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Anthony Clayton | Jamaica in 2050 – Part 5: The future of food

Published:Sunday | November 21, 2021 | 12:09 AM
A Khasi tribal couple works in a paddy field at Moronga village, along the Assam-Meghalaya state border, in northeast India. More than 60 per cent of India’s 1.3 billion citizens engage in agriculture.
A Khasi tribal couple works in a paddy field at Moronga village, along the Assam-Meghalaya state border, in northeast India. More than 60 per cent of India’s 1.3 billion citizens engage in agriculture.
Professor Anthony Clayton
Professor Anthony Clayton
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This is the fifth in a series of eight articles looking at the ways that the world will change between now and 2050 and analysing the implications for Jamaica’s future.

It will be a much hotter and more crowded world in 2050. There will be nearly 10 billion people, and about 80 per cent of the world’s population will live in vast megacities in Asia and Africa. The climate will be less stable and more erratic, with unbearable heatwaves and acute water shortages.

The population will also be significantly older. Today, two-thirds of the global population is of working age, children make up a quarter of the population, and just eight per cent are over 65. By 2050 there will be almost the same number of old people as there are children; children will make up just over one-fifth and old people just under one-fifth of the population. Some countries will end up with a cohort of elderly people that is bigger than their entire workforce. So there will be many more mouths to feed, and far more of them will be elderly dependents.

At the same time, the world is running out of available fresh water. The UN estimates that about half of the world population will live in water-stressed areas by 2030, and the situation is rapidly becoming desperate for many people as a result of climate change. In parts of Africa and Central America, agricultural productivity has already fallen markedly as a result of drought.

There are some ideas and technologies that could still allow every mouth to be fed. But this will involve a transformation of agriculture with a combination of better management and technological innovation.

STOP WASTING FOOD

The first step is to stop wasting food. One-third of the food produced, i.e., about 1.3 billion tonnes, is spoiled or thrown away each year. About two-thirds of the food wasted is crops that rot in the fields or while being transported, mostly because of the lack of harvesters and chilled storage facilities in developing countries. Even modest sums spent on harvesters and storage facilities could save millions of tonnes of food from being wasted and help to feed some of the poorest countries.

Another important objective is to reduce the amount of land required to feed people. One recent innovation involves using food technology to make grains, soy, lentils and vegetables into a product that is similar in appearance and taste to meat. Producing protein from plants is usually more efficient than producing protein from animals, so this may help by increasing the number of people who can be fed from a given area of land without requiring them to change their dietary preferences.

However, it is even more important to reduce the amount of water and energy required to feed a growing population. An innovation called cellular agriculture, now at an advanced stage, involves taking cells from a single animal, usually a small biopsy of muscle or liver, then culturing them in a nutritional solution of glucose, amino acids, minerals and growth factors. The cells can then be stimulated with electrical impulses until they form muscle fibres. The texture is not entirely like muscle, but that does not matter for processed meat products like burgers and patties.

The industry is now trying to reduce the cost of the nutrients and growth factors. Once these are cheaper, it will be possible to produce fish, beef, chicken or other meat protein in bioreactors. The end product is meat, except it won’t contain bone, gristle or hormone residue, so it will be a high-quality, safe source of protein. When scaled up, this will be more efficient and cheaper than conventional meat production. Current estimates suggest that cultured meat in full-scale production will require up to 45 per cent less energy, 99 per cent less land, 80-95 per cent less water and cause up to 96 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventionally produced meat.

FERMING

Another technology in development is called ‘ferming’, which involves using a fermentation process to multiply microorganisms that have been engineered to produce carbohydrates, or the specific proteins needed to make meat or milk, or edible oils and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. The inputs into ferming are CO², water, ammonia and electricity (used for water electrolysis to release hydrogen), plus the microorganisms that are fermented to make proteins. The output contains protein with essential amino acids, fats, carbohydrates and vitamin B, which can then be processed into food products such as ice cream, meat substitutes, bread or pasta. The production of one kilogramme of fermed proteins could require as little as 0.06 per cent of the water and 0.005 per cent of the land needed for the equivalent output of protein from conventional agriculture.

Current projections suggest that the cellular industry could start to displace part of conventional meat production by 2030, while proteins from precision fermentation are projected to be around 10 times cheaper than animal protein by 2035. This could result in the eventual decline of the livestock industry and other forms of conventional agriculture and remove the need for farm subsidies (the current world total of farm subsidies is about US$600 billion).

Either cellular agriculture or ferming would eliminate the production of methane (farm animals are a major source), deforestation (ranching is a major driver of deforestation), nitrate, phosphate and pesticide contamination, reduce the rate of soil erosion and eliminate the transmission of diseases such as BSE, TB and avian flu from animals to humans. The food will be healthier, as it would not contain pesticide or hormone residue, most allergens or saturated fats.

Livestock production currently takes up most of the world’s agricultural land for grazing and feed crops, so the replacement of extensive farming by cellular agriculture or ferming will allow the redundant agricultural land to be used for environmental restoration (e.g., more wetlands and forests) to increase resilience against disasters, restore biodiversity and draw down carbon from the atmosphere to reduce the rate of climate change. Once these technologies are available, cities could feed themselves from their own bioreactors and surround themselves with forests and parks while still maintaining a high level of food security.

With investments in these new areas of agricultural, food and biotechnology, Jamaica could reduce the need for imports and guarantee its own food security while allowing more land to be used for both development and environmental restoration.

Anthony Clayton is professor of Caribbean Sustainable Development. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.