How to feed a hungry planet

BY Amanda Riley-Jones

1st Jan 2015 Life

How to feed a hungry planet

By 2040, the world’s population is predicted to rise to nine billion—and we all need to eat. Enter a new generation of bright ideas, novel protein sources and radical farmers. 

In March this year, a San Francisco startup announced that they’d grown the world’s first chicken and duck meat in a lab. After isolating poultry stem cells, Memphis Meats scientists had managed to grow them in a culture of sugars and minerals in bioreactor tanks. After six weeks, the meat was large enough to harvest.

“It was a historic moment for the clean meat movement. We’re developing a way to produce meat without the need to feed, breed and slaughter actual animals,” says Uma Valeti, a former cardiologist and
co-founder of Memphis Meats. “Meat as a product is delicious but the current meat production process has some serious problems for the environment, animal welfare and public health. We need to completely change the way it gets to the plate.”

"36% of the world’s crops are fed to livestock"

Demand for meat is predicted to double in the next 20 years. Yet raising animals for consumption causes pollution, deforestation and uses up staggering amounts of water and feed. “Worldwide, some 70 billion farm animals eat a third of our cereal harvest, 90 per cent of our soybean meal and 30 per cent of our global fish catch—precious resources that could be fed to billions of hungry people,” says Philip Lymbery, author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat.

Experts agree that we must find a more sustainable source of protein.  Indeed, Henning Steinfeld of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN has described how beef is going to become “the caviar of the future”.

In a recent US poll, one in three said they’d be happy to eat lab-grown meat and the race is on to find a way to mass produce a tasty, affordable product. Poultry is due to become the world’s most popular meat by 2020 and Memphis Meats aim to have their “featherless” chicken meat on sale the following year.


Sowing The Seeds Of Food Security

In February, 50,000 seeds from countries as diverse as Benin, India, Pakistan, Lebanon, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mexico, the Netherlands, the US, Belarus and the UK were ferried to an indestructible mountainside vault on a remote island in the Arctic Circle.

"4.5 million varieties of crop are safeguarded"

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which opened in 2008, holds duplicates of seeds held in gene banks across the planet. It’s safeguarding 4.5 million varieties of crops, protecting them for future generations in the event of natural or man-made disasters.

“Despite political and economic differences, collective efforts to conserve crop diversity and produce a global food supply for tomorrow are strong,” says Marie Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust, the international organisation tasked with ensuring that crop varieties are protected.

Zinc-enriched lentil crops are being grown in India

She adds, “We still have a fabulous natural diversity of crops around the world—including 125,000 varieties of wheat and 200,000 varieties of rice. We’ve by no means unlocked the potential of these crops. Crop diversity will be crucial in developing climate-resilient crops for many generations to come.”


The Appliance Of Science

Virus-resistant sweet potato, flood-tolerant rice and maize with inbuilt pesticide are just some of the new genetically modified (GM) plants scientists have created to increase global food production.

Of course GM food—where scientists “cut and paste” one or more genes with desirable traits from one plant into another—is highly controversial. While the USA, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and China grow substantial amounts of GM food for human consumption, Britain, the EU, New Zealand and Japan do not.

Dr Prakash, professor of crop genetics, genomics and biotechnology at Tuskegee University in Alabama, urges, “With a growing world population and volatile climate changes ahead, humanity must harness various options to ensure sustainable food production.  Biotechnology tools including GMO will be potent in developing resilient crops varieties that could be grown in the face of drought, flooding, salinity and pests and diseases finding new ranges. Humanity would benefit greatly.”

"Flooding destroys enough rice to feed 30 million people every year"

For example, erratic rains frequently flood rice-growing areas in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, ruining crops and leading millions to starve. In response to this, the International Rice Research Institute has developed a strain that can survive underwater for over two weeks.

Twenty to 40 per cent of global crop totals are lost annually to disease and pests. “Right now wheat is being threatened by Ug99, a new, very damaging wheat steam rust which originated in Uganda. It’s already spread to 13 countries and could wipe out crops in Asia,” Dr Prakash says. “Labs across the world are working to build a resistance to Ug99 into some wheat varieties.

“Human beings, since the dawn of civilisation, have been meddling with nature to provide food—agricultural biotechnology is just another extension of that.”

Regarding the safety of GM foods, he says, “There hasn’t been a single instance of known harm from the use of GM crops or food that are on market now—neither to the consumer nor the environment.”

He further shares his view: “I would like to see governments in Europe, Asia and Africa support investment and commercialisation of agricultural biotechnologies, and do more to help the public understand the safety and benefits of these technologies.”


Mealworms At Mealtime?

Mealworm canapé, bug ice cream or deep-fried locust anyone? Experts are looking at ways to persuade us to conquer our squeamishness and get our protein from bugs instead of meat. Indeed, some upmarket department stores and trendy London restaurants are already serving up six-legged critters.

Crickets could soon become a common snack in the UK

Insects are a valuable source of  protein to 2 million people across the developing world, from Central and South America to Africa and Asia. In his TED talk, “Why not eat insects?”, Professor Marcel Dicke, an ecological entomologist from the Netherlands’ University of Wageningen, says, “Two billion people in the world already eat insects and regard them as a delicacy—as we think of shrimps and crabs.”

As global meat and fish resources come under increasing pressure and prices soar, he says that many more humans (and livestock) should get their protein from lower down the food chain. Many edible insects provide all nine essential amino acids, plus an array of micronutrients including iron, zinc and magnesium.

There are many environmental advantages. “Insects are more abundant than we are. There are 6 million species—that’s a huge variety,” says Professor Dicke.

"Two billion people in the world already eat insects"

Insect-farming uses up a fraction of the land, water and feed compared to traditional livestock. Bugs also produce less greenhouse gases and convert their feed into food more efficiently. “Ten kilos of feed produces one kilo of beef—or nine kilos of locust,” states Professor Dicke.

But could entomophagy (the consumption of insects) really take off in the UK? Thringill Farm in Cumbria is the UK’s first ever edible-insect farm, housing up to a million chirping crickets in plastic storage containers kept at at least 25C. By the end of the summer, they hope to be ready to sell whole dried crickets and a “nutty” tasting high-protein cricket flour for use in food products such as biscuits and energy bars.

Richer Pickings

The challenges are not just to grow more food, but also food that’s more nutritious. This is particularly crucial for the developing world, where two billion rural poor are deficient in essential vitamins and minerals—often because their staple crops provide so little nutrition.

Over the past decade, great strides have been made by using  a process called “biofortification” to add nutrients to various  food crops. This can sometimes be done by selective plant breeding—but where a plant is difficult to breed or doesn’t contain the desired vitamin or mineral at the start, GM biofortification is used.

The following crops are already being grown: vitamin A-enriched sweet potato in Angola, high-iron beans in Brazil and lentils with extra zinc in India. Meanwhile, many other biofortified crops are being tested across the world from Mexico to Syria and Nepal.

"Anaemia affects a quarter of the world’s population"

One of the biggest challenges facing food scientists is the grave vitamin A deficiency, which is a major cause of childhood mortality in 90 countries and causes up to 500,000 children to go blind every year. Dr Prakash explains, “Rice is a staple food for nearly half the world’s population and there are 100,000 varieties—but not a single one contains any beta-carotene, which our bodies need to make vitamin A. The only way we can add beta-carotene to a rice crop is through genetic engineering.”

“Golden Rice” has been created by inserting genes from maize to make it produce high levels of beta-carotene. Unfortunately, recent trials in India reported that crossing GM Golden Rice with an Indian variety had resulted in stunted growth.

But Dr Prakash remains optimistic, saying, “I hope Bangladesh and the Philippines complete their tests soon and permit farmers to grow this biofortified crop. With the advent of genomics and gene editing, I hope we’ll see further rapid development of biofortified crops. They’re the most efficient way to address micronutrient deficiency in the developing world.”


An Underwater Superfood Superhero?

Experts believe that algae (which range from giant seaweed to tiny colourful microscopic cells) could be one of the most nutrient-rich foods on earth—and an excellent source of protein. You may already be familiar with spirulina powders and pills in our health shops.

“Algae are tiny, single-cell organisms that use solar energy to produce nutritious biomass containing proteins, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals,” explains Professor Mark Edwards, a world expert in sustainable food based at Arizona State University.

“Algae are eaten by everything from the tiniest shrimp to the great blue whales. They’re the base of all life and will support our abundant food future.”

Spirulina is already used in many smoothies

This ancient life form grows in adverse conditions including extreme temperatures, drought and salinity. “Algae grow using minimal or no fertile soil, fresh water, fossil fuels, inorganic fertilisers or pesticides and thrive in places such as deserts and non-arable land that would kill crops,” says Professor Edwards.

Where freshwater is scarce, microalgae can be grown in brine water or even treated waste water. There are already hundreds of rural spirulina microfarms in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Dried spirulina has the texture of crunchy noodles, a slightly marine flavour and can be ground into powder and added to food and drink.

"Algae-based foods will replace many meat products"

“By 2040, I predict that algae-based foods will replace 40 per cent of meat products and 60 per cent of the soy, corn and wheat products we use today,” says Professor Edwards. “A kilo of algae-based meat substitute (such as soya or tofu), delivers three times the protein of a kilo of beef, at half the cost. But algae will make the biggest difference to world food supplies by providing stronger nutrition for crops and livestock.”

Entrepreneurs are also looking at ways to grow algae in urban places. “Imagine living in cities where the buildings are covered with photosynthetic membranes and vertical gardens, collecting the sun’s energy and producing food for urban citizens,” says Robert Henrikson of Smart Microfarms, a US-based company that installs microalgae systems in community and urban gardens. “In the future, remote monitoring and smart technology will make it possible to deploy containerised microfarms anywhere in the world.”


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