Can Artificial Food Put an End to Famine?
Synthetic tea? Lab-grown meat? Artificial milk? Nutrients and vitamins in a protein shake? Sci-fi movies like the Matrix, Star Trek or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy showed us a glimpse of the future of eating disconnected from Mother Earth. As the world population is growing while producing more food through farming strains the resources of the planet, could artificial food ensure appropriate nutrition for everyone on the globe?
Our schizophrenic eating habits and environmental stress factors
A UN report called State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World published some days ago, provided some disheartening statistics about famine and obesity worldwide. About 821 million people from the 7.6 billion inhabitants of the world don’t have adequate nutrition. It means one in nine people globally; 515 million people in Asia and 256.5 million in Africa suffer from hunger on a daily basis. Reduced food intake causes nearly half the deaths in children under five years–old. About 66 million schoolchildren across the world are hungry. On the other hand, the report says that difficulties accessing nutritious food are contributing to the growing problem of obesity in the world, with one in eight adults – more than 672 million – being classified as obese, meaning a body mass index of over 30.
While it seems that we are unable to provide food for more than 800 million people at the very moment, the population of the world is growing exponentially – pushing up the global food demand, which is expected to increase anywhere between 59% to 98% by 2050. At the same time, the world’s demand for meat will soon outpace our supply of cow, pigs, chickens or other edible animals. Climate change–driven water scarcity, rising global temperatures, and extreme weather will have severe long-term effects on crop yields. Moreover, producing food today is incredibly stressful to the environment. One cow can consume up to 11,000 gallons of water a year. Worldwide, livestock may be responsible for 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. And at the very end, one-third of what we cultivate goes to waste. Imagine any other enterprise working that ineffectively. And that waste contains ingredients that are increasingly hard to collect.
Given that traditional approaches haven’t mitigated the problem of global food insecurity satisfactorily and the issue will in all likelihood only aggravate in the future, we might ask what technology can offer.
Brand-new on the menu: lab-grown chicken and artificial tuna
Have you heard of the expressions “clean meat,” “in vitro meat,” “artificial meat” or even “alt-meat”? In the last couple of years, experiments with producing meat-like edible organisms in laboratories multiplied. In general, the process is similar to 3D bioprinting: scientists take a live animal’s adult muscle stem cells and set them in a nutrient-rich liquid to allow them to grow around scaffolds to help them achieve the desired shape.
Parallel to the increased interest in producing cultured or clean meat in laboratories, companies are multiplying like mushrooms in the field. Beyond Silicon Valley, scientists in Maastricht, Tel Aviv or Tokyo are experimenting with stem cells, and the future of meat production while figuring out a way for mass production.
For example, researchers of the Cultured Beef Project remove muscle cells from the shoulder of a cow and feed the cells with a nutrient mix in a Petri dish, and they grow into muscle tissue. From a few starter cells, one can derive tons of meat. The Netherlands-based company, Mosa Meat introduced their first hamburger in London in 2013, and they promise to bring artificial beef to the masses in the next 3-4 years. Two Israeli start-ups, SuperMeat in Tel Aviv and the Modern Agriculture Foundation (MAF) in Ramat Gan joined the quest to mass-produce cultured meat, working on cultivating chicken meat in their laboratories, while Silicon Valley-based Finless Foods is promising to produce real fish meat out of stem cells to create more sustainable seafood.
How far are we from mass production of cultured foie gras or synthetic chorizo?
Another San Francisco-based company, JUST Inc., the formerly known as the controversial food enterprise, Hampton Creek, is developing a cultured foie gras, synthetic chorizo, and artificial nugget. Its researchers are also working on cultured meat, and they promised to introduce their version at the end of this year. A Japanese company, Integriculture Inc., could mean a competitor for JUST in the field of cultured foie gras. CEO Yuki Hanyu says their lab-grown product could hit the shelves within the next four years.
How far are they from mass production? No one knows for sure, as the technology to produce such complex meat sorts as for example steaks or hamburgers – meat not only with muscle tissues but connective tissues or fat cells in perfect harmony – is mind-blowingly difficult. Besides, production costs are incredibly high. In 2013, the price of lab-grown meat for a hamburger was $325,000. Although it dropped significantly since then, the cost of certain ingredients for production – such as serums to feed cells – remained still high. However, the biggest obstacle so far is not technology but the taste – that is unlike what people are used to because blood, fat, and connective tissue are missing. But researchers are working on improving it, and in many cases, it still resonates with people better as plant-based solutions.
Cheese and milk in a petri dish
A team in San Francisco is working on vegan cheese that contains protein identical to milk protein but doesn’t come from animals. They transform yeast cells into miniature milk–protein factories. It isn’t a cheese substitute, but real cheese that has no animal origin. Their process is more environmentally sustainable than standard cheese–making.
The startup Muufri hopes to design yeast cultures that can produce milk proteins. This retains the taste and nutritional value of real milk. It could be accessible to many people worldwide less expensively than dairy milk. Dairy production is responsible for about 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions every year. Muufri argues that having an entire cow just to produce milk is inefficient. They can control what the milk actually contains, and while their milk cannot provide the same quality that Mother Nature does, it can come close.
Matrix reloaded – Soylent
Do you remember the scene from Matrix where Neo and his newfound compatriots eat breakfast? A disgusting bowl of proteins with minerals, vitamins, and nutrients, “everything the body needs,” says one of the fighters, Dozer.
While they eat the skeletal remains of what meals used to be out of necessity in a post-apocalyptic setting where steak only exists in the Matrix, Soylent already offers an extreme solution for people who consider eating an unnecessary burden. A meal replacement powder mixed with water that contains all the nutrition necessary for an average adult. The company advises consumers to supplement traditional meals until they find their preferred balance between Soylent and real food. The company hopes its product will save time and effort by eliminating the need to prepare every meal. However, as eating is not only about chowing nutrients, vitamins and some materials down our throats, but enjoying the taste, the color, the consistency or the smell of our food, Soylent might find it necessary to give its products “food-like” characteristics in the future.
Would you have a bite?
The main obstacle to artificial food becoming widespread is not technology or money, but people’s strong stance against meals coming from laboratories. That’s even the case with projects that actually use fresh ingredients with state-of-the-art technology, such as the Foodini 3D food printer created by Natural Machines. Lynette Kucsma, Co-Founder and CMO told The Medical Futurist that “usually, haters think we are forcing people to buy pre-filled food capsules and/or that we are making highly processed foods. Not the case at all, but quite the opposite. Once people understand that we are focused on helping people eat healthier by preparing more of their foods with fresh, real ingredients, haters stop hating.”
As artificial meat, milk or cheese sounds like a meal from Planet X, people could have a hard time accepting it. In Michigan State University’s Food Literacy and Engagement Poll, The Conversation surveyed over 2,100 Americans in 2018 asking, “How likely would you be to purchase foods that look and taste identical to meat, but are based on ingredients that are produced artificially?” The results were ambivalent. One-third of Americans said they would be likely to purchase cultured meat, with the other two-thirds veering toward caution. Forty-eight percent told the interviewers they’d be unlikely to buy this product.
Alternative foods of the future
What if we put things in perspective and push it to the limit? Imagine what if the traditional pathways of agriculture might collapse due to climate change and overproduction in the next 2-3 decades. For reasons of food security, experts and organizations responsible for nutrition are not only contemplating the idea of clean meat and other types of artificial foods but also insect-eating. Around 2 billion people regularly eat insects as part of their diet, and over 1,900 species are edible. The most commonly eaten bugs are beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps and ants. In 2011, the European Commission even offered a massive $4.32 million prize to the group that comes up with the best idea for developing insects as a popular food. Now, what if we tell you that in decades to come, the foods that we know today will disappear and your choices will be reduced to bugs or artificial food?
While according to National Geographic, stinkbugs actually taste like apples, artificial meat or synthetic milk will hopefully taste as the original. We would not like to find ourselves in a situation similar to Arthur Dent’s in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,
“he had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. The way it functioned was very interesting. When the Drink button was pressed, it made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject's taste buds, a spectroscopic examination of the subject's metabolism and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centers of the subject's brain to see what was likely to go down well. However, no one knew quite why it did this because it invariably delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.”
All-in-all, the response to our original question is most probably not whether or not artificial food will likely to have the capacity to put an end to food insecurities, but whether people are willing to accept dishes not coming from natural sources, but from laboratories.
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