blockchain technology, a Web-based, decentralized, forgery-proof, and inexpensive bookkeeping system – always respecting data protection. In this way, digitalization can help to restore consumers’ trust concerning their food. “Today consumers are making increasingly high demands concerning the origins and processing of food ingredients,” says Sollacher. “This focus on customers is a key concern of EIT food. Ultimately, we want consumers to be able to trace every ingredient of the food they eat. Documenting the entire value chain will not only help to guarantee the high quality of food but also make it easier to identify any problems.”

Up to €100 million, 10,000 students, entrepreneurs, and employees

At EIT food, personalized nutrition will play an important role. This is similar to the latest research trend in medicine: the development of treatments for individual patients. “Thanks to automation, people with food intolerances or special needs – such as the people in old-age homes – or with certain taste preferences could receive healthy food that is just right for them,” says Sollacher. “In this area we are counting on our applications for facility management and facility engineering or our PLM solutions.”


And EIT food has even more ideas in the pipeline. For example, many Europeans’ dietary habits are harmful to them. They consume too much salt, sugar, and saturated fatty acids. EIT food therefore aims to step up its educational activities. It plans to provide basic and advanced training for approximately 10,000 students, entrepreneurs, and employees in the food industry over a period of seven years. Moreover, with the help of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) it aims to reach almost 300,000 interested individuals.


And finally, because the food sector has been rather slow to promote innovations in recent years, EIT food plans to support startups with up to €100 million seed investment. One of the supporters of this project is Siemens’ startup promotion unit, next47, which provides financial and conceptual support to potentially disruptive technologies in a variety of industries. “In the food sector we seldom see innovative technologies that aim to turn the market upside down,” says Sollacher. “In other sectors, such as the automotive industry, you hardly hear about any other kind of activity. An innovation driver certainly can’t do the food industry any harm.” 


Hubertus Breuer

Picture credits: from top: von oben: Mauritius (2), ddp images, Panthermedia

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