Copyright talks to UWE conservation biologist Dr Mark Steer about the innovative crops and farming methods that could sustain our growing population

As the world’s population continues to balloon, the prospect of food and water shortages are a very real and terrifying threat. It’s impossible to continue feeding the planet using the same, often inhumane, livestock farming methods or even growing the crops we have become accustomed to—50 years down the line there simply won’t be enough fertile land to support gargantuan soya and wheat farms. Luckily, scientists and conservationists around the world are working tirelessly to combat this threat, developing surprising concepts that could feed a growing population and help restore the environment. Dr Mark Steer is one of these people. Currently working at Bristol’s UWE in conjunction with US biotech company Muufri on a concept for animal-free milk, he gave us an insight into the future of food.

Lab-grown animal products

Beyond lab-grown meat and the headlines brandishing burgers built by brainboxes, the potential for this science is massive. ‘I collaborate with someone who did the first analysis of what the potential for lab-grown meat might be,’ says Dr Steer.

‘We’re basically taking that on and applying the same kind of methods for milk and cheese.’ Findings made by Dr Steer and his colleagues are yet to be published, but the potential for significant impacts on land, water and energy use could be great.

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Along with synthesised milk and cheese, scientists are currently trying to produce lab-grown egg whites and, although not technically food, leather too. But this science is in its infancy and there are lots of hurdles to combat and address before it becomes a viable option. ‘It comes down to whether the guys that are creating the product can create something that’s close enough [in taste] to milk, and cheap enough that people would want to buy it,’ says Dr Steer.

Genetically Modified (GM) crops

Not the most well-received concept in modern farming, it’s fair to say that the public’s reaction to GM has been at best uncomfortable. But, this wide-ranging and ever-evolving sector could address a lot of the issues connected with a growing population and diminishing food stocks. ‘There are people who are working on genetic modifications to wheat which allows it to create its own nutrients, particularly nitrates which are one of the key fertilisers,’ says Dr Steer. ‘Plants like clover, for example, are able to take nitrogen from the atmosphere and turn it into nitrate fertiliser,’ he continues.

‘Plants like wheat can’t do that, so what scientists have done is look at the ways in which the clover family can do it and then transfer this genetic innovation between the species. This potentially opens up the ability to grow crops in areas which are not as fertile and also decreases the amount of fertiliser that we have to use.’

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Reducing our dependency on fertilisers will have a very positive impact on our waterways and general health of the countryside. ‘It felt to me when the GM debate exploded in the 90s there was a bit of a kneejerk reaction amongst the media that stifled potential opportunities,’ says Dr Steer. ‘We need to have a more subtle conversation about them.’

Insects

There has been a lot of publicity over the past few years surrounding the benefits of insects as an alternative to traditional protein sources—namely livestock. A café dedicated to bug burgers and cricket Koftas recently opened across the Severn in Pembrokeshire. For thousands of years people have been binging on bugs but the trend has yet to catch on in the West, ‘Insects are eaten by a large number of the world’s population already,’ says Dr Steer. ‘They can be very nutritious and very tasty too.’

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They take up very little land, reproduce very quickly and provide a huge amount of protein. At the moment it seems that it’s just cultural barriers holding us back. Dr Steer suggests another potential benefit yet to be mastered by today’s researchers, ‘Where things like insects might be most interesting from an environmental impact point of view is if we could find a way of growing them on waste products that otherwise wouldn’t be used.

‘You’re using them to create a secondary benefit,’ he says. Although people have tried to do this already, it has been found to be quite difficult to get good growth rates and make the use of waste products economically viable.

On the subject of organic waste, there is also a need for us to address the way we deal with it. Right now, research is underway into responsive sensors within food packaging, labels that change colour if the product inside begins to rot. This could have a dramatic effect on the amount of food wasted unnecessarily.

Algae

One idea that has excited scientists for a while now is the cultivation of algae, either to produce food or to be used as a form of feed itself. At the moment this could be via seaweeds, the big algae, or using micro versions, single-celled algae of different species that can be modified to produce a whole range of different products.

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Commercial growing and harvesting of algae, commonly known as algaculture, is already taking place with algae being used to produce omega-3 fatty acids, natural food colorants and dyes, fertiliser, chemical feedstock (raw material), pharmaceuticals and even algal fuel.

‘One thing that I can see coming, something that I’m mulling around looking into is whether you could find a strain that produces an oil that is similar to palm oil,’ says Dr Steer. ‘If you could find an official system to extract this oil you could get the same amount of the oil from 10 per cent of the land you would need for palm oil,’ he continues, ‘you could also have a huge impact on the rate of deforestation.’

Urban agriculture

With the world’s cities tailored to urban pursuits, more living and working than farming and nature watching, the idea of metropolitan agriculture is somewhat of a strange one. But growing plants indoors in urban areas will save space and leave our countryside free to flourish. Dr Steer explained the benefits, as well as potential restraints, ‘I’m not sure the economics are ever going to stack up except for the highest value crops, but there are already ways that people are producing high-value crops this way and intensively.’

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For Dr Steer it’s a case of re-imagining our concept of farming and putting aside any idealistic predeterminations, ‘We want to feel that our food has come from this rural idyll where badgers abound, but actually, if we want to try and leave space for nature and integrate ourselves within a strong, functioning natural eco system, we need to look at a way in which at least some of our food production can become more intensive.’

There is also the option of growing up instead of out. There has already been some work done in the US looking at the physics of vertical farming and there are, even at this early stage, scenarios in which it could work.


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