Scientists are looking for sustainable alternative to traditional foodstuffs as the world's population increases.
Two billion people around the world, primarily in south-east Asia and Africa, eat insects – locusts, grasshoppers, spiders, wasps, ants – on a regular basis. Now, with food scarcity a growing threat, efforts are being made to normalise the concept of entomophagy, or the consumption of insects, for the other 5 billion. Last year, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) published a list of more than 1,900 edible species of insects; the EU, meanwhile, offered its member states $3m to research the use of insects in cooking.
Why? Because insects, compared to livestock and fish, are a much more sustainable food source. They are available in abundance: for every human on Earth, there are 40 tonnes of insects. They have a higher food conversion rate than even our fastest-growing livestock (meaning they need to consume less to produce the same amount of meat) and they emit fewer greenhouse gases. As a fast-food option, which is how people treat them in countries such as Thailand, insects are greatly preferable to the water-guzzling, rainforest-destroying, methane-spewing beefburger. They are nutritious too: rich in protein, low in fat and cholesterol, high in calcium and iron.
That leaves the issue of palatability. Insects are generally viewed with disgust in the west, but attitudes are beginning to change. Thanks to adventurous restaurants – Copenhagen’s Noma has served up ants and fermented grasshoppers – and pioneering organisations such as Ento in London, we are coming to terms with the notion that insects might actually be nice to eat.
Our current food system is monumentally wasteful. Last January, a report found that almost half of the world’s food is thrown away each year. In the UK alone, according to the government’s waste adviser, Wrap, we generate 6.6m tonnes of food, drink and packaging waste per annum, at a cost of £5bn.
The fight against waste has thrown up some intriguing solutions.
For Harvard bioengineer David Edwards, the answer to the packaging problem is simple: just eat it. Last year, Edwards launched WikiCells, a company that makes edible packaging for fruit juices, coffee, ice cream and other products. Mimicking the design of a piece of fruit, the packaging consists of a soft skin “entirely comprised of natural food particles held together by nutritive ions” encased in a protective outer layer that is edible or at least biodegradable. Not only are the membranes more environmentally friendly than plastic, they are designed to taste good too.
Other packaging innovations promise to lengthen the shelf life of perishables, which would mean a reduction in food and drink waste. Pepceuticals, a company based in Leicester, is developing an antimicrobial film that it claims “should significantly prevent the deterioration of … fresh meat and save waste”.
Food replacement and eco-food innovation
One of the hottest trends attracting investors’ in Silicon Valley has a lot to do with our future eating habits. A growing number of young entrepreneurs, driven by ecological as well as profit motives, are seeking to replace resource-hungry foods such as meat with synthetic and plant-based alternatives – and the likes of Twitter founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone are giving them financial support.
Their motives are well-founded. With the global population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, and as western eating habits spread to countries such as China and India, more efficient and environmentally friendly ways are needed to produce protein-rich foods. Imitation meat is not a new concept, but Bay Area innovators, such as Beyond Meat, are making a chicken substitute good enough, they claim, to compete with the real thing. Meanwhile, Hampton Creek Foods, founded by 32-year-old entrepreneur Josh Tetrick, is working on a plant-based replacement for egg yolks to go in muffins, mayonnaise and other sauces.
As the popularity of programmes such as MasterChef and Great British Menu indicates, we have become a nation of food enthusiasts. For every budding culinary genius among us, however, there will always be a kitchen klutz who bungles the recipe and burns everything to cinders. What we need, in the view of Japanese computer scientist Yu Suzuki at Kyoto Sangyo University, is a helping hand from technology. Going several steps further than the online how-to video, Suzuki and colleagues have kitted out a kitchen with ceiling-mounted cameras and projectors that overlay cooking instructions on the ingredients. Detecting the outline of a fish, for example, Suzuki’s system will help you fillet it by highlighting where an incision needs to be made.
Meanwhile, Jinna Lei, a computer scientist at the University of Washington, is developing a system that uses depth-sensing cameras to keep track of what the cook is doing. When a mistake is made, the system will prompt the cook to make amends.
While this may sound like good news, some critics believe these innovations will also minimise the basic joys of cooking. Technology writer Evgeny Morozov says: “Such standardisation can make our kitchens as exciting as McDonald’s franchises.”
Thirty years ago, scientists announced the creation of the world’s first genetically modified plant. The new technology, it was hoped, would increase crop yields worldwide and ease global malnutrition. Since then, the fortunes of GM food have been decidedly mixed. Its uptake has been limited to just a few countries and many of its promises – including, more recently, the hope that GM crops would help reduce climate change emissions – have yet to be realised.
But in spite of continuing resistance to GM food among environmentalists and those wary of the corporations that control it, breakthroughs are expected.
Next year, it is hoped that golden rice – normal rice modified to produce beta-carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A – will be planted by farmers in the Philippines. If successful, golden rice will help counter blindness and other diseases in children in the developing world.
Meanwhile, another series of enhanced rice varieties is being developed using only conventional plant-breeding techniques. Zhikang Li, the Chinese plant breeder behind green super rice, which produces more grain while proving more resistant to droughts, floods and disease, hopes that his innovation will feed an extra 100 million people.
Andoni Aduriz, Morgaine Gaye, Charles Spence and Mike Knowlden will demonstrate ideas of food futures and “techno-emotional cuisine” at the Sunday afternoon session of FutureFest on 29 September