With the world’s population projected to grow to almost 10 billion people by 2050, challenges abound, as food production is already stretching the planet’s resources to the limits.
Overfishing is depleting fish stocks, excessive use of pesticides is harming nature, feeding antibiotics to animals raises the risk of creating “superbugs” resistant to medicines that are vital to saving human lives.
Breeding animals for human consumption also requires enormous amounts of land, water and crops that are fed to billions of chickens, pigs, and cows. In addition, animal farming is a major contributor to climate change: The U.N. estimates that some 15% of greenhouse gases are emitted by livestock – first and foremost cows. Cattle herds produce the equivalent of 5 gigatonnes of CO2 per year.
To sustainably feed the world, clearly things need to change. The good news is that there’s no shortage of ideas which researchers and entrepreneurs are pursuing. At DLD, finding new ways to produce food has been a core topic at several conferences. Here’s a selection of recent talks, along with key insights.
Meet the New Meat
Human appetite knows few limits: We snack on nuts, salad and fruits but also eat bread, pasta and rice. Some people try to avoid animal products, of course, but most love to eat yogurt, cheese and meat as well.
Particularly meat: steak, lamb chops, chicken wings or sausage are part of the daily menu in many parts of the world. And when people can afford it, they start to eat more and more meat. Worldwide, meat production has increased from 71 million tons in 1961 to almost 320 million tons in 2014.
But many people eat meat with a bad conscience. Concerns about animal welfare and environmental damage have intensified the search for meat alternatives that even carnivores can crave.
Two approaches are now yielding results: On the one hand, companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are successfully developing plant-based meat alternatives. The idea is to mimic the taste and texture of meat so convincingly that even diehard hamburger lovers don’t mind actually eating veggies instead of minced meat.
The other approach is to grow meat from animal cells under controlled conditions, essentially recreating in a laboratory what nature does organically. At DLD 2019, Brian Spears – CEO and co-founder of New Age Meats – explained how his company turns stem cells taken from a pig named Jessie into sausages.
“You put [stem cells] in a nutrient-rich broth and that makes them proliferate and divide”, Spears told the audience. In an early test it took about a month to grow enough fat and muscle tissue to make sausages for about 40 people. This explains, in part, why lab-grown meat is currently very expensive. A single sausage, Spears says, initially cost almost $3,000.
But the price has already fallen to less than $200 per sausage, and Spears is confident that economies of scale will quickly make lab meat both abundant and cheap. “How much meat you produce is really just kind of a math problem”, Spears told DLD. “How many cells did you start with – and how many cells do you want to go to? And then it just follows an exponential growth curve.”
Watch the video for more details: See highlights of Brian Spears’ DLD 19 talk and excerpts from our backstage interview. Oh, and Jessie, the pig, is alive and well, Spears assured us, as donating stem cells is a harmless procedures for the animals.
Tasting the Unknown
As promising as lab meat may be, what about the ick factor? The idea of eating something unfamiliar can be offputting, after all.
Europeans, for example, avoided eating potatoes at first because the root from South America seemed strange and ugly to them. There were even suspicions that eating potatoes could cause illnesses like leprosy. It took many years – and the invention of French fries – to overcome the initial resistance.
Lab meat is likely to face a similar reluctance, as are efforts to make insects a larger part of a Western diet. “Insects are a great source of protein”, enjoyed in many other parts of the world, explained Ophelia Deroy, a cognitive scientist at Munich’s LMU university, at DLD 2019. Even Europeans used to eat insects regularly – but that was in the Middle Ages. Now the idea of munching on crickets or ants makes many people shudder with disgust.
“We’ve lost that visual culture”, Deroy said. And visuals are extremely important when it comes to eating, as any social media user familiar with “food porn” will know. “Food has a very special power in our brains”, Deroy explained. In lab experiments the researcher and her team test people’s responses to images of different edibles.
“The food is not present. This is just the power of an image that you know you cannot eat. And yet what we find is activation in that part of the brain called the insula that codes for the taste of the food.” Deroy is hoping to use such insights in order to change the general perception of insects in Western countries so that “when they see it they expect a good taste.”
Harvesting New Resources
While energy bars made of insect proteins are already finding their way into supermarkets all over Europe and the U.S., mass adoption would also mean insect farming on an industrial scale – raising ethical issues similar to traditional animal farming.
“I’m not sure that mass-farming insects should replace mass-farming other animals”, says Alison Stille, co-founder and CEO of Walding. The startup from Bavaria has developed a meat alternative based on a rare tree mushroom. “It’s huge, it has a fibrous structure and an umami taste quite like chicken”, Stille explained at DLD Campus Bayreuth. “It also has very high levels of proteins and vitamin D.”
Such superfood properties, Stille hopes, will help make Walding’s mushroom product – dubbed “Woodchicken” – an attractive alternative to current meat substitutes. She also sees an opportunity to expand the human diet in a healthy way. “There’s an unbelievable number of mushrooms that’s never been researched,” Stille says. “Do we really have to copy meat? Maybe we do, for certain markets. But that’s not the only solution.”
Frank Kühne, Chairman of the Advisory Board at Raps, a maker of food ingredients, agrees that food production is ripe for disruption – but in his view, much of what we eat in the future will come from laboratories rather than nature. “In the next 20 years food will be a lot more artificial than anything we can imagine”, he predicted at DLD Campus Bayreuth. “This picture of the organic animal that you can touch will fade away and be replaced by something else.”
Fuzzy as the exact nature of tomorrow’s food may be, there’s little doubt among experts that we’re seeing the early days of a major shift in how food is produced and consumed.
“Taking all different developments together I think we’re at a tipping point”, said Nick Lin-Hi, a professor of economics at University of Vechta who specializes in ethics and corporate responsibility. “We will see the biggest technological disruption ever [in food] the next years.”
Lin-Hi predicted “a lot of radical food innovations” meeting the demands of a new generation of consumers willing to change their behavior for the benefit of animals and the environment. “We know that our lifestyle is unsustainable”, Lin-Hi said, arguing that once alternative foods become competitive on price change will be inevitable. “If you have a product that tastes like the old one, is healthier and the price is the same, then I think traditional manufacturers are in trouble.”
The Time Is Now
From an environmental perspective change cannot come too soon, as a new report by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows. “Food security will be increasingly affected by future climate change through yield declines – especially in the tropics – increased prices, reduced nutrient quality, and supply chain disruptions”, the researchers warn.
Severe droughts due to global warming are likely to hit developing nations particularly hard, making it even more pressing to develop alternative forms of farming. Hila Cohen of the World Food Programme’s Innovation Accelerator described a promising approach called hydroponics when she spoke at DLD19 in Munich: “You don’t need soil”, she explained, “you just need less water than you do for regular farming, and minerals.” By reducing the need for water by up to 90 percent, Cohen and her colleagues have been able to grow food crops in the Sahara, the arid lands of Chad, and even urban slums in Peru.
It will take many more innovations of this kind to overcome the challenge of feeding the world sustainably – but there are hopeful signs of change in many different areas.