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What Will We Eat?

Exploración de las ciencias de la vida

The key to future food security lies in plant-based diets – even when it comes to satisfying our hunger for meat.

According to prognoses by the United Nations, the world’s population may exceed the ten billion mark by the time we reach the middle of this century. To feed everyone, we will need more food. The latest reports by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), however, state that food production is already the largest cause of destruction of ecosystems as well as climate change. Food production uses 40 percent of the land surface area and 70 percent of the world’s freshwater, and it is also responsible for 30 percent of the greenhouse effect. Add to this environmental consequences and contamination of water, air and soil. “Feeding the world’s population must change drastically”, says Walter Willett of Harvard University, co-chair of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health.

Filling foods of the future
The commission comprising 37 international experts introduced the Planetary Health Diet in 2019. Its goal: to take the natural limitations of the planet into consideration and at the same time prevent diseases caused by unhealthy diets – for example, heart attacks or diabetes. Its foremost objective, however, is the reduction of meat consumption.
“Particularly in industrial nations, ways are sought in which to limit the consumption of animal-based foods”, explains Antje Gahl of the German Nutrition Society. Furthermore, more and more people no longer accept intensive livestock farming and instead rely on plant-based foods.
Those who envision the traditional wheat and potatoes are invited to think outside the box. Plants which were formerly considered “orphan plants” are now experiencing an unprecedented boom. The orphan crops are in fact crop plants which are characterized by their high nutritional value. Some have already been labeled
“superfoods” – particularly those healthy fruits, tubers and grains that feature high levels of nutrients and vitamins. Sweet potatoes and quinoa (a South American crop; a pseudo-grain of the Amaranth family) have been formally integrated into our menus. Other plants such as millet, cassava, enset, teff and yams, which are integral to the basic diets in different parts of the world, have thus far not been subject to significant trade on the international market. “There is no such thing as a global one-size-fits-all solution”, states Gahl, an authority on the subject. In Northern Europe, new hopes are pinned on peas and lupins. Genetically modified soy, as it is grown in the US, is viewed critically.
Most Europeans have fewer reservations towards gene editing. This technology allows the introduction of targeted changes into the genome; for example, crop plants may be made more resistant to stress and pests. The harvest yield, as well as nutrient and vitamin content, can thus be increased. In contrast to classic gene technology, no cumbersome safety steps and time-consuming approval processes are required.

A turning point for meat
What if our appetite for meat will not abate? “We are facing nothing less than the end of meat production as we know it”, predicts Dr. Carsten Gerhardt, partner and agricultural expert at Kearney, a management consultancy. His prognosis: “As early as 2040, only 40 percent of consumed meat products will continue to originate from animals.”
Meat substitutes of plant origin are popular. The vegetarian substitute gains its meaty consistency from the thickening agent methylcellulose which is extracted from the cell walls of plants. The meaty taste is achieved by plant-derived heme, which originates from the roots of the soy plant and which is similar in structure to the iron-containing protein hemoglobin. The juice of beets or carrots will provide the right color.

Is it healthier? “With respect to nutrient content, meat substitutes are in no way inferior to meat products. The fact that some of the raw materials must be imported from far away does present a disadvantage, as well as the fact that these are highly processed products which contain a number of additives and flavors”, explains Dr. Claudia Müller of the Center for Nutrition at the State Institute for Development of Agricultural and Rural Areas in Schwäbisch-Gmünd, Germany.
Those who do not trust plant-based substitutes may hold out hope for clean meat. This is the name given to meat cultivated in test tubes from stem cells. In late 2018, an Israel-based Food-Tech startup introduced the first steak that was thus grown in the laboratory, with exclusively plant-based ingredients. Today, the company is capable of growing a wholesome steak in large bioreactors within a period of 3 to 4 weeks – wherever it is needed. At the end of September 2018, Russian Cosmonauts even printed a steak using the 3D-printer – directly on site, in the ISS space station. It was not consumed, however – instead, the samples were taken back to Earth for analysis.