With the world’s population forecast to reach almost 10 billion by 2050, pressure on food supplies may become ever more critical.
Already more than 800 million people lack food security and, as the inaugural Food Security Forum in Dubai heard recently, climate change may make it harder for the world to feed everyone.
The challenges are widely acknowledged.
“Food production is not growing as rapidly as population is growing,” said Jeffrey Culpepper, chairman of AgriSecura, a Dubai-based company that invests in “ethical food security solutions”.
But there are “a lot of people doing a lot of very smart things” to deal with the challenges.
New crops are being developed, including genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that may offer better yields and disease resistance, although they remain controversial. In one of the most dramatic developments, meat is being grown artificially, a potential solution to the issues of land and water use and carbon production associated with animal farming.
Some say a dietary shake-up is needed. Professor Tim Benton, who for five years was the UK’s food security “champion”, said we currently produce “a huge number of calories from a small number of crops in a small number of locations”. It produces cheap food, encourages waste, harms soil fertility and biodiversity, and drives climate change.
“It’s incredibly inefficient: fine for 7 billion [people], but not for 10 or 11 or 12 billion,” he said.
Prof Benton wants a “structural change” leading to better nutrition and fewer calories, and would like us to eat a greater diversity of foods. There are, he said, thousands of crops that people can grow. Many are adapted to water-stressed environments of the kind becoming more common.
So what foods might grow in prominence?
Insects may not appeal to all of us as food, but there are already about 2 billion people who eat them, mostly in Asia, Africa and Latin America, a number the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation is keen to see grow.
In a 2003 report, Edible Insects: future prospects for food and feed security, the FAO noted that about 1,900 types are consumed, including wasps, grasshoppers, cicadas and beetles, plus larval stages such as mealworms and caterpillars. Rich in protein and minerals, they can be made more palatable when ground down and used in burgers, sausages or a wealth of other foods.
As food, insects offer environmental benefits: they feed on some organic waste and rearing them instead of farm animals cuts carbon emissions.
However, methods to farm insects in large numbers need to be improved, as most insects eaten today are still caught from the wild.
This plant remains an important crop in the countries where it originates, Peru and Bolivia, and it could yet become a significant player in the UAE’s agricultural sector too.
Being a halophyte, a plant adapted to salty conditions, quinoa has been shown to be at home in the UAE’s highly saline soils. Indeed some types grow almost as well here as they do in the Andes, meaning that it could contribute to efforts to improve the country’s food security.
Full of nutrients, including significant quantities of minerals and all eight “essential” amino acids (protein building blocks), the plant has a remarkably diverse range of food uses: as animal feed, breakfast cereal, leafy vegetable and as a source of flour, among others.
Just as the FAO has championed the consumption of insects, so it has promoted quinoa as a potential crop everywhere from Europe to Africa, Asia and Latin America.
For hundreds of years, people have harvested seaweed, with these macroalgae especially popular as food in Asia.
This is for good reason: they contains as many as 30 minerals plus large amounts of protein and essential fatty acids, and are associated with health benefits such as a strengthened immune system.
“It’s incredibly nutritious [and] you don’t need chemical fertilisers and pesticides,” said Mr Culpepper.
There are multiple reasons to farm seaweed: it grows fast and, as a British government briefing document noted, its cultivation does not compete with traditional farming on land.
More than 100 types are eaten and global production almost tripled between 2000 and 2014, reaching 28 million tonnes.
Asia retains its dominance, but interest is high elsewhere, and the EU has invested millions into research in the sector.
There is also interest in microalgae – or microscopic algae, with a filamentous type called spirulina becoming popular.
Kale is an example of a food that was once wildly popular and which could yet become a key foodstuff again, especially as experts say our diets may have to become more plant based.
Said to have been the most popular vegetable in Europe up to the Middle Ages, this type of cabbage has seen a resurgence in interest in recent years, although it has always been sought after in parts of continental Europe.
Its description as a “superfood”, and its potential importance in feeding an ever-hungrier planet, results from a nutritional profile that is, as with many dark green vegetables, especially impressive. Experts have noted that it is richer in calcium and iron than milk and beef respectively, while vitamins too are abundant.
Although long a popular food in Europe, kale is now also produced in the UAE: last year Global Food Industries announced it was growing kale in the Emirates using water but no soil.
Food harvested from forests has long been important in the diet of people in developing countries.
Indeed, as the FAO has highlighted, everything from leafy vegetables to bushmeat can be harvested from forests to improve the quality of grain-based diets, complementing the role of agriculture. Forests offer particular benefits during times of poor harvest.
There are efforts to encourage greater use of forests for sustenance, as detailed in a 2015 book, Forests and Food, produced with the International Union of Forest Research Organisations.
This highlights how food from trees often has a high protein and mineral content. One especially nutritious example is the seed of the African locust bean, which has at least as much iron as chicken meat.
While forests offer “huge potential” to combat food shortages worldwide, there are concerns that their degradation, being seen throughout the world, threatens their value as a food resource.
It is now almost five years since the first laboratory-grown beefburger was produced, and clean meat, as it is also known, is moving further towards the mainstream.
There are multiple benefits compared to meat from animals: energy and water use is much reduced, far less land is needed, and there are no welfare issues. Compared to farmed meat, the nutritional value can be improved and fat content reduced.
Many vegetarians have said they would be happy to eat it, although the issue of overall consumer acceptance remains largely untested.
Meat can be produced using stem cells collected during a biopsy and grown on substances that provide nutrients and structure, so that cells can develop properly. All sorts of meat (and dairy products) can be produced artificially, including expensive forms such as foie gras.
Numerous start-up companies are active in the sector and costs are falling as technology improves.