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Lab-grown meat and ancient grains – what will be on the menu in 2050?

Lab-grown meat and ancient grains – what will be on the menu in 2050?
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Will we have to rethink our meat consumption in the future?
Will we have to rethink our meat consumption in the future?

By 2050, Australians will be eating less of the classic meat-and-three-veg and more foods produced to suit our rapidly changing world – such as lab-grown meat, rooftop-grown tomatoes and fermented soy products rich in protein.

Ancient grains might make an even bigger comeback as we look to the past for diverse carbohydrate sources.

Wholefoods and local organic produce might become more mainstream – as could genetically modifying our crops.

And instead of counting calories, we’re likely to be noting the "nutrition density" of our foods.

Meanwhile, we may have to rethink how much beef we consume – and fish that's not farmed but is caught in the wild, such as mackerel and tuna, are likely to be off the menu.

A mix of climate change, dwindling resources and rising populations are already prompting us to remap our approach to producing food.

When it comes to food security – ensuring we all have enough nutritious food to eat – Australia has a lot on its plate.

Wheat in WA. Alamy

Don't we already produce a lot of food though?

Australia produces enough food for three times its population so it's easy to think that food security won't be a problem.

But our population is set to rise from 25 million to 35.9 million by 2050, according to the Treasury, while the resources needed to sustain us such as water, farmable land and soil quality are diminishing.

Meanwhile, foods made up about one-seventh of our total exports in 2017, according to the Department of Agriculture. We’ll need to find clever ways to maintain this market in the future. And although 90 per cent of the fresh food we eat is produced locally, the items we import such as seafood, coffee and chocolate are not ones we’d want to do without – having continued access to these foods will rely on us being savvy about maintaining good trade relationships.

Food security is also linked to our national security. Population for our neighbours in south-east Asia, where Australia has significant trade ties, is projected to jump from 670 million in 2020 to 800 million in 2050, according to the United Nations.

“If there’s malnutrition or undernutrition, hunger in our region or around the world, that leads to the potential for political instability, military interventions,” says Ralph Ashton, director of the not-for-profit Australian Futures Project. “And that can spill into the Australian security situation – and, given we’re such a trade-focused country, into our economy.”

We’ll have a lot of mouths to feed. So what might stand in our way – and what’s being done to ensure we have enough of the right foods to go around?

First, let's talk about the weather

You can’t talk about threats to food security without talking about climate change. Declining and unreliable rainfalls and rising temperatures are having an impact on how much our farms are able to produce.

Farmers are adapting, adjusting crop growing according to rainfall trends, and developing more efficient farming strategies. Our agricultural output has remained more or less steady for the past decade – but will this be enough to keep up with our growing population?

We need to develop crops that are able to better withstand our changing climate, says Dr Tony Bacic, director of the La Trobe Institute for Agriculture and Food. One way might be through genetic modification – artificially altering the DNA of a crop to make it more robust.

Almost all of our cotton is genetically modified already and scientists at CSIRO are working on modifying wheat to make it resistant to rust disease.

In the US, foods made with a new, efficient gene-editing technology called CRISPR could hit shelves in a year or two. In Australia, we're still working out how we should regulate these kinds of products.

But decisions such as these will need to be made sooner rather than later as it becomes easier to modify our food's DNA. And with the controversy still surrounding such technology, we’ll need to overcome the hurdle of public opinion for it to have any benefit, Bacic says.

A water storage canal in drought-stricken NSW.AAP

Do we have the right stuff?

One of our most precious resources, water, is under strain from growing cities but is in more demand than ever in increasingly dry conditions. Taking too much out of our rivers can have disastrous consequences, as we saw recently with mass fish deaths in the Murray-Darling river system, events that the Australian Academy of Science attributed to drought and excess drawing of water for cotton farming.

Meanwhile, farmable land is being encroached on by suburban sprawl and once-fertile agricultural land is slowly becoming barren through a combination of overuse, deforestation and decreasing rainfall.

With scarce resources left to meet a growing demand, something will have to give.

Meat, and especially beef, is a huge export for Australia. Its production also takes vast hectares of land and is a key contributor to water pollution – it’s a prime candidate for scientists to seek replacements for. While it may still sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, it could be just years before we’re chomping on laboratory-grown, or “clean” meat, says Food Frontier, an Australian enterprise “growing” meat from animal cells.

And instead of swatting insects, we might come to accept that they’re protein-rich, abundant and nicely crunchy if you don’t think about it too hard. Fermented vegetable proteins such as tempeh and natto, currently the province of hipsters, could also go mainstream.

Rice and wheat crops at the NSW and Victoria border.Andrew Quilty

We have food to eat in Australia. But how nutritious is it?

We have more than doubled our yield of crops since the '60s, using only 11 per cent more land. But many of the foods we've become used to eating, such as white bread and white rice, are highly processed.

White rice, for example, is made by removing the outer layers of the grain, which contains most of its fibre, vitamins and minerals. In the past this was done to extend its storage life but although that's no longer a problem, we've become accustomed to its taste.

Add to this rising levels of carbon dioxide in the air, which scientists have found increases crops' yields but lowers their nutritional value – and we may be heading towards a net situation of quantity over quality.

Meanwhile, almost a third of Australians are obese. And this major public health problem may well worsen as we become busier and rely even more on convenient, processed foods.

“We can produce three times as much food as we need but it’s all the wrong sort of food, it’s sugar and it’s wheat and those sorts of things we should be eating less of rather than more of,” Ashton says.

Bacic believes we need to develop ways of processing food that require less refining – a move back to wholefoods could be on the cards.

Another place to start might be diversifying the crops we grow. A thousand years ago, the world produced about 20,000 crop varieties, says Bacic. Some of these have made a comeback recently as “superfoods” – and there are many more “ancient grains” that we could consider reviving.

Sustainability advocate Joost Bakker believes the nutrition problem can be solved by moving away from mass agriculture and chemical fertilisers – which he says leach nutrients from food and contribute to climate change – and going back to basics.

“I think the only way forward is to create a zero-waste lifestyle … I think systems will appear that will allow us to live off-grid, grow our own food, and be able to provide for ourselves right where we live,” he says.

Australian consumers throw away 3.1 million tonnes of food each year, while another 2.2 million tonnes is disposed of by the commercial and industrial sector. Globally, a third of food produced is wasted, according to the United Nations.

“The single biggest, easiest thing to do is address the 30 per cent of food that’s wasted,” Ashton says.

The region’s (boutique) food bowl?

We need to improve the nutrition in our food if we want to stay competitive as a food exporter as well as for our own well-being, says Bacic. But, once again, we’re going to have to aim for quality not quantity.

“We’re no longer going to compete on the international market if we’re simply going for yield because there are other countries whose production cost systems are much lower than ours,” he says.

Our strict food safety regulations and a reputation for quality already position us as a supplier of premium food to the region. Our wine industry is leading the way with sophisticated export strategies catering to different regional palettes.

But then there’s climate change to consider – again. Should we really be burning fuel to transport food to and from overseas – especially countries whose safety laws are laxer than our own?

Bakker believes importing less will mean we eliminate some foods from our diets, such as wild-caught fish tuna and mackerel that are significantly depleted in the oceans.

We'll be eating more farm-bred fish, thinks Bacic. But that carries its own challenges, such as vulnerability to parasites and disease, which we'll need research to solve.

Cows in a paddock. Australia produces plenty of dairy and beef but the future holds its own challenges. Paul Rovere

What's next?

The issue of food security isn’t just about money and positioning ourselves as purveyors of nice nosh to the region. We should continue to be able to share our food for basic humanitarian reasons, says Ashton.

“As a rich country, Australia should be doing whatever we can to be providing nutritious food to places that are struggling to have that food.”

To future-proof Australia's fresh food supply, experts and policy makers from many disciplines will need to pull together. That's already starting to happen – including at a newly launched fresh-food safety research hub that combines the know-how of scientists with government and industry resources.

Researchers will share insights on genome editing, water management, horticulture, pathogen detection and food safety at the new ARC Training Centre for Food Safety in the Fresh Produce Industry at the University of Sydney.

“As our population grows and our country's role as a global food producer increases, future-proofing our food supply and competitiveness through scientific and engineering advancement's is a welcome move,” says the centre's director, Robyn McConchie.

and, for Sydney Morning Herald readers …

The Future Fix: Skilling Up
Wednesday, March 27, 6pm
Google HQ, Pyrmont, Sydney
Cost: $20 (or $10 if you’re also a subscriber of The Sydney Morning Herald). Book tickets here.

What government policies are holding us back in innovation? Is business filling the innovation void? And are we creating a workforce able to take us forward?

Join The Herald’s National Editor Tory Maguire and our special panel line-up – Jessica Irvine (Senior Economics Writer, Herald), Ralph Ashton (Director, Australian Futures Project), Dominic Price (Work Futurist, Atlassian) and Sally-Ann Williams (Engineering Community and Outreach Manager for Google Australia) – as they examine solutions to short-termism in Australian policy making, related to skills and innovation.

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