According to UNSW School of Chemical Engineering Professor Johannes le Coutre, the global food system could be pushed to breaking point unless major changes happen in the next 20 years, such as reducing meat consumption via cellular agriculture.
The food and health expert participated in a discussion on The Future of Food at a Centre of Ideas event, to kick off National Science Week, saying that a major reduction in meat consumption is both more environmentally sustainable and could help to reduce the impact of climate change.
Livestock systems are currently estimated to be responsible for around 14 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, compared to an estimated 2 per cent for the aviation industry. Additionally, the world’s population is predicted to grow by around 1 billion within the next two decades.
“We can look at health, and the role that food plays, in terms of three pillars – individual health, planetary health and economic health. And they are all intertwined,” le Coutre said.
“As part of that we need to look at climate change, at sustainability, at biodiversity and also how food impacts on our individual health.
“Meat consumption clearly is a significant culprit on a global scale, which is linked to massive feed production and the use of arable land and water, to keep all that livestock alive and growing to meet the demands of our current food system,” he said.
“The figures don’t add up, especially when the estimates are for 9 billion people on the planet in 20 years or so. We already have 800 million people who are going to sleep hungry each night and 110 million people globally who are suffering from acute hunger.”
le Coutre is researching cellular agriculture, the process of producing meat in food-grade facilities using cells taken from animals without killing them.
Cell-based meat could be the key to revolutionising diets and the farming system, with over 1 billion tonnes of animal feed produced every year to meet current global meat demands.
“I do not think we will ever totally eliminate traditional animal-based meat – that will always be in our food system, and in our supermarkets and on our plates. And that’s OK, because we all need to be eating a balanced diet,” le Coutre said.
“But it needs to be at a much higher price point, like $25 for a real animal steak rather than $12 currently. In the future, our shops will sell a more diverse selection of products including animal-based meat, plant-based meats and cell-based meats, but this will not happen overnight.
“This change in the foods we eat could be absolutely historic and we are in the transition period right now. If we have a meaningful representation of cell-based meat on our supermarket shelves in 5-10 years, then that would be a really good result,” he said.
“In 20 or 30 years, if we start to see a dent in the consumption of animals, then again that will be a big success. But it will go slowly.”
One of the major hurdles for cellular agriculture is commercialising the process.
“The big issue for cell-based meat is one of scaling, and also of cost. How long is it going to take to produce 1kg and what is the price going to be?” le Coutre said.
“The final product needs to be able to compete with traditional animal-based meat in terms of cost, otherwise consumers are always going to choose the cheaper option.
“But it’s really important that the traditional meat industry is not scared and alienated by all these new concepts and technologies. There will always be beautiful Wagyu beef and Porterhouse steaks and that’s great – as long as the price point is appropriate.”
Further potential also lies in the commercial production of insects as food – they are high in nutrition and rich in protein, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, folic acid and vitamins.
“Some people might think insects are horrible and they could never eat them,” le Coutre said.
“But insects are one of the four classes that make up the group biologists call Arthropods, and one of the other classes in the group are crustaceans – that is prawns and shrimps and crabs and lobsters, which many people happily consume.
“So, if people think of it in that way, the ‘yuck factor’ is gone and there is definitely potential for increased consumption of insects in global diets.”
Listen to the full Future of Food discussion between le Coutre and food journalist Joanna Savill on YouTube.