Fake steak to feed the world

2010-08-21 00:00

LONDON — Growing artificial meat in vats may be the best way to feed an expected population of nine billion in 2050 without destroying the Earth, say leading international scientists.

This is one possible solution considered by the London Royal Society in a set of papers assessing the future of global food supplies.

Overpopulation and limited land for new agricultural expansion mean that increasing food and supplies by 70% in the next 40 years will prove a difficult task.

But the Society’s assessment of future global food supplies, led by John Beddington, the UK government chief scientist, suggests that even with new technologies such as genetic modification and nanotechnology, hundreds of millions of people may still go hungry due to a combination of climate change, water shortages and increasing food consumption.

One of the main areas of investigation is efficiency — reducing waste while increasing crop yields — given that the gap between delivered yields and achievable yields remains large. This can be improved by technological advances in fertilisers, chemical protections, and genetic engineering. Some think these measures won’t be enough, with land and water becoming ever more scarce.

But novel ways to increase food production will also be needed, say the scientists.Dr Philip Thornton, of the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, said two “wild cards” could transform global meat and milk production. “One is artificial meat, which is made in a giant vat, and the other is nanotechnology, which is expected to become more important as a vehicle for delivering medication to livestock.”

He acknowledged that there would be social stigma to overcome. On paper, artificial meats have numerous benefits. With greater control over composition and process, the food would be healthier with less waste.

The end result is a product that is more hygienic while reducing the amount of greenhouse gas produced by livestock.

Thornton said another decade of research is needed before artificial meat could hit grocery-store shelves.

According to a paper by Dr Keith Jaggard, “Plant breeders will probably be able to increase yields considerably in the CO2 enriched environments of the future … There is a large gap between achievable yields and those delivered … but if this is closed then there is good prospect that crop production will increase by about 50% or more by 2050 without extra land.”

One group of U.S. scientists suggests that feeding the three billion extra people could require twice as much water by 2050. This, says Professor Kenneth Strzepek of the University of Colorado, could mean an 18% reduction in worldwide water availability for food growing by 2050.

Many low-tech ways are considered to effectively increase yields, such as reducing the 30-40% food waste that occurs both in rich and poor countries. If developing countries had better storage facilities and supermarkets and consumers in rich countries bought only what they needed, there would be far more food available.

A gloomy assessment of hindrances to food production comes from a team of British and South African economists who say that a vast effort must be made in agricultural research to create a new green revolution, but that seven multinational corporations, led by Monsanto, now dominate the global technology field.

“These companies are accumulating intellectual property to an extent that the public and international institutions are disadvantaged. This represents a threat to the global commons in agricultural technology on which the green revolution has depended,” says the paper by Professor Jenifer Piesse at King’s College, London.

“It is probably not possible to generate sufficient food output or incomes in much of sub-Saharan Africa to feed the population at all adequately …

“For least developed countries there are prospects of productivity growth, but those with very little capacity will be disadvantaged.”

Other papers suggest a radical rethink of global food production is needed to reduce its dependence on oil. Up to 70% of the energy needed to grow and supply food at present is fossil-fuel based which in turn contributes to climate change.

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