What will the World be eating in 2050?

Earlier this year, chef Mark Wilson served up three plates of spaghetti with bolognese sauce. Nothing unusual there, except one sauce was made from mealworms, another from crickets and the third from the more commonly used beef.

Wilson develops recipes for Toronto’s C-Fu Foods, where insects are transformed into meat. And they’re not alone. The Atelier à Pâtes in northeast France is struggling to meet demand for nutty-tasting pasta containing pulverised grasshoppers and crickets.

Bug protein plays a key role in the food futures posited by Forum for the Future, an international non-profit consortium of businesses, governmental and non-governmental organisations. Its Protein Challenge 2040 project said the four options are: hi-tech nutrition for all, grown in a lab; natural, localised food systems (the bug scenario); a centralised food chain, cemented by regulation but reliant on intensive farming; or chaos – every country for itself. We examine each option in turn…



Hi-tech nutrition for all

Forum for the Future is upbeat about the technology option, provided we don’t mind being “divorced from nature” and “dependent on technofixes”. UK innovation charity Nesta believes “the future farmer will need to know how to fly a drone and repair robots”.

Agribots with a connoisseur’s eye already select, pick and grade grapes in Chablis. Shropshire’s Harper Adams University is developing a strawberry harvester. The University of Lincoln’s broccoli bot hopes to choose the best brassicas. No wonder Shaun Price, a precision farming specialist at CNH Industrial, says a farm staffed entirely by 24/7 mechanical labourers is only five years away.

Sensors will proliferate, reporting back from locations as diverse as inside a cow’s stomach (from eCow’s disease-monitoring tablet) to Tasmanian oyster farms (a salinity detector by start-up The Yield eliminates guesswork about when it’s safe to harvest). Drones will gather further intelligence, including advance crop-disease detection using infrared energy. One New Zealand sheep farmer has said that his drones could have up to 400 uses.

Nesta says the average (81-hectare) UK farm could reap an estimated 17.9% increase in annual profit thanks to the efficiencies, decreased costs and improved yields of tech-driven precision farming.

Skipping the farm altogether, Maastricht University famously unveiled a $325,000 bioengineered, 3D-printed burger in 2013 (the price has since fallen to $11). The university expects this development to be commercially mainstream within eight years, although David Read, CEO of food supply chain consultants Prestige Purchasing, said: “Manufactured meat will probably become more dominant after the next couple of decades, but will eventually be a major impactor.”

As well as reducing the strain on animals and the environment, cellular agriculture and genetic engineering could foster bespoke nutrition. Scotland’s Roslin Institute (of Dolly-the-sheep fame) has produced chickens whose eggs contain a protein that could treat liver damage.

While some – perhaps, the public at large – will not welcome playing with nature, John Bassett, policy and scientific development director at the Institute of Food Science and Technology, says: “As we focus our methods on solving big challenges and deliver outcomes that consumers see benefiting our species and our ecosystems the ‘heat’ around some new technologies will dissipate.”

Certainly technology could help consumers track the source of food. Nicki Perrott, from Procure4, says as shoppers demand more information more quickly, UK wholesale distributors need to enhance the technology that supports their ability to trace and audit.

Automation will disrupt logistics as well as lettuces. “Driverless vehicles and increases in more fuel-efficient and electric vehicles could reduce costs,” says Perrott. She adds that 3D printing could lead to lean logistics: “It could revolutionise supply chains. Having 3D printing of packaging onsite in factories would reduce inventory and inbound traffic.”

  • Aeroponics: Growing crops without the need for soil
    NASA has developed aeroponics for the Mir Space Station; now Caleb Harper from Massachusetts Institute of Technology aims to popularise it. NASA research showed their prototypical “climate-in-a-box” technique, as Harper calls it, has the potential to grow crops 20 times faster using 98% less water. Harper’s crops tweet him their moisture levels, while precisely controlled conditions allow the grower to tailor flavour.



Natural, localised food systems

But what if millennials’ quest for the local, the sustainable and the authentic steers us away from labs and robots to “the community-centred world”?

Seattle start-up Crowd Cow auctions every edible part of a cow online. Waste is reduced and consumers are linked almost directly to local farmers, but as the forum points out: “With these new supply chain structures comes an increased demand for packaging, storage and transport solutions for smaller units of fresh products.”

Another tension inherent in the community-centred world is the balance between the demand for sustainability against additional cost.

What are the alternatives for consumers wary of lab-coated farmers yet concerned by humanity’s resource-devouring protein demands? “We need to fundamentally change our diet and eating patterns,” Andy Kerridge of Wyvern Food Solutions tells SM. “Improving efficiency of production only delays the moment the population outstrips the Earth’s capacity to produce. Meat production is an inefficient, land-intensive way of using the Earth’s resources. We, especially in the West, need to overcome our irrational disgust for eating insects or protein derived from insects.”

Bassett says: “The ‘yuck factor’ of these new proteins is being worked on. I’m intrigued by the sound of the ‘nutty’ flavoured insect pasta in recent reports.” Seaweed is another fast-growing, protein-rich alternative; Oregon University has patented a strain of dulse that tastes like bacon when fried.

Insects and seaweed may make test-tube meat sound inviting, but we may not need to eat them ourselves. Several companies and projects have begun rearing insects on food waste for conversion to animal feed.

The community-centred world could be facilitated by companies such as Gousto. It ticks millennial boxes on traceability (100%), waste (less than 1%) and organics (not quite 100%); and the exacting demands of supplying seasonal ingredients for weekly rotating recipes require teamwork with suppliers (who are chiefly British). Alice Brown, Gousto’s head of procurement, says the company brings the realities of the supply chain to customers who want to regain control from supermarkets. Perrott sees this happening in reverse too: “Suppliers are desperately trying to reduce over-dependence on what they see as low-margin contracts with the big supermarkets.”

Read’s Prestige Purchasing worked with the National Trust last year on a project that showed how local sourcing could flourish – rationalising their buying lists and regionalising their supply chains. The Trust can select the best suppliers in each region and become a significant customer by pooling volumes, yet is still able to source a rich variety of quality produce.

  • Closed-loop protein systems
    Food multinational Findus will meet all its shrimp demand in Sweden using microorganisms that digest shrimp excrement and are themselves food for shrimp, producing 10 to 40 times the usual yield.  Last year, Denmark’s From Piss to Pilsner project even recycled festival-goers’ urine as a fertiliser for beer ingredient barley.



Centralised food chains, regulation and reliant on intensive farming

Consultants McKinsey last year predicted “continued consolidation of firms across the agribusiness value chain as well as the emergence of smaller niche players… In addition, millions of smallholder farmers are gradually integrating into commercial value chains”.

McKinsey underlines investment by major agricultural traders such as Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill and Louis Dreyfus in alleviating infrastructure bottlenecks in exports from countries such as Brazil. “Large-scale commercial farming has taken off in Brazil, where commercial farms can top 100,000 acres,” the consultant adds.

“There is emerging interest in Africa as a production basin: major agribusiness companies are increasingly integrating vertically as more traders extend into production and processing, while retailers are moving into production and sourcing of key input commodities.” It also believes strategic partnerships and acquisitions will be needed to make the most of the big data generated by disparate players in the food value chain.

Perrott says the same is happening in the logistics market. “While competition has increased at a regional level, we predict challenges will remain at a national level – dominated by a handful of big players.”

Forum for the Future believes populations would be well fed in this centralised scenario, but reliant on intensive farming to the detriment of soil quality, forests and biodiversity. Indeed, McKinsey forecasts a future where livestock production in Brazil and Argentina rises to meet growing global demand.

Perrott says this trend is already emerging: “As we work more closely with our suppliers and clients on the longevity of their supply chains we predict more pressure in regulatory compliance around the integrity and sustainability of their supply chains, which is why many are pro-actively focused on making improvements now.”

The EU recently imposed an imaginary meat tax – in the year 2024. It did so during a role play event (dubbed the ‘hunger games’ by some participants) in the US in November, joining with representatives from other governments, aid agencies and corporate food producers. The simulation hinted at the Forum for the Future’s fourth scenario, “the fragmented world”, where food security is beset by climatic and political instability, resulting in an every-country-for-itself world of intensive agriculture, with only resource-rich nations thriving.

  • Taxing red meat
    Sweden’s minister for strategy and future issues formed a working group last year to consider a tax on meat, while the Danish government is reviewing a possible red meat tax following a recommendation from the Danish Council of Ethics in April.



Chaos. The UN projects a world population of nine billion by 2050 – and the quest for food fuels conflict

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation predicts that meat consumption will have doubled by 2050 as emerging countries switch to more opulent diets, and that 90% of growth in global crop production will have to be achieved through intensification of practices, yields and land use.

“While substantial additional land could, in principle, be suitable for food production, in practice, land will come under growing pressure for other uses,” says Read. “For example, land will be lost to urbanisation, desertification and rising sea levels. Despite intensified production, arable land will have to expand by around 120 million hectares in developing countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.”

Recouping the 30% of food Forum for the Future says is wasted globally would help. Perrott says their clients are focused on this. “Our key focus areas include portion, case-size and shelf-life optimisation as well as the introduction of food recycling mechanics.”

At the Institute of Food Science and Technology, Bassett believes the case for a sci-fi food revolution may be overstated. “While technologies that help break us out of the current production and space limitations will feature, it is those that will also deliver better outcomes for soils, animals, people and the climate that will have the most impact. Harper’s aeroponics system at MIT generates open source data – climate recipes, if you will – which he hopes to share with small producers.

“Sometimes it will be about synthesising and sharing knowledge.” says Bassett. “Whether we tax it, culture it, bioengineer it, shut it in a box, or order online via cow computing, our future food will be best served if everyone in the supply chain keeps talking to each other.”

  • Natural disaster contingency plans
    A fictional scenario acted out in the US last year began in 2020 with El Nino devastating crops in India and Australia, followed by a major drought in North America the following year. As availability of food declined, countries increased regulation and then enacted emergency measures and then worked with the United Nations to handle refugees from climate catastrophes.

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