Powdered maggots, synthetic burgers and high-rise farms: our priorities for the future of food

Written on 11 March 2016 by:
Olivier Usher
Olivier Usher

In the 1960s and 1970s, a huge innovation revolutionised the world’s food supply. The green revolution – a combination of new high-yield crop varieties, mechanisation, chemical fertilisers and pesticides – kept famine at bay by hugely expanding the food supply, even as the world’s population was exploding.

The population continues to grow today, but the green revolution’s solutions – heavily reliant on petrochemicals and unsustainable monoculture – won’t keep up with the population unless we are prepared to tolerate huge damage to the environment. Nowhere is this clearer than in the supply of protein – a key element of nutrition.

We need a new green revolution.

Most of the protein we eat and which we feed to animals comes from a handful of sources: soybeans, farmed animals (meat, but also eggs and dairy) and seafood (both wild and farmed).

All of these have problems.

Soybeans are intensively and unsustainably farmed, with the vast majority of production coming from just three countries (the US, Brazil and Argentina).

Soybean harvest in the USA - one of the food chain's main sources of protein

Animals are nutritious and tasty, but they are an inefficient form of food production, taking more food in – largely soy, as it happens – than they produce.

Wild fish is currently caught in volumes that our seas and rivers cannot sustain. And many varieties of farmed fish are reliant on soybeans and wild-caught fish for their feed.

We’ve been looking into ideas for possible prizes that could help sustainably provide the world with protein, through innovation in animal feeds, alternative proteins for human nutrition and urban agriculture.

The solutions could be pretty radical – feeding powdered maggots to chickens, growing burgers in the lab, urban high-rise farms.

We think these areas are fertile ground for challenge prizes that could help bring down barriers to the systemic change that the world’s food supply needs.

We’re also doing some more in-depth work into developing and designing prizes in aquaculture just now. Fish farming is an increasingly popular source of protein, particularly in the developing world, and a sector that we’ve been thinking about for a while.

We’re working with sustainability charity Forum for the Future and aquaculture experts at the University of Stirling on this project, and we’re increasingly confident that prizes could be a valuable tool here.

India and Bangladesh in particular have large fish farming sectors where production could be sustainably increased using new technologies and techniques – with transformative effects on the livelihoods and nutrition of poor, rural communities.

Forum for the Future have been doing some interesting work on the future of protein – not just on the production of fish, but on the entire protein system.

They’ve just launched their Future of Protein report, part of the Protein Challenge 2040 initiative. It’s well worth a read.

Whatever happens, the world’s food production won’t stay the same. The question is what the new green revolution will look like.

Challenge Briefs on the future of food

Photos: Soybean harvest, courtesy of United Soybean Board (CC-BY); Maggots, courtesy of Sander Falise (CC-BY-NC)

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