Could mass-farmed microalgae, insects and mycoprotein eradicate global malnutrition?

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

GettyImages/MichalLudwiczak
GettyImages/MichalLudwiczak

Related tags: Mycoprotein, microalgae, Insect, mealworm, Malnutrition, Food security

Scientists, engineers, investors and policymakers are being urged to consider future foods as a ‘malnutrition mitigation pathway’.

‘Future foods’ are attracting significant attention for their nutrition and sustainability credentials.

While arguably more nutritious and sustainable than plant-source and animal-source foods, researchers are advocating for future foods to be considered in a third dimension: as a way to deliver risk-resilient diets.

A fragile food system

The fragility of current agri-food systems is front of mind for many, according to researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk.

Contributing factors include unprecedented movement restrictions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw global disruption across the agri-food production and supply chains.

In recent years, locust swarms in East Africa, outbreaks of African swine fever in Asia and Europe, and droughts in North America, have intensified the problem.

“Anthropogenic climate change is projected to exacerbate a number of these threats, with graver consequences in developing regions,” ​noted the authors of a recent paper published in journal NatureFood​.

Future foods farming systems have the potential to mitigate global malnutrition, they argue, providing a ‘risk-resilient diet’ in the face of predictable or sudden disturbances.

Future foods

In this context, ‘future foods’ refers to that associated with food technology – which itself ‘opens up many possibilities for alternative and risk-reduced farming’.

Microalgae is one such example. Rich in protein and a source of carbohydrates, polyunsaturated fatty acids, essential minerals and vitamins, microalgae require significantly less fertilizers compared to other sources of plant proteins.

Insects are also high in protein, and much more climate-friendly than conventional meats. One pound of mealworm protein, for example, is though to have a greenhouse gas footprint 1% the size of beef.

Fungi-based ingredient mycoprotein is another example. Quorn is perhaps the best-known manufacturer of the product, and claims the water footprint of Quorn Mince is 10 times lower than that of beef mince. Aside from being high in protein, mycoprotein is a good source of fibre, is low in saturated fat, and contains no cholesterol.

The researchers assert three important resilience advantages associated with future foods farming systems: reducing exposure to biotic and abiotic risk factors; fostering modularity to contain farming process failures, decouple risks and adjust yields; and providing dietary consistency of essential nutrition through globally decentralised and locally distributed food networks.

Advantages

Future foods are inherently resilient for a number of reasons. To start with, several future foods can be cultivated in closed systems, meaning they are unconstrained by environmental conditions.

Many operate in modules, or ‘discrete, standardized, identical production units’. Future foods can therefore be cultivated in parallel, and be easily disassembled and replaced without negatively impacting production. Modular design farming also allows for supply to be relatively easily increased or decreased, as demand requires.

And finally, future foods farming systems can be rapidly decentralised and localised, to best serve those in most need.

Challenges

Concerning production challenges, technology remains a hurdle. Insects, fungi, and microalgae production requires light and heating, which is not assured in all regions with ‘crisis-level hunger’. Where electricity is available, it may not be powered by renewable energy.

The researchers also drew attention to institutional barriers, including financial concerns. “Future foods farming systems require new technical expertise and considerable financial investment,” ​they noted. “This makes them less accessible to lower-income countries, where public sector subsidization or official development assistance may be necessary, compared with higher-income countries, where entrepreneurial investment is concerned.”

Regulatory approval could also prove a barrier, as could regional gastronomic preferences, including the appeal and acceptance of foods such as insect larvae, which are ‘atypical in some cultures’, they noted.

The future food potential

It is acknowledged that future foods have the potential to provide a healthy and more climate-friendly diet, and the researchers back their resilience in the face of localised or global disruptions.

A risk-resilient diet is ‘essential’ to ensure short- and long-term food security, they argue, with the coronavirus pandemic – ‘an exemplar systemic risk event’ – backing their case. 

“We urge scientists, engineers, investors and policymakers to consider future foods as a malnutrition mitigation pathway,” ​they stressed. 

“This includes identifying and openly discussing underpinning challenges, as well as exploring how future foods farming systems can be rapidly and cost-effectively deployed in response to current instabilities and in anticipation of future hazards.”

 

Source: NatureFood
‘Future Foods for Risk-Resilient Diets’
Published 13 May 2021
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-021-00269-x
Authors : Asaf Tzachor, Catherine E. Richards, and Lauren Holt.

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