In 2050, the global population is expected to grow to 10 billion – that’s a staggering two billion extra mouths to feed.
Professor Johannes le Coutre, a food and health expert from UNSW Sydney’s School of Chemical Engineering, says the most pressing challenge will be how to sustainably ramp up calorie production by 70 per cent without overwhelming the planet.
“I believe we will still be eating meat in 30 years’ time, although less of the meat being consumed will come from livestock,” he says.
“There are simply not enough cows on this planet to meet the projected food production demands and we can’t ignore the looming environmental challenges posed by the agriculture and the food industry.
“We’re going to need to change what we eat and how we grow it over the next two decades so we can diversify our sources of protein.”
I’ll have what they’re having
While most people cringe at the thought of eating insects such as cockroaches and crickets, others have long reaped its benefits as a protein-packed meal.
People in places as diverse as Thailand, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Mexico have embraced insects in their cuisine for centuries, innovating a new culinary experience that is still considered foreign in many western cultures.
“Biologically, insects are very similar to shrimps, which is a crustacean species and both crustaceans and insects are arthropods,” says Prof. le Coutre.
“Arthropods are basically lifeforms either on land or water that are surrounded by a chitin exoskeleton. Most people won’t cringe at the sight of a shrimp on their plate, but many might run if there was an insect crawling on the kitchen counter.
“Of course, not every insect is edible. There won’t be any wasps or bees on the menu in 30 years, but you can bet there will be crickets, moths and beetles.
“And the movement has already begun here in Australia. Once we get over the yuck factor, I believe the conversations around consuming insects as a source of food can be approachable emotionally.”
Another area of diversification is expected to be the use of cultured meat, or lab-grown meat, which Prof. le Coutre says will be more accessible in 30 years’ time.
The industry has come a long way since the first patty was showcased to the world priced at almost $US330,000 by Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University. Now, companies such as Post’s Mosa Meat report the price of cell-cultured meat has decreased to about $US10 per burger.
With more than two billion dollars invested in the sector since 2020, the industry is confident their products will eventually achieve price parity with traditional agriculture.
“While we’re making progress in this space, further research is needed to ensure lab-produced meat satisfies consumer expectations and can be manufactured at a reasonable cost,” le Coutre says.
“As demand increases, shoppers can expect to see more of it and I have no doubt we’ll be eating more foods produced through cellular agriculture.”
Genetically Modified Food
The debates regarding genetically modified food are not expected to simmer down any time soon, but with the boom in our global population it can be expected to take up greater space on supermarket shelves in the future.
Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are any animal, plant or microbe whose DNA has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. The Australian Department of Health and Aged Care Office of the Gene Technology Regulator has approved only four genetically modified (GM) crops for cultivation: cotton, canola, Indian mustard and safflower.
While the sale of fresh GM foods such as fruit or vegetables, meat or fish is currently banned in Australia and New Zealand, Prof. le Coutre expects there is a role for them in our future food system.
He says the public perception of GMO foods has previously been notoriously negative as a result of alarmist coverage by the media and a lack of understanding of food science.
“The idea of altering crops to require less water or better resist diseases or pests is not a new one, but it will play an important role if we want our future crops to be more resilient to climate change,” he says.
“We can alter the DNA of crops to require less energy and resources to grow, which will reduce our carbon footprint.
“GMO foods have a poor reputation in society, especially in European countries, because so far, the only benefit consumers see are the growing profits to the industry.
“It can only be a success story if there are clear benefits to consumers – that is the missing link.”
Prof. le Coutre mentions Golden Rice as an example of how a GMO can potentially help address global health concerns. Developed in the 1990’s, Golden Rice is a variety of rice produced through genetic engineering to biosynthesise a precursor of vitamin A – aimed to combat vitamin A deficiency in developing countries.
In countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines, where rice is a staple in the population’s diet, the introduction of Golden Rice into the food supply chain demonstrates the need of functional food for humanitarian purposes.
He says there are other ways to improve crops without genetic engineering, for example by marker assisted selection and breeding, where genetic information is used to select natural varieties, to breed them and to provide the desired features.
“The beauty of nutritional science is that we now have knowledge and capability to redefine the power of food,” says Prof. le Coutre.
“It’s possible to produce medical foods that can help address other health issues such as cognitive decline. Products are available to postpone the onset of cognitive decline using blends of fish oils, uridine monophosphate, lipids and B-vitamins.
“These formulations have been shown to support memory function in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.”
Creating sustainable food systems
To sustainably feed 10 billion people in the next 30 years, Prof. le Coutre says we need to solve the world’s food security problem.
He points out that reducing food waste should be a top priority with 30 per cent of the world’s food production not even being consumed – that’s 1.3 billion tonnes of discarded produce each year.
“Reducing food wastage is an efficient and sustainable way of improving food supply without increasing the demand in food production,” he says.
“The other issue is poverty, and even if we succeed to reduce food waste, there are still people who can’t afford to buy safe and nutritious food.
“Lastly, we need both technological innovation and policy innovation and more investment in educational and research activities.
“If we can achieve all three on a global scale, we’ll have the right recipe to a more sustainable food system.”