We all know that what we eat profoundly affects our health. It’s not just about the calories, but the form those calories are ingested (the ratios of protein, fat, carbohydrate) and what goes with them, the micronutrients like vitamins and essential minerals. There is also the question of how our food is raised and what effect different farming methods are having on the release of greenhouse gases.
Agriculture already accounts for around a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Global warming could in turn have a devastating effect on rice and maize production, the staple of many people’s diet.
The Longitude Prize 2014 offers us the opportunity to get to grips with one of the greatest problems of our time. By 2050, there will be over nine billion mouths to feed – we need to come up with new and radical ways to tackle this challenge in a sustainable way. That’s why I am supporting the case for food.
More than frank starvation, malnourishment is a humanitarian crisis on an incredible scale. 800 million people, including three million Brits, do not get the nutrients they need to stay healthy. Widespread deficiencies of the most basic vitamins can lead to severe health problems for people of all ages.
To give us that optimum nutritional balance, we need an innovation that will transform our present patterns of production and consumption. With the demand for meat growing alongside the ecological impact of its mass production, the imperative is on our generation to find a solution.
What’s on the menu?
There are many competing areas of research that offer potential ways to help.
Currently there is tremendous waste; huge amounts of food are produced and thrown away, long before it gets to consumers (who themselves waste more). Can technology help?
Many people are worried about the idea of eating genetically modified food, yet food scientists have repeatedly demonstrated the potential for this technology.
For example, fish are a very nutritious source of protein but there is real concern about overfishing the oceans. Fish farming may be more sustainable, but the fish being farmed need nutrients like omega 3, which currently has to come from grinding up other fish.Crops genetically engineered to produce high levels of omega 3, which are then fed to farmed fish, may help make large scale fish farming more sustainable.
Other experts suggest that insects could reduce our unhealthy dependence on meat. High in protein, iron, zinc and many vitamins, insect cultivation requires only ten per cent of the resources, and wide-scale insect farming in nations such as Thailand could point a way to the future.
However, it would take a big shift in public attitudes for GM crops to become a viable option in many places. Similarly, there would have to be a quite remarkable adjustment in our collective squeamishness before insects became a snack of choice in the western world. So, what other solutions exist? We need lots of new approaches.
Feeding the nine billion
If food is chosen for the Longitude Prize 2014, the solution would need to have a demonstrable benefit on a small scale, but with workable projections for the potential impact on us all.
It would need to be globally sustainable and with enough nutritional benefit to help balance the deficiencies of our booming population.
Whether the idea comes from the laboratory, the farm or the kitchen, a vote for this challenge is a vote to support a fundamental transformation of the future of food.
Photo credit: Dr Michael Mosley in Rothamstad Research with a genetically modified plant. Copyright BBC/Matt Chancellor.