A diet of algae, insects and meat grown in a lab
By 2050 there will be another 2.5 billion people on the planet. How to feed them? Science’s answer: a diet of algae, insects and meat grown in a lab.
How can we feed the 2.5 billion more people – an extra China and India – likely to be alive in 2050? The UN says we will have to nearly double our food production and governments say we should adopt new technologies and avoid waste, but however you cut it, there are already one billion chronically hungry people, there’s little more virgin land to open up, climate change will only make farming harder to grow food in most places, the oceans are overfished, and much of the world faces growing water shortages.
Fifty years ago, when the world’s population was around half what it is now, the answer to looming famines was “the green revolution” – a massive increase in the use of hybrid seeds and chemical fertilisers. It worked, but at a great ecological price. We grow nearly twice as much food as we did just a generation ago, but we use three times as much water from rivers and underground supplies.
Food, farm and water technologists will have to find new ways to grow more crops in places that until now were hard or impossible to farm. It may need a total rethink over how we use land and water. So enter a new generation of radical farmers, novel foods and bright ideas.
How do you free up huge amounts of farmland to grow more food for humans? Easy – switch to commercial algae farms. Algae are simple, single-cell organisms that can grow very rapidly at sea, in polluted water and in places that would normally kill food crops. Major airlines and shipping companies are now investigating a switch to algae oil, and smart clean tech money is pouring in to the nascent technology.
The prize is huge: scientists say that under optimum conditions, commercial algae farms can produce 5,000-10,000 gallons of oil per acre, compared to just 350 gallons of ethanol biofuel per acre grown with crops like maize. In addition, algae could feed millions of animals and act as a fertiliser. Replacing all US ethanol (biofuel) production with algae oil would need around 2m acres of desert, but, says Arizona State university professor Mark Edwards, it would potentially allow 40m acres of cropland to be planted with human food, and save billions of gallons of irrigation water a year.
Algae are at the bottom of the food chain but they are already eaten widely in Japan and China in the form of seaweeds, and are used as fertilisers, soil conditioners and animal feed. “They range from giant seaweeds and kelps to microscopic slimes, they are capable of fixing CO2 in the atmosphere and providing fats, oils and sugars. They are eaten by everything from the tiniest shrimp to the great blue whales. They are the base of all life and must be the future,” says Edwards.
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