There are 7 billion people on the planet, and all of them want to eat. There's one big problem: At the rate we're going, the planet is going to run out of food in our lifetime. But our planet doesn't have to become the scorched Babylon of the solar system. Not if these people have anything to say about it.
The future food crisis: Last year, the Global Harvest Initiative said the world's population would be roughly 9 billion by 2050. If the rate of agricultural productivity stays the same, there won't be enough food on the planet to feed everyone. A Futurist Mag story and a 2015 "Emerging Risk" report from Lloyd's of London also concluded that the global food system can't support a worldwide community that eats and reproduces as much as we do. Other reports say we've already reached "peak food," or the point at which food production reaches its highest rate of production for certain staples and then slows way, way down.
"The solutions to the problem [are] manyfold," Aled Jones, the director of the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University, told Mic. "[There are] two approaches: lower consumption or increase production. Many things we can do on both sides. Lowering consumption can include reducing consumption waste, so food waste at home or in retail. It can also mean changes to diet to alter consumption patterns."
According to Dickson Despommier, a professor of microbiology and public health at Columbia University, we're already using a South America-sized portion of the planet to do our farming.
And that doesn't factor in what the livestock eat. If we expect to add a couple billion more people to the planet, we won't have the space to grow wider. We'll have to grow upward.
Thinking taller: One of the most promising — and coolest-looking — technologies for increasing production is vertical farming, pairing dialed-in light and hydration systems to use the least amount of energy for the best crops. Dutch company PlantLab wants to build towers or retrofit old, unused buildings for what might best be called really fussy farming. Everything is conceived mathematically: how much water the plants get, how much sunlight, how much fresh air, whether the plant needs blue or the more energy-conserving red light. With this system, the farms don't run into what's called production waste, which, besides being the result of crappy storage, can happen whenever the weather turns sour.
"There are two approaches: lower consumption or increase production."
Despommier's website, the Vertical Farm, highlights some of the corporate vertical farms producing in their neighborhoods. FarmedHere, an indoor farming company based in Chicago, uses an aquaponic system, meaning its plants are fertilized by fish in nearby tanks. Another company, Vertical Harvest in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, wants to use the same model as PlantLab, turning an old, three-story building into a dedicated farm to grow produce for the community.
Thinking smaller: Skyscraper farms aren't the only option. Small-scale operations, even home setups, are enough to start taking the strain off major producers. Grove Labs, from Somerville, Massachusetts, developed an indoor garden roughly the size of a bookcase with that in mind. Standing 6 feet tall, 2 feet wide and 16 inches deep, it runs on an aquaponic system. Even with such a small footprint, it can produce roughly a small salad each day.
"If everybody had a pantry-sized room devoted to growing their own food, people could eat a substantial amount of their own calories and especially nutrient intake right from their Grove," Gabe Blanchet, Grove Labs co-founder and CEO, told Mic.
Right now, Grove Labs excels at growing salad greens, culinary herbs and small fruits and vegetables like tomatoes and peppers. But as the models scale up and building costs scale down, technologies like Grove could start taking over guest rooms and cellars to let families go off the grocery store grid.
But thinking the planet's hearty carnivore cultures will switch to rabbit food is a nonstarter. So instead, some companies are taking the same indoor growing approach and applying it to flesh.
Growing burgers in a lab
In 2013, when Mark Post, a researcher in the Netherlands, created a burger made from real, lab-grown meat (20,000 strips of muscle tissue), its original price tag was $325,000. As Co.Exist described it:
... myosatellite cells, a kind of stem cell that repairs muscle tissue, are taken from a cow neck and put in containers along with fetal calf serum (the medium, which will eventually switch to a non-animal source). The cells are placed onto gel in a plastic dish, where the calf serum's nutrients are reduced, triggering the cells to go into starvation mode and split into muscle cells. Those cells eventually merge into muscle fibers called myotubes and start synthesizing protein. The end product is a tissue strip, described by the New York Times as "something like a short pink rice noodle."
That burger is now available for around $12, and, according to Post, that could drop below $10 before long. "At this point, we've already managed to cut the cost by almost 80%," he said, according to the Washington Post. "I don't think it will be long before we hit our goal of $65 to $70 per kilo."
Research on lab-grown meat — or in-vitro meat, or test tube meat — is becoming more common, especially since Americans, on average, consume roughly 270 pounds of meat annually.
Post's Cultured Beef program at Maastricht University is spearheading the mission to take the impact out of producing beef, and it could begin to balance out need in less than a decade. "Once we can grow the tissue in a reactor the size of an Olympic swimming pool, we should be able to achieve that sort of volume," Post said, according to the Washington Post. "For perspective, half a swimming pool would allow us to feed about 20,000 people for a year."
Replacing protein with plants
A 2003 article published in the science journal Nature claims that 90% of the global predatory fish population (meaning, among others, bluefin tuna) has already been depleted. San Francisco-based chef James Corwell saw this and started working on something both absurdly San Franciscan and, possibly, a game changer for sushi: Tomato-based "tuna" called Tomato Sushi.
"Tomato sushi is the alternative to bluefin tuna," Corwell told Vegan.com. "It is all vegan, it looks like tuna and when you roll it into a roll or put it on rice like for nigiri, it tastes like a piece of sushi."
Using tomatoes, tamari, vinegar and herbs and spices, Corwell claims to have created a vegetarian sushi that feels meaty and savory in texture and flavor. And if he can convince pescatarians to spread his gospel instead of loading up on tuna steaks, it could be the key to preventing overfishing from devastating the ocean's already fragile ecosystem.
Waste not, want not: It would be awesome and planet-saving if everyone just stopped throwing shit away all the time. But that's not going to happen. Especially when it comes to the agricultural sector, where most of the water in the entire country goes to farming.
We've already seen plenty of reports showing the dangerously low water levels in California, where, in 2013, the sector's output value, what it produced and sold, was roughly $21 billion. It's spurred the need to recycle all the water we can. Sort of like how the astronauts recycle their waste, the Orange County Water District's Groundwater Replenishment System is doing the same thing to California. Only the GWRS recycles 100 million gallons a day, or enough for 850,000 people.
The system's hat trick process uses microfiltration, reverse osmosis and UV light to purify the sewer and waste water beyond the state's standards for purity. "It's the only thing that will get us through this [drought]," Orange County Water District board president Cathy Green said, according to the Huntington Beach Independent. "Our imported water has been cut back. This water could never be cut back. It's ours."
The fight over genetically modified foods
If there were a battle over whether or not we should use advanced science to prolong the life of humanity, the two armies howling for blood would be those in support of genetically modified organism foods, also called genetically engineered foods, and those against them.
On the one hand, you have reports of lab animals showing fertility problems after ingesting a GMO food-based diet from companies like Monsanto, and no federal regulations forcing manufacturers to label GMO foods at the grocery store. Earlier this year, the Environmental Working Group published an article claiming that GMO foods haven't actually increased crop yields. Plus, Chipotle, fast food favorite of people who hate fast food, vowed to stop using GMO ingredients in its menu (though that's a little suspect).
On the other hand, you have the need to make bigger and more abundant agricultural yields. In fact, most of the processes presented in this story are based on the idea of genetically modifying the food we eat, whether that be through actual lab manipulation or smarter farming. If you trust astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson's opinion, we've already been genetically modifying our food for centuries through a process called artificial selection.
We need a solution, and we need it now: The GMO debate is one of the last outposts of truly vehement opposition, even if international darling Neil deGrasse Tyson is staunchly in one of the camps. Both sides have their merits. Each side thinks the other is stupid. But humanity is staring in the face of a major issue. Regardless of who's right, we need more food. We need to get it where we can find it. And if we're really looking at a quarter-century cutoff, we need to find it fast.