Combating Food Insecurity with "Future Foods"
Algae and Fungus and Insects, Oh My!
Our current food system is delicate. According to the UN, about 690 million people globally are undernourished and around 2 billion experience some form of food insecurity. These issues are continually amplified by global disturbances such as floods, frosts, droughts, pathogens, climate change, disease outbreaks, and parasites. Notable examples of these threats include the COVID-19 pandemic, the recent outbreak of swarming locusts in East Africa, North American wildfires, and tropical cyclones in India.
How can we combat food insecurity?
A plant-based diet consisting of mostly whole, unprocessed foods has been cited as the most sustainable diet in terms of land use, water consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and food availability. Current food technology infrastructure supports this claim. One acre of land can yield between twelve and twenty times more plant food than animal-based food. However, both animal based and plant based food sources are susceptible to biological stressors that can disrupt their supply chains. Food technologists say that an even more radical change may be necessary for long term sustainability.
This proposed radical solution comes in the form of so-called “future foods”, or food sources cultivated using non-traditional agricultural methods. This category includes algaes, mycoproteins, and insects and possesses a wide range of ecological and nutritional benefits.
Microalgae (small, unicellular algae varieties) have exceptionally fast growth rates, making varieties such as chlorella (Chlorella vulgaris) and spirulina (Arthrospira platensis) viable for large scale consumption. These fast growth rates can be further increased using LEDs (light-emitting diodes), allowing the rapid photosynthetic conversion of water and carbon dioxide into biomass for consumption. Macroalgaes (large, multicellular algae varieties) like sugar kelp (Saccarina latissim) and sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca) are cultivated using methods more similar to traditional farming and have already seen production success on an industrial scale.
Algaes are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, essential amino acids, protein, and vitamins and minerals such as vitamin B1, B2, and B3, copper, iron, zinc, and magnesium.
Mycoprotein is a protein derived from the fungus Fusarium venenatum and has gained popularity as a meat alternative because of its meat-like texture, comparatively low environmental footprint, and nutritional benefits. It is high in fiber, essential amino acids, vitamins, and carotenes, and is low in sodium, sugar, cholesterol, and fat.
Like macroalgae, mycoprotein is currently commercially viable. The production of mycoprotein has a low total cost and is independent of climate and landscape limitations, making it a promising risk-resilient food source.
Insect larvae are unique in that they have the ability to recycle virtually any organic waste into usable protein. The black soldier fly, for example, can produce more protein per acre in a year than 3,000 acres of cattle or 130 acres of soybeans. This is a sustainability win-win; these insects both eliminate waste and serve as a food source. Species such as the black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) mentioned above, the house fly (Musca domestica), and the mealworm beetle (Tenebrio molitor) have been successfully bred at scale in captivity.
Along with being a fantastic complete protein source, insects are also high in dietary fiber, unsaturated fat, vitamins like B12, riboflavin, vitamin A, and a variety of important minerals.
According to a study by Nature Food, these future foods contribute to a risk resilient diet in three ways: reduced exposure to biotic and abiotic risk factors, reduced vulnerability to farming process failures, and decentralization of food networks.
Many future foods are cultivated using a closed system design, meaning that they are isolated from environmental conditions. This allows for steady production regardless of climate, weather, or biological hazards. With animals and plants, this is virtually impossible, as climate is crucial to growth and many steps in the supply chain can result in contamination in the form of Salmonella, Escherichia coli (E. coli), and other bacteria.
Therefore, future foods reduce the risk of disease and farming disruptions due to disease.
In the instance of a farming disruption, future foods still prevail. Many of the farming systems feature discrete, standardized, and identical production units (or modules). This modular design allows for flexible responses to unexpected disruptions. Compromised modules can be removed and replaced without affecting overall production, containing possible contamination. Similarly, this design allows production to be adjusted to meet demand as modules can be added or removed as required.
Conventional farming is also concentrated in regions of favorable environmental conditions, but future food farming can happen virtually anywhere. This is beneficial to communities in remote regions, who may have limited access to plant and animal food sources, making them dependent on imports. Decentralization also reduces the potential consequences of regional crises. Food can be produced everywhere, so a production failure in one region does not compromise the food supply of other regions. Export sanctions or international blockades similar to those experienced during the coronavirus pandemic, would have less effect on the supply chain, as supply lines are shorter and can be contained regionally.
Despite the benefits, implementing future food systems comes with challenges.
Algae and fungi cultivation requires energy for lighting and heating, and a consistent energy supply may be unrealistic in some regions. Moreover, the environmental benefits of future foods could be counteracted by the polluting sources used to supply this energy. This could be mitigated by coupled cultivation with renewable energy sources.
Implementation would also require technical expertise and hefty financial investment, making it initially less accessible to low-income countries. Research and approval would require toxicology studies and the implementation of quality control measures.
There may also be cultural difficulties, as people may not feel comfortable drastically changing their diets. These reservations could be overcome by using ground larvae and algae as ingredients in foods like pasta, energy bars, and burgers rather than eating them whole.
Our current animal and plant-based food systems are susceptible to global disturbances such as climate change and epidemics.
Nutritionally dense future foods, like algae, fungi, and insect larvae, can combat the vulnerabilities that contribute to food insecurity due to their closed system, modular design, and possibility for decentralization.
Challenges to implement future food systems include energy constraints, institutional barriers, and cultural hesitance.
Consideration from scientists, engineers, investors, and policymakers is necessary for the innovation that will make this progressive solution possible.