Recycled food: good for the environment and OK for you

Written on 08 September 2016 by:
Olivier Usher
Olivier Usher

The 1995 action film Judge Dredd might not have been a great work of cinema, but – bear with me – it presents an interesting future scenario, and a valuable insight into issues surrounding public acceptance of food innovation.

In the dystopia of Mega-City One, food is scarce and precious. A robot patrols the grimy corridors of the city’s residential buildings collecting and dishing out waste food, its recorded voice calling out: “Eat recycled food, for a happier, healthier life. Recycled food: it’s good for the environment and OK for you.”

That year also saw the first British consumer to die from eating BSE-infected meat. Arising from infected sheep brains and beef bones being ground up and fed to cattle as a protein supplement, the BSE crisis is a reminder that while recycled food may be OK for you, it isn’t always so.

Food is something we take incredibly seriously. It’s not just a question of safety or health: our diets are intimately tied up with culture and habits. And so, just like Judge Dredd was not a critical success, recycled food too faces an uphill battle for acceptance. If it is to become a significant part of humanity’s diet, some serious technical, commercial and regulatory barriers will have to be solved.

We’ve been thinking about the future of food in the Challenge Prize Centre for a while – we’re currently designing prizes to transform fish farming and promote precision agriculture in the developing world, and we’re interested in topics as diverse as urban farming and animal feed. Making sure food production keeps up with growing demand while protecting the planet is one of the key challenges of our era.

Forum for the Future, our partners in our fish farming project, have also done some fascinating work on the future of protein production. They have concluded that one of the key challenges facing us is how to recycle waste protein – both directly into both the human diet and indirectly by using it in animal feeds.

So it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that we’re keen to attack the challenge, and prove that, with a little innovation to help things along, recycled protein can be OK for you, as well as good for the environment.

Sugarbeet leaves

There are lots of challenges ahead. We need to create markets for proteins that currently go to waste, such as the sludge from potato and starch processing. We need to figure out how to ensure these novel foods are both safe and palatable – and to gain cultural acceptance as well as regulatory assent for their use. We need to make use of parts of plants and animals that currently get wasted or diverted into animal feed – such as offal or leafy tops of root vegetables (pictured). We may also need new technologies to let us efficiently, cost-effectively recover proteins that currently aren’t worth saving.

We’re still figuring this area out – but we think there are innovations in this field that would be worth supporting with challenge prizes. We’d like you to help us out.

We’re organising a roundtable event for experts and stakeholders at Nesta HQ on 19 October.

If your work or expertise means you have an interesting perspective on the future of protein, and how we can recycle valuable protein waste back into the food chain, then this event is for you. Whether you’re a scientist, an entrepreneur, a chef or a farmer, we want your perspective to help us identify the next challenge we solve.

Get in touch.

Photo credit: Sugarbeet leaves by KWS Group on Flickr (CC-BY-NC-ND)