Cows or Crickets? 21st century Food Security

Wandering casually through the aisles of the local supermarket, idly perusing the vast array of colourfully presented food items and fresh produce, it is understandably easy to see the world as a cornucopia of unlimited consumables. In reality, there are approximately one billion malnourished people currently in the world, and another two billion projected to join the human population by 2050. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), our sense of food security is not quite as well founded as we may hope.

With the steady degradation and increasing scarcity of arable land combined with the onset of climate change, it is becoming alarmingly apparent that major changes are going to have to be implemented. If we continue down our current path food production will need to be increased by 60-70% in order to feed an expected 9 billion people, and avoid a future global food-shortage doomsday.

Spearheaded by innovation, science, and just enough desperation, several solutions have been conceived and are currently under development.

Why continue the outward spread of agricultural industries that only impinges on the remaining scraps of natural environment when you can instead farm vertically? A strong emphasis has been placed on the potential of high density, low energy and localised agricultural activity in an urban setting. With over 70% of people expected to be living in cities by 2030, vertical-farming industries integrated into the urban setting and encouraged by a growing urban horticultural movement could prove a viable option.

Though controversial, genetic modification is expected to play a significant role in the future of food security. By enabling the development of crops with a host of invaluable characteristics genetic modification will increase crop yield and nutritional value, while protecting our farms against extreme weather and disease. An ultimate game changer could be the development of crop plants that are capable of fixing their own nitrogen, eliminating the energy-consuming and pollution-producing ammonia-based fertilisers.

Regardless of how technologically advanced and paradigm-shifting our approach is to agriculture, our continued reliance on the inefficient cow remains a critical shortcoming. Approximately 50,000-100,000L of water is required to produce 1kg of beef, and 18% of greenhouse gas emissions are the result of livestock production. Since meat consumption is predicted to double by 2050, conventional meat production would be insufficient to keep up with demand, suggesting that perhaps it’s time to look for a dietary replacement.

The pursuit for lab-cultured meat, known as in vitro meat, was originally initiated by NASA as a means for supporting space voyages. It is now viewed as a promising and viable solution for keeping up with meat demands. While still a work in progress, experiments involve stem cells, muscle tissue engineering, and the co-culturing of different cell types. Just this year, researchers claimed that their in-vitro meat production has the potential to produce a billion pounds of meat from a single animal.

If the prospects of lab-meat don’t tickle your tastebuds, perhaps a serving of baked locusts with a side of wax worms might? While cultural stigma poses an obstacle, production of such meat sources requires significantly less space, resources and energy compared to conventional meat production. Insects may well hold the key to averting a future food crisis, as they are considered nutritionally superior, being rich in protein, valuable fatty acids, vitamins and minerals,

The solutions provide only a brief glimpse into the ceaseless drive for addressing the problems facing our future generations. Though there is a lot of responsibility on our plates today, there is still hope that these plates will also be well supplied with food for everyone in the future.