Sustainable food systems: Alternative recipes to feed the 9 billion

With food security riding high on policymakers' agenda in the wake of the global food crisis, edie has come across some of the more alternative methods of feeding an estimated nine billion people, including seaweed farms, cockroaches, drones and 3D printers...

British Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti recently stated that climate change poses a significant threat to global security. One of his concerns is that changing weather patterns will harm food production, and military intervention will be needed to aid – or possibly contain – desperate, starving populations.

By 2050, the Earth will be home to nine billion people and food production will have to increase by 70% to feed this growing horde of humanity. But nearly three-quarters of the earth’s agricultural land is already engaged in meat production, which in itself is a brutally inefficient allocation of resources.

The numbers do not add up and a dramatic change in diet or food production is needed, so here are four of the more interesting adapatations of existing food systems.

Seaweed farms

If we are running out of farmland, why not turn the oceans into crop fields, with seaweed providing the protein? A 2010 Wageningen University study estimated that a seaweed farm covering 180,000 square kilometres – around three quarters the size of the UK – could provide enough protein for the world’s population.

As well as saving agricultural land and irrigation water, this theoretical seaweed farm would also halt and reverse the gradual acidification of the oceans. So it’s a win-win.

Another option is to tuck into the 10 quintillion insects alive on the planet at any one time. Bugs have much smaller effect on the environment than livestock. Unlike cows, they produce almost no methane, and they provide dietary protein very efficiently – a cricket is 70% protein by weight and can be ground into protein-rich powder, which is already being marketed by fitness and muscle-building companies.

But perhaps a less-jarring next step is using this source of protein as food for livestock

3D food printing

NASA has funded the development of a 3d food printer in order to feed astronauts in space, but the developer believes its project could have a much wider use.

Systems & Materials Research Corporation envisages the “universal food synthesizer” in kitchens across the world, as people re-evaluate what they see as food.

The technology can theoretically synthesize calorie and nutrient specific meals from powder and oil-filled cartridges which last up to 30 years. A Dutch company called TNO are even looking into using lasers to power-cook the cartridges.

But if a laser-charged capsule of powdered insect doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, bear in mind that the company is also working on a pizza printer!


Precision agriculture

Precision agriculture involves using GPS tracking systems and drones to monitor crop yields, soil levels, and weather patterns to increase efficiency on the farm.

Rather than treating each field as a uniform product, farmers can now efficiently allocate water, fertilizer and pesticides to specific quadrants.

This helps save resources and also boosts crop yields. The increasing implementation of technology may be bad news for farmer jobs, but its good news for a mushrooming population.

Indoor crops

Another solution to limited agricultural land is simply growing crops indoors.

Hydroponics is the method of growing plants in nutrient-rich water instead of soil, with specially adapted LED’s providing the light for photosynthesis.

Aside from saving space, crops are unaffected by seasonal changes, and produce a consistent yield. Conditions can be adapted as needed, so different crops can be produced in various parts of the world, reducing food air miles. Finally hydroponic crops use 70% less water than traditional open-field farming.

In London, local grocers and restaurants can now get crops from a hydroponic farm that has been built in abandoned underground tunnels that used to be air-raid shelters.

Now that global hunger is sorted, check out edie’s guide to sustainable ‘adult’ drinks

Brad Allen

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