Future Foods: Ensuring Sustainability of Our Global Food Supply
Our current food supply systems aren’t working. Large numbers of people globally are going hungry, there is inequity of access to healthy, nutritious food and it’s harming the planet too. With the world’s population predicted to increase to 10 billion people by 2050, there is a pressing need to find more sustainable and healthy supplies of food. In this article, we highlight the latest research on developing foods for the future.
The challenge with our food supply chain
“There's an argument that our food supply chain model is not particularly fit for today, but I think the more important question is how well it’s going to meet our needs in future,” says Claire Bomkamp, senior scientist specializing in cultivated meat and seafood at the Good Food Institute, a global non-profit organization working to accelerate alternative protein innovation.
“The food industry is a complex system that can’t be viewed through the lens of individual challenges such as greenhouse gas emissions or fish biodiversity loss. The question is really how do we build a system that will meet our future needs, as growing populations and incomes lead to increased demands for meat and seafood?”
A 2018 meta-analysis estimated that food production releases more than one-quarter of all human-caused greenhouse gases and that agricultural irrigation accounts for about two-thirds of all fresh water used by humans.1 The same report estimates that 37% of the planet’s land area is already dedicated to food production and, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, just 7% of our fisheries are “underexploited”. This shows how scarce the planet’s resources already are and how little opportunity there is to scale up our seafood production using current methods.
Solutions for a sustainable food supply
In 2019, international researchers proposed the EAT-Lancet diet, a meal plan to feed 2050’s estimated population of 10 billion people sustainably.2 The plan called for extensively reduced protein consumption – around 200 g/day per person – of which meat, fish and eggs comprise just 84 g with the remainder made up from legumes and nuts. It was designed to sustain not just the planet, but also people’s health.
“Many chronic diseases are related to our diet,” explains David Julian McClements, distinguished professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Department of Food Science, USA. “People have been told for years to eat lots of fruits and vegetables, but many people do not have the time, money or inclination to do it. So, we need to look at how we can make processed food convenient, fast and affordable, but also healthy and sustainable for everyone.”
There are many potential solutions, says McClements, from gene editing to improve crop yield and resilience, to using robots, automation and artificial intelligence to increase supply chain efficiencies. But one of the unavoidable truths is that our current and future consumption of animal-source proteins is simply unsustainable. That’s why researchers like McClements are working to design alternatives to animal-based foods that taste and can be cooked the same way, but that are beneficial for the environment and our health.
Plant-based food alternatives
Until recently, McClement’s research focused on using nanotechnology to encapsulate vitamins and nutraceuticals to keep them stable in food products and increase nutrient bioavailability. But as the importance of alternative protein sources became apparent, his research team switched to designing plant-based foods using knowledge of how food biochemistry influences taste, texture and appearance.
“The biggest challenge is that animal products have unique proteins that are different from those you find in plants,” explains McClements. “In meat, you have these soft, fibrous proteins that give the desirable texture and mouthfeel when you chew, whereas plant proteins are spherical, nano-meter size protein balls. We need to coax those balls into strings to simulate the texture and microstructure of real meat products.”
They achieve this by using soft matter physics principles. “If we mix the spherical proteins with polysaccharides, they undergo phase-separation, organizing into two layers,” says McClements. “When this mixture is stirred gently, it forms fibrous structures that we can cross-link with a food-grade enzyme, locking the fibers into place.” This mimics the microstructure of meat, but it’s just the first step. Further development is needed to achieve the texture, appearance and mouthfeel of a meat product. “The brown color from cooking meat comes from the Maillard reaction when proteins and carbohydrates interact with heat, for example, whereas the juiciness of a food depends on the water-holding properties of the protein network when you cook it. We can then fortify these foods with omega-3 fatty acids or vitamins or reformulate them to avoid blood sugar spikes, helping people managing their diabetes.”
Cultured meats and seafood
Another approach is cultivating meat and fish from animal cell lines. In fact, there are now more than 70 start-ups focused on developing cultured meat inputs, services and products according to the GFI’s 2020 State of the Industry report, and in late 2020, cultivated meat made its debut on a restaurant menu after Singapore approved it as an ingredient in a chicken nuggets product.
“One of the most exciting things I feel the GFI has accomplished in the last couple of years, is building a community of researchers who are working on different aspects of cultivated seafood and cultivated meat,” says Bomkamp. Much of the seafood research is still early-stage, but GFI has now funded a wide range of projects in cultivated meat and new grants for teams working on nanofiber scaffolds for cultivating shrimp, and algae scaffolds for cultivating fish.
One of the key challenges in developing cultured meat and seafood products is creating an appropriate scaffold for the cells to grow on, which give the end-product the texture, mouthfeel and appearance of wild meats or fish. “If you take a scaffold that you designed for beef and try to grow seafood cells on it, will that work? Perhaps, but it might not be great from a taste and texture perspective,” explains Bomkamp. “The geometry of fish and mammalian muscle is different: with mammalian muscle you often see features such as marbling, but with fish, if you picture a fillet of salmon there are those white lines of fat and connective tissue, and the fibers are oriented 90 degrees from that structure. It’s not only the design of the scaffold that is important, but the fabrication techniques, and developing these in a way that's scalable.”
Recent advances include development of a cell line from fish fins that resemble fibroblasts but appear to differentiate into many different cell types.5 “This could be game-changing for the field if it turns out it’s possible to take an easy-growing fish fibroblast cell line and differentiate it into the muscle and fat cells needed to make a fish fillet,” says Bomkamp.
Future challenges and opportunities
There’s no single hurdle that stands in the way of developing cultivated meat, more a series of drivers from a cost and scale perspective – namely, advances in cell culture, media and bioreactors. “Media is probably the big challenge today, but is relatively easy to solve,” says Bomkamp. “The next challenge will be designing low cost, easily sterilizable food-grade bioreactors.”
The source materials such as cells, growth factors and nutrients, also need to be considered. “We can think about alternative protein technology all day, but where are we going to get the inputs?” says Bomkamp. “Alternative seafood will require an abundant source of omega-3 fatty acids, so we’ll need suppliers capable of scaling up production, whether that’s from algae farming, precision fermentation, plant molecular farming or cell free systems.”
“We also need to understand what happens to cultivated seafood and meat once it’s been harvested. Conventional meat isn’t just muscle, it’s muscle that has gone through various aging processes and is influenced by all kinds of factors pre- and post-slaughter. A major challenge is how we build that into a product that’s been cultivated in a food facility from cell lines.”
There are also important synergies with other aspects of sustainable food production. “Where cultivated meat becomes a really good solution is when we produce it with clean energy. Alternative protein advocates need to be also supporting clean energy and vice versa,” says Bomkamp. “One of the big negatives of conventional meat production, particularly terrestrial meat, is changes in land use that destroy forests and their ability to capture carbon. If we can reverse that trend and produce the food we need with less land, what opportunities does that present? We need to think ahead to ensure policies and incentives allow extra land to be used in a way that's going to benefit the climate.”
But with these challenges come unique opportunities for a new generation of researchers with wide-ranging skill sets. “It’s easy to think of this as just a science or business problem, when in reality we need people from a variety of backgrounds with different interests – from computer scientists to model bioreactor designs to chefs who can cook these products,” says Bomkamp.
“It's a very exciting area to be working in at the moment,” agrees McClements. “I've never had so many students who want to work in the lab because everyone's really passionate about these plant-based foods and using them to try and improve the health of people and the sustainability of the environment.”
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4. McClements DJ, Grossmann L. A brief review of the science behind the design of healthy and sustainable plant-based foods. NPJ Sci Food. 2021;5(1):17. doi: 10.1038/s41538-021-00099-y
5. Tsuruwaka Y, Shimada E. Reprocessing seafood waste: challenge to develop aquatic clean meat from fish cells. NPJ Sci Food. 2022;6(1):7. doi: 10.1038/s41538-021-00121-3
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