Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Artificial meat by 2050?

While perhaps not as dystopian as Margaret Atwood's view of headless chickens bred so that they are easier to feed and don't peck each other in the close quarters of factory farms, academics are now suggesting artificial meat grown in vats may be needed if the 9 billion people expected to be alive in 2050 are to be adequately fed without destroying the earth. Even taking account of enhanced productivity from new technologies like GM foods and nanotechnology, hundreds of millions of people may still go hungry owing to a combination of climate change, water shortages and increasing food consumption.

These are some of the more striking conclusions reported by a set of high level UK academics in the current issue of The Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions B which is devoted to 21 papers dealing with the topic of Food Security: Feeding the World in 2050. Among the topics are the following:
• Dimensions of global population projections: what do we know about future population trends and structures?
• Food consumption trends and drivers
• Urbanization and its implications for food and farming
• Income distribution trends and future food demand
• Possible changes to arable crop yields by 2050
• Livestock production: recent trends, future prospects
• Trends and future prospects for Marine and Inland capture fisheries
• Competition for land, water and ecosystem services
• Implications of climate change for agricultural productivity in the early twenty-first century
• Globalization's effects on world agricultural trade, 1960–2050
• Agricultural R&D, technology and productivity
• Food waste within food supply chains: quantification and potential for change to 2050
..... and a number of others

Taken together the papers provide a exceptionally thorough look at the future of food supply.

While the scale of the problem, increasing food supply by 70% in the next 40 years, is daunting, the researchers don't see it as insurmountable. The papers identify a number of potential avenues to increase supply. Moreover, as with the current energy debate, there is likely to be a struggle between existing agribusiness which will pressure governments for subsidies to increase supply and those who advocate conservation and efficiency (one of the papers suggest that there is 30-40% food waste in both rich and poor countries).

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