Supercharged Foods: Scientific Response to World’s Food Crisis

The world’s growing population will stretch available resources to the limits of sustainability, and we’ll soon need to resort to some drastic measures in order to secure necessary nutrients in our everyday diet. Even now, many parts of the world suffer from malnourishment. It does not always mean people are underfed, or starving, it can simply be that we lack some essentials in our diet.

As pointed out by a BBC article presented by Michael Mosley, anemia (iron deficiency) is held as one of the prime culprits for 20% of maternal deaths; while iodine deficiency accounts for mental impairment of 50 million people around the world. One billion people live on the verge of starvation; two billion suffer from iron deficiency, while one half of the world’s population is lacking some basic micronutrients in their traditional diet, like iron, zinc and vitamin A.

Scientists are trying to find the way to tackle this problem by enriching nutritional value of staple crops that represent the largest portion of people’s everyday diet in developing countries, through the plant breeding, the process known as biofortification, or by creating synthetic food in labs, like milk and meat, which will be an ultimate solution for the future world lacking necessary resources to sustain large-enough number of livestock.

Cereals and root vegetables represent a staple food for most of the poor population, and they lack many essential micronutrients. Modern biotechnology is able to develop improved nutrient-enriched crop seeds, which could be grown and consumed on a regular basis, without the need for any subsequent interventions. That way, even remote corners of the world could have access to healthy nutritional products.

The meat is probably the best source of proteins available to us. With the ever-growing human population and rising living standard, there will be an increased demand for that sort of produce that farmers would be hardly able to meet. The solution comes in the form of a synthetic, lab-grown meat. The world’s first test-tube hamburger, produced by researchers at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands who turned stem cells extracted from a cow into strips of meat, was sampled by food experts who said it tasted almost like a real thing. It takes three weeks for cells to multiply in sufficient numbers to form small strips of muscle tissue, about one third of an inch long, but that process requires half the energy needed for farming cattle, and produces 96 percent fewer emissions of greenhouse gasses.

A start-up company from San Francisco, called Muufri, is working on the production of synthetic milk, which is based on the same process as the one used for manufacturing insulin. Such milk will contain all basic proteins, minerals, fats and sugar as found in natural milk, but will be based on yeast cells and vegetable fats with added minerals. Other companies, like Impossible Foods and Real Vegan Cheese have similar ideas on their minds.

Insects, too, could be part of the solution. Don’t be so surprised. They are already integral component of the diet for some 2 billion people worldwide. If you find eating insects repulsive don’t worry, like surimi crab sticks, McNuggets, fake cheese, and similar items, they will be processed to look completely different, while retaining their nutritional value. Insects are an excellent source of protein, vitamins, fat, fibre, and minerals.
Despite our preference for naturally grown products, we have to be aware that agriculture represents one of the greatest threats to our planet. It produces more greenhouse gases than all our cars and planes, and it’s the biggest pollutant of water, endangering great parts of aquatic ecosystems. A growing population and richer diets will demand us to nearly double the production of crops by 2050. We are already using an area the size of S. America for growing crops and additional surface the size of Africa to raise livestock. Everybody is aware that it cannot go on like this forever.

The number of measures needs to be taken to facilitate the sustainability of our large population, from using our resources more efficiently, reducing waste, bio-fortifying crops to increase their nutritional value, to getting used to eating synthetically produced food.

Extra link: Shmeat: Meat grown in a lab

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