The future of food: what will we eat in 2112?

By Alice Richard
Thursday, 12 April, 2012



Giant jellyfish, insects, algae and synthetic sausages: these are some of the delicacies we have to look forward to in the next 100 years, according to Julian Cribb.

Day Two of the 2nd National Sustainable Food Summit got off to a strong start with Julian Cribb delivering the opening keynote, ‘What will we eat in 2112?’.

Looking into the future, Cribb - principal of science communications group Julian Cribb & Associates and author of The Coming Famine - described a world in which food bears little resemblance to what we eat and grow today. “The nature of food is poised to change more profoundly than in any epoch in human history since farming first began,” he said, citing climate change, dwindling fossil fuel resources, increasing population and disappearing topsoil as the catalysts for change.

The situation, as Cribb describes it, is quite bleak: “Today we have the dubious distinction of being the first generation in the whole of human history to waste nearly half our food - a colossal squandering that is neither moral, nor economic, nor sustainable,” he said.

While giving due attention to the seriousness of our current situation, Cribb sounded a note of hope for the future. Desperation, it seems, may encourage innovation in the way we produce and consume food.

Algae

Cribb predicts a massive increase in aquaculture as a farming method. Fish, he said, convert feed to protein far more efficiently than land animals and require far less oil and carbon to do so. Algae may also become a staple food for humans and animals alike, as well as being used to produce biofuels, pharmaceuticals, plastics and chemicals. Algae farms will be an ideal way to dispose of food and organic waste, as well as sewage. Cribb mentioned research currently underway at James Cook University to utilise waste CO2 from power stations as a feed source for algae.

Algae, it seems, could be an answer to many of our food problems: it can efficiently feed both animals and humans; it can be grown in the ocean, freeing up land for raising livestock and building cities; and it will turn human waste into a resource, effectively closing the food loop. “Algae farming could well become the world’s biggest cropping industry,” Cribb predicts.

Synthetic meat

While some of us may turn our noses up at the idea of meat produced in a laboratory, Cribb anticipates that synthetic meat could well become a cheap, sustainable and ethical food source into the future. “Rather than replacing traditional meat, however, the advent of these new forms of low-cost protein will merely cement real meat into an elite market niche,” Cribb said, with traditionally-reared meat costing into the hundreds of dollars per kilo thanks to rising transport and grain costs.

The upside of this, Cribb argues, is that “this will ensure that people eat their meat with more respect, restraint and appreciation”, more Japanese in style than Australian or American. To those who doubt that lab-grown meat will take off, Cribb says: “If it is tasty, healthy and cheap, billions will eat it, just as they took to margarine and wearing synthetic textiles.”

Farming

Our current farming methods are unlikely to serve us well in the future, Cribb claims, with alternatives like vertical farming, carbon sequestration and providing havens for increasingly endangered animals forming the basis of many farmers’ incomes.

Rapidly rising transport costs will see the increase of food grown in urban areas, since, as Cribb argues, if megacities “do not meet at least part of their own food needs locally, these cities will be in extreme danger of famine, should any transport, conflict or climate crisis arise”. Urban permaculture will become the standard for future urban design, with green cities eventually replacing the “grimy, polluted, soulless concrete-and-glass” cities of today.

Within these cities, cells from plants and other organisms will be cultivated in large bioreactors to produce healthy food - some of which, Cribb predicts, will be tailored to address specific health concerns like cancer and diabetes. “Those tempted to deride such factory foods might think again if eating them means an extra 10 or 20 years of healthy life,” Cribb said.

Native and novel plants

“The whole of humanity subsists on just a couple of hundred different plants, and it relies heavily on just five grains and five animals,” Cribb said. But Australia is home to 6100 edible native plants, only five of which we regularly farm and eat. Cribb predicts the world will embrace native plants as a food source in the future, making our diet far more interesting, healthy and sustainable.

Novel foods such as nutritionally-enhanced grains and vegetables, faster-growing animals and fish, and strains better adapted to specific climates will take off, Cribb anticipates. Growing opposition to GM foods could prove to be a stumbling block to this potential growth area. Cribb said: “These will only be adopted into the world diet at the rate and to the extent approved by consumers.”

New farming regions

While some effects of climate change such as rising sea levels and melting ice caps are frequently discussed, Cribb touched on another potential impact of rising global temperatures: increased farmland. By 2100, Cribb said, climate change will open up areas for cropping and grazing in Greenland and the edges of Antarctica. Canada and Siberia, he predicted, will be the food superpowers of the 22nd century. This could mean new areas of specialty food production: “I look forward to the first wines from Macquarie Island,” Cribb quipped.

He also predicted that much of our food will be produced in deserts, where we will harness solar energy to cool greenhouses and power desalination plants for water. “It could be another great opportunity for Australia to pioneer these systems,” Cribb said.

The future’s bright

Despite the multiple pressures of climate change, population expansion, increasing costs and decreasing oil, Cribb is optimistic about the future of food. He predicts that we will create innovative solutions to overcome the many difficulties we face and the human tendency to seek the new will prompt us to expand our dietary repertoire.

“Driven by necessity and impelled by our urge to discover and try new things, the next century is bound to be one of the most adventurous and interesting in the 10,000-year story of modern food,” he concluded.

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