Cocktails in seaweed pods, mealworm pasta and farms inside grocery stores: Welcome to the future of food

Transforming how we grow food, and what we eat, is a crucial pillar in tackling the climate crisis, writes Senior Climate Correspondent Louise Boyle

Louise Boyle
Senior Climate Correspondent in New York
Thursday 12 August 2021 19:24
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Related video: Four ways going vegan can help the planet

In the foodie mecca of Rome, thousands of people recently gathered to ruminate over the future of food.

Our global food systems are broken. One in every 10 people around the world goes hungry while rich countries toss 222 million tonnes of food in the garbage – close to the entire annual production of sub-Saharan Africa. The natural world we rely on for healthy soil, water sources and stable weather is buckling under the climate crisis.

The planet’s population is estimated to reach 10 billion by 2050. And while the United Nations emphasises that there will be enough food for everyone, the problems lie in inefficient and unbalanced, emissions-heavy production.

As nations become increasingly prosperous, demand for meat and dairy has increased and today, nearly two-thirds of the world’s agricultural land is used for livestock grazing. Food production makes up a third of global greenhouse gas emissions with livestock for beef, lamb, pork and dairy accounting for 14.5 per cent of that.

The three-day meeting in Italy was a warm-up for the first-ever UN Food Systems Summit in New York next month, intended to shine a light on rising food insecurity, particularly in the Global South for smallholder farmers and Indigenous peoples.

“Just as food brings us together as cultures and communities, it can bring us together around solutions. But what is clear is there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Our diversity is our strength and reflects the complexity of our world,” UN Deputy Secretary General Amina J Mohammed said.

Some solutions will be relatively simple, and could be rapidly deployed. Others have taken years of research at the cutting edge of science. Many will require a shift in mindset in how we view the makeup of our plates.

Growing Up

Agriculture is responsible for three-quarters of global deforestation even when we know that trees, as carbons sinks, are among the best natural allies to reducing emissions.

Global tropical forest loss averages 8.3m acres a year — an area larger than Belgium, according to Conservation.org. Most of the trees are cut down in Brazil and Indonesia, some of the richest biodiversity hotspots on the planet.

One way to fight back against the global land grab is by growing upwards. The vertical farming market was valued at around $1bn in 2019 and is expected to grow at least 25 per cent in the next five years.

Berlin-based Infarm says it has grown the largest urban vertical farming network in the world since being founded in 2013.

Co-founder and chief technology officer Guy Galonska said the idea was to bring the freshness and flavour of picking vegetables from a home garden into densely-populated cities. With trial and error, and some help from YouTube videos, the team developed their own indoor, hydroponic farming system.

“We were determined to make it work,” he told The Independent. “When we started giving out the produce to our neighbours and friends, their response was so positive we thought, there’s something in it.”

Hydroponics, a technique which dates to Ancient Egypt, is essentially growing plants without soil and using nutrients in water instead. Infarm combines this with cutting-edge tech, using a remotely-controlled, cloud-based “brain” to gather data on its plants that are grown in modular pods that can be stacked up to 100 feet high.

In 2016 the founders had their “retail epiphany”, Galonska said, seeing the business as part of the solution to cutting emissions and waste in the food supply chain. “We’re providing something which is as local as it gets, highly personalised, less waste, more sustainable,” he said.

Infarm operates in two settings. Inside grocery stores mini farms are set up in the produce aisle and controlled from afar by the company. Infarm also operates on a larger scale in its own growing centres which allows for a wider variety of crops. Infarm harvests upwards of half a million plants each month in cities around the world and while currently focused on leafy greens and herbs, it’s expanding into mushrooms, tomatoes, and chilis.

An Infarm selling herbs and leafy greens inside a Kroger grocery store in Kirkland, Washington

Galonska says that figuring out how to scale quickly, and the modular design was key to a resilient system – particularly for climate mitigation and to limit disease and pest risks, particularly since the company doesn’t use pesticides.

“Modularity allows us to compartmentalise risk, so even if something happens, it doesn’t spread throughout the entire production,” he said.

Vertical farming is not without challenges. A recent WWF study found that operations can run into problems over high energy use when attempting to grow produce other than leafy greens and herbs.

The company’s Chief Impact Officer, Sudhanshu Sarronwala, said that it is something the company is attuned to.

“We look at our LED lights, the air conditioning systems. We’re constantly improving those technologies,” he told The Independent. Infarm uses 95 per cent less water than open agriculture, around 99 per cent less land and food travels 90 per cent less to reach customers, he said.

By next month, 90 per cent of electricity used throughout the Infarm network will be from green-certified sources – meaning the electricity comes from renewable power like solar and wind.

He added: “There’s going to be a lot of risk in terms of the climate [crisis] and what you’ll be able to grow in certain parts of the world. Climate-controlled systems are here to stay and vertical farming is one that has taken root – pardon the pun.”

More lo-fi solutions to revolutionising agriculture such as urban farming are also gaining ground. The farms have layers of benefits: not only revitalising disused and often derelict city spaces but bringing healthy, fresh produce directly into areas which may lack access.

Providing more vegetation and tree cover, urban farms also help mitigate the “urban heat island effect” which leaves cities several degrees hotter than rural areas due to manmade materials like concrete and asphalt.

Urban farms are dotted around the world from Shanghai, China to rooftops in the Gaza Strip, and Denmark, where shipping containers have been converted into two-story greenhouses.

In the US, “Motor City” Detroit is a shining example of urban farming. Following decades of industrial decline, its abandoned lots have been transformed by at least 1,400 farms and community gardens. In Pittsburgh, once the heart of the American steel industry, Hilltop Urban Farm is set to become the largest in the US. In the Canadian city of Vancouver, Sole Food Street Farm was planted at a former gas station in an area which has struggled with poverty and drug use.

A New York stalwart is Brooklyn Grange, the world’s largest commercial rooftop, soil-based farm – producing more than 50,000 pounds of organic vegetables each year in view of the Manhattan skyline.

Food buzz

For more than 2.5 billion people, largely in Africa, Asia and Latin America, insects are a diet staple but in western countries, there has been reticence in adding them to dishes.

Insect farming is seen as a vital part of revolutionising protein sources as they require far less land and water to raise than livestock and produce fewer emissions.

In May the European Union green-lit the use of dried yellow mealworms as the first edible insect for human consumption. One study has estimated that while about nine million Europeans eat insects, and insect-derived products, currently that number will reach 390m by 2030.

Some companies like Ynsect in France are going all in. The company cultivates two species of mealworm on a chemical-free diet of wheat bran at a farmhill operation near Dole, birthplace of food revolutionary Louis Pasteur. The company reports that it is carbon negative, drawing more planet-heating CO2 from the atmosphere than it emits.

The mealworms are being used to create food products for humans like biscuits, pasta and meat substitutes.

They also can be used as feed for pets and livestock, crucially fish and shellfish. More than half of the global fish supply comes from aquaculture and is fed with fishmeal. However the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation expects this feed supply to plummet in the next few years.

“Mealworms are very versatile. They have a nutty taste,” Tiziana Di Costanzo, co-founder of Horizon, a small-scale edible insect farm in London, told The Independent earlier this year. Di Costanzo and her family started farming mealworms in their 30-square metre shed nearly three years ago and sell live mealworms and dried crickets to UK customers.

“For us, everything we do is with the view of preserving the natural environment,” she says. “Our utopian view was that other people would do the same as us and we would have lots of little urban insect farms like Horizon. But that hasn’t really been catching on very well.”

The company’s Instagram account offers a host of recipe ideas from avocado toast topped with tomatoes and dried crickets to pasta with seaweed pesto, seasoned with ground crickets and peppercorns.

For the resolutely carnivorous, meat alternatives are now widely stocked in grocery stores and even McDonald’s is testing out a “McPlant” burger. The next frontier is in “clean meat”, created from the cells of animals in test tubes using cutting- edge biomedical technology.

Singapore-based Eat Just claims to have achieved a world first by getting national regulatory approval to rollout its lab-grown chicken. It will begin selling the product in restaurants.

Others are turning to mushrooms, or rather the fibres of fungi called mycelium, to replace meat. Colorado-based Meati are planning to roll-out “steak” cuts and chicken-like products in restaurants this summer, along with putting jerky strips on grocery store shelves. The Atlast Food Company, which also uses mycelium, is launching a bacon in the next few months.

While sales in “fake meats” are booming (along with plant-based milk), the market for cheese substitutes has lagged. Things are looking up though for cheese aficionados. The founders of Stockeld Dreamery in Sweden have spent more than two years developing a “protein technology platform” to bring their feta-like Stockeld Chunk to market. The founders admitted it took about 1,000 versions and 40 chefs “who’ve been trying early on spitting it out every now and then”.

Packing it in

The oceans are being choked with eight million tonnes of plastic each year. By one estimate, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 and the corporations behind the problem are only beginning to tackle it in piecemeal approaches.

Mid-size and smaller brands are pushing innovation. Family-run Pete & Gerry’s in New Hampshire, the US’s largest producer of free-range, organic eggs, has long offered take-back programmes for packaging but is trialling a reusable egg carton. Colorado-based Celestial Tea don’t do strings and tags on tea bags to prevent unnecessary waste, and claim it saves 3.5m pounds of waste from landfill each year.

Start-ups are also seeing the opportunity such as Notpla, in East London, who have created edible packaging made from seaweed.

Co-founder Pierre Paslier told The Independent that the journey began when he and fellow inventor Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez met studying for a Masters in innovation design engineering at Imperial College and the Royal College of Art.

Their student flat became a test kitchen for techniques, some of which are used in molecular gastronomy, that Nineties culinary fad popularised by chefs like Heston Blumenthal.

“We didn't have access to a lab so we were in our kitchen, cooking up all sorts of weird and wonderful things,” he said.

They ended up with a material named Notpla – not plastic – made from seaweed and other plants which can be adapted to different consistencies.

Ooho, for example, is a flexible packaging for beverages and sauces which biodegrades in four to six weeks. Alternatively, you can just eat it.

“They are not as robust as plastic but definitely robust enough to be fit for purpose,” Paslier told The Independent. “It's like the resistance of a fruit. So if you squish it, you're going to mush it. But if you're trying to grab it, like to drink as you're running, it works fine.”

Case in point: the company handed out 36,000 Oohos filled with water at the 2019 London Marathon and prevented the waste of thousands of single-use paper cups. Oohos have also been used to serve boozy shots at music festivals.

The company is venturing into other packaging with food delivery services, JustEat and Deliveroo, in the UK. Notpla’s seaweed coating is applied to cardboard containers which makes them robust enough for hot, oily food and sauces but remain biodegradable - which is not always the case with a standard cardboard box coated in film.

Paslier is a seaweed super-fan and it’s not hard to see why. The marine plant is not only biodegradable but is just beginning to get the recognition it deserves as a highly effective, natural way to store CO2. The start-up founder said that he expected its applications to grow but currently, it was best utilised in moments of “quick consumption and high risk of littering”.

“I cannot even imagine what we're going to be able to do with seaweed, when we invest as much time, resources and brainpower as we have on plastic,” he added.

“Plastic has had a free [research and development] run for 70 years with the brightest minds in the world. If we apply that to seaweed, we could do incredible things.”

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