The COVID-19 pandemic and its clear disruption of food production and supply systems have galvanized research into ways for humanity to feed itself, should worst-case scenarios actually appear.
The global food system is already in urgent need of an upgrade to handle rapidly emerging threats, say the authors of a new study from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. However, there are also “novel” food sources that may be able to nourish us through a future of pandemics, climate change stressors, and environmental disasters, Dr. Asaf Tzachor and his colleagues write in a 2021 study published in the online journal Nature Food.
The study’s researchers, who are with the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, argue that the world’s current approaches to food production and distribution could be dangerously ineffective if supply disruptions and shortages caused by floods, frosts, droughts, pathogens, and parasites come to pass.
The researchers cite the current COVID-19 pandemic as a powerful example of the risks to global food production. The pandemic, both in the manner of its appearance and in the responses to contain it, already has caused widespread disruption of food production systems and supply chains, demonstrating their fragility.
Food insecurity currently afflicts two billion people across the world, with over 690 million people, including 340 million children, experiencing malnutrition and nutrient deficiency. Dr. Tzachor and his colleagues hope the introduction of nourishing foods and food production methods will serve as a solution to these problems.
According to the University of Cambridge study, “Future foods for risk-resilient diets,” both animal- and plant-based foods are vulnerable to acute and chronic stressors.
Plant-based foods face risks from physical factors including soil-based and extreme weather impacts. In addition, there are various “biotic” threats such as fleas, worms, and other parasites, and also from pathogens – biological organisms that cause disease.
Animal-based foods, produced from dairy and beef cattle, pigs, and intensively reared chicken, are also vulnerable to these agents, particularly because livestock rely on plant-based feed. Intensive farming tends to exacerbate such risks, producing instances of skeletal weakness, deformities, and contamination from poorly executed culling and slaughter. Housing animals in closed conditions near each other elevates the risk of the spread of contamination.
The Search for Novel Solutions
To address both the current and potentially worse scenarios, the University of Cambridge researchers have investigated new, state-of-the-art approaches to food production. One of their main goals is to identify systems of interest that can integrate into the global food system at scale and also demonstrate resilience against environmental impacts, pests, and diseases.
Many of the foods that the team researched were touted for their claims of nutritional enhancement and greater resilience against the risks and impacts already described.
The novel foods that Dr. Tzachor and his colleagues investigated included microalgae such as spirulina and chlorella; macroalgae such as sugar kelp; insect larvae; and mycoprotein.
Microalgae can be grown quickly, enabling rapid production at scale. They can be grown in liquids in closed photobioreactors–systems that rely on light as a major stimulator of growth. They also can be irradiated by LEDs to achieve a high rate of photosynthesis driven by optimized wavelengths.
Macroalgae, such as sugar kelp, can be grown in industrial aquaculture systems in coastal locations.
Mycoprotein is derived from fungi (mushrooms are fungi) and has been used for decades as an ingredient in various meat-based products. It can be grown in bioreactors utilizing continuous-flow aerobic fermentation in which temperature and PH are controlled, using carbohydrates and nutrients to drive and accentuate growth.
There has been sustained interest in producing food from insect larvae for a number of years. Particularly suitable species include the black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens), house fly (Musca domestica), and mealworm beetle (Tenebrio molitor), all of which are suitable for production at scale. As with other novel foods, production can be achieved with automated equipment arranged in compact, stackable modular units set up in various locales that could range anywhere from urban neighborhoods to isolated rural communities.
Bugs on Tomorrow’s Menu?
The University of Cambridge scientists searched through 500 published papers that addressed novel food production systems. They concluded that the most promising technologies include microalgae photobioreactors and insect-breeding greenhouses, both of which isolate production from the natural environment in closed, controlled systems.
Some novel but more familiar foods didn’t make the top of the list: Cultured meat cannot, as yet, be produced at sufficient scale, even though several pilot plants already have been constructed. The technology involved is still fairly new, energy-intensive and not yet economically viable.
*Robin Whitlock is a freelance journalist based in the South West of England, UK and in particular a correspondent for Renewable Energy Magazine since 2011. He specializes in environmental issues, climate change and renewable energy, with other interests in transport, particularly rail, bus & coach and green motoring.