Future food today

Fancy eating insects for lunch? Though many people will understandably be sceptical and quite hesitant to eat such food products, the team at SPACE10 succeeded in crafting an alternative to traditional meatballs that is not only delicious but far more environmentally friendly. Simon Caspersen described how during his talk at TechInnovation 2021 organised by IPI, where he presented a session on Future Food Today.

By Simon Caspersen, co-founder and communications director of SPACE10

Rethinking what we eat

How can food made of insects be more environmentally friendly? We never realised that until we started investigating the global issue of dwindling freshwater supplies. Though we began with the idea of designing a water-efficient showerhead, we soon discovered that the lion’s share of freshwater is consumed by food production.

Indeed, a single hamburger requires over 3,000 litres of water to produce, or the equivalent of three months of showers. Overall, 70% of our water supplies are used for agriculture, and the food industry accounts for one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions. When you consider this, it is clear our food systems are a massive driver of the climate emergency and have become a problem for all of us.

To top it off, we will soon welcome an additional two billion people to the planet. The current food production system cannot scale, and something will have to change. If we break it down, we can see that our appetite for meat and dairy is really at the heart of the problem. What can we do about it? This is where the story gets interesting.

Unconventional food

Do you know that insects are a great source of protein? Eating insects is common in cultures around the world. And we learned that insects are celebrated by chefs for their taste, and by environmentalists for their low ecological footprint. It is recommended by health scientists for its nutritional content; in 2013, the UN also recommended edible insects as a resource to combat world hunger.

With this in mind, we started making meatballs using mealworms and beets. SPACE10, being a research and design lab supported by IKEA, we served our meatballs with mashed potatoes and lingonberry jam in true IKEA spirit. We invited people to give this slice of the future a try in Copenhagen, Denmark, and we concluded that it was a delicious alternative to traditional meatballs.

We used the same formula to create a beef patty with quite remarkable results. The patty uses 80% less water than a traditional beef patty, requires 90% less land to produce, and emits 90% less greenhouse gas. This means we can produce burgers and meatballs at a fraction of the cost for the planet, making insects a viable addition to our current menu.

Of course, we realise we cannot appeal merely to the intellect or the taste buds and must face the fact that many people find insects disgusting. But put it this way. If you had never seen a shrimp in your life before, would you think it is delicious? It looks like an insect to me, but we eat shrimps and ice cream because we are used to them, and they are delicious.

Food that grows anywhere

Another food we explored is microalgae, which are renewable and sustainable. It is the fastest-growing plant organism in the world capable of doubling its mass within a day. Crucially, microalgae do not take up large amounts of land and can grow anywhere, even on non-arable soil. And because the algae need sunlight and carbon dioxide to grow, this sequesters carbon dioxide and produces fresh oxygen, cleaning the air as it grows.

We started making hot dogs using spirulina, which as a food source contains more protein than meat, more iron than spinach, and is packed with vitamins and minerals. Our hot dog is certainly more nutritious and healthier than your regular hot dog made using pork or beef trimmings. Moreover, it can be used as animal feed which today is fortified with soy. As you may be aware, soy requires vast amounts of land to grow and has a severe impact on our ecosystems, soil quality, and the climate.

How can we grow microalgae? We designed a four-metre-high bioreactor that can grow up to 100kg of spirulina a day. The bioreactor consists of interlocking wood pieces, and you can assemble them without the need for glue, nails, or screws. For now, we have open-sourced the design for a smaller “Growroom”, which you can bring to your local maker space to cut the pieces you need with a CNC machine. Microalgae is unfortunately not economically competitive yet – but we are getting there.

Market leaders of tomorrow

To be clear, we do not believe that eating insects or microalgae are the silver bullets that will solve all our food problems. We are facing a huge systemic problem, and the solution to it will be a combination of a lot of different initiatives: From new ingredients, new ways of producing and distributing food, transitioning to a clean energy system, and other new technologies.

Going forward, we need to be a lot smarter and more efficient about the way we produce our food. We must also drastically reduce food waste, of which we waste enough every year to feed three billion people. Finally, we need to be much more open-minded about food diversity as the global population grows, and climate change cuts into the water and land available for farming.

One key focus of our research is hydroponic farming, which is suitable for land-scarce countries such as Singapore. In particular, vertical hydroponics enables us to grow greens three times faster than in a field, use 90% less water, and do not require soil or sunlight. It also requires much less space than traditional farming, and produces much less waste.

The challenges that we face as a species are immense and complicated. Fortunately, we have never been better equipped to tackle them. To succeed, we will need to rethink our entire food system, though I am optimistic that we can overcome the challenges. And as we collaborate to innovate, I believe that the pioneers of today will be the market leaders of tomorrow.