The Ukraine War has highlighted the fragility of our food system, which currently relies on just a few globally traded crops. The cost-of-living crisis has shown just how fast the price and availability of food can be affected when something goes wrong.
Climate change is likely to increase the risk of severe 'food shocks' where crops fail, leading to rapid price rises worldwide. This, together with the need to be more sustainable in the way we produce food, will lead to big changes in the food system over the next ten to 20 years.
Yet change when it comes to food is nothing new. In the mid-1960s Britain I was born into, there were no McDonalds, KFCs, Starbucks, or pizza chains on every high street.
“Meat and two veg” was the staple diet for most families, and few of us were eating out. Spaghetti bolognese was new and exotic. Indian and Chinese restaurants were only just taking off. Chicken, for the first time, was about to become widely available as a set-piece Sunday roast.
In a single lifetime, food has exploded with choice and opportunity, which begs the question, what could we be eating come 2040?
Here are what I see as some of the most important changes about to happen on our plates.
Meat from plants
According to a recent study, plant-based meat alternatives could form a quarter of our ‘meat’ intake by 2040. Current icons of this new food revolution include Beyond Meat, Quorn, and, in the US, Impossible Foods. No longer tasteless bits of cardboard, plant-based alternatives are giving ‘real’ meat a run for its money.
As Pat Brown, chief executive of Impossible Foods, said, “unlike the cow, we get better at making meat every single day”.
We can already see that something in the collective consciousness has recognised that eating less meat is a good thing, be it for reasons of health, climate, or animal welfare. Now, it is starting to get serious airtime in the media and from food companies themselves.
Whilst today, plant-based meats are part of expanding choices for vegans and flexitarians (those who have actively reduced their meat consumption), in the coming years they are likely to form a bigger part of our overall eating habits.
With sea-levels likely to rise, the focus on how to meet the protein needs of a growing population will likely shift to the world’s oceans. Given that 70 per cent of the planet is covered by ocean, the potential is enormous.
An area of sea four times the size of Portugal – in oceanic terms, a tiny proportion of the total – growing seaweed could meet the protein needs of ten billion people: the projected world population by mid-century.
There are possibilities to combine seaweed production with renewable energy: floating wind farms connected by a lattice of seaweed cultivation below the surface. Seaweed has long been harvested and consumed in Asian cuisines, particularly those of Japan and Korea.
Soon, this widely overlooked sea vegetable could be firmly on the world’s sustainable plate.
Not so long-ago, milk, whether full-fat, semi-skimmed or organic, only really came from a cow. Then came the plethora of plant-milks, like almond, oat and soya.
The new kid on the block is likely to be fermented milk, produced through a combination of yeast, cow DNA, and plant nutrients. Brewed in a tank like craft-beer, it is said to taste just like dairy milk but with two-thirds less climate impact and needing but a tenth of the water and land used for the traditional pint.
Lactose-free, high in protein and produced without the antibiotics associated with dairy production, ‘daisy’ could soon be the familiar name of a fermenter vat rather than a cow.
Enset or ‘false banana’ has been recognised by scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, as having wonder-crop status in overcoming food scarcity.
Known as the ‘tree against hunger’, false banana is currently a regional staple in Ethiopia where it is used to make porridge and bread.
However, it could be grown much more widely in Africa, a timely discovery as climate change is increasing the risk of failures in traditional crops leading to severe 'food shocks'.
The climate resilience of the tree, together with its flexibility in being ready to plant and harvest at any time of the year, give it the potential to feed more than 100 million people. And who knows, if it takes off, we could be breakfasting on it too.
Cultivated chicken grown from stem cells has already been sold commercially for the first time in Singapore, as part of a burgeoning industry racing to reimagine meat.
More than 100 companies have raised $2.3 billion in funding for the development of cultivated meat: meat created from stem cells and cultured in a vat rather than from rearing animals.
Cultivated meat has been shown to have a much lower environmental footprint than the equivalent from rearing animals, reducing the impact on climate, land use and air pollution by 90 per cent.
Cultivated beef steak has already been produced in orbit by scientists in the International Space Station using a 3D bioprinter.
Wide availability of cultivated meat could be a few years off. However, Sandhya Sriram, a stem-cell scientist from Singapore sees us having the ability to grow cultivated meat in our own homes within a decade.
In an interview with Channel News Asia, she said: “It’s much like making beer or wine at home, or even baking a piece of bread.”
Philip Lymbery is global chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, a former United Nations Food Systems Champion and author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat and Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were.
Philip’s new book Sixty Harvests Left: How to Reach a Nature-Friendly Future is published August 18. He is on Twitter @philip_ciwf