From artificial meat to more resilient crops, Andrew Purvis scans tomorrow's menus – and finds some solutions more appetising than others.
Before the end of the year, if Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University gets his way, the world's first test-tube burger will be flame-grilled by Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck in Bray and served to a celebrity guest. Meals at this restaurant don't come cheap, but this one will be the climax of a €250,000 research project – and a milestone in Post's quest to find new ways of feeding the world, without destroying the planet.
His petri-dish patty will be made from a mixture of fat and cow muscle grown from stem cells in a culture of foetal calf serum (that's blood plasma without the clotting agents) – a technology trialled in February. It may sound less appetising than a Big Mac – but it could bring huge environmental benefits. Producing beef this way results in a 96% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to rearing animals, and uses 45% of the energy, 1% of the land and 4% of the water associated with conventional beef production.
It will be possible to replace all meat production with cultured meat
Meanwhile, at Cornell University in New York, PhD candidate Jeffrey Lipton has developed a 3D food printer that lays down liquid versions of foods, dot by dot and layer by layer, to build up edible meals. "So far we have printed everything from chocolate, cheese and hummus to scallops, turkey and celery", he says. At present, the technology uses liquid or melted versions of conventionally produced ingredients, but the aim is to create a range of 'food inks' made from hydrocolloids – substances that form gels with water. Homaru Cantu, a chef who has used the printer to make sushi, thinks this could have big implications for sustainability, not least because there would be no prepping of fresh ingredients, and therefore no food waste. "Imagine", he says, "being able to grow, cook or prepare foods without the negative industrial impact – from fertilisers to packaging. The production chain for food would nearly be eliminated."
It's a brave new world of scientific endeavour, but are these technologies sustainable? Will they deliver food that is better for us, produced at lower cost to the environment, and distributed more efficiently or traded more equitably? As Western-style diets become more popular in growing economies, can they help us meet demand without further depleting our resources? And on a practical note, can they be scaled up in an affordable way – enough to make a real difference?
"Technologically, it will be possible to replace all conventional meat production with cultured meat", says Hanna Tuomisto, the Oxford University researcher who analysed the environmental benefits of Post's method. "However, there are political, funding and regulatory issues. Livestock farmers don't like it because it threatens their jobs, but we're not going to get rid of all conventional production overnight. Global demand for meat is rising all the time, so this cultured meat might help satisfy only that additional demand."
Dr Lipton's food printer could also go global; he believes it will become as commonplace in kitchens as the food mixer. Kathy Groves, a consultant microscopist at Leatherhead Food Research in Surrey, can see the appeal. "It would save us an awful lot of hassle in product innovation, manufacture and troubleshooting", she says. "It's efficient, and you get a consistent product – but food is nicely variable, that's the point, so I'm not sure it will take off.
In her view, the advance most relevant to sustainable development is nanotechnology – using tiny particles, less than a billionth of a metre across, to engineer everything from packaging and agrochemicals to health foods. In Germany, the R&D firm Aquanova has developed a nano-based carrier system, called NovaSOL, for introducing nutrients into foods and drinks in a way that makes them more absorbable. Chemical company BASF is doing the same with lycopene from tomatoes, known to combat cancer. In Australia, 'micro-encapsulation' – surrounding tiny particles or droplets with a coating – has been used to mask the taste and odour of tuna fish oil added to the 'UP' bread range sold by brand Tip Top, boosting omega-3 intake.
But where nanotechnology has the biggest potential, Groves reckons, isn't in nutritional benefits, but in 'smart' packaging that promises to cut food waste. The packaging changes colour when food deteriorates, taking the guesswork out of shelf life. Smarter still is a label with an invisible X printed in a nano-silver compound. "When food, especially meat, starts to deteriorate due to microbial activity, hydrogen sulphide is released", says Dr Qasim Chaudhry, Principal Research Scientist at the Food and Environment Research Agency. "This reacts with silver and the X becomes visible." The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) estimates that 800,000 tonnes of food, worth £2 billion, is thrown away in Britain each year in the mistaken belief that it has gone off. Smart labelling could prevent that.
Equally promising are nano-formulated pesticides and fertilisers which could, paradoxically, reduce pollution. Nano-sized particles have a much larger surface area, per weight equivalent, than conventional materials, making then more reactive. "You need less, and a smaller amount [of agrochemical] can cover a much larger area", Chaudhry says. Similarly, nano-sized additives in animal feed could improve the absorption of mineral supplements such as copper and zinc, meaning less would be excreted to pollute land and water.
Drawbacks include uncertainty over safety and public opposition
One drawback is uncertainty over safety. "Relatively little is known about the way nanomaterials behave when ingested as food", says Dr Sandy Lawrie, Head of Novel Foods at the Food Standards Agency. "Nano-forms of a given substance may behave differently to other, larger forms of the same thing." Before products could be marketed in the EU, they would have to undergo a thorough safety assessment on a case-by-case basis – though materials in packaging, which do not migrate into food, would be treated more leniently.
Another drawback is the likelihood of public opposition, as with genetic modification (GM). Research carried out by the Food Standards Agency in 2010-11 showed that people are more accepting of nano-foods with a clear health benefit than they are of applications such as improving texture or flavour, which they see as trivial.
However, it is the tried and tested methods of plant genetics and husbandry, practised over centuries, which have paid most dividends for the environment. At the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB), trait identification work and 'pre-breeding' (incorporating those traits into new breeding materials) have produced a wheat variety that flowers earlier in the year. This means grain takes root when there is moisture around – a boon in drier, warmer climates, and potentially in Britain, too, where drought could spell disaster for farmers this summer.
We shouldn't underestimate the power of vibrant food cultures
Trials conducted with the John Innes Centre in Norwich have shown the benefits. "They are significant", says Ros Lloyd of NIAB, "delivering yield increases of up to 33% in southern Europe" – with a corresponding decrease in GHG emissions per tonne. Since the 1960s, wheat yields have risen from 1,400kg to 6,000kg per hectare, even without GM. "It's very important," Lloyd says, "that we improve awareness among policy-makers, researchers, agri-food businesses and consumers of the enormous benefits on offer from harnessing [through innovative breeding programmes] the genetic potential of plants."
Certainly, no innovative approach to the future of our food will reach any scale without successful campaigns to engage everyone from policy-makers to consumers. For Dan Crossley, an expert on sustainable food systems at Forum for the Future, the risk is that some technologies erode the value of food and make people even more disconnected from their dinner. "We shouldn't underestimate the power of vibrant food cultures", he says. "I'm very open to the idea that some of our ingredients might come from Petri dishes or printers in the future, but I'd shy away from believing these sorts of technologies will solve our global food crisis on their own. That's why I'd like to see technology used to reconnect people with what they eat."
This is exactly what Ed Dowding has set out to do with Sustaination – a web and smartphone platform that puts producers in touch with local buyers. To his mind, "If lots of change is necessary, the one thing everyone is going to need is information." Dowding's idea is to build up a network of growers, distributors and community centres based on a local hub model. "We have a browsable map", he explains, "so you can see not only who a business trades with, but who [their] connections trade with as well."
The efficiency gains will be impressive, with more food going where it's wanted, and less waste all along the supply chain. Add open sourcing (so that people can share their top finds), live status updates ('I'm cropping 20kg of peppers this week, at £1 a kilo') and fair market prices – based on data, not guesswork – and it's a potent tool for getting fresh, locally grown food on the shelf and the table. Which may well be one of the most appetising items on our future menu.
Try these at home
Anyone who's failed to keep a basil plant alive by a kitchen window will know the challenges of indoor gardening. Urban homes just don't seem well suited to growing food, but two low-tech, yet innovative, ideas aim to solve that problem.
Windowfarms, which raised $250,000 on Kickstarter, is a hydroponic system you can install at home. Plants are stacked vertically by windows in recycled plastic bottles, while a pump circulates nutrients directly to their roots, which are suspended in clay. The system is automated, and so your basil faces much better odds of becoming pesto.
Windowfarms kits are available to buy from $99, but plans to help you build your own are also freely available. That's because Windowfarms is also an experiment in open-source research and development.
Dubbed 'R&D-I-Y', the Windowfarms design evolves through versions, which feature contributions from a community of more than 28,000 globally. Much like software, this crowd-sourced approach rapidly increases the rate at which the design improves through innovation and testing.
The community itself is self-organising, and encourages testing of others' ideas. As Britta Riley, Founder of Windowfarms, says in her talk to the TEDx Manhattan conference: "In our culture, it is better to be a tester who supports someone else's idea than it is to be just the idea guy."
That said, being 'the idea guys' hasn't gone badly for former UC Berkley students Alex Velez and Nikhil Arora, who developed a way to grow (edible) mushrooms from waste coffee grounds. Their business, Back to the Roots, collects waste from coffee shops and then sells kits to grow these mushrooms at home. Each $20 kit can produce up to one and a half pounds of gourmet mushrooms.
The secondary waste created by producing these kits – a mix of coffee grounds and mushroom roots – has value of its own, as Velez and Arora discovered when they tried to give away their increasing piles of it on Craigslist. On quizzing recipients on their need for this 'waste', Back to the Roots discovered it could be used as a high-quality soil enhancer, so they now sell that, too. One source of 'waste' has become two valuable products. – Michael Ashcroft
Andrew Purvis likes his steak medium rare and writes about food for The Daily Telegraph and National Geographic Traveller.