How long until we’re all eating ‘Frankenfood’?
The world’s population is 7 billion, and likely to rise to 10 billion by 2050. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. Farmers, scientists and businesses are responding to the 21st century’s most difficult food challenges. Iossie Ng Lei gives a taste of how they will transform the way we eat.
From gene-editing to bioreactors tanks; advances in science, technology and consumer ethics are radically changing our relationship with food. Here we’ve identified the most important and fascinating developments you need to know today:
Advances in gene-editing tools are giving scientists faster and cheaper alternatives for producing foods. Unlike conventional GMOs, powerful methods like CRISPR mean tweaking a plant’s existing DNA, allowing scientists to create new varieties of crops on-demand that are better quality, fight off diseases and stay fresher for longer.
The technology is already being implemented globally. In 2017, researchers in Florida used it to develop a better-tasting tomato. Months later a lab in Tokushima University created a variety of seedless tomato by introducing a mutation in the fruit and DuPont Pioneer — a heavyweight in the agricultural world — announced later in the year its intentions to commercialise a drought-resistant, waxy corn hybrid as its first product developed with CRISPR.
As climate change makes growing crops increasingly problematic, edited foods are playing a bigger role in solving world hunger, food shortages and wastage. Of course, intensive work needs to be done before anything can be commercialised, but with technologies in the agricultural sector developing at dazzling speed, we are seeing a wave of ‘improved’ foods getting closer to our markets, with traits that are appealing to farmers and consumers alike.
Meat substitutes have come a long way, from simple soy-based products to plant-based patties that successfully mimics real beef in the way it looks, tastes and even cooks.
Backed by high-profile investors like Bill Gates, Leonardo DiCaprio and more importantly Tyson Foods — America’s biggest processor of meat — companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are disrupting the meat industry by targeting their plant-based burgers to meat eaters rather than vegetarians. Last year, Beyond Meat made headline news as it succeeded in getting its plant-based burger patties sold in the meat aisles, alongside traditional beef at mainstream supermarkets such as US Whole Foods. By embarking on ambitious scale-ups and expanding reach, it signals that both consumers and the industry are embracing the shift in the market and there is growing support for plant-based protein as an alternative.
With consumers’ growing interest in health and animal welfare, the boom in demand is giving real momentum to plant-based mimics, making room for better products that could help the population reduce their meat consumption.
More companies are beginning to produce meat without animals, mayo without eggs and even wine without vines — all within the lab. Memphis Meats and Finless Foods are two biotech companies planning to create commercially available clean meat that has all the flavour, texture and nutrition, but making the abattoir redundant.
‘Clean’, ‘cultured’ or ‘lab-grown’ meat involves scientists taking self-producing cells from a living animal and placing them in bioreactor tanks. Those cells then grow and after about two weeks the meat is harvested. Receiving support from Bill Gates and Richard Branson, clean meat has certainly been gathering momentum, with Branson predicting that:
“In 30 years or so we will no longer need to kill any animals, and that all meat will either be clean or plant-based, taste the same, and also be much healthier for everyone.”
This would be a way to combat issues such as greenhouse emissions, unsustainable farming practices and animal welfare while also satisfying global appetite for animal products. However, lab-grown food is not quite there yet, as startups need to overcome production and scale challenges before making their products accessible to consumers. Both Memphis and Finless Foods believe that the technology will continue to advance rapidly, with products appearing in stores and restaurants within a few years.
Now the technology is established, this year is about testing how consumers will react to new products. These are five foods, racing to bring a revolution to supermarkets and your dinner table in 2018:
Arctic Golden Apple
What is it? The first GM non-browning apple to go on sale.
How is it changing the way we eat? With dozens of gene-edited crops years away from being commercially available, this is a first. Sold sliced-up in snack bags, the fruit has been prevented from producing the enzymes that cause browning, a technology that Okanagan Specialty Fruits is hoping will boost apple consumption and reduce waste. This marks a turning point in GM foods, as it benefits the consumer, rather than the farmer. Until now, there has been little progress in commercialising such agricultural innovations, yet scientists believe that if the Arctic apple is successful, consumer-led engineered products could help test the market.
When is it available? Now (in parts of Midwest America).
Beyond Meat Burger
What is it? A veggie burger that ‘bleeds’ like meat.
How is it changing the way we eat? Growing from its success in 2017, the meat-, gluten- and soy-free Beyond Meat patty which ‘bleeds’, proved not only palatable but also convincing, with an estimated “70% of its consumers being meat eaters”. This year, we will see Beyond Meat Burger expand its reach, sitting for the first time in the main menu at more than 2,000 food restaurants such as TGI Fridays, hotels and college campuses in America. Leading the way in meat-like substitutes, the Beyond Meat patty is giving meat-eaters a cruelty-free and sophisticated alternative, becoming one of the most widely available options out there.
When is it available? Now (in America), this year (UK).
Perfect Day Milk
What is it? Animal-free, dairy milk engineered from yeast cells.
How is it changing the way we eat? Perfect Day is offering a new product that shares many of the same properties as milk from a cow and, unlike plant-based alternatives, is high in protein and can be used in much the same way when making dairy-driven products such as cheese and yoghurt. It is also lactose-free and more crucially, the process takes place at an industrial scale, without raising animals and it’s sustainable. This new technology could lead to food options that don’t involve the ethical and environmental downsides that accompany agriculture, and also delivers in taste, nutrition and functionality.
What is it available? This year.
What is it? A GM banana enriched with vitamin A.
How is it changing the way we eat? Over the last 10 years, scientists in Australia have been combining the DNA of two species of bananas to produce a biofortified fruit rich in Vitamin A. The next stage will be to grow the bananas in East Africa, where the fruit is already a staple part of people’s diet. This is particularly important to combat a nutritional deficiency which leads, for instance, to hundreds of thousands of deaths in Uganda. If successful, researchers hope the fruit can go into commercial production and boost the health of people in Uganda’s poorest areas.
When is it available? 2021.
What is it? Meat grown in the lab from chicken cells.
How is it changing the way we eat? Last year Memphis Meats was the first company to successfully create and serve lab-grown meat from animal cells, distinguishing it from vegetarian ‘meat’ companies such as Impossible Foods. Although the company has had its cultured poultry assessed by taste testers, it will not yet go to market, as the current technology can’t produce at scale. The meat is currently very expensive (“costing around $9,000 a pound, compared to $3 on average for a pound of chicken breast”). With Tyson’s recent investment, an optimistic Memphis Meats is working on its mass market product launch, hoping it will be delicious, nutritious and indistinguishable from regular poultry.
When is it available? 2021.