Is the future of food we eat is still a mystery ?

After celebrating the new year, I decided to give my wife a break and hence devour in one of her favourite restaurants. We went to a Japanese restaurant and ordered grilled meat Yakiniku, one of the full-fledged Japanese steak. When I asked the manager about the quality of the meat used in the steak, he conveyed to us that the restaurant uses meat only from sustainable sources. I smiled at him and started to think what would define the sustainability of food consumption, especially meat. I started to wonder how the food platter will look 20 years from now? In the modern era of culinary laboratories such as El Buli and fine dining chefs from Michelin’s, where we refine the science of gastronomy, should we be a little more sensitive about the methods of sustainable agriculture?

Let’s explore how as a human race, we have mastered the techniques of the production and consumption of food. If we take the case of arable land,  one-third of such land is used for agriculture and 70% of that land is used for growing only meat. Is this an efficient way to harness the productivity of nature? On the consumption side, we are doing a commendable job. The world’s population is predicted to hit 9Bn by 2050 and the food demand is expected to increase at least by 60% for cereals and 85% for meat (according to World Bank). How would we satiate this enormous appetite for food?

The post-world war agricultural development in developed countries and green revolution (not so sure whether we should call it a red revolution or green revolution), which encouraged the insensitive use of fertilisers and pesticides in agriculture, have contributed one-third of freshwater pollution with elements such as phosphorus and nitrogen. The insensitive usage of hybrid and GM crops has extinguished the local varieties resulting in soil degradation and sky rocketed sales for the Monsantoes and the Potashcorps of the world. The highly acclaimed “positive effects” of these changes are levelling off in terms of production and pests are getting increasingly resistant to disease. Taking into account the current production rates, our current agricultural output will not meet the projected demand of the world.

Moreover, it would be an amazing fact to note that around 50% of the antibiotics are used in the cultivation of crops and rearing of livestock, not on humans for which they were intended for. By the way, these antibiotics are not being used to fight diseases that spread among animals but to increase their weight, ensuring higher meat output. Interesting paradox !!!

Water stress and desertification that have been the results of global warming are reducing the amount of arable land available every year. Dramatic changes in the consumption patterns of protein rich food in emerging economies such as China and India are going to catalyse the slaughter of livestock day by day. Another interesting anomaly to note is that 20% of food produced or harvested is lost owing to insufficient processing, storage and transport. To give a perspective, every day around 4.4 million apples, 5.1 million potatoes, 2.8 million tomatoes and 1.6 million bananas are thrown as waste. This is not just a waste of produce, but also is a loss of the factors of production.

So how would future generations address these problems? It would be interesting when our kids get us bugs for a protein rich diet. Are we ready to accept the bugs instead of beef?

Even though Creative ideas like Lab-grown meat, 3D printed food on request and the meal in a pill are still in the labs with exorbitantly expensive bills, such technologies will be the way forward for coming generations.  The concoction of algae and living tissue from a livestock currently brews in a sugar scaffolding at a cost of US$32500 to make a piece of burger sized meat. Can the brew be a little cheaper on a larger scale? Something yet to be seen.

But another alternative that can be seen in future could be vertical farming. When the technology becomes more efficient, the current industrial and technology districts may alter it’s size and shape to semi-agricultural factories producing year round produce or carniculture through indoor farming. Even though we haven’t been able to perfect the formula for baby milk since last 200 years, we would be forced to perfect the formula for a meal in the pill if that could partly solve the instant food problem for the rich.

What would be the economic impact of these technologies?

The current consumption of meat is over 200 pounds per person per year in US. (In India, it is just around 6 pounds). It is estimated that around 200 gallons of water are consumed in the process of making a single pound of beef and around half of it is consumed in the process of making poultry. If there is a shift of the Non-vegans in developed economies to any of the alternate sources of protein, the process will have a huge impact on the economics of natural production of food.

If we consider the alternative to eating “cold-blooded bugs”, a change synonymous to the shift of our generation from incandescent bulbs to LEDs, the future food platter would be more sustainable and nutritious. The process of manufacturing bugs consumes so less energy and a lot less land considering the factors of production for other sources of food.

May future generations consider options such as having bugs instead of beef and a deeply learned computer controlled vertical farming, that reduce water usage through hydroponics, thus reducing greenhouse gases.

Hail the kids who would decide that for us !!

Leave a Reply