The human population is expected to grow from 7.7 billion to nearly 10 billion by 2050. That’s a lot of people to feed. In addition to plant-based protein and cellular agriculture, here are three other foods that hold promise for tackling predicted food shortages in a sustainable way.
What’s it all about, algae?
The nutritional value of algae varies widely, but some species are especially rich in nutrients, including vitamin B12 (one of the few vegetarian sources), vitamin E, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids, along with fiber and other beneficial plant compounds.
Algae are commercially cultivated in large fresh- or saltwater ponds but also in more high-tech ways, including fermentation systems and closed tubes called photobioreactors. The slimy, green mush is then dried into a powder. Algae, which have a “green” salty fish flavor (like grassy seaweed mixed in salt water), can be infused into smoothies, breads, biscuits, yogurt, cheese, and pasta, making it more palatable to some people. Fake shrimp made from algae and a vegan tuna-less tuna that contains algae oil (a good source of omega-3s) are now available.
For many people, the thought of eating insects sounds repugnant. But edible insects—including beetles, caterpillars, ants, grasshoppers, and crickets—are an excellent protein source, high in fiber (chitin, a constituent of exoskeletons), healthy fats, and nutrients such as copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, selenium, and zinc. In addition, insects can be farmed in a cost-effective, environmentally friendly way, especially compared to beef and pork. They emit lower amounts of greenhouse gases than livestock and can be grown using food waste.
By some estimates, it takes just two pounds of feed to produce one pound of crickets, compared to eight pounds of feed needed to yield one pound of mass-produced beef. On the downside, some insects accumulate environmental toxins easily and there is little regulation—though some companies submit documentation on the safety of their products.
Two billion people worldwide, mostly in tropical regions, already include insects in their diets. But to appeal to the insect-averse, an increasing number of companies around the world are making a varietyof products from dried and ground-up insects, including cricket cookies, crackers, cakes, pasta, tortilla chips, and protein bars. There are even cricket drinks, cricket “meat substitutes,” and a cricket cooking oil in the works. For the more daring, the insects are simply dried to be eaten whole as crunchy snacks.
To scale up production to industrial levels in a cost-effective, sustainable way, a UK startup, Entocycle, is farming black soldier fly larvae inside fully autonomous, environmentally controlled indoor containers, or smart pods, which can be stacked on top of one another. The company grinds the larvae into a powder to sell as animal feed (primarily fish food) but hopes to transition into creating insect-based feed for humans one day.
Food . . . from a printer?
3D-printed food involves a process called additive manufacturing, where an edible paste (which can be made of anything, really) is added layer by layer to create foods like pasta, pizza, crackers, and cakes (and hopefully healthier foods in the future). It can also be used to make intricate designs, even photo-quality images, on baked goods or foam-topped beverages like coffee or beer.
While 3D-printed food is trending—a traveling pop-up restaurant in Europe featured food, utensils, and furniture all made with a 3D printer—it is still a relatively new technology. Still, food insecurity could be addressed in the future by storing nonperishable powders made from insects, algae, grasses, or seeds, and then, with the addition of sugar and oil, using the 3D printers to make nutrient-rich foods out of them. At least one company is experimenting with this, with funding from NASA.
Other innovative approaches include using food waste as the printer paste. In one such endeavor, leftover fruit, bread, rice, and vegetables are boiled into a paste that can be printed and baked so that no water remains, making it possible to store for a long time but remain safe to eat. Meanwhile, a Dutch “food designer” has used the technology to create a healthy and sustainable “edible ecosystem,” which involves printing a support structure from an “edible breeding ground” containing seeds, spores, and yeast.
As natural processes take place over a few days, it develops into an edible structure that looks sort of like a Wiffle ball, with the seeds turning into green sprouts and the spores growing into mushrooms, as described in this TEDx talk.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.
Also see Is Soylent the Future of Nutrition?