The Future of Food Production — Part 2: ‘Cricket Garlic Bread’ anyone?

Since beginning my journey as a Futurist 8 months ago, I’ve become incredibly optimistic about the power of innovation to solve so many of our challenges. In part 1, we looked at the challenges facing food production today. Here, we’ll explore some of the new developments which present solutions to those challenges.

Let’s begin with our overloaded landmass. In part 1, we looked at how 99% of global food production comes from cultivated land and only 1% from oceans and the aquatic environment. What if we didn’t have to give up our land for non-food related products such as ethanol (bio fuel), but instead could harness our oldest source of value: the sea?

Commercial Algae Production

Companies like Cellena are doing just that with their work in commercial algae production. Consider that commercial algae farms can produce 5,000–10,000 gallons of algae oil per acre compared to just 350 gallons of ethanol per acre when produced by growing crops like maize. Factor in also that algae grows very quickly, even in polluted water or stagnant areas where food crops cannot survive, and society might be onto a winner! Algae is also thoroughly multi-purpose: as well as a fuel, algae can be used as a fertilizer for existing food crops. And it takes CO2 from the atmosphere — could algae be nature’s ultimate sequestration as well as freeing up cultivated land for food production?

Meat — but not as we know it!

We saw the first ‘cultured’ meat production in 2013, in which a lab-grown beef burger was presented to the world. By all accounts it didn’t taste great, but it did suggest the possibility that meat production doesn’t have to be linked to the slaughtering of animals. Why does cultured meat matter? Well, as Western eating habits spread to China and other fast emerging economies, so does the pressure to open up new farmland. But farming animals is environmentally costly. Cattle occupy around 25% of all cultivatable land; and the crop production to feed them another 25%. If we look at the US, around 70% of grain and cereals grown are fed to farm animals. And 18% of total greenhouse gas emissions stem from the farming of animals. Livestock farming also consumes alarming amounts of water: it takes between 5,000 and 20,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of beef. Companies like Memphis Meat are at the forefront of cultured meat production, especially now that drought is becoming a regular feature of the climate in parts of the US.

Greenhouses in the Desert

Charlie Paton, a British inventor envisions huge ‘seawater greenhouses’ which could be used both to generate power and grow food. There’s nothing complicated about it. He simply proposes to use the natural water cycle: seawater is heated by the sun, evaporates, condenses, then returns to the crops as rain. Consider the recent Sahara Forest Project venture. A greenhouse the size of four football fields has been built in Southern Jordan, near the port of Aqaba. If successful, the plan is to create a 20-hectare facility.

But that’s small-scale. One of the benefits of seawater greenhouses is that they are built on giving nature a helping hand; rather than starting expensively from scratch. That allows some grand visions to develop, like the ‘Great Green Wall of Africa’? Since 1952, a plan has existed to create a forest 15km wide and 7,775km long; to stretch from Senegal to Djibouti. Originally the idea was to contain desertification. What if innovation could facilitate seawater irrigation of a project this size? The potential for food production is immense!

Insects

Insects are fantastic sources of protein, high in calcium and iron, and low in fat and cholesterol. Farming them doesn’t need much space either. At least 1400 varieties are eaten in Africa, Asia and Latin America already. As goods prices rise and cultivated land becomes more precious, perhaps it’s time we saw more insect farms in the Western world? Demand for meat (our current major protein source) is expected to double by 2050 from the turn of the millennium, and we have already seen that meat is incredibly costly to produce. Insects are a plentiful and profitable answer. Businesses are already setting up to cater to this opportunity: go to Crunchy Critters and you can buy everything from ants to scorpions.

To go mainstream in the West, though, we will need to change our palates — which is a challenge. An alternative is to use insects earlier in the food cycle — which is why it may be most interesting to note that you can buy flour made from Crickets. Garlic Cricket bread may sound odd today, but if it doesn’t look or taste particularly different to what we are used to, it might just be a perfect solution.

Even our institutions are recognising the phenomenon. The EU is offering member states €3m to help promote the use of insects in cooking and has even asked food standards agencies to look at opportunities to supplement diets.

Printing our Food

One interesting benefit of 3D printing is how it can convert ingredients in the print process. For example, the 3D heat-and-cool process can be used to extract proteins from algae (our new multi-purpose friend as discussed above!) or insects and then combine them with interesting flavours. Do you remember The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon serving Leonard a ‘Mango Caterpillar Snow cone’? Imagine that, but taken much, much further! Initiatives like Edible Growth are innovating by making seeds, yeast and spores core ingredients.

One of the most advanced 3D food printers has been created by the Systems and Materials Research Corporation (SMRC) — the same people who famously built the machine that printed a pizza for NASA astronauts in 2014.

There are others in the market. Like Chocolate? Check out Cocojet, specialists in the chocolate printing market.

As well as unlocking sustainable ingredients, Dutch company TNO is using the precision of food printing to improve our health. The business designs meals with precise quantities of nutrients for individual consumers, based on their personal health data and requirements. They too see the potential of alternative proteins, like algae and insects, as components in food. As companies like TNO grow, so will the need for their raw materials. Perhaps this will kickstart greater investment in ‘Algaculture’ or cricket farming?

More trends to watch for

In food as in products more generally, expect to see far greater personalisation opportunities. On a low calorie diet, but still like your burgers? Why not create the bap from insect flour — which will be available and customisable.

Those with specific nutritional needs will be able to address them easily. A pregnant woman will get all the Omega 3’s she’ll need. An athlete will be able to specify the ratios of protein and carbohydrates he consumes to ensure an optimum balance. We could even see reductions in diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

Expect to see previously impossible shapes and textures. If you thought chefs like Heston Blumenthal are at the cutting edge of scientific approach, expect to see a completely new type of celebrity emerge as people figure out new ways of working with food at the atomic level. I may not want to eat a banana that incorporates the taste of egg, but I like the idea that it’s possible!

We’re still a way off from the Star Trek replicator, but maybe not as far as we think…