The Modern Technological Wonder That Is Chicken Soup

By Joseph Byrum, Ph.D., MBA, PMP, is a Strategic Marketing Executive in Global Product Development and Head of Soybean Seeds Product Development at Syngenta. He writes on agricultural innovation.

Technology has created the perfect environment for raising chickens and eggs: controlled climate, nutritious chicken feed, water and food safety. (Image Credit: GMO Answers)

Thinking of chicken soup as a remedy for our ills is so much a part of our cultural identity that “Chicken Soup for the Soul” was used as the title for a series of best-selling inspirational books. More than that, there is medical research backing up the claim that chicken soup can be beneficial when you’re sick.

While it may seem like grandma’s favorite recipe would be the ultimate low-tech cure for this common ailment, it’s quite the opposite. Today’s chicken soups are a marvel of advanced technology — a technology that’s bringing consumers a product that is cheaper, safer and tastier than ever before.

Recipes will differ, but the most common ingredients in chicken soup involve some combination of chicken, pasta (made from egg and wheat), celery, carrots, broth (made from chicken stock) and spices that can include items like chives, onion, parsley, garlic or parsnips. Modern agriculture has poured tens of billions of dollars into perfecting each of these individual ingredients. The impact of all this effort is reflected on supermarket shelves.

Back in 1950, a can of Campbell’s chicken soup cost 16 cents, which in today’s dollars amounts to $1.60 a can. Nearly 70 years later, a can of Campbell’s chicken soup sells for half as much, 82 cents, at America’s top retailer.

Behind the scenes, agricultural technology has been at work, slashing the cost of all those ingredients. Consider, for example, the effort that goes into producing chicken, the main ingredient.

Poultry is a $48 billion industry that has invested a massive amount of resources into the production of stronger, healthier and tastier meat. Perhaps the greatest advance began around the 1950s when the industry began to specialize its breeding of chickens. One variety of chicken would be bred solely for the purpose of laying eggs, and another for meat production. This made sense, since it turns out that the genetic traits that assist egg production are at odds with those needed to produce meat. Once breeding efforts were focused, the industry saw a rapid improvement in the quality of eggs and meat, while costs plunged. The 1960 wholesale price for a chicken was 29.9 cents per pound, which is $2.43 in 2016 dollars. Today’s prices are a fraction of that, averaging 85 cents per pound. So why hasn’t the price of chicken followed the inflation curve?

One reason is that technology has created the perfect environment for raising chickens and eggs. Real-time sensors watch over buildings with precisely controlled climate, nutrition, water and food safety monitoring. A modern henhouse can maintain a temperature throughout the building to within a degree or two, no matter how hot or cold it might be outside.

Systems also ensure the chickens have exactly as much water and nutrition as they need for optimal growth. Chicken feed, typically made from corn and soybean meal, provides a nutrient-rich diet, including protein. Getting the mix right for chicken feed is a science unto itself, involving a vast amount of plant breeding technology that pays off in measurable quality improvement — the modern chicken is much less prone to disease and 85 percent meatier than its 1960s counterpart.

In at least one respect, the work that goes into making those ingredients for feed is more complex than raising chickens. It’s impossible to breed plants at scale in a climate-controlled environment. Certainly greenhouses and hydroponic gardens can be useful tools, but feeding a planet with 7.4 billion people requires the use of 1.5 billion hectares of land exposed to the elements. The results of breeding experiments that matter most are the ones gathered outside, in the elements. Unfortunately, that’s a very messy environment, where weather, insects and disease all wreak havoc on row crops, skewing results.

From the moment a seed is planted, some of nature’s players are working to kill it for their own survival. Weeds, insects and disease, along with natural weather patterns that can be destructive or constructive for that seed’s survival, all play into the yield and quality equation for a farmer.

For instance, how can you know whether a given soybean plant, which is one of the main ingredients used to feed chickens, grew taller than its peers because of its inherently superior genetics, as opposed to a quirk in the test field that gave it a more fertile space, more sunlight or other advantages? Only in the past few years have we taken advantage of computing power and data analytics to sift through the environmental noise to identify the best genetics. We use that mathematical insight in plant breeding to produce inherent disease resistance so that plants can grow to their fullest potential all the way to harvest — before it makes its way into the ingredients used in the soup cans on supermarket shelves.

Advanced mathematics is revolutionizing how we grow plants, and that’s not just good news for chicken feed. It will play into all the other ingredients in chicken soup, such as celery, carrots and onions.

These elements of precision agriculture are just part of the story. Soup companies are using advanced processing technologies to extend the shelf life and flavor of their products. On the cutting-edge, for instance, are high-tech microwaves that are being used for drying spices that cut down on energy use. These aren’t your typical consumer devices used to cook a bag of popcorn. Rather, they’re sophisticated, high-power units that promise to heat the product faster and more uniformly. The idea is to kill pathogens while better retaining nutrients and flavor over traditional methods of drying.

Modern agricultural techniques have unlocked a wealth of benefits for consumers, but we have only scratched the surface. We’re still in the early stages of harnessing the power of advanced data analytics in the breeding of plants. So you can expect in the decades ahead that modern agricultural technology will continue improving chicken soup. From the spices, chicken, and all the other ingredients that go into each can, companies will never stop in the quest to perfect each individual component. Ultimately, this is all done for the future generations who turn to chicken soup as a form of relief from the sniffles.

-Published in GMO Answers. See original article link here.

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