What’s on your plate: Feeding the Future

by Futurist Kit Worzel

The United Nations report on world population estimates a total of 9.6 billion people on the planet by 2050. That’s an increase of more than 2 billion in the next thirty-five years. There have been discussions on how to feed such a large population, but many of those discussions fall short on certain key points. 

First, demographics have changed in such a manner that people are not only consuming more calories, but also higher cost calories, particularly meat and dairy products. The consumption of meat has increased seven-fold since 1950, while the world population has not quite tripled. And meat is the most expensive form of food we consume, since animals need to be fed for years before being turned into food. Red meat tends to require 5 or more kilos of feed per kilo of meat produced, with somewhat more favorable ratios for poultry and fish.

Second, climate is changing. This is quite evident, and the drought in California is an example of what could happen worldwide. A decade ago, California was the food basket of America. With the ongoing drought now in its fourth year, farmers in California are cutting back, going out of business, or converting to less water-intensive plants, moving away from crops like avocados, almonds, and citrus fruits. With climate change becoming a world-wide issue, this means that farmers all around the world will have to adapt to new climate conditions in order to keep producing.

So not only will we need to plan on feeding 2.3 billion more people, but we’ll have to provide much more resource-intensive food as well. This will multiply the resources needed by an equivalent of 2-3 times. The question is: How can we manage this?

Green Eggs and Ham

Meat substitutes are nothing new. They’ve been on the market, in various forms, for over a thousand years, with mentions of tofu available as far back as 965 CE, and a vegetable sausage first mentioned in the Western world in 1852. But substitutes that taste like, and more importantly, have the texture of meat remain no more than a work in progress. Most meat substitutes only please vegetarians, and fail to impress people who actually eat meat. But the Beyond Meat company has managed to produce a product that they claim does just that. Now, I’m not a food expert, or qualified to judge this product. But Alton Brown, world renowned chef and TV personality, is, and did just that, not being overly thrilled with the taste, but praising the texture. He said that the product, as is, could easily replace chicken in about 30% of recipes out there, and has the advantage of having no saturated fat or cholesterol. If this meat substitute can impress one of the biggest names in food in the world now, imagine what it will be able to do in thirty years?

Beyond Meat is already widespread, sold in a major retail chain in 39 American states, the District of Columbia, and Vancouver, BC. It’s completely vegetarian, and is the start of a partial solution for the high demand for meat.

Tea, Earl Grey, Hot

While the food replicators from Star Trek are still just science fantasy, 3D printing has come to food in a big way. Right now, it’s slow and has a host of other issues, but as technology rapidly improves, this is becoming a viable option.

High-end restaurants are already using 3D printers to make fantastic designs from sugar and chocolate as unique desserts, printing off things that no pastry chef could make. But I prefer to focus on the other end of the scale, where some nursing homes in Germany are using 3D printers to deliver a product called Smoothfoods to residents who can’t chew solid food anymore. It’s an alternative to purees, which tend to be unappetizing, since Smoothfoods look more real, but have the same consistency as a puree, thereby increasing appetites, and helping to prevent under-eating and malnutrition.

Another bonus is the ability to incorporate disliked, though nutritious, ingredients invisibly into conventional foods. Things like duckweed and mealworm are packed with nutrients, but the taste and texture put people off. Adding them to something like shortbread cookies makes for a pleasant eating experience, coupled with the nutritional benefits of those unappetizing additions. Considering that even in the developed world, malnutrition is still an issue, any chance we have of getting people to eat healthy, even if we have to trick them into doing so, is a good one.

Lastly, 3D printing of food requires no skill. So in future, when you come home to make supper, you will simply select the food you want from your computer, send it off to your printer, wait for it to print, and you’re done. You’ll be able to program a pizza at home with no more effort than ordering derlivery. 

You can always tell a happy motorcyclist…

It won’t just be folks who ride Harley’s that have bugs in their teeth if this next idea comes to fruition. Entomophagy, or eating insects, is already a source of protein for more than a third of the world, but certain green factions are pushing for fried grasshoppers to be sold on every street corner. The arguments are strong: to produce 1 kg of usable meat requires between 7 and 20 kg of feed for a cow, depending on breed and type of feed, but only 2.1 kg of feed for crickets. They are lower in saturated fats and cholesterol, and seem to be a greener alternative. 

However, the natural reaction for the vast majority of the world when they see a bug on the plate is to scream and try and get rid of it. The disgust reflex is hard to overcome, so food producers look for a work-around. Producing cricket-flour, or converting bug meat into innocuous cubes is a start, but there are some who look to historical precedent. More than a century ago, lobster was considered low-class, and it was illegal to serve it in prisons, as it was considered cruel and unusual punishment. Now it’s one of the most expensive things on the menu, after receiving one hell of a PR makeover, and there are those who seek to do the same for bugs. It may be a hard sell today, but if the choice is between insects or starving, then pass the grasshoppers.

It’s alive, IT’S…not quite?

Lab grown meat was in the news a few years back, when a team from Maastricht University in the Netherlands produced a burger that was cultured from beef muscle tissue. The flavor was disappointing to the designated tasters, but the texture was spot-on, which was the more important issue. The team that developed the burger says they can add fat to the culture to make it more flavorful, but texture would be hard to fix. Of course, the other memorable part of the story was that a single 5 oz burger cost $330,000 in US funds, so don’t expect to order one from a fast-food joint anytime soon.

One of the best parts about it is that it’s real beef, and you don’t have to kill a steer to get it. The folks in the lab can play around with the level of fat to make it taste right, and also determine how healthy it is. And they’ve managed to lower the price. The proof of concept may have cost almost a third of a million dollars, but they’ve managed to lower the cost all the way down to $12 for that same 5 oz burger. What they haven’t managed to do is produce it quickly, or in large quantities yet, and they are still estimating decades to iron out the process.

Something said for doing it the old-fashioned way

All of these techniques and technologies are interesting, but none of them can work without resources. We still need farms to grow the produce used, particularly for 3D printers and meat replacements. None of the plans mentioned above are enough on their own. They are, in fact, enhancements of a more traditional farming paradigm, instead of replacements. Farming will change – is changing. That’s beyond question, but traditional farming will still exist. We won’t feed 9.6 billion people with crickets and lab-grown meat alone. Farming will become less labor intensive, more economical with water and electricity, and will likely have many other changes as well, but that’s a topic for another blog altogether.

Making room at the Table

The bottom line is that we have the resources and know-how to produce the food needed to not only feed this growing planet, but keep everyone happy in doing so. There will still be challenges in growing the food, and distributing it, but the hurdles we have yet to face seem smaller in light of a world where the perfect-tasting cricket and tofu burger may be just a push of a button away.

Beyond Meat – Alton Brown review

Meatless History

Tellspec food tricorder (not yet on the market)

3D printing food

Cloned Meat


Eating Bugs

World population projected to be 9.6 billion by 2050 by UN

Meat limit