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Science communication is important in today's technologically advanced society. A good part of the adult community is not science savvy and lacks the background to make sense of rapidly changing technology. My blog attempts to help by publishing articles of general interest in an easy to read and understand format without using mathematics. You can contact me at ektalks@yahoo.co.uk

Monday, 22 August 2016

Future of Food; How to feed 10 billion People? There is Enough Food; Strong, Sensible Policies Required

'Obesity is the problem of only humans and their pets'
'Agriculture is the process by which oil is converted into edible food'
'The security of people and nations rests on four pillars - food, energy, water and climate.  They are all closely related, and all under increasing stress'  Tom Burke, The ENDS Report (2008)
(click on a slide to view its full page image)

This blog is about the way the food in future might be different from what we eat today.  The global population could touch 10 billion by 2070 - more mouths to feed.  Better understanding of nutrition and health will modify our diets. Climate change and new technologies will change how and what food we produce.  
It may not appear so, but there is sufficient food today to feed the global population of 7.4 billion and it is possible to produce enough food to feed nutritiously 10 billion population in the future.  Let us look at some data:  

Of the 7.4 billion people, more than 10% are chronically malnourished10% are obese and 22% are overweight.  
One third of food produced for human consumption is wasted/lost with a monetary value of US$1000 billion.  
This wasted food is enough to feed the world's hungry people.  There is sufficient food to go around - it just is not happening. If we can reduce over-consumption and wastage then the world will enjoy a good surplus of food, better health and cleaner, more stable environment. 
Food shortage is due to bad management, poor distribution and a lack of will to help.
I shall first look at the current situation regarding how we produce food, what we eat, and how we can improve food availability globally without adversely affecting the resources of our planet (sustainable development).  
Over-consumption, particularly in the developed countries, has unleashed the scourge of obesity with serious consequences to human health and well-being. 

To illustrate the point, I shall consider the example of protein intake in our diets. Protein is an essential nutrient for building, maintaining and repairing human body tissue. Nine of the 20 amino acids that are used to make protein cannot be produced by the human body and must be obtained from food. However, several myths overstate the importance of protein in diets, especially from animal-based sources. 
Just now we consume too much protein and more of this is derived from animal sources.  The following two slides demonstrate how production of animal based protein requires vastly more land and water resources and is responsible for many times more GHG emissions that are linked to climate change.

Protein consumption has been increasing - over the past 50 years,  animal protein availability has increased by 59% while the plant protein increase has been 14%.  If we have to eat animal protein, then the consumption of beef must be discouraged (see the following slide) with greater emphasis on fish and poultry.  Note that almost 99% of input calories are lost in producing beef!!!  This is morally repulsive when millions die of hunger every year.
According to an FAO projection, the world would need roughly 70% more crop calories by 2050.  There will be greater demand, particularly for more resource-intensive foods such as meat and dairy. Demand for animal-based foods is projected to rise by 80%, with beef - the most resource and GHG intensive food - projected to grow by 95 percent by 2050.  Most of the increased demand will come from developing countries (see Slide below)

In China, consumption of animal based protein has gone up 10 folds since 1961.  The global poultry consumption is projected to increase by 130% between 2006 and 2050. These are worrying numbers - meat production, particularly beef, requires plant food to be used as input and the efficiency of energy conversion becomes very small - an inefficient way to feed ourselves.  Additionally, changes in land use are enormously harmful to the environment.

From the above discussion, which by necessity was kept short and concise, it is clear to me that the current way of producing and using food is not a viable option for ensuring food security in the future.  One has to consider a holistic approach where preservation of the quality of the environment must be one of the most important goals.  Reduction of GHG from agriculture at the current level of 24%, and that does not include agriculture related transport emissions, is unsustainable and must be brought down.  Cutting down consumption of beef and other red meats will be a good first step.
The governments of the world must take lead in educating people - so far they have woefully failed in this task.  DEFRA (UK) in 2014 carried out a comprehensive survey of consumer attitudes in buying food.  Price (41%) and quality (16%) were the most important reasons given. Environmental and ethical concerns were listed as most important by only 1% of consumers!

Many new developments in food technology have been happening.  Globalization also has created increased awareness of the issues involved.  Some countries are waking up to the fact that GHG emissions must be controlled to limit the possible damaging effects of climate change but overall the global response has been disappointing.  The analysis of the effect of increased global warming (of less than 2C) on future food availability suggests that overall the effect could be small but with serious redistribution of areas where food could be efficiently grown.  The worst hit area are predicted to be the tropical regions which already suffer from poor food security.

An obvious first step will be to make a serious shift from eating animal based proteins to plant based proteins.  The difficulty here is that people like to eat meat - but governments and supermarkets have many methods to achieve an objective.  I list some in the following (House of Lords. 2011. Behaviour Change. Science and Technology Select Committee, 2nd Report of Session 2010–12. London: Authority of the House of Lords.)
There are some good options here. Personally, I am in favour of fiscal disincentives - we can have high taxes on petrol, cigarettes, alcohol for various reasons.  Why should red meats and beef in particular not be made 4 or 5 times more expensive than it is now?  The money raised can then be used to bring the price down of staple food items.  If this is done on a global basis by most countries then the effects will be immediate with a big reduction in GHG emissions as well. The problem I see is that the governments of all nations respond to the rich and well-off and have been often reluctant to impose measures unpopular to this class.

Another damaging development has been the use of crops to make bio-fuels.  In 2013, 40% of US corn production went to produce ethanol, 45% was used to feed livestock and only 15% (down from 90% in year 2000) was used for food and beverages. The following cartoon says it very well:
I had discussed the current situation of food, water, climate and energy resources, with ideas of how to manage them better, in my outreach talks on sustainability and refer you to these for further details.  In the following, we shall see how food production might change over the next 50 years and what can be done to provide sufficient nutritious diet to 10 billion people.  

Future Foods:  Food habits only change slowly - there is a huge cultural tradition attached to how and what we eat. Childhood tastes persist, lot of foods are addictive and this is even more so with the wide use of flavour enhancing chemicals and preservatives by the modern food industry.  It will be wrong to assume that people will change their habits overnight - governments have a role to play in persuading people to move away from animal proteins (especially beef) to plant based proteins and some very useful advice was presented in a slide as to how this may be possible.  Fiscal incentives that hurt the pocket are generally effective and should be tried more widely.

One also has to look around to see what foods are already available whose potential is not being exploited sufficiently and if these may be developed in an environmentally friendly fashion to feed many more people.  Algae and insects are two foods that are already used in some parts of the world and there is no reason that they cannot contribute in solving the food problem.  

Intelligent, Active Food Packaging:  A lot of food is unwittingly thrown away because it has passed its display_by/use_by/best_before date.  The confusing system of labeling should be improved with better guidance to the consumer.  RFID (radio frequency ID) tags will be able to provide much more detailed information about the quality and condition of the product, resulting in much less wastage.

RFID tags are essentially smart - much smarter -  bar codes. RFID tags contain a microchip connected to a tiny antenna and may be read remotely by responding to radio signal from a reader.  In future, besides tracking, identification and price, RFID tags could store information about temperature, humidity, nutritional value, cooking instructions, microbial contamination etc. of the food.  
Nanotechnology (NT) will resolve the problem of how to signal that a product has gone off and how to prevent this in the first place.  Oxidation is one of the main factors affecting shelf life and microbial spoilage of food.  Coatings that are a few nano-meter thick can provide impermeable layers to keep oxygen out and prolong the shelf life of the product. Nano materials will also be useful in reducing other harmful effects due to moisture,UV rays and light.   
Nanoparticle sensors can change colour in response to chaning acidity levels and can be designed to release preservatives when the product starts to go off.
In future, NT can provide edible packaging, bio-degradable packaging, 100% compostable packaging leading to many beneficial changes in the way food is produced, transported, stored and consumed. 

Even if the current food wastage (of the order of 30%) can be halved, then the extra food will, in principle, be enough to eradicate hunger and malnutrition in the world.  And this is even before we include the effects of reducing over-consumption and partly switching to plant proteins from consuming animal proteins. Many other developments are happening that will revolutionize the availability of food in the future. I describe some of these developments in the following: 

Vertical and Hydroponic Farming:  Technology can help agriculture in enhancing crop yields - green revolution in the middle 20th century was responsible for several fold increase in productivity.  Genetic engineering (GM) used correctly and carefully can address many of the problem area in agriculture.  Use of vertical and hydroponic farming will help to reduce land requirements that has been blamed for environmental damage and loss of biodiversity. 

You can watch a video about how to grow hydroponic spinach by clicking here

3D Printing of Food:  Looking further ahead, really exciting developments with more exotic technologies like 3-D printing of food will be able to provide individually tailored food at reasonable cost. 

.I refer you to FAQs on 3D Food Printing for more details.

I now return to the discussion of the two most promising foods neglected by the western societies - Algae and Insects have the potential of significantly reducing the consumption of animal based proteins.
Seaweed (macro-algae) has been used as nourishing protein-rich food for centuries in China, Korea, Japan and Phillipines.  Insects have formed part of the diet in many African countries.    

ALGAE:  Algae may be the ideal non-animal food source for sustainable feeding the world while minimizing environmental damage.  It might be fair to say that all life form on earth depends on algae.  In unicellular form - microalgae - marine algae is eaten by zooplankton which form the base of the aquatic food chain.  Algae are photosynthetic and convert - a lot more efficiently than plants - sunlight, water and carbon di-oxide into carbohydrates, proteins and lipids (fats) while releasing majority of the atmospheric oxygen (marine plants release 70 to 80% of the oxygen present in the atmosphere). Algae are extremely rich in proteins, minerals, vitamins, anti-oxidents.  The essential omega-3 lipids are made by algae which are then taken up by fish through the food chain.  Algae may the best way to provide omega-3 fatty acids to vegetarians and vegans.

Algae is being looked at to produce ethanol (bio-diesels) to replace food crop based biofules.  This will free valuable farmland to grow food for human consumption.  Algae-fuel will use non-arable land and non-potable (unfit for drinking) water and deliver 10 to 100 times more energy per acre than cropland biofuels.

Currently, microalgae is extensively used as fishfeed.

Macro-algae:  Algae comes in many shapes and sizes. Macro-algae can grow to very big sizes - giant kelp can grow to be up to 50 meters long with growth rates approaching 60 cm per day!
Edible Seaweeds are algae that are cultivated for human consumption.  They contain high amounts of fiber and are a complete protein - source of all nine of the essential amino acids necessary for the dietary needs of humans.  Most edible seaweeds are marine algae while most fresh water algae are toxic to humans - traditionally seaweeds were consumed in countries with large coastlines.

The most important food species used in Japan, China and Korea are Nori, Kombu and Wakame.  

The food value of Nori lies in its high protein content (25-30% of dry weight), vitamins and mineral salts, especially iodine.  Its vitamin C content is about 1.5 times that of oranges and 75% of the protein and carbohydrates are digestible by humans.
INSECTS: Insects are eaten by over 2 billion people today.  In the western culture, insects are considered pests and repulsive creatures.  Paradoxically, we treat lobsters as delicacies but grass hoppers or mealworms as terrible animals. Why?
Insects have all the attributes that one would look for in nutritious, environment friendly wholesome food. Did you know that 10 kg of feed will produce 1 kg of beef, 3 kg of pork, 5 kg of chicken but 9 kg of locusts?  The unconverted feed is the waste in the form of manure.  For each calorie produced, Insect farming generates lot less harmful pollutant gases and much less green house gases than are produced by livestock industry.  In terms of fat, proteins and calories, insects are comparable or generally better than meat products.
I shall keep this discussion brief because there are some excellent sources of information that I refer to in the following:

1. General with historic perspective (6 minutes video)

2. TED Talk (16 minutes) on Why Not Eat Insects - a delightful introduction and rational about eating insects by Marcel Dicke

3.  FAO have been a big supporter of shifting diets from traditional meat to plants and insects.  The 200 pages book is available to download online and is a thoroughly researched document - a must read. 

FINAL WORD:   This blog feature has highlighted some of the actions that one can take to alleviate the food poverty a billion people face today and I have argued that even with a population increase of 40 to 50% in the next 50 years, there will be sufficient food to nutritiously feed all.  To get a better grip of the current situation, this blog should really be read with my talks on sustainable development.  
While an optimistic view is taken in this blog, something tells me that the situation will probably not improve much - I hold a cynical belief that human race is largely motivated by greed and wish to control.  New technology, while solving many of today's problems, also is concentrating control in fewer hands and how these characters behave is something I am not even willing to make a guess about.  I suppose, the general level of well being will improve - when people will have enough to eat and wear - but what everybody does will be controlled more and more by some central authority.

Love to hear from you what you think about life in future.

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