sci fi food

Algae, house-flies, and 4 other weird foods scientists say are the future

“To future-proof our food supply we must pioneer completely new ways of farming.”

photoreactor for algae, iceland
Vaxa Impact Nutrition, Iceland

In just four years, a little pest called the fall armyworm has worked its way steadily across more than 100 countries.

While it may look like an innocuous little brown caterpillar, it is anything but. With a voracious appetite for maize, sorghum, and millet, the fall armyworm can eradicate entire fields of crops. Experts hypothesize pests like the armyworm could contribute to widespread food insecurity, and even malnutrition, in vulnerable countries.

It’s these whims of nature, exacerbated by Covid-19 disruptions and economic inequality across the globe, that proponents of a new food system — one that radically shifts the way food is produced — hope to bypass.

On Thursday, researchers at the University of Cambridge published a report Nature Food proposing a new food system and the “future foods” that could fuel it. They think it’s one that could take on the growing threats to food supply chains around the world.

“Eradicating malnutrition is not so much a matter of piecemeal developments in crop and livestock efficiency, rather radical alterations and advancements in farming systems,” Asaf Tzachor tells Inverse. Tzachor is the senior author of the study and a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge.

“To future-proof our food supply we must pioneer completely new ways of farming.”

What they found — After analyzing over 500 scientific papers on various bio-engineering methods and conducting fieldwork for two years assessing the most promising of these systems, Tzachor and his team zeroed in on certain foods, or “future foods,” that are high in nutrients, have a low environmental cost, and could be produced on a mass scale in a way that would insulate them from the risks that come with traditional plant-sourced foods or animal-sourced foods.

In other words, they wouldn’t be just sustainable, but also risk-resilient. These future foods include:

Some meat substitutes like Quorn already use “future foods” like mycoprotein, or protein made from fungi.

Getty / Science Photo Library

These foods provide a balanced range of micro- and macro-nutrients relatively efficiently. Instead of resource-intensive and environmentally destructive beef, microalgae, mollusks, insect larvae, and mycoprotein provide an alternative for protein.

Chlorella vulgaris, for example, is a bright green algae already used by some in powders or liquids as a dietary supplement. It’s a complete protein, which means it contains all nine essential amino acids.

But the production of these foods on a mass scale hinges on a different approach to food production. It’s one that could “reduce exposure to the hazards of the natural environment by farming in closed, controlled environments,” Tzachor says.

How it works — Producing these foods on a mass scale would be the key to their success in displacing our old food systems. And to do that, the researchers argue the use of self-contained, modular systems.

“To future-proof our food supply we must pioneer completely new ways of farming.”

For example, fungi protein could be fermented in pH-controlled reactors, which would provide carbohydrates for them to “eat.” For algae, this means using something called a photobioreactor, which grows algae in tubes or plastic plates. Insect larvae — a group that includes juvenile house flies, black soldier flies, and mealworm beetles — could be bred using stackable units that recycle organic waste as animal feed.

All of these methods take up relatively little space and are “modular,” meaning they could be efficiently grouped depending on the needs of a local area. Tiny organisms lower on the food chain like algae, fungi, insects, and mollusks use fewer resources like water and land, and would ostensibly create less waste, pollution, and use less energy than traditional farming.

“Highly nutritious foods could be grown at scale in modular systems suitable for urban settings, as well as for isolated communities,” Tzachor says.

Why it matters — These methods of growing future foods could also be deployed in a way that would allow global communities to rely on themselves, rather than depending on food chains that can be disrupted by both natural disasters and emergencies like Covid-19.

The authors describe this localized approach as “polycentric food networks,” and argue that it could usher in “innovations in designing local cultivation techniques, collaborations between engineers and chefs – as well as in the development of new future foods products.”

What’s more, these foods and technologies could reduce the risk of malnutrition. For example, Tzachor says that, in a remote Pacific Island state where women of reproductive age often have iron deficiency, people could grow foods rich in iron.

A comparison of the hazards facing current farming methods and future food cultivation methods.

Nature / Tzachor, et al.

What’s next — The researchers hope scientists, engineers, investors, and policy-makers will consider these foods and the methods used to grow them as a way to avert future food chain disasters.

Mycoprotein, for example, has already been commercially produced on a large scale as a meat substitute (like Quorn) and meat substitutes are ever-growing in popularity.

Other methods have been slower to adopt. China, for example, does have a large offshore aquaculture farm that utilizes some of the methods the authors describe, including combining multiple species in an ocean environment which can support one another. This reduces some of the environmental concerns that come with coastal fish farms, like pollution. But according to one review, few countries have put this technique to use commercially.

Critically, one much-hyped futuristic food that didn’t make the cut: cultured meat, or meat grown from cells in a lab to replace “real” animal products. The authors say we’re just not ready yet, writing “the technology is still relatively nascent, energy-intensive, and not yet economically viable.”

What we don’t know — Proposing an innovative solution to food insecurity and malnutrition is one thing, but actually deploying it worldwide is another.

Some regions don’t have the energy capacity to provide the light and heating that bioreactors and insect nurseries would need to function, the study team writes. Bioreactors and nurseries still need to take up space and require some of the fertilizers and other supplies that would be hard to come by. Aquaculture could still remain vulnerable to contamination by plastics or toxins. And of course, the expense, technical expertise, and constant monitoring needed to install systems like these aren’t easy to come by.

What’s more, humans have culinary preferences: It may take time for people to come around to the idea of eating a breakfast of larvae or algae. For this, however, the researchers have a suggestion:

“Any reservations about eating novel foods like flies or beetles could be mitigated by using them as ingredients rather than as whole foods,” Tzachor says. “Pasta, burgers, and energy bars, for example, can all contain ground insect larvae and processed micro- and macro-algae.”

And an algae energy bar doesn’t sound too bad.

Abstract: Future foods, such as microalgae, mycoprotein and mealworm, have been suggested as nutritious and sustainable dietary options. Here we consider one of the most profound, yet neglected, benefits of future foods farming systems—their potential to provide essential nutrition in the face of systemic disturbances—and discuss major barriers to realizing this prospect.
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