June 30, 2014
Brave New Food: New Tech’s Attempt to Feed the World
Weather is pummeling our food supply through droughts, wildfires and the changing climate. Meanwhile, the global population is exploding, so the world needs to produce a staggering 70 percent more food by 2050. Meet the groundbreaking, though in some cases unsettling, foods that their creators say will aid the planet and change the way we eat.
I. The New Food Rules
Dried crickets taste like dirt something died in. They’re crunchy. They stick to your tongue and teeth in a wholly unpleasant way. The wings are the worst part.
But crickets and other creepy crawlies can be quite palatable, according to a slew of entrepreneurs. “Insects are a beautiful, delicious food,” said Megan Miller, founder of San Francisco-based Bitty Foods, which makes cricket-flour cookies and baking mixes. Miller, 36, has blonde hair, chunky black sunglasses and the self-assured air of a PR pro (she worked in media, with a stint in a pastry kitchen and a study of sustainable agriculture before founding Bitty).
Her job, she said outside of a popular Bay Area coffee shop, is to make insects a “trendy” protein-packed food. “Crickets are a sustainable protein source. They can be farmed much more efficiently than meat and some plant proteins,” she explained. “They don’t need as much land or water,” adding that there are nearly 70 grams of protein in just one cup of cricket flour, much more than almond meal or other grain-free flours. Her high-protein cricket cookies, which taste, well, like cookies, are just a small part of San Francisco’s new food tech scene.
In some circles — typically those of the young, affluent and health conscious — the idea of eating insects, or entomophagy, has caught on, fast, spurred on by a 2013 pro bugs-as-food report from the U.N. The only argument against insects as a sustainable protein is the Western “ick” factor, the report said, writing “from ants to beetle larvae — eaten by tribes in Africa and Australia as part of their subsistence diets — to the popular, crispy-fried locusts and beetles enjoyed in Thailand, it is estimated that insect-eating is practiced regularly by at least 2 billion people worldwide.” (The dried crickets previously mentioned were grown and dried in Thailand and shipped to the U.S. through a London-based company, an example of how hard it still is to get human-grade bugs stateside.)
Bugs aren’t the only environmentally friendly food produced in the Bay Area. In San Francisco’s SoMa district, there’s Hampton Creek. The company goal: Create the world’s first plant-based egg that scrambles, emulsifies, bakes, feels and tastes just like the real thing. No small feat for even the most-talented brains Silicon Valley can offer.
Also in the business of plant protein is Beyond Meat, a company headquartered in El Segundo, California, near Los Angeles. The company’s technology was born out of research from Dr. Fu-hung Hsieh and Harold Huff at the University of Missouri. The two scientists created a new method of mixing, heating and pressurizing plant proteins to mimic the fiber structure of real meat, a novelty among soy meat replacements.
Perhaps most controversial of all, innovators in The Netherlands and the U.S. are growing meat in a lab — cultivating real cattle muscle cells that are then “assembled just like you assemble a regular hamburger patty,” researcher Mark Post, of Maastricht University in The Netherlands, told weather.com. “And then basically you just fry it, and eat it.”
These three distinct technologies raise questions about what constitutes “real food” — that 21st-century buzzword popularized by Michael Pollan and the like, to indicate a whole food, nutrition-minded lifestyle. All three technologies also emphasize that sustainable food — not to mention human health and animal welfare — is more important than ever.
“The timeline to act is really now,” Danielle Nirenberg, the founder of Food Tank, a food sector research institute, told weather.com. “It’s to our detriment to think that we have 50 years to solve the issue of unsustainable agriculture.”
What’s about to happen to our planet and our food supply is sobering. There are a variety of factors steering the globe toward crisis.
First, sheer numbers. Today, there are 7.2 billion people in the world; 842 million of those individuals are undernourished, according to the U.N. The population is projected to increase by 1 billion over the next 12 years, eventually reaching 9.6 billion by 2050. These additional humans, as well as climatic factors, mean the world will need 70 percent more food, as measured by calories, to feed the world, the U.N. stated in late 2013.