This week’s video concerns the future of food, and I thought I’d put together a roundup of some of the most interesting stuff I discovered when researching the topic.
Perhaps the most successful (and controversial) advance in recent food technology has been the introduction of transgenic crops. We’ve been breeding new strains of plants and animals for thousands of years, but only in the past few decades has it become possible to alter an organism’s genome with technical precision by inserting individual genes, one at a time. To really get your mind blown by the how amazing this technology is, check out the gene gun, which literally shoots new DNA into targeted cells.
Genetically modified (GM) crops can potentially offer all kinds of benefits. For example, some simply make agriculture easier, by making adult crops resistant to the poisons found in herbicides like Roundup. Others change the properties of the food for the benefit of the consumer. One example would be Golden Rice. This is a strain of rice that has been genetically altered to supply dietary beta-carotene, which could help offset vitamin A deficiency in children around the world. This BBC article has a pretty good overview of Golden Rice, and the controversy that plagues its development and implementation.
That kind of controversy turns out to be core to the issue. When it comes to the public discussion about genetic engineering of food crops, there’s a lot more attention paid to the debate about the effects of GMOs on the environment and human health than on the science involved. Most mainstream scientific organizations have repeatedly stated that while each individual GM product needs to be assessed for safety before entering the food market, there’s no reason GM foods in general should be considered especially dangerous or suspect. For example, the AAAS opposed the special labeling of GM foods in this October 2012 statement; meanwhile a formal resolution by the American Medical Association states:
“That federal regulatory oversight of agricultural biotechnology should continue to be science-based and guided by the characteristics of the plant or animal, its intended use, and the environment into which it is to be introduced, not by the method used to produce it, in order to facilitate comprehensive, efficient regulatory review of new bioengineered crops and foods…”
As I mentioned our podcast about genetic modification and the GM foods controversy, Amy Harmon’s NYT story “A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA” gives a fascinating profile of the practical side of GMO implementation. Within, she tells the story of a rash of “citrus greening” that is destroying Florida’s orange crops, and how genetic engineering may be the only way to save the oranges from this nasty bacterial infection.
Agricultural robotics is another big avenue for technical advancement in food production. When you think about it, successful agriculture from plowing to harvest requires a remarkably diverse set of finely calibrated skills. While some farming jobs might be comparable to the monotonous and indelicate tasks robots perform in auto factories—say, evenly distributing water over a field of soybeans, or even stabbing a hole in the turned soil, dropping a number of seeds into the hole and then covering it—it’s harder to get robots to do things like successfully identify the ripeness of fruits and pick them selectively with no significant damage or product loss. But there are prototypes designed to handle even these tougher tasks, and they’re getting closer to market viability with each generation. For example, check out this strawberry harvester prototype video to see all of the complex machinery that goes just into trying to identify and successfully pick a ripe piece of fruit. Robots like these haven’t been perfected across the board yet, but it’s not hard to imagine that someday soon they’ll able to surpass the agility, precision, judgment and gentle touch of a human harvester with respect to nearly all crops.
And then there’s the protein problem. Here’s the deal – while there are plenty of voluntary vegans and vegetarians in the world, history shows that the majority of people who can afford to eat meat will usually choose to eat it. But there are a few concerns here: First, some people simply believe that it’s unethical to kill animals for food, and even if you don’t subscribe to this view, you might easily be persuaded that the currently popular factory farming and slaughtering methods are needlessly inhumane. Second, conventionally raised meat—especially beef, as opposed to pork or chicken—is very costly to the environment. It represents a huge carbon footprint, massive energy and water investiture, a great deal of open land use, and risks for public health disasters like E. coli outbreaks, mad cow disease and environmental contamination from manure runoff.
We might recognize that a hamburger is a very costly proposition, but we want it anyway. So how can we fix this problem?
Well, what if we grew our hamburgers in the lab?
In August 2013, the world’s first lab-grown hamburger was grilled and served at an event in London. Check out NPR’s coverage to read what reviewers had to say (select quote: “…it’s close to meat”). A physiologist named Mark Post from Maastricht University in the Netherlands was the main brain behind the lab patty.
This technology is 100 percent real, and it could potentially obviate both of the objections raised above. Lab-grown beef is cultured from stem cells that can be taken from a live cow without killing it – so we could in the future find ways to have a steak that no animal had to die for. On the second concern, scientists believe that lab-grown animal tissue could massively reduce the environmental impact of meat production. Check out this series of estimates published in Environmental Science and Technology in 2011:
“In comparison to conventionally produced European meat, cultured meat involves approximately 7–45% lower energy use (only poultry has lower energy use), 78–96% lower GHG emissions, 99% lower land use, and 82–96% lower water use depending on the product compared.”
And of course the final idea we discuss in our video is insects. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization endorses the adoption of entomophagy (eating insects) as a strategy for beating food insecurity around the world. Check out Chuck Bryant’s HowStuffWorks article on entomophagy to see how an insect diet works out in practice – and the surprising benefits of having a few termites on your plate.