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How science labs are building the future of food

Climate change is holding a sharp knife to the agricultural industry. From espresso and pasta to sushi and fish fingers, your daily bread could disappear from local menus, if not for a huge effort from scientists around the world.

The agriculture industry – which has contributed massively to climate change – is getting a serious helping of karma these days. Unfortunately, this has resulted in global food prices skyrocketing to the highest level they’ve been in over a decade.

While supply chain issues throughout the pandemic are partly to blame, food costs are also rising because there simply isn’t enough product to go around.

We’ve known for some time that climate change poses the threat of food scarcity, but recent trends suggest that the world’s staple harvests could begin rapidly declining by 2040, with annual yields projected to drop by a third just ten years later.

This scary prediction has seen scientists scrambling in the lab for long-term solutions, and the word is that lab grown cuisine could be finding its way onto our plates (and mugs) sooner than we expected.

Espresso

Coffee is one of the most vulnerable crops to climate change. Without an abundance of water, coffee plants are becoming increasingly difficult to grow, driving up their market price even when the quality of the bean is significantly lowered due to drier soil.

The good news is scientists in Finland have successfully grown coffee from plant cells in an effort to keep our cups full while fighting deforestation and improving sustainability in the industry.

The plants are grown in the lab using the same process as cellular agriculture for meat and dairy, except instead of cultivating animals cells, plant cells are used.

Public responses to cell-based foods in Europe have been surprisingly positive, with almost 60 percent of those surveyed in Germany saying they would be open to trying food made in a lab.

Pasta

Last year, the world’s biggest exporter of durum wheat, Canada, saw a 50 percent decline in crop yield due to record high temperatures and prolonged drought. Today, the current price of durum wheat pasta has risen by almost 90 percent.

With a similar situation unfolding in Italy and future summers expected to be warmer in both regions, could both countries lose one of their most lucrative exports? Potentially not, if they begin to take note of what is being achieved on the other side of the world.

In Turkey, where dry seasons are getting longer, scientists succeeded in reviving an ancient wheat plant called ‘Sorgül’ that can grow in controlled lab conditions, without needing irrigation.

If further research into cultivating drought resistant families of durum wheat takes place, countries which rely on this export may find a way to continue meeting export demands.

An otherwise slow initiative to adapt could see a huge reshuffling of the world’s food trade economy, where some successful countries begin losing crucial sources of income to others.

Seafood

After the horrors revealed in Netflix’s Seaspiracy, many were left unsure of how to replace fish and other seafood when plant-based alternatives are not yet widely available.

This could change soon though, as Europe’s largest frozen food company – responsible for Birds Eye fish fingers – joined forces with a U.S. company BlueNalu to develop seafood from lab-grown cells.

This occurs by extracting cells from the muscles of living fish and placing them into a petri dish along with the nutrition it needs to grow. Wait just a few days and suddenly, you’ve got a piece of meat that bears resemblance to a not-yet-breaded fish finger.

Together the two companies will focus on developing lab-grown meat replacements for species that are overfished, typically imported, or difficult to farm-raise – such as meats used for sushi.

Humans will also benefit from lab-grown fish, as they will be void of toxic chemicals such as mercury and other harmful pollutants.

Of course, the success of lab-grown foods depends on the public’s willingness to buy into it. Without a market demand, companies investing in cell-based food production will have no reason to begin stocking supermarket shelves with the stuff.

That said, we may not have much of a choice but to buy into lab-grown foods in the near future – if serious actions to reduce global emissions and slow the process of climate change don’t get underway.

At COP26, leaders will surely be focused developing strategies to make the agricultural industry become more sustainable. In the meantime, we should all feel lucky that scientists are working on stocks of lab-grown fish fingers and cups of coffee, should the worst predictions come true.

 

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