It is a truth universally acknowledged that a rapidly growing population requires ever more resources to sustain it. And to sustain the planet that provides us with them in the first place. For that to happen, if Boserup and those geography lessons back in the days are anything to go by, human innovation will be key…

 

How does your diet stack up against a backdrop of falling crop yields and increased climate-related disasters? (more graphs here)

 

Animal agriculture uses 30% ice-free land and one third planet’s water (Time Magazine) and according to the FAO produces 18% greenhouse gases. 

While the recent rise/ trend of vegan and vegetarianism in the West is promising, it does little to counteract the growth in meat consumption as developing countries advance, meaning food’s impact on the environment is likely to become more pronounced in coming decades (hit home in these graphs very shocking graphs here. Meaning we will have to find ways to fuel our increasingly insatiable appetite for meat, via further intensification of production, and even turn to alternatives..

 

CRISPR is coming

 

GM is on last year’s menu. Now it’s about editing instead of modifying the gene, that is, to increase drought/heat tolerance, disease resistance and yields, even for animals, to increase productivity and sustainability instead of just breeding more.

Although actually been around since the 70s, precision and speed have soared, its additional advantage advantages including improved food safety by knocking out antibiotic resistance, increasing shelf life of perishable foods, better taste and other desirable traits and nutritional qualities. CRISPR could be used to save dying and endangered species.

But in addition to understanding potential risks, Mario Herrero, agricultural-systems scientist at CSIRO, agricultural productivity expert and co-author of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) paper adds that demand management is also key, for the environment — and for our hearts and waistlines too.

 

 

But to ensure security for all, interests need to be protected, as well as the seeds themselves. Albeit romanticised (when up against giant corporations like Monsanto you might need to bring more to the fight than a flute and some folk tales) Seed: The Untold Story raises the important dangers of corporations taking control of our food chain, a cause activists like Vandaya Shiva have been fighting for for decades.

Man-Made Meat

With the potential not just to prevent the killing of over 56 billion animals (not including fish whose deaths are so great they are only measured in tonnes 🙁 ) but also ensure food security for all, lab-grown meat is made by extracting cells from an animal and feeding it vitamins & minerals. The idea’s attracted several US startups including Memphis Meat, and a brand change from cultured to clean meat to aid acceptance of this rather alien creature, especially given its potential improved health qualities.

 

But with affordable options a few years away, how about veggie alternatives that look, taste and bleed like the real thing? Surpassing soy-based startups like Tofurkey, plant protein packed Impossible Foods and their Impossible Burger raised north of $180 million from funders that include Bill Gates, with Beyond Burger’s success attributed in part to them fighting for their corner in the meat as opposed to hippy alternative aisle in supermarkets not to mention their mysteriously meat-like appearance and appeal being full of good fats with 0 cholesterol, while high in vitamin C, iron and calcium (see the flavour fight-off here).

Insects

Many areas of the world have been eating them for years, but a new taste to be tantalising our tastebuds, we well be seeing these little critters creepy-crawlying their way onto our plates quite soon, or at least as an ingredient of food in the future.

This is in part thanks to the spread of startups including Exo Protein, as recommended by Tim Ferriss. (Depending on quality of diet and their ability to consume organic side streams – natural agricultural byproducts) these pests provide about 65g protein per 100. For every hundred pounds of feed, you get 60 pounds of cricket protein — 12 times the average yield from cattle.

In fact, recent University of Edinburgh research states that if we swapped half our meat intake with plates of crickets and mealworms, we could seriously reduce greenhouse gas emissions and, as a result, slow climate change. In fact, reducing the beef, chicken, and pork we eat by 50% could cut the use of farmland around the world by a whopping one-third. See more research backing up the fact that imitation meat and insects have the highest reduction in land use efficiency of animal products tested.

 

 

Annie Novak (in an Ulla Johnson dress) at her pioneering Brooklyn-based Eagle Street Rooftop Farm (Photo: Thibault Montamat, Vogue, September 2016)

Urban Agriculture

It’s officially a thing. Quite literally, it’s in Vogue.

From the rooftops of NYC penthouses adding to its 900+ urban gardens and Chicago’s 830+ strong farming scene that has attracted hipsters and/or entrepreneurs alike including Elon Musk’s brother Kimbal (on food as the new Internet Revolution) and his Brooklyn shipping container crops startup Square Roots

 

One Square Root container runs on 10 gallons of recycled water a day – less than the average shower’s worth, and 80% less water than outdoor farms. The hydroponics are pesticide- and GMO-free, with the futuristic LED purple light optimal for crop growth and plans to incorporate solar in the future

…to the massive urban warehouses feeding the soul Singapore, as detailed by a documentary I saw recently on the plane from Colombia (not electric unfortunately- what’s green and flies? An eco-hypocrite indeed..)

These methods can reduce resource use (by 10x), land use, water while reducing food miles! Producing food locally has the potential to makes people healthier, alleviate poverty, create jobs, and makes cities safer and more beautiful.

Shanghai promises to feed over 24 million with its hydroponic (using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent instead of soil) and aquaponic systems – growing plants in water enriched by fish.

The movement may not be about to feed the world, has the potential to feed half a capital city, at least in South Africa. Not to mention the social benefits, acting as a sort of social incubator to connect communities and encourage entrepreneurship, while vitally getting people back in touch with nature.

Fish Farms of the Future

Almost like aquaponics (above) where you recycle the poisonous poo highly useful for growing plants given its nitrate-rich nature, aquaculture, done right, (namely in closed-contained systems) can be sustainably superior to your average farm fishing. And it’s growing rapidly, worldwide. While fishing from wild stocks seems to have peaked, its production has in fact doubled in fifteen years and is on course to produce half of all fish and shellfish production by 2030.

Not only this, but what about forensic traceability via chemical blueprint to not just reveal food fraud but also its diet? Perhaps calculating food miles too?

 

 

The Algae Alternative

Although it might really seem alien, it may be more familiar than at first sight. For spirulina is just one example of these fine superfood substances, many of which have the highest protein (even more than steak),more calcium, protein, iron, vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants of all the veggie kingdom (and can even be used to make (Greenpeace approved) prawns). Not to mention its potential as a biofuel, and even to make sustainable surfboards.

Robot Revolution

With drones monitoring the health of crops and “agbots’ to ‘hand’pick weeds, harvest crops, and even milk cows, will this increased efficiency bring farming into the 21st century, even encouraging young people back into the profession?

Perhaps, but it certainly poses questions on the dangers of increased commercialisation of an already incredibly intensified industry, especially ethically with regard to animal agriculture.

 

Functional Foods

With the sharing economy, food biohacking, and food box delivery wars, is the food of our future already here?

The future is evidently becoming more personalised, not just in edible terms. For an increasingly health-conscious consumer, diets will be tailored to specific age groups, optimised for the elderly, children etc.

But will this mean food that’s just fully functional? Or more fun… compact NASA inspired food rations, nutritionally fortified energy bars, dehydrated snacks, nutrient shakes like soylent, according to precise personalised algorithms based on your gut? Or 3D printing chocolate at home, coffee machine style, just to your taste.

Well, according to Reimagine Food (see above), soon food scanners and smart food labels will define exactly what we’re eating. Then there’ll be food-as-medicine, personally adjusted to our microbiome, and food at the molecular and implantable level. All aided by big data, hopefully also reducing the 40% of calories we currently throw away (or lose from the food chain).

 

Final(ly) notes

Before I nip off for some chocolate – vegan, of course. So, the recurring theme seems to be food we can trust – that is healthy and ‘sustainable’. But while consumers continue to demand goods that are convenient, to which they are culturally accustomed, the question remains: how will this fit in with not so socially accepted processes like genetic engineering needed to feed hungry mouths?

Will Musk’s Mars mission eventually take us from aquaponics to astroponics?