The future of the global food system

Tuesday, 06 June, 2023

The future of the global food system

With the world’s population estimated to grow to 10 billion in 30 years’ time, nothing is off the table when it comes to food — from insects to cultured meat.

Professor Johannes le Coutre from UNSW Sydney’s School of Chemical Engineering said it would be a pressing challenge to ramp up calorie production without overwhelming the planet.

“We’re going to need to change what we eat and how we grow it over the next two decades so we can diversify our sources of protein,” he said.

Many places such as Thailand, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mexico have embraced insects in their cuisine for centuries. Though this is still considered foreign in many western cultures, insects are protein-packed and biologically similar to shrimps.

According to le Coutre, not every insect is edible, but crickets, moths and beetles may be on the menu in 30 years.

Cultured meat is another means of diversifying protein, which will also be more accessible in 30 years.

The first cultured meat patty was showcased to the world priced at almost US $330,000 ($500,000 AUD). Now, companies such as Post’s Mosa Meat report the price of cell-cultured meat has decreased to about $10 US ($15.15 AUD) per burger.

“While we’re making progress in this space, further research is needed to ensure lab-produced meat satisfies consumer expectations and can be manufactured at a reasonable cost,” le Coutre said.

Though there are debates regarding genetically modified food, it is expected to take up greater space on supermarket shelves in the future.

Genetically modified food

Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are any animal, plant or microbe whose DNA has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. The Australian Department of Health and Aged Care Office of the Gene Technology Regulator has approved only four genetically modified (GM) crops for cultivation: cotton, canola, Indian mustard and safflower.

Fresh GM foods such as produce or meats are currently banned in Australia and New Zealand, but le Coutre expects there is a role for them in the future, despite negative public perception of them.

“The idea of altering crops to require less water or better resist diseases or pests is not a new one, but it will play an important role if we want our future crops to be more resilient to climate change,” he said.

“We can alter the DNA of crops to require less energy and resources to grow, which will reduce our carbon footprint.”

Golden Rice is an example of how GMO can potentially help address global health concerns. It is a variety of rice produced through genetic engineering to biosynthesise a precursor of vitamin A — aimed to combat vitamin A deficiency in developing countries.

In countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines, where rice is a staple in the population’s diet, the introduction of Golden Rice into the food supply chain demonstrates the need for functional food for humanitarian purposes.

There are other ways to improve crops without genetic engineering, such as marker assisted selection and breeding.

“It’s possible to produce medical foods that can help address other health issues such as cognitive decline. Products are available to postpone the onset of cognitive decline using blends of fish oils, uridine monophosphate, lipids and B vitamins,” le Coutre said.

The world’s food security problem must also be solved to sustainably feed people in the next 30 years. With 30% of the world’s food production not being consumed, the top priority should be reducing food waste.

“The other issue is poverty, and even if we succeed to reduce food waste, there are still people who can’t afford to buy safe and nutritious food,” le Coutre said.

There is also a need for technological innovation, policy innovation and more investment in education and research.

“If we can achieve all three on a global scale, we’ll have the right recipe to a more sustainable food system.”

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