TechWatch’s Emily McDaid investigates how the global population surge will greatly impact how – and what – we eat.
In the next 30 years, the world will need to produce as much food as it has done in the past 500 years. That astounding increase must be drawn from the same amount of land (assuming the colonisation of Mars is more than 30 years away).
I got this statistic from one of Northern Ireland’s (NI) leading experts on food, Stephane Durand, director of the Agri-Food Quest Competence Centre.
Durand was one of the recipients of a Collaborative Research Fund grant from Invest NI, with Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), Ulster University and the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute as its main research partners, and collaboration from the agri-food industry. QUB is also a winner of a European grant for collaborative research and education, totalling €400m over seven years, focusing on the future of agri-food in Europe.
Durand told me: “The story is, there’s a huge opportunity for small companies to innovate in the way food is delivered, produced and consumed by us. One factor we rate is the input/output ratio of food, particularly in creating protein.
“For example, to produce 1kg of beef, we input 12-16kg of feed. It’s an inefficient way to feed people. Chicken is far closer to a 1:1 relationship (at about 2kg of feed per kilo of protein produced), but insect and algae food products have the promise to obtain close to the 1:1 ratio we need.”
So does our future lies in eating insects?
“You’re asking if they contain the essential fatty acids, minerals and vitamins that our bodies cannot produce themselves. That is a question that needs to be answered,” Durand said.
“Animal proteins will continue to have a key role to play in feeding nations, but more work is needed to produce these proteins more sustainably. Again, this opens great opportunities for producers.”
The question of Brexit’s ramifications on agriculture aside, the coming disruptions are the desire to eat good-quality local food, and food flowing directly from producers to consumers. Also, younger generations are eating out more. They avoid buying food in one large glut, or ‘big shops’. These are the hallmarks of the ‘Farm to Fork’ revolution.
“It will force a total rethink of the current model, whereby 1pc of food producers take 50pc of the sales in the industry in Europe,” said Durand.
Clearly, at present, the food production industry is unbalanced in the favour of large corporates. Technology innovations may be our best hope to rebalance the equation.
Durand noted the rise of The Food Assembly, a website that links consumers directly with food producers. This model is widely popular in France, where it originated, and in population centres such as London.
In Northern Ireland, we have a Food Assembly in Omagh. Farmers and food manufacturers can put their products online, to be chosen and bought directly by consumers, and then bring their products to an ‘assembly’ central meeting point to distribute the food.
“It’s a different concept to going to the supermarket. Margins are better for producers, so the cost of high-quality, local produce can be kept down,” noted Durand.
Reportedly, producers only owe a 16.7pc service cost to use this channel, a cost which would be 50pc or more with supermarkets. (This takes into account the cost of transportation and stock holding.)
‘A redistribution of global food is absolutely critical. We need to change how we eat’
– STEPHANE DURAND
But as a vegetarian, although I truly want the local revolution to happen, I admit I’m skeptical.
I challenged Durand that the huge majority of NI land is used to raise one crop alone – grass – to feed livestock. If we are going to transform and truly embrace a ‘Farm to Fork’ model, NI needs to start growing more crops edible to humans.
“There are many factors shifting, thanks to world politics,” Durand said.
“Changing diets is one thing. Consider that there are more than twice the number of overweight or obese people in the world (2bn) than starving or malnourished people (795m). In other words, a redistribution of global food is absolutely critical. We need to change how we eat.”
Brexit and NI
Durand noted that in NI, 80pc of the food produced is sold outside our borders. He explains: “This means we are very exposed to Brexit. Take just one food product: at least 25pc of the milk produced in NI is transported to the Republic of Ireland, so if our border is subject to tariffs on par with the WTO, our dairy industry would need to think about new markets.”
Is it all doom and gloom? “Not at all – there’s an enormous opportunity for gains in NI. But we need a business plan and a strategy.
“Also, Northern Ireland is very easy to invest in. Our location and our skilled workforce make our position very strong; this is of course if we can continue to recruit in Europe without restriction.
“There is a very sudden change coming, and we need to be ready,” Durand warned.
In which technology areas does Durand see the most potential? “A young innovation in personalised nutrition could do very well. If someone could innovate a version of ‘your DNA shows you should eat this way’, that is something interesting.
“Using technology to test food to make sure it’s not fraudulent and it contains what it claims, is also a massive area of potential,” added Durand.
By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch
A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch