By 2050, the global population is expected to reach 9.7 billion! As a result, world food production will need to rise by 70%, and food production in the developing world will need to double, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN! Barring large-scale migration to the other planets, we will simply need more food. Add the energy, water and climate change challenges and you know we are in trouble. Luckily, there are efforts underway to implement innovative, sustainable solutions addressing food security. Approaches include changes in distribution and intelligent packaging to minimize waste, use of smart agriculture techniques to impact crop durability and yield, adopting environmentally friendly pest control and disease treatment, diversifying food sources and strengthening aquaculture. These are expected to have broad impact across the food groups, namely, fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, and proteins.
Proteins occupy a special place in our diet. FAO predicted that by 2050, protein consumption would rise by 2/3rd, with meat increasing by 73% and dairy by 58%. Taking up more arable land with higher water usage combined with the added environmental burden and health hazards is not a good solution. On top of this, WHO recently released data that link red meat and processed meat to higher cancer risk. Many alternative protein sources, including plant proteins, are being explored. Even Bill Gates is into it, having funded a couple of companies examining this approach. How about 3D printed meat? Growing your meat at home? The popularity of a vegetarian diet is expanding. Some folks do better without the meat, as former President, Bill Clinton was recently quoted saying "I might not be around if I hadn't become a vegan." Fish is a great source of protein and accounts for about 17 percent of animal protein intake. But there is a catch!
Increasing demand for seafood is gutting the natural fish population. Recent studies indicate that roughly 90 percent of the world's ocean stocks are depleted or overexploited; another predicts that by 2050, the sea could contain more plastic waste than fish. In addition, expected ocean acidification and warming may lead to the "species collapse from the top of the food chain down"! Fortunately, aquaculture is poised to lend an assist. This typically involves growing fish in man-made tanks or ponds on the land, or in enclosed or open pens in lakes and oceans. Farmed fish is expected to provide 2/3 of global fish consumption by 2030! But demand for existing fishmeal will exceed production supply in just a few years. While wheat, maize gluten, and soy concentrates are already in use, attention is already focused on alternatives that can provide more optimal amino acid profiles and important nutrients, such as, omega fatty acids.These include algae, recycled food waste, plant proteins, insects, and microbial protein. Calysta, a Pangaea Ventures portfolio company, just announced a partnership with Cargill (Calysta $30 million financing) to launch its FishKind™ feed additive, made via natural fermentation with non-genetically-modified organisms. The organisms efficiently convert natural gas into the microbial biomass, the basis of FeedKind protein, already listed on the European Union's register of feed ingredients.
Insects provide incredible value. They form a part of traditional diets of 2 billion people, with more than 1900 species consumed. After getting past the yuck factor, you should know that insect meal contains high fat, protein, vitamins, fibers, and mineral content. They also perform some indispensable ecological services, such as pollination, soil fertility via bioconversion, and natural pest control. As noted above, insect-based fishmeal is being positioned to help alleviate the coming fish feed shortage with the rise in aquaculture.
Do no harm to the bees. There are some frightening reports about bee die-offs! Imagine what happens to the food chain if there are no natural pollinators! We might as well accelerate space colonization. Several explanations for the decreasing bee population have been put forward. Among these is the effect of pesticides, such as the neonicotinoid, already restricted in Europe. But there is hope. For example, Vestaron, another Pangaea portfolio company, is pioneering the use of bee-friendly biopesticides, recently reported by Keith Gillard (Don't worry, bee happy).
Innovative techniques to improve crop yields are already here. Advanced materials innovations are making this happen. Super absorbent hydrogels allows for better water management while sensor networks help for more efficient irrigation control. Fluid absorbing materials are used in combination with sensors for intelligent packaging to reduce spoilage. Drones, powered by lightweight materials and improved batteries, are now routine in agriculture. Compound semiconductors made possible solid-state lighting (LEDs), with major energy efficiency benefits and capability for spectral management. This introduces the ability to influence photosynthesis by manipulating wavelength to impact plant growth, yield, flowering, and time to harvest.
Use of genetically modified organisms (GMO) provides a fruitful way forward. Technology advances have already moved us into the age of synthetic biology, considered the new frontier, recently noted by Sarah Applebaum (Biology: The new building blocks). Genetic engineering brings tremendous promise for transformative changes to food production. There are already approved genetically modified meat, fish, and fruits on the market. Of course, there is the need to prevent unintended consequences and appropriate policy and regulatory measures should be in place. But just trying to completely stop the use of these techniques is just bizarre.
Unlike the thrills of "The Hunger Games" trilogy, the coming food crisis will not be fun. But it does not have to be a disaster. Our technology toolkit is primed with sustainable solutions from advanced materials innovation and synthetic biology advances. Pangaea Ventures is active in the search for innovative solutions and has already partnered with world-class companies working together to make our world better.