Even vegetarians can rejoice over these new types of meat hitting the market. Here’s why.
Just the FAQs, USA TODAY
As the world heats up and the worldwide population increases, Amanda Little wonders how we’ll feed humanity.
The bad news: There is no single silver-bullet answer.
The better news: There are many smart people working on many potential solutions.
Little’s book, “The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World” (Harmony, 340 pp.), out June 4, landed just after an Australian policy paper warned the climate change apocalypse could start by 2050 if humans don’t act.
The journalist and Vanderbilt University professor spent four years researching what countries, people, businesses and organizations around the globe are doing to ensure sustainability for the world’s food supply.
“The Fate of Food” by Amanda Little (Photo: Harmony Books)
“Three decades from now, if we’re going to have a healthy, secure food supply, it will require a much larger, more deliberate network of participants, nationally and globally,” Little writes.
Here are six things we learned from the “The Fate of Food”:
The problems to solve vary around the world
The underlying global issues are too many mouths to feed — the United Nations predicts the world’s population will be 9.8 billion by 2050 — and climate change.
But how those macro issues play out around the globe and in rural vs. urban areas varies.
In China, for instance, Little found that the country’s infrastructure doesn’t support transporting crops long distances, so that means farms are concentrated in greenbelts just outside urban centers. But pollution from those areas creates huge issues with contaminated soil, air and water.
In the United States, she notes that as the Midwest and Northeast experience freak freezes and wetter springs that kill off crops; the Southwest faces heat waves, forest fires and punishing droughts, which also kill off crops.
And some countries, most notably in Africa, are already experiencing famine, so they’re looking to the fastest, most economical way to feed their population, including turning to genetically modified crops.
GMOs are at the center of the debate
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Genetically modified organisms, more commonly known as GMOs, are polarizing. Plants can be genetically engineered to develop a resistance against insects or tolerate drought, but critics are concerned about potential health and environmental effects.
But as Little writes, “Outside the United States and especially in emerging economies, the debate around technology and agriculture — including GMOs — is not about better labeling for corn chips, or even about corporate control of the food system, it’s about progress and, ultimately, survival.”
In her visit to Kenya, she heard of countless maize crops wiped out by insects and drought, but crops featuring gene-altered seeds from Monsanto were thriving. And maize, which is packed with calories, is critical to survival in the famished country.
The altering of food and animals by adding and subtracting genetic traits in a lab sounds like science fiction. Different than GMO’s, gene-edited food could be the wave of the future. (Nov. 15)
Technology is key
Even more promising perhaps, and certainly less controversial, is robotics.
Imagine: Soldiers in the field getting 3D-printed meals personalized to their needs and delivered by drones. The Army told Little that may not be too far off.
Many technological solutions are being explored and are underway to solve one of Little’s burning questions: “How will we produce affordable food for billions of people in the coming decades with a much lower volume of chemicals?”
From farm equipment that uses artificial intelligence to treat plants individually and ultimately cut down on chemicals to vertical farming with precision tools that can make organic farming more scalable, Little highlights critical technological advancements in modern farming. But she also highlights potential problems, namely cost.
Minimizing food waste could go a long way
One thing that could actually save money is minimizing food waste, both on an individual level and on a larger scale.
Much of what is thrown away by grocery stores can be donated, recycled or composted. And Little found that nearly every major food retailer has introduced a waste-reduction program. In her research into Kroger, which aims to eliminate food waste from its stores by 2025, she found that each of the chain’s 2,800 supermarkets produces tons of trash each week, mostly perishable foods that have reached sell-by dates but are still safe to eat.
“If food waste around the world was a country, it would rank third behind China and the U.S. in terms of greenhouse gas emissions,” Darby Hoover, a waste researcher with the San Francisco office of the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, tells Little.
Water is paramount
This seems obvious but is one of the biggest issues as drought patterns intensify across the globe.
In a visit to Israel, Little saw progress with sensors that were able to minimize water system leaks and, ultimately, water waste. Other areas of progress and possible expansion areas include desalination plants that make ocean water suitable for drinking and irrigation, and advances in toilet-to-tap water treatment — advanced filtration to convert sewage into pure water.
Little ponders whether we could we get to the point where 100% of water that goes down the drain is recycled? Maybe in a few decades.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, only 6.1% of the lower 48 states are currently experiencing drought conditions. Nick Carson’s explains.
Main sources of protein may shift
The negative environmental impacts of meat production, particularly raising beef, have been widely documented.
Little digs into options for alternative protein sources, including seafood, but it has its own sustainability issues: sea lice, fish excrement and the toll on the wild fish population. Closed containment aquaculture could eliminate parasites and cut down on waste, disease and escapes, but the technology is costly and complex.
Other meat alternatives, like the Impossible Burger, a plant-based patty, have been growing and bear watching.
But beef could still be what’s for dinner with cultured meats grown in a lab using cells taken from living animals that renew and replicate themselves. It’s not alive, it’s just meat.
Lab meat could reduce greenhouse gas emissions, water use and bacterial contamination, as well as the risk of heart disease and obesity.
The cell-to-fork process takes two to six weeks, considerably shorter than the more than two years it takes to grow cattle from conception to maturity, which could ultimately result in cost, time and energy savings. But research is still in its infancy and the process currently costs thousands of dollars per pound, though Finless Foods claims it could release cultured bluefin tuna by late this year.
Although it’s unlikely that cultured meats will fully replace farm-raised meat in the near term, they could eventually become a substantial part of the meat market.
Crickets aren’t just for feeding to your reptiles anymore. The protein-packed critters are finding their way into supermarkets and even restaurants.
Jasper Colt and Trevor Hughes and Sean Rossman, USA TODAY
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