The global food system could be pushed to breaking point within 20 years unless we drastically alter our consumption, warns UNSW food and health expert Professor Johannes le Coutre.
With the global population expected to push 9 billion within two decades, and with climate change and its environmental impacts wreaking havoc, le Coutre says reducing our reliance on meat is the most sustainable and practical way to navigate a potential food crisis. Livestock systems currently make up around 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions, as compared with an estimated 2% for the aviation industry.
“Meat consumption clearly is a significant culprit on a global scale, which is linked to massive feed production and the use of arable land and water to keep all that livestock alive and growing to meet the demands of our current food system,” le Coutre told a discussion on the Future of Food, run by UNSW’s Centre of Ideas as part of National Science Week.
“The figures don’t add up, especially when the estimates are for 9 billion people on the planet in 20 years or so. We already have 800 million people who are going to sleep hungry each night, and 110 million people globally who are suffering from acute hunger.
“Some people say the food system right now is broken. I don’t believe it is, but we will certainly be breaking it if we just continue doing things the way they were done in the 20th century.”
Le Coutre says that individual and collective health cannot be disentangled from the health of the environment.
“We can look at health, and the role that food plays, in terms of three pillars – individual health, planetary health and economic health. And they are all intertwined.
“As part of that we need to look at climate change, at sustainability, at biodiversity, and also how food impacts on our individual health.”
Sustainable solutions: synthetic meats and new food sources
Le Coutre is one of the world’s foremost researchers in so-called “cellular agriculture”, the process by which scientists can produce or “grow” meat in facilities using cells taken from live animals. This process could be used to create “lab-grown” meat as well as other key products, like collagen and leather.
“In the future, our shops will sell a more diverse selection of products including animal-based meat, plant-based meats and cell-based meats, but this will not happen overnight.
“This change in the foods we eat could be absolutely historic, and we are in the transition period right now. If we have a meaningful representation of cell-based meat on our supermarket shelves in 5-10 years, then that would be a really good result.
“In 20 or 30 years, if we start to see a dent in the consumption of animals, then again that will be a big success. But it will go slowly.”
Le Coutre says scaling cell-based meat to be commercially manufactured is a key challenge.
“How long is it going to take to produce 1kg and what is the price going to be?” le Coutre posed. “The final product needs to be able to compete with traditional animal-based meat in terms of cost, otherwise consumers are always going to choose the cheaper option.
“But it’s really important that the traditional meat industry is not scared and alienated by all these new concepts and technologies. There will always be beautiful wagyu beef and porterhouse steaks and that’s great – as long as the price point is appropriate.”
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Another key solution to the global food crisis, says le Coutre, is the commercialisation of insects as food. Insects can be rich in protein, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, folic acid and vitamins, and are widely available and rapidly reproduce.
One of the biggest hurdles to such a major shift in diet, though, is what le Coutre refers to as the “yuck factor”.
“Some people might think insects are horrible and they could never eat them,” le Coutre says. “But insects are one of the four classes that make up the group biologists call arthropods, and one of the other classes in the group are crustaceans – that is prawns and shrimps and crabs and lobsters, which many people happily consume.
“So, if people think of it in that way, the ‘yuck factor’ is gone and there is definitely potential for increased consumption of insects in global diets.”
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