What future foods will we eat in 2050?

Over the next few decades, the fate of the world’s food supply will be largely shaped by one number: 9.3 billion. This is the projected world population for 2050. By then, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that the world must have increased food production by 60% to meet demand .

Where will these extra calories come from? The answer will likely require new approaches to food production.

Earth and climate: Agriculture currently uses around 40% of the earth’s land and is responsible for 25% of greenhouse gas emissions. It is possible to clear vast tracts of rainforests and other areas to create new agricultural land, as nations have done at an unprecedented rate throughout the 20th century.

But it would make global warming worse in two ways: by creating more sources of greenhouse gas emissions (like methane from livestock) and by destroying trees, which absorb carbon while alive and release it. when they are slaughtered.

Rethinking the food supply: Sustainably feeding a growing population will require both improving the efficiency of conventional agriculture and inventing new ways to produce food.

On the conventional farming side, many commercial farmers are already using methods to increase yield while minimizing environmental destruction, such as using efficient irrigation systems, adapting fertilizer blends to certain crops and soils, using computers to better apply pesticides and herbicides and feeding livestock supplements to reduce their methane production.

As for new food production techniques, the future is wide open. Vertical farmers grow crops indoors, using computers to monitor plant health and efficiently administer food, water and light. Cell culture meat producers grow real animal meat in labs, all without killing any animals. And aquaculturists are growing nutrient-rich kelp and microalgae, both in natural ecosystems and in bioreactors.

As the 20th century shows, the food supply is not fixed — and it can change quickly. Here are some foods, new and old, that could be on menus by 2050.

Cell culture meat: Lab grown, cell culture meat is not a plant-based meat alternative – it is real meat.

The process works by extracting a healthy culture of cells from an animal, then placing those cells in a bioreactor where they can grow and multiply into tissue. After a few weeks, lab-grown meat can be turned into familiar products, like burgers or chicken nuggets.

While questions remain about the nutritional value of cell-cultured meat, it definitely has the upper hand ethically. The fact that it doesn’t require animal slaughter also means the industry could come up with exotic foods, such as lab-grown tiger meat, which a startup may soon start selling.

Plant-based alternatives to meat: Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have been exploding plant-based meat substitutes over the past decade. One of the reasons these companies have risen to prominence is that they appeal to both vegetarians and carnivores by mimicking the taste, appearance and texture of real meat products.

But the future of plant-based foods may also hold entirely new flavors. In 2020, Big Think asked Impossible Foods CEO Patrick O. Brown if the company had considered creating plant-based dishes that bring new flavors and concepts to the table instead of foods. that simply imitate familiar meat products.

“Oh absolutely, and it’s something internal, and in our [research and development] team, we like to think about it,” Brown said.

Traci Des Jardins, chef and culinary advisor at Impossible Foods, said creating new plant-based dishes would be something like the vegetarian answer to the hot dog (in concept, not taste):

“I can imagine products that we could create at Impossible that would be amazing things that could become as iconic as the hot dog,” she told Big Think. “Because a hot dog really doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a name that’s been given to that thing that goes in that bun. And so, I think there are many, many possibilities, and we could create all kinds of delicious things that don’t have the environmental impact of animal meats.

Legumes: Pulses – the edible seeds of which are called legumes – are responsible for all the beans, lentils and peas in the world. Legumes are inexpensive and packed with protein and B vitamins.

But one of the reasons these plants are likely to play an increasingly important role in the global food supply is their sustainability. Legumes can grow in a wide variety of climates and, unlike most modern crops, they do not require nitrogen fertilizers. In fact, most legumes (famously, peanuts) actually improve soil quality.

There are over 16,000 species of pulses worldwide, although only a small number are produced on a large scale.

The great genetic diversity of legumes means they could have nutritional benefits currently unknown to scientists, and likely species that have yet to be discovered.

Astonished: Jellyfish have been part of Asian cuisine for centuries. But invertebrates, of which there are more than 20 edible species, could soon start appearing on Western menus, likely in the form of dried chips or cold pickled products.

Low in fat and high in protein and minerals, jellyfish offer many of the same health benefits as other fish, but they are not endangered. In fact, jellyfish populations have flourished as the waters warm, positioning them as a particularly sustainable seafood option.

Insects: Nearly 2 billion people around the world eat insects, a practice known as entomophagy. Of course, the idea of ​​snacking on fried grasshoppers is a tough sell, especially for consumers in Western countries.

But when it comes to breeding efficiency, insects outperform just about every other animal, as the cold-blooded creatures are extremely easy to breed and are much more efficient at converting their feed into protein than regular cattle. .

Edible insects are often touted as a “food of the future” and the market is expected to experience significant growth throughout the decade. But for insects to become a common dish outside of African and Asian countries, marketers will have to find a way to change the standards enough to rid entomophagy of its stigma in the West. In the meantime, some insect breeders are embarking on their breeding for animal feed.

Algae: Kelp, which is a macroalgae, is not only rich in antioxidants and elements like iodine, but also one of the most sustainable crops. After all, algae like kelp don’t need food, and because they grow by photosynthesis, they capture carbon that enters the oceans from greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

People have been eating edible seaweed for centuries, especially in Japan, where it was once such a common crop that the government allowed people to pay taxes with it. In recent years, aquaculturists in the United States have increased seaweed production, with some startups now selling kelp-based burgers, jerky, chips and pasta.

Seaweed farm. (Credit: eyetronic / Adobe Stock)

Beyond macroalgae like seaweed, microalgae may also soon play a bigger role in the food supply. Microalgae offer similar health benefits to their larger, multicellular counterparts, but they can be grown more easily indoors in photobioreactors.

There are over 30,000 documented species of microalgae, although only a handful are currently used for food, dietary supplements and pharmaceuticals. Future research may uncover additional health benefits or new ways to produce algae.

When it comes to microalgae as food, the idea is to use it as an additional ingredient (like microalgae powder which is the base ingredient in pasta) rather than eating microalgae alone.

Overhaul of the food supply: Feeding the world’s growing population in a sustainable way is a daunting task, but it wouldn’t be the first time society has radically transformed its approach to food production.

In 1900, the world’s population was approximately 1.7 billion people, a number that would more than triple over the next century. To feed this burgeoning population, the 20th century saw innovations that dramatically increased the efficiency of food production, including the introduction of fuel-powered agricultural machinery, the Haber-Bosch process of producing nitrogen fertilizer from air, highly productive hybrid maize, animal breeding and plant breeding and genetically modified crops.

Overall, these innovations helped food supply grow faster than demand during the second half of the century, reducing hunger and malnutrition around the world, although hunger was and remains a problem in developing countries.

But while productive, changes to food production in the 20th century had negative consequences: processed foods became ubiquitous, producers cleared hundreds of millions of hectares for farmland, industrial farming practices caused widespread land degradation, sugar consumption increased, and people (especially in Western countries) began to consume many more calories, mainly from flour, grains, fats and oils.

Today we have a better idea of ​​how foods affect health and the environment, not to mention better technology to improve their production. For food producers who want to break away from the most destructive practices of the 20th century, the overarching goal is to make nutritious, affordable, and sustainably produced food.

Yet even the healthiest, most durable kelp chip will go flat if no one likes it. The most important goal? Give it good taste.

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