The global population surge will greatly impact how – and what – we eat
By Emily McDaid
In the next 30 years, the world will need to produce as much food as it’s done in the past 500 years. That astounding increase in food must be drawn from the same amount of land (assuming the colonisation of Mars is more than 30 years away).
I got this statistic from one of Northern Ireland’s leading experts on food, Stephane Durand, director of the Agri-Food Quest Competence Centre.
Stephane was one of the recipients of a £5m Collaborative Research Fund grant from Invest NI with QUB, Ulster University and AFBI as its main research partners, and with collaboration from the agri-food industry. QUB is also a winner of a European grant for collaborative research and education, totaling 400m Euros over seven years, focusing on the future of agri-food in Europe.
Stephane told me: “The story is: there’s a huge opportunity for small companies to innovate in the way food is delivered, produced, and consumed by us. One factor we rate is the input/output ratio of food, particularly in creating protein. For example, to produce 1 kilogram of beef, we input 12 – 16kgs of feed. It’s an inefficient way to feed people. Chicken is far closer to a 1:1 relationship (at about 2kgs of feed per kilo of protein produced), but insect and algae food products have the promise to obtain close to the 1:1 ratio we need.”
So our future lies in eating insects? Do they contain the nutrition we need?
“You’re asking if they contain the essential fatty acids, minerals and vitamins that our bodies cannot produce themselves. That is a question that needs to be answered,” he said. “Animal proteins will continue to have a key role to play in feeding nations, but more work is needed to produce these proteins more sustainably. Again this opens great opportunities for producers.”
The question of Brexit’s ramifications on agriculture aside, the coming disruptions are: the desire to eat good quality local food, and food flowing directly from producers to consumers. Also, younger generations are eating out more. They avoid buying food in one large glut, not in “big shops.” These are the hallmarks of the “Farm to Fork” revolution.
“It will force a total rethink of the current model, whereby 1% of food producers take 50% of the sales in the industry in Europe,” said Stephane.
Clearly, at present, the food production industry is unbalanced in the favor of large corporates. Technology innovations may be our best hope to rebalance the equation.
Stephane noted the rise of Food Assembly, a website that links consumers directly with food producers. This model is widely popular in France, where it originated, and in population centres like London. In Northern Ireland we have a Food Assembly in Omagh. Farmers and food manufacturers can put their products online, to be chosen and bought directly by consumers, and then bring their products to an “assembly” central meeting point to distribute the food.
“It’s a different concept to going to the supermarket. Margins are better for producers, so the cost of high-quality, local produce can be kept down.”
Reportedly, producers only owe a 16.7% service cost to use this channel, a cost which would be 50% or more with supermarkets. (This takes into account the cost of transportation and stock holding.)
But as a vegetarian, although I truly want the local revolution to happen… I admit I’m skeptical.
I challenged Stephane that the huge majority of Northern Irish land is used to raise one crop alone – grass – to feed livestock. If we are going to transform and truly embrace a “Farm to Fork” model, NI needs to start growing more crops edible to humans.
“There are many factors shifting, thanks to world politics,” Stephane said. “Changing diets is one thing. Consider that there are more than twice the number of overweight/obese people in the world (2 billion) than starving/malnourished people (795 million). In other words, a redistribution of global food is absolutely critical. We need to change how we eat.”
And then there’s Brexit.
Stephane noted that in Northern Ireland, 80% of the food produced is sold outside our borders. He explains: “This means we are very exposed to Brexit. Take just one food product: at least 25% of the milk produced in NI is transported to the Republic of Ireland, so if our border is subject to tariffs on par with the WTO, our dairy industry would need to think about new markets.”
I asked, is it all doom and gloom?
“Not at all - there’s an enormous opportunity for gains in NI. But we need a business plan and a strategy.”
“Also, Northern Ireland is very easy to invest in. Our location and our skilled workforce, make our position very strong, this is of course if we can continue to recruit in Europe without restriction. There is a very sudden change coming, and we need to be ready,” Stephane said.
In which technology areas do you see the most potential?
“A young innovation in personalized nutrition could do very well. If someone could innovate a version of ‘your DNA shows you should eat this way,’ that is something interesting. Using technology to test food to make sure it’s not fraudulent and it contains what it claims, is also a massive area of potential,” said Stephane.
What kind of testing technology exists for food?
“There are handheld diagnostic tools, using infrared technology for example,” he said.
How does climate change affect agri-food?
In response, Stephane directed me to some statistics:
The expected 76 % rise in the global appetite for meat and animal products by 2050 could increase greenhouse gases by 80 % calling for action to mitigate climate change induced by livestock. This dietary shift is a further threat to sustainability given the high resource footprint of producing animal-derived food products, a factor underpinning a growing interest amongst some consumers for more 'sustainable diets' based upon alternative sources of protein. It can also be observed that demand-side approaches and policies to support a shift towards healthier and more sustainable diets are emerging.
Source: European Research & Innovation for Food & Nutrition Security’s report entitled “FOOD 2030 High-level Conference background document”