Mealworm cereal for breakfast, liquid nutrients for lunch just so work can continue uninterrupted, and lab-grown steak with artificial fries for dinner? As the population of the Earth is rapidly growing, and food production cannot keep up with the demand, several trends and technologies emerged to feed the hungry masses in the future. But are we ready to change our diets in the next decades to save humanity and the planet?
Based on the estimates of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the global population is expected to hit 10 billion people by 2050. They believe that for feeding everyone, it will take 56 percent more food than it is produced today.
At the same time, the rapidly growing population soon outpaces the available amount of crops and meats. Some projections show that enough food for those 10 billion would require raising overall food production by some 70 percent between 2005 and 2050. Moreover, general growth experienced especially in China and India is driving up demand for meat, eggs, and dairy, boosting pressure to grow more corn, soybeans, and other crops to feed more cows, pigs, and chickens. If such trends continue, experts say that we might need to double the amount of crops we grow today. Not to mention the problem of food loss and food waste. In 2011, FAO presented the estimate that around one third of the world’s food was lost in the supply chains or thrown out every year. Since then, much has changed in the global perception of the problem but it still persists.
The cherry on top of the issues of the global food production system is that it actively accelerates climate change - which in turn makes the agricultural system more vulnerable than ever. And droughts, increasing frequency of storms, and other extreme weather events zero out all the invested energy in crops and grains. Experts on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that nearly 23% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions between 2007-2016 were derived from agriculture, forestry and other land uses. To exaggerate the situation only slightly, it means that every single Big Mac is a new nail in the coffin of the planet.
Apart from cultivation and livestock rearing, agriculture also adds emissions through burning the forests, especially the tropical rainforests for new pieces of arable land. Moreover, about 70% of the planet’s accessible fresh water withdrawals are currently used for agricultural activities, and that is more than twice that is used by industry (23%). The expansion of industrial fishing fleets and a higher demand for seafood globally have led to the collapse or total exploitation of over 90% of the world’s marine fisheries. Through its direct and intermediate impacts, the food system is the largest contributor to the depletion of biodiversity.
Csaba Hetényi, Co-founder of Plantcraft says that countless scientific and industrial studies point out the horrible effect of industrial animal farming on the globe - beside human health and animal welfare. “In terms of CO2 and greenhouse gas emission, fresh water consumption, deforestation and biodiversity issues caused by increasing demand for land - if we compare the effect of herbivore versus carnivore diets, the difference is enormous. Actually, we can reach the greatest positive effect on climate change tendencies if we take animals off the menu."
David Attenborough, the famous English broadcaster and biologist, in his documentary entitled A Life on Our Planet also recommended for people to turn to a plant-based lifestyle. Statistics show that vegetarianism and veganism - the diet leaving meat, eggs, dairy products and anything that comes from animals - is on the rise. In the UK, the group of vegans increased by 400 percent over the last two years, while similar growth was experienced in Portugal in the last decade as well. English-speaking countries, as well as Western Europe are setting the trend in turning more and more towards plant-based diets, but that's a question whether a complete transition is possible.
“Honestly speaking, I cannot imagine a scenario where the majority is not doing it, simply because we have no choice. We have been experiencing a great shift in recent years, and I think it is just the beginning. It is kind of a movement by GenZ and Millennials, and a new category has been introduced for those who are reducing meat and dairy consumption. They are the flexitarians. I do believe that the share of vegans and vegetarians will increase dramatically in the forthcoming years but what is even more important is the reduction of animal based products among carnivores,” explained Hetényi. Plantcraft produces delicious plant-based patés and deli products trying to lure in flexitarians and vegetarians in the first place.
Taking animals off the menus would lessen the burden on the planet significantly. According to one climate change calculator, eating 75 grams of beef - the typical amount of a fast-food hamburger - daily for a year contributes greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to driving a car 11580 km - that’s crossing the United States about 2.5 times. Compare that to eating 150 grams of beans daily for a year, which is equivalent to driving a car 150 km. In more macro terms, some experts estimate that a global shift to a plant-based diet could reduce mortality and greenhouse gasses caused by food production by 10% and 70%, respectively, by 2050. So, it seems to be quite obvious that humans should forget meat, but the question is, can we? And what alternatives do we have beyond plants and meat?
Some say that close to 2 billion people on Earth already have their own response to this question: edible insects. Outside of the Western food culture, many people have been consuming crickets, mealworms, grasshoppers, bugs, and a multitude of insects for centuries. They are rich sources of protein and other essential nutrients, and a lot more eco-friendly than cows.
Different startups and large companies have already jumped on the bandwagon, and the EU has also recently recognized such insects as human food authorizing companies to bring them to market. Aspire Food Group is currently building "the world’s largest ever cricket farm, powered by IoT", and the company already operates scalable, flexible cricket farms in the U.S., while small-scale solutions mean for example the Austrian startup offering a mealworm farm for your home. But of course, it’s an open question how well the Western audience would be receiving the idea of eating crickets and worms.
Another potential strand of futuristic foods are the manufacturing of lab-grown meals. That actually means using cells and tissues and creating such meat and dairy products that are molecularly identical to those produced by traditional methods. While the first burger made of lab-grown meat cost a whopping $325,000 to make back in 2013, in a couple of years, the price dropped to $12. Given the speed of development, and the interest from investors and companies, the "lab-grown protein market may account for 35 per cent of the global meat market by 2040", estimates AT Kearny.
And not only meat is the focal point of developers. California-based Perfect Day, for example, creates milk, cheese and ice cream without cows. Having an entire cow just to produce milk is inefficient, they claim, so the company is using a cow’s milk gene, reproducing it with a fungus. They can control what the milk actually contains, and while their milk cannot provide the same quality that Mother Nature does, it comes close. And another venture, the Paris-based Gourmey, raised $10 million from European and US investors last year to perfect its recipe for making fattened duck liver in a lab.
But what if someone doesn’t like eating at all? Do you remember the scene from Matrix where Neo and his newfound compatriots eat breakfast? A disgusting bowl of proteins with minerals, vitamins, and nutrients: “everything the body needs.” Indeed, a meal replacement powder mixed with water that contains all the nutrition necessary for an average adult is a viable solution for many. Two popular companies providing these replacement meals are Soylent and Huel. While being controversial options, nutritional experts note that they do meet one’s most important nutritional needs.
However, the main obstacle to all these solutions becoming widespread is not technology or money, but people’s strong stance against meals coming from laboratories, from insects, or in forms they are not familiar with. No one knows whether our diets could be changed by 2050 from a meat-based one to a plant-based, cricket-containing menu with occasional lab-grown delicacies in it. “Honestly, I have no idea what we will eat in the next 20-30 years. What is certain: the problem. The current level of meat and dairy consumption is not sustainable. Period. On the other hand, I am not blind, I know that immediate action would have serious political and social effects as well, therefore the politicians are very cautious. But we have to find solutions not in 20-30 years but right now” - concluded Hetényi, and I was so convinced that I looked up how to order grasshoppers and what are the best recipes.