The future of food: Feeding 10 billion people

an image of 3d printed food credit: cea +

The population of the world will reach 9.7 billion by 20501, 66 per cent of which will be in cities2. Energy supply, transportation and employment will all be of concern but one of the most crucial worries is far more fundamental – how to feed these people.

In this article, we will look at the problems and some of the possible solutions.

Problems

Nutrition

Feeding nine billion people is not the only issue, but how to feed them the right food. Obesity is now more common than the conditions associated with malnutrition and hunger3 and heart disease is the most common cause of death globally4 – its primary contributing factors are a build-up of fatty deposits, lack of exercise and high cholesterol, all factors associated with poor diets.

Thomas Edison said “The doctor of the future will no longer treat the human frame with drugs, but rather will cure and prevent disease with nutrition.” It is somewhat ironic that most of the worst, preventable diseases afflicting Western society today are caused by poor diets.

“The doctor of the future will give no medicine but will interest his patients in the care of the human frame, in diet and in the cause and prevention of disease.”Thomas Edison

Variation

Just three plants – rice, corn (maize), and wheat – amount to 60 per cent of humanity’s calorific intake from plants5 and constitute almost 30 per cent of all crops produced worldwide6.

Transport

With a planet of 9 billion people, producing enough healthy food is a monumental challenge but transporting the food is another crucial issue which needs to be overcome.

Around a quarter of all cargo on British roads is food7 and the combined ingredients of any dish could have travelled thousands of miles before reaching the plate. This distance, known as food miles, is increasing – doubling in the last four decades8 - as more and more foods come from all around the world throughout the year.

When this is combined with the energy requirements of producing the food – responsible for 9 per cent of all greenhouse gases in 20149 - and storing that food (particularly if it’s frozen), the need for changing the way we produce and consume food becomes obvious.

“He who takes medicine and neglects to diet wastes the skill of his doctors”Chinese proverb

Solutions

Urban farming

Urban farming, the concept of growing and harvesting crops in cities, can reduce not only food miles but also wastage and storage. Across some of the largest cities in the world, including London, Chicago and Shanghai, new technologies and businesses are literally sprouting from many of the old warehouses and factories of industrial revolutions gone by.

By housing the plants in smaller, often indoor, areas, it is easier to control the light, temperature and water intake of the plants. With complete control over these factors, reliable data can be collected and analysed to increase yields and harvest frequencies. The closed environments also reduce parasites and other infestations that have perennially plagued agriculture, making the production of organic crops easier and more efficient.

New Jersey firm AeroFarms uses patented technology more akin to data farms than their rural cousins. A technique known as vertical farming allows AeroFarms and similar companies to drastically increase square footage growing efficacy – by up to 10,000 per cent.

Aerofarms patent for vertical farmingA sketch included in Aerofarm's patent for vertical farming

Inner city farming technology isn’t limited to crops, elaborating on the technology not only improves the efficiency but broadens the range of produce; London-based startup GrowUp Urban Farms uses the waste of tilapia fish as fertiliser for crops, including kale, basil, radish and pea shoots. The tilapia is then sold as fresh produce alongside the crops, and the water is recycled into the tanks.

While this technology will reduce the food miles needed to go from farm to table, it also offers ample opportunity for growing food at home with startups such as SproutsIO hoping to replace the window box.

3D printing

3D printing food, like most other applications of the new technology, is still struggling against the bonds of novelty and while 3D printed candies and other sculpted dishes are certainly impressive, there needs to be a concentrated effort to shift 3D printed food into healthy, sustainable food, either at an industrial scale or as an affordable home appliance.

Gene editing

Gene editing techniques, specifically CRISPR/Cas9, have improved dramatically in recent years but the focus has been curing diseases. The ability to change the fundamental make up of DNA also opens opportunities for increasing crop yields, reducing fat content and improving the nutritional value of a wide variety of foods.

The first (reported) meal eaten with CRISPR edited food was a light dish of pasta and cabbage eaten by Swedish plant biologist Stefan Jansson. What was a somewhat muted introduction to the technology was the first drop in an oncoming torrent of uses for CRISPR in the food industry.

Agricultural giant Monsanto has already licensed the technology with an intention to create beans, corn and other crops with higher yields and better resistance to diseases.

We recently wrote a huge list of CRISPR uses which includes several uses of the technique, including many food uses.

Meatless meat

The production of meat and other dairy products accounts for 14.5 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases, more than all the means of transport combined. This burden does not include the countless suffering for the animals involved in non-organic farming methods.

An image of steak with a suitable for vegetarians sticker

The meat and dairy of the future will not be raised and harvested on farms or in hatcheries.

The meat and dairy of the future will not be raised and harvested on farms or in hatcheries.

With the advances of tissue engineering more commonly used in regenerative medical practices, it is possible to culture meat in the lab. This practice, known as synthetic or cultured meat, allows for sterile meat to be grown without causing any suffering to an animal, as well as reduce the need for antibiotics – a major contributor to the decreasing efficacy of the drugs -  and growth hormones. Removing the animal from the process also reduces the land requirement and greenhouse gases associated with producing and keeping livestock.

The first such meat was eaten in 2013 by a team of Dutch scientists and there are already plans to bring synthetic meat to supermarkets within four years.

A major issue with this approach however, is cost. The hamburger eaten in 2013 cost $330,000 (£266,000) to produce and costs, while significantly lower, remained almost £7,000 per kilogram to produce in 2016.

The solution to removing animals from animal products may not lie in the laboratory.

“If you were starting from scratch, trying to figure out a way of delivering protein to humans, you wouldn't use an animal, science would tell you to do something different”Amol Deshpande, Kleiner Perkins

California company Hampton Creek searches for plant alternatives to animal products, claiming 92 per cent of the world’s plants and their corresponding functional and nutritional properties are unknown*. The stated aim is to find solutions which are 10 times more affordable, sustainable, safer and humane.

One of the company’s main missions and major advances has been to discover a substitute for chicken eggs. To test whether certain plants are capable of coagulation and binding like natural eggs, Hampton Creek have developed techniques capable of testing thousands of samples per day.

The final result, a “plant-based egg substitute” has been patented using comparisons of how certain plants compare to natural eggs in different uses including mayonnaise and muffins.

A graph of Hampton Creeks efforts to replace the eggA graph included within Hampton Creek's patent for a 'Plant based egg substitute'

Conclusion

Food manufacturing needs to change, and soon. Current models of agriculture are no longer sustainable with current resources, scalable with future populations and conscionable with the industrial scale of meat and dairy production.

Whether the motives behind such a shift are ethical, financial or environmental, the outcome is the same: technology is offering viable and comparable alternatives. Any and all companies with an interest in agriculture or food, should consider the direction of their R&D efforts.

Footnotes

1 http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/population/2015-report.html
2 http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/population/world-urbanization-prospects-2014.html
3 http://mashable.com/2016/04/01/overweight-underweight-study/
4 http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs310/en/
5 http://www.fao.org/docrep/007/y5609e/y5609e02.htm
6 http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QC
7 https://www.eta.co.uk/environmental-info/food-miles/
8 https://www.eta.co.uk/environmental-info/food-miles/
9 https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions