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The menu of the future

08.03.2019
 

What will eleven billion people eat in 80 years time? A crucial question given the increasing scarcity of agricultural land and the constantly growing demand for meat. Part of the solution could be insect crisps, lab-grown meat and algae products.

323

million tons of meat were produced worldwide in 2017 according to the FAO.

The world's population is growing steadily, and its hunger for meat is also growing from year to year. According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), meat production rose by 1.25 percent to a total of 323 million tons in 2017. By 2050, forecasts predict that global meat production would have to double from today in order to satisfy demand. This is currently rising sharply, especially in developing countries. Small wonder that in 2017 alone, the UN counted an increase of 83 million people worldwide, about the same as the population of Germany. By 2050, up to 9.8 billion people are expected to live on Earth, rising to 11.2 billion 80 years from now. This is an enormous challenge since 80 percent of arable land around the globe is already used for feeding or grazing livestock.

„By 2050, FAO forecasts predict that global meat production would have to double from today in order to satisfy demand.“

What we eat

Gunther Hirschfelder is Professor of Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Regensburg (Bavaria). He has authored and edited numerous publications on the topic of food. Currently, he is particularly interested in structures of nutrition under the influence of the accelerated societal and technological change. In what way are food and eating changing in our society? Read more. 

Printed lunch

So what are the possible solutions for future nutrition? Let's take a little imaginary leap into the year 2100. Manuel M. is working in his home office and is hungry. He is preparing his lunch, but he's not in the kitchen. He doesn't even have to leave his study. Instead, he picks up his smartphone and measures his nutritional values via fingertip sensor and an app. As recommended, he prints out a test tube meat burger (his 3D printer also contains a bioreactor for meat and has replaced the kitchen). He eats his 'printed meal'. The ingredients are perfectly customised to his nutritional needs and fitness level. He also grabs some protein-rich Buffalo crisps from his store room, not made from potatoes but rather from the larvae of buffalo worms. The fish planned for his evening meal comes from the in-house aquaponics culture in the apartment building's garden tank. Even the side salad grows sumptuously on the roof; using fish excrement as fertilizer and the soil automatically composted from organic waste. Everything stays in-house. And what is there to drink? A healthy algae shake. This comes from the lighting system in the corridors, which is also the building's algae reactor – spirulina algae thrive in the modern LED tube walls.

Will this take a few centuries to become reality? Probably not. Parts of this vision are already reality: a company in Swabia, Germany, for example, produces pasta with insect content (10 percent buffalo worm larvae) and already sells it in retail stores and online.

Steaks from the Petri dish

Lab-grown meat or clean meat already exists, even if you can't buy it yet. The principle comes from medicine and could solve the meat problem of the future. Muscle stem cells are extracted from animals. Scientists use these to grow meat in Petri dishes. The muscle tissue which the lab-grown meat is to consist of is formed into a burger or steak in a nutrient solution of sugar, amino acids, minerals, vitamins and a growth serum. In 2013 the Dutch researcher Mark Post presented the first 140 grams of artificial ground meat at the University of Maastricht (the Netherlands) – at that time it cost 250,000 dollars. Incidentally, one of his donors was Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google. And so far it has been successful. Today, Mark Post grows his artificial meat in the bioreactors of his start-up company. One kilogram is set to cost only nine dollars once industrial production is up and running. As for what actually happens in the glass dish, when muscle cells from a cow divide, a whole trillion other cells are created. Ultimately it is possible to grow up to 10,000 kilograms of meat from these cells. The development of laboratory grown meat seems to be going at a rapid pace: in 2017, a Californian start-up presented the world's first lab-grown poultry. Bill Gates invested millions in the company. Mark Post reckons artificially produced meat will generate 96 percent less greenhouse gasthan conventional meat production and mass livestock farming. The website of Post's company says that using his method, cell donations from just 150 cows would be enough to cover global demand for meat. What's more, the cows of course stayed alive. The first step though, is to launch onto the market, a move expected in around three to four years. Less methane and other greenhouse gases and lower water consumption in livestock farming are additional convincing arguments for such a meat product. Consumer interest could be high: according to a study conducted by the Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis (ITAS) at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, respondents see lab-grown meat as one of several alternatives to conventional meat production.

Lab-grown meat

During production of lab-grown meat, a cow's muscle cell produces a whole trillion other cells. Ultimately, it is possible to grow up to 10,000 kilograms of meat from these cells.

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Algae – not just for sushi

Back to Manuel M.: for him, if not part of his daily diet, algae is at least consumed on a weekly basis. The basement of his apartment building houses bioreactors that produce enough seaweed for all tenants. Costing a flat rate, your weekly ration is only a click away. Once a week, the algae technician harvests the algae, cuts out new young plants and places the fresh delivery in front of your apartment door. Algae are produced like this everywhere in the city – mostly in underground farms. Their oil is also processed into biofuel and the remaining plant residues are fed to cows and fish as protein-rich feed. Sounds far-fetched? Not at all.

Algae are one of the oldest plant species on earth and are even considered one of the first life forms on our planet – so could they really become one of the main sources of food for mankind in the future? In theory they provide many proteins, minerals such as iron, calcium, iodine, potassium or vitamin B12 and their omega-3 fat content in particular is at a similar level to that of fish. They are extremely undemanding and thrive under adverse conditions, provided that sunlight and water are available. They don't even need clean potable water. Algae are also suitable as food for farm animals and plants. We make a distinction between microalgae and macroalgae. The best known microalgae species are spirulina and chlorella. These are processed into powder or tablets, while macroalgae can be harvested and processed fresh, like lettuce or vegetables. Microalgae thrive in bioreactors; macroalgae usually need mariculture, i.e. coastal farms by the sea, in order to grow well.

Hip vegetables with tradition

According to the FAO, a total of 31 million tonnes of algae were produced worldwide in 2016. Most of it in China. In reality, production is probably much higher because the available data is not ideal.

On closer inspection, it is also apparent that in fact algae are not so completely new to people's diet: around 500 species are already consumed around the world. Especially in East Asia where they are part of traditional dishes, for example miso soup. In Japan nori sheets are an integral part of the sushi tradition and seaweed ice cream is also popular. In Germany, agar is found as a vegetable alternative to gelatine, for example in cream or jam. So in fact every European has already eaten algae directly or indirectly, mostly in processed form as stabilizers or binding and gelling agents. However, there is a risk factor in large-scale cultivation: cultivation must be strictly controlled as the plants bind heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and iodine from their environment alongside nutrients. Algae production could open up many prospects: whether in the form of protein-rich animal feed for ruminants and fish, or as a grain-free raw material for biofuels that does not compete with food production. There are many strong arguments in favour of cultivation: first and foremost, algae have the decisive advantage that they do not take up extra arable land and can grow ten times faster than plants. They also thrive in infertile soils, even in the desert, and do not even absorb freshwater resources since many species have low requirements in terms of water quality. Under ideal conditions, the most productive varieties produce about 30 tons of protein per hectare per year. Theoretically, in the future every kitchen could have a mini algae farm next to the microwave.

Global dynamic

The current largest algae farm in Germany alone has a glass tube system of more than 500 kilometres and more and more start-ups are popping up to produce noodles, sauces, spreads and even algae crackers. You can now even buy the first algae lemonade. However, there is a major challenge in production: most macroalgae are currently still cultivated in maricultures, i.e. in coastal areas. What's more, wherever a large amount of algae is added to or removed from the sea, the existing ecosystem is disturbed.

Nevertheless, all these examples show that food, along with food production, manufacture and trade, is developing an ever-increasing global dynamic that makes accurate forecasting difficult, especially when food culture is taken into account. This is confirmed by a glimpse into the past: barely one hundred years ago, food was purely for satiation and was simply the "ingestion of food" that was locally available, as the cultural sociologist Georg Simmel put it. Now eating is becoming more and more of a status symbol. It is about culture and health and more and more for self-improvement. And this will also have an enormous impact. One which the future will reveal.

 

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