Silvia Dumitrescu

Securing the Future of Food Security

According to estimates from the World Food Programme, more than one billion people suffer from chronic hunger. And, per the U.S. Department of State, global food production will have to increase 70 percent by 2050 in order to feed the world's growing population.

Global food security is one of the world’s most pressing concerns. If we’re to provide access to enough food for all people, we can’t afford to think small.

The challenge may seem daunting now, but we’ve accomplished wonders before. Norman Borlaug is credited with saving a billion lives with the creation of disease-resistant wheat varieties. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for introducing new food technologies in Africa and Asia therefore improving food security.

Our 21st century problems demand 21st century answers. So let’s briefly take a look at recent game-changing advances in food science and technology.

Technology and Innovation – In the race to create more sustainable and healthy fare, here are a few emerging innovations to keep your eyes out for.

  • Meat shocking: Meat shocking is a new process through which we can disrupt the structure of food, and is a way to tenderize lower-value meat cuts. Plus this technique can be used to enhance the extraction of bio-actives from plant materials and modify the structure of grains for improving mill yield.
  • Ultra-drying: Drying food has long been a great way of preserving foods and has long been a tactic in preventing food shortages. Now ultrasound-based drying technology to reduce drying times far more gently and with far less energy.
  • Antenna microwave: We all use microwaves at home to heat up leftovers. And we’ve all noticed that sometimes the food isn’t heated evenly. Now, while that’s not unhealthy from a food safety perspective, it does mean a great deal for commercial shipping and transportation. Fortunately, there is now a microwave technology that heats evenly, which also has applications for food pasteurization, disinfecting, and other heating necessities.
Silvia Dumitrescu, Vice President, Communications, International Food Information Council Foundation
Silvia Dumitrescu, Vice President, Communications, International Food Information Council Foundation
Silvia Dumitrescu,
Vice President, Communications,
International Food Information Council Foundation

Lab meat – Laboratory-grown meat. Cultured meat. Cell-based meat. It’s all the same thing: meat grown from just a few cells from an actual animal. Scientists (and some venture capitalists) are just hoping you call it one thing; delicious.

On average, America eats over 26 billion pounds of beef a year. That’s heavier than if you stacked the Great Pyramids of Giza on top of each other over 25 times. And that kind of quantity requires a massive amount of farming and grazing land. One cow can drink over 11,000 gallons of water a year (about the same as it takes to grow 1 bushel of wheat or fill a large backyard swimming pool). Just on a practical level, there is a need for smarter food.

By producing meat grown in a lab, scientists are betting the farm that they can create the same beef flavor we all love, and use fewer resources to get us there. And they’re getting pretty close already.

In 2013, producing the first lab-grown burger cost $325,000. By 2015 that cost had dropped to around $11 to create.

Blockchain – Before we get to how blockchain technology helps the food industry, let’s quickly define what blockchain really is. Simply put, blockchain technology is a way of storing and sharing information across a network of users in an open virtual space. Picture a spreadsheet that can be duplicated thousands of times and accessed by anyone to allow for total transparency and immediate information in real-time.

By having access to so much information, the ramifications for the food industry are enormous.

  • Food safety: Every year, 1 in 10 people around the world become ill due to foodborne diseases; approximately 420,000 of them die. Part of the problem is figuring out quickly where the problem originated from, and then recalling all the food from that supply chain. When outbreaks of foodborne illness occur, the restaurants or grocery stores that served the food can use blockchain to help trace the origins so as to immediately remove the food from their menus and shelves.
  • Farm and Distributor Information: Not only does blockchain give consumers piece of mind that their food is being tracked carefully, it also allows distributors to feel empowered. With real-time access to commodities markets, blockchain allows for farmers immediate access to the marketplace, so they can be more competitive and productive.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is currently using its blockchain testing from refugee aid in the Middle East to supply chain management in Africa.

CRISPR – Unless you’re a geneticist, CRISPR might also need some explaining. CRISPR—the technique’s acronym— offers food scientists a way to alter the genetic sequence of an organism to make our food more nutritious and sustainable.

In medicine, this type of gene editing could potentially treat inherited diseases, such as heart disease or cancer. In agriculture, CRISPR can help create plants that not only produce higher yields, mushrooms that don’t brown, fruit that doesn’t bruise, but also remove allergens.

Agriculture companies are already licensing CRISPR technology for use in crop development. The hope is that this will accelerate the creation of crops that are more resilient to climate change or have consumer-pleasing properties such as soybean oil with fats as healthy as those in olive oil.

Nutrigenomics  The scientific definition of Nutrigenomics is the study of the effects of food and food constituents on gene expression and how genetic variations affect the nutritional environment. In layman’s terms, the science of how foods affect our genes and the way we react to nutrients in foods.

Nutrigenomics could help us answer several important questions, like:

  • Eating behaviors.
  • Food reactions.
  • Nutritional needs.
  • Metabolic health factors.

The seed vault – Located 1300 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle the Svalbard Global Seed Vault houses the world's largest secure seed storage silo. With tens of thousands seed varieties from more than 4000 separate species of plants, this global seed vault and others like it held by Centers for genetic resources around the world can be used to recreate valuable plant varieties.

But, what makes Svalbard so special is not what it protects, but rather what it protects against. From global warming to new crop diseases, the high-yielding crop varieties that we currently depend on aren’t tailored to withstand such massive and rapid changes.

Food security is one of the crucial questions to answer in the 21st century, and will require everyone to do their part. Innovations such as the ones presented above along with the fight to stop food waste will help us in the future. Worldwide, we waste one of every three food calories produced. These wasted calories are enough to feed three billion people – that’s 10 times the US population or roughly three times the population of China. On a macro-scale, an estimated 133 billion pounds of food that farmers grow never makes it to our plates. That's enough to fill 44 skyscrapers.

While all of this sounds promising, it’s important to remember that most of these technologies are new for society. We do not know yet which ones will be scaled up for a commercial market and be broadly accepted by consumers. Advances in science and technology are always exciting, and work will continue to ensure their safety. At IFIC, we believe scientific information delivered in simple language is key. We will continue to follow innovations as they relate to food security and inform the public. To read more about the science behind our food, visit us at www.foodinsight.org.

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