Do we need to change our concepts of what people eat in order to meet the world’s nutrition demands? Insects, lab-made meat, algae and 3D-printed fortied food could be affordable and practical routes to reduce malnutrition…
The challenge for the development sector is how these ideas can be put into practice. Collaborating with the private sector and start-ups, embracing new technology and understanding cultural attitudes offer some solutions.
“They are nutritionally excellent, and compared to conventional meat proteins, similar. [They are high in] unsaturated fatty acids, iron and zinc,” says Arnold van Huis, professor of entomology and lead author of Edible Insects (pdf), a report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) published last year. “This is very important for pregnant women and pre-school children in the tropics who are anaemic or zinc deficient.”
The practice of eating insects is widespread throughout Africa and Asia, but as countries develop they tend to adopt western eating habits, which can impact negatively on health. “In tropical countries, people tend to copy western lifestyles and prefer the hamburger over the bugburger, a pity,” says Van Huis. “When people in the west start eating insects then people in the tropics will indicate that it is their custom to be proud of.”
How the bugs are presented will help people to change their diets, the FAO report stressed. Often this can be achieved by subtly incorporating them in traditional foods people are used to eating – an example is theWinFood project, which sought to improve child nutrition in Cambodiaand Kenya by producing a food partly made from insects.
“Bypassing the animal for the production of meat could enable greater access to sources of protein in developing and emerging economies,” says Brent Taylor, co-founder of Beyond Meat, a company that is creating plant-based faux meat. “The production of animal meat in developing countries is extremely costly [including environmentally]. Furthermore, countries in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa import from abroad … Meat from plants could provide self-sufficiency in meat and protein production.”
Taylor says NGOs can benefit from the technology by collaborating with the private sector. Cost might be a stumbling block. In 2013, scientists made a burger in a lab for $250,000 (£148,520). If artificial meat is to feed developing countries, the more likely scenario would see NGOs buying straight from producers. For instance, Beyond Meat’s 12oz chicken retails at around $5.29 – (they are considerably cheaper than animal products because livestock are less efficient at converting vegetable protein into animal protein). If the price can come down further as the technology develops, and again if NGOs could buy in bulk, it would improve their efforts to deliver the required nutrients.
“A lot of women and children don’t consume meat and are missing out on vital protein and minerals. Many adhere to food taboos,” says Rachel Kerr, a relief worker who has worked on nutrition programmes in east Africa. “Artificial meat could address issues of cultural-sensitivity, but people’s reluctance to eat it will depend on how it’s presented. My concern would be how well it can replicate the amount of protein found in animal products, and whether it’s palatable.”
Seaweed is a sustainable food source that “requires no fresh water, land or fertiliser to grow,” and is not susceptible to dirty soil like livestock is, says Dr Craig Rose, a marine biologist and founder of the Seaweed Health Foundation. It’s also very nutritious. “It contains [many] minerals, trace elements, vitamin groups and proteins,” he adds.
Rose believes there is potential for developing countries to grow, harvest and process seaweed for multiple markets. Coastal communities across Africa and Asia have been benefiting from seaweed farming for years, but some struggle to make a living. Organisations such as Coast Trust in Bangladesh are promoting seaweed cultivation and training locals to be farmers.
The FAO has previously said (pdf) that getting more people in developing countries eating seaweed requires scaling up production to make more of it available, and teaching communities who are unaware of its nutritious value. There is also a need to remove any assumption that seaweed is a poor man’s food.
3D printed food
A team from National University of Ireland Galway and Concern Worldwide (3d4AgDev) has been developing 3D printed tools to help smallholders in Kenya improve farming and local food production. Elsewhere, a group of scientists in the Netherlands (pdf) is looking into using base materials such as algae and insects to create novel and nutritious food structures.
Researchers are confident that, given the emerging use of 3D printers in development work, the 3D food technology could help ship nutrients to developing countries more efficiently. Base materials could be ground into powder before being shipped, and then processed on site, added to food substances (peanut butter, chocolate), fed through the nozzle of a 3D printer and potentially printed into any desired design, making them available during a crisis.
“I’d imagine the distribution would be similar to that of Plumpy’Nut paste,” says Kerr. “If the food can be printed quickly it could have a real impact on mass treatment of malnutrition in refugee camps where food production demands aren’t always met. I also like the possibility of delivering nutrients in both nondescript and aesthetically pleasing designs. This could go some way towards addressing food taboos.”
Photo caption: Could bugs, like these mopane worms in Namibia, help meet the demand for food? Photograph: Danita Delimont/Alamy
View original article at: Food of the future: what will feed 7 billion people?