The future of food – decoupling food from the environment

Last week I attended the the first Nordic Singularity University Summit in Stockholm, where I came to hear a brilliant speaker – Dr. Lauri Reuter (Singularity U Nordic Faculty and senior specialist disruptive technologies) – talk about the future of food. It gave some interesting and additional perspectives on how we will produce food in the future, and not at least, what we will eat.

Let me share some insights from his speech:

1.We are eating away our planet!
This is caused by the way we produce food (industrial agriculture), what type of food we produce, alongside the growth of people globally leading to increased demand for food. As you might know, we are converting more and more land to industrial agriculture. Further, we are eating in a non-efficient way: 83% of the agricultured land feeds animals, which in turn only produce 18% of our food. Btw, did you know that 70% of all birds in the world are chicken? Wow, it really says something about our human hunger for animals to eat.

Through our eating habits we are changing life on land, and land itself.

2. The problem will only increase
With the current estimated population growth, we will need to increase global food production with 70%, by 2050. This resembles poorly with the estimated decrease in food production from severe impacts due to climate change through drought, floods and the like, that will result in decreasing yields, ruined fields of food and more volatile access to several types of food.

3. So it is time we think differently
We need to decouple food from the environment! This will be done in many ways (and no, it is not only about eating insects, think bigger – or more radical – than that):

We no longer need animals to produce meat, milk or even even eggs
We can now eat meat-cell grown `meat` produced from a laboratory (like Memphis Meat), or vegan-originated meat (like Beyond Meat). Lauri Reuter even shared examples of them growing `eggs` in their lab (taking away the issue of what came first, the chicken or the egg!). As I`ve told earlier in other articles, this will be more cost-effective, more environmental friendly and a more speedy way to produce `meat` like products.

Food will be locally produced, and we will not need the traditional fields anymore
Thanks to the revolution in LED lights and access to cheap renewable energy in combination with technological innovation, there is a large transition going on in how and where we grow our food. Vegetables are now grown in-house in shelves in inner cities (like the company InFarm) – without the soil. Hence, you can grow vegetables inside, without day light and you do not need traditional fields. You can produce food where it is convenient for you.
The airport in Dubai grows lettuces in the airport so they can deliver fresh and locally produced veggies to the flights from Dubai (no need for longer transportation of lettuces with the environmental footprint that comes with it).

Hence, this technology means you can produce food wherever (including in the desert) and whenever, also thanks to energy becoming abundant and affordable through sun power. It further gives hope, as a lot of the fields globally will be unable to produce food onwards due to climate change.

You do not even need `the food to make food`
Reuter and his team produced “celljam” – a fruit jam by growing berries from its cells directly – farming fruit cells. Biology has therefore become technology.

Do you think this sounds weird? And that the food we eat normally today is natural? Editing the food we eat and creating new forms is not new. People tend to not know that the orange carrot as we know it, is actually bio-engineered by humans. It could have been purple. The Dutchs created it from other colored carrots (purple, white, red etc) to honour William of Orange (who led the Dutch to independence). And then it stuck to us.

What do you now think of fruit jam grown directly from fruit cells?

One of the most fascinating element of Reuter`s speech was that: We do not even need cells anymore to produce food!
Food is, as Reuter said, basically atoms and energy. We can produce it from … air! That’s right. How?

Reuter told us that we can now actually produce food from air (carbon dioxide) by using electricity (and adding a minimal of other input factors such as water, minerals and microorganisms). It is basically like a brewery.

The company Neo Carbon Food has started such testing. The outcome looks like powder, a form of `single-cell` protein.

This can for example be fed to animals instead of taking up massive amounts of land to grow food for animals. You can produce food in the desert and in hunger affected areas. Or wherever and whenever you want, as the only thing you need to produce the food from the air is (renewable) energy.

This is a bit further ahead in the future. Currently, it takes about two weeks to produce one gram of protein (by using lab equipment the size of a cup).

But do not discard it to early. Remember the exponential curve of development… – one gram turning into two grams turning into four grams, and then you can suddenly feed the world with powder from the sky (!). Neo Carbon Food estimates that it could be on our plates by 2024.

Read more on the topic in this Independent article “World hunger could be solved with food created from electricity and carbon dioxide, say scientists”

4.    Reuter lastly told us most future farms will look more like breweries
This might sound far fetched and science fiction. But remember that we also earlier have been on a food transition. We did not always farm. In fact, we can have only done farming and agriculture for the last 10 000 years. Before that and going 250 000 years back, our food came from gathering seeds and hunting. The third wave of food came just a 100 years back with the industrial agriculture, when we poured in machines and fertilizers, drastically changing the way we produce food. We tend to forget our own story of transition and change.

To end it, the future will bring about decoupling from the environment, and decoupling from the agriculture as we know it. Excited or cautious? I am for sure the first!

If you want to learn more about the future of food, check out Lauri`s TED talk on the topic:

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