Technology is now tackling the world hunger crisis

  • Rajiv Makhni, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Feb 14, 2015 20:23 IST

The world population will continue to grow, each person will need to eat, and there just isn’t enough food on this planet to sustain us all.
The next big global crisis will be a shortage of meat; the livestock demand from India and China alone will upset the world’s food balance.
It is estimated that almost all fruits, vegetables and grains as well as livestock are contaminated in some way, they contain pesticides and chemicals.
We all confuse food with our body’s need for nutrition; you don’t necessarily have to get nutrition from conventional food only.
In some developing countries and poorer nations, it is estimated that starvation and malnutrition kills more people than disease or illness.
Most people spend approximately one-fifth of their waking life on food: shopping for it, preparing it, eating it and cleaning up after.

These aren’t headlines from the future, this is the current state of the world we live in. All the signs are there – we are about to have a very serious global food crisis. And solving an insurmountable problem such as this is on everyone’s minds. And a good many people are looking towards technology for solutions. If technology succeeds, this may herald the end of food as we know it.

Now that I’ve managed to start off in the most melodramatic fashion, let’s take a look at how technology is bringing about the end of food. What will we eat in the future?

The animals are smiling
One of the most promising foods to be created out of thin air is lab-grown burger meat bankrolled by Google itself. This is, in essence, meat that didn’t come from a farm or store but a lab. Scientists took beef muscle stem cells and grew enough meat fibres from them to make about 400 grams of actual meat.

This takes the animal totally out of the equation and theoretically lets you create or grow as much meat as you want from a single stem cell from any animal without slaughtering it.

The implications of this are immense. A livestock animal consumes about 1.5 million gallons of water and 7,800 pounds of grain before it can become meat on our tables. Also, livestock uses up almost one third of the land area of our entire planet to graze and exist. So just in terms of land, water and grain, that’s the most inefficient way to produce meat to feed humans, and one that is impossible to sustain.

One solution is to either turn the whole world vegetarian (that’s not happening) or to produce the meat minus the animal. In the first tasting of this lab-gown meat, people found it to be a little bland and slightly dry but totally like meat. Not bad for the first batch. But the costs are prohibitive and commercial production (and widespread acceptance) will be a few years into the future.

The vegetarians are smiling
The next solution to keep food sustainable is meatless meat. Companies like Beyond Meat are using soy, vegetable protein and some serious technology and science to produce products that are impossible to differentiate from the real thing. They look like meat, they taste like meat and are now making it to top restaurants as well as some of the biggest fast food chains across the world.

The same thing is also being done to eggs, the most consumed animal protein in the world. Hampton Creek Foods has come up with a powdered egg alternative (made from peas and sorghum), which has very low cholesterol but the benefits of protein. And you can cook it just like any egg. All these meat alternative companies have big names behind them like Bill Gates and Khosla Ventures.

No one is smiling
The next solution may not go down your palate easily: Bugs. Several experiments are currently being conducted about their feasibility as food and some of them are paying off handsomely. Cricket flour has been developed and its been found to be easy to produce, has some of the highest sources of protein and, in blind tastings (where subjects didn’t know what they were eating) has been found to be exceptionally tasty.

Other insects are also being sliced, diced and tech infused to turn into food options. And, as we all have experienced, insects are one resource that we aren’t going to run out of in the near future. All you need to do is spend one day outdoors in summer to see all your future food buzzing around you.

A unique self experiment
But by far the most exciting and the one that is a complete mind bender, of course, is Soylent. This is a start-up that thinks that food itself is a burden and not required. All that you require is the nutrients you get from the food. Rob Rhinehart who started this company says, that “you need amino acids and lipids – not milk itself, you need carbohydrates – not bread. Fruits and vegetables provide essential vitamins and minerals, but they’re mostly water”.

He dismisses food as an inefficient way of getting what we need to survive. And thus they’ve come up with an engineered solution to food. Soylent is a powder that aims to have all the essential micro and macro nutrients required to make the human body healthy, give it boundless energy, be allergy free and more efficient than before.

Can drinking a shake made from this powder three times a day be the perfect solution to the world food crisis? Can a human survive on just this and nothing else?

Is this the start to the end of food? Find out next week as I attempt to start to live on nothing else but Soylent for 30 days!

Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3

From HT Brunch, February 15
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