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Changing tastes: Can technology sustainably feed the world?

Climate change is putting many of the foods we love at risk. Add in rapid population growth — the planet will be home to 9.7 billion people by 2050 — and it’s clear we need to reimagine how we feed ourselves. As food security expert Leonore Newman says, “we are running short on planet.” But is society ready for replacement proteins and lab-grown meats? Whether it’s cell-grown salmon or chili lime crickets, the plate of the future is going to look a little bit different. In this episode of Solve for X, we discuss the revolution in what we eat — and why it’s as much about technology as it is about safeguarding our planet’s future.

Featured in this episode:

Lenore Newman director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley, is an expert in food security and technology and holds a UFV Research Chair in Food and Agriculture Innovation.

Preeti Simran Sethi teaches sustainable food systems at the University of Gastronomic Sciences. She’s also the author of an award-winning book on agrobiodiversity, Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love.

Journalist and author Larissa Zimberoff explores the evolving relationship between food and technology in her work. Her book, Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat, delves into the transformations in our diets and the startups driving this shift.

Darren Goldin is a co-founder of Entomo Farms, an insect-based farming company that produces cricket flour, cricket powder and insect protein. He’s also the vice president of farming operations, overseeing the three barns on Entomo’s property.

Further reading:

Subscribe to Solve for X: Innovations to Change the World here. And below find a transcript to the sixth episode: “Changing tastes: Can technology sustainably feed the world?.”

Narration: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize.” That’s something food activists like to say. But history teaches us that what we eat is constantly evolving.

Lenore Newman: People see their food as static. They think it’s been the same way forever — and it hasn’t. It has been a constant evolution all through history.

Narration: Where you or I might see a familiar piece of meat, food scientist Lenore Newman sees a story about extinction and innovation, playing out on our dinner plates.

Lenore Newman: Before the 20th century, the passenger pigeon was one of the main animal proteins. Of course, we don’t eat pigeons anymore — passenger pigeon is extinct — we ate them all.

Narration: And so we turned to chickens. Today, we raise them on an industrial scale. There are more than 34 billion on the planet — that’s four for every human. But our first attempts at farming them? That didn’t go too well…

Lenore Newman: Partly because they’re a wild bird from the tropics of Southeast Asia.

Narration: Chickens were hard to raise in the North American winters. That is, as Lenore explained, until a group of New Jersey farm wives made a discovery in the 1920s.

Lenore Newman: Much like us, they need vitamin supplements in the winter, just like we do.

Narration: The women found that if they gave them vitamin D, they could keep the birds alive all year round, indoors.

Lenore Newman: As the passenger pigeon went extinct, the chickens picked up — they became very popular — but they were still expensive. Until we see the rise of companies like Tyson Foods, and they set up this giant chicken industrial complex.

Narration: What chicken’s rise to global dominance tells us, is how quickly revolutions can happen in the food we eat.

I’m Manjula Selvarajah, and this is Solve for X, Innovations to Change the World, a series where we explore the latest ideas in tech and science. And today, we’re exploring the future of food and technology, and asking experts what we might be eating in the coming decades.

Lenore Newman: Humans have a proud 100,000-year history of eating things into extinction. But really, we see about 500 years ago, this turning point at which agriculture starts to be one of the main drivers of extinction.

Narration: Lenore is the director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley, where she studies our food system and climate change.

Lenore Newman: The changing climate poses an existential threat to the food system, but at the same time, the food system is not a passive actor. It is also one of the biggest contributors to climate change, and yet ironically, it is also one of the places where we can achieve the biggest bang for our buck — as it were — in offsetting climate change and maybe even reversing it.

Narration: When you walk into a grocery store, you’re confronted by an abundance of things to eat. Fruits and vegetables are piled high, there are fish counters, meat counters, delis — it seems like we’re in a golden age of deliciousness. But at a global scale, our food system is on much shakier ground. In fact, many of the ingredients we know and love are at risk.

Preeti Simran Sethi: When it comes to endangered — anything that grows in that equatorial band — so think of things like coffee, cocoa, certain wine grapes are also endangered. I mean, these are some of the more pleasure foods that I’m talking about, but we’re seeing crop failures in wheat.

Narration: That’s Simran Sethi, a journalist and author of the book Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We LoveI reached her at her home in Washington, D.C. to discuss the challenges facing our food system.

Manjula Selvarajah: So let’s talk about the effects of climate change on our plate. How is climate change putting the foods that we love at risk?

Preeti Simran Sethi: There’s not a singular way of, kind of, looking at this challenge — but that what we do know is the places where we grow food now, are not necessarily places we’ll be able to grow foods in the future. And that in between time, which is what we’re in right now, is a really hard place to be.

Manjula Selvarajah: It’s interesting because one of the things that we have here in Canada is, a lot of our greens come from not just California — but one particular spot in California. So we’ve really seen like lettuce that disappears off of our grocery aisles for a bit, or the prices that go up, so we’re starting to see a few of those signs.

Preeti Simran Sethi: The reason that our foods — the short version is — the reason our foods are at risk is because many of us consume the exact same foods. This is something — research that was done — that looked at 50 years of data, on what 98 percent of the world eats, and it found that through globalization we eat the same amounts of wheat, rice, corn, soybeans and palm oil.

And the places where these foods grow will of course be impacted by climate change. So, there are other varieties that we could grow, but because of market forces, because of globalization and industrialization, we’ve tended to only grow one variety of food over and over again. And you would never ever do this, you would never invest all your money — like 100 percent of your savings — in one place, but with food, that’s what the food industry has done.

Narration: And because we’ve concentrated crops around so few ingredients, when we get hit by pests or disease from climate change, the results can be devastating. Meanwhile agriculture has scaled up massively over the past few decades. Half of all habitable land on the planet is now used for food production. Here’s Lenore on that point.

Lenore Newman: The story since then has been about clearing wild lands and also clearing away Indigenous food systems — so food systems that lasted for millennia — to make way for industrial scale farming. We’re at the end point of that where we simply can’t do it anymore because we’re running short of planet.

Manjula Selvarajah: So are we at that peak farmland now?

Lenore Newman: I would say we’re either at it or very close to it.

Narration: So what might a more sustainable food system look like? And what kinds of things will we be eating? During the pandemic, Lenore and her colleague, Evan Fraser, started exploring those questions.

Lenore Newman: Here on Earth we’re facing — we’re basically having to learn how to farm on another planet because we’ve made it so hot, and so variable, and so violent.

Narration: They wrote a book called Dinner on Mars. In it, they look at how we might feed ourselves if we ever have to colonize the red planet.

Lenore Newman: Could you build a food system from the ground up, on a planet with no ecosystem? And you know, the weird answer is yes. And once we got into it, we realized there was actually an idea here, and it was a really good way to highlight technologies that have value on Earth as well.

Manjula Selvarajah: What are some of those lessons that you think we can take from that thought experiment for what we’re facing here on Earth?

Lenore Newman: We need to start thinking about a protein portfolio in which some of our protein is coming from plants, and maybe some is made through precision fermentation and cell agriculture. It frees up a ton of grazing land, it also allows us to return large parcels of land to nature — which we need to do if we’re going to survive.

Manjula Selvarajah: Now there are two terms that you used there, I just want to get into it just very briefly. You mentioned this term cell agriculture. I think — is that lab meat? Is that what that is?

Lenore Newman: Yeah. So there’s a few terms there and I’ll kind of go through them. So number one, precision fermentation is a really important technology that is moving along rapidly. What you do there is you take yeast or bacteria and you alter it to produce proteins or fats instead of alcohols. So it’s like brewing beer, but instead of beer you get milk. That technology is used all through the medical system, it’s used in the food system to produce additives — things like rennet, which is the chemical that makes cheese turn into cheese — we can scale it to produce protein, and that’s a really neat technology. Cellular agriculture is a little different; that’s the lab meat that we hear a lot about. It’s a little further behind. But it’s an interesting technology and especially, I think, very interesting for producing designer proteins that are sort of tailored for individual health, or that has certain nutraceutical properties; and also is much more efficient.

Narration: While cultured meat used to be a thing of science fiction, it’s now one of the hottest areas of investment in food tech. It’s still early days, I haven’t had the chance to try it yet, but we did find someone who has.

Larissa Zimberoff: I’ve tried Wagyu, I’ve tried bison, I’ve tried lamb — all lab grown, cultivated meat.

Narration: Larissa Zimberoff is one of a handful of journalists who’ve had the chance to sample these early prototypes. She’s the author of Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat.

Larissa Zimberoff: I have Type 1 diabetes, which I’ve had since I was 12 years old, and it makes me look at food… I say in my book, I have x-ray vision.

Narration:. It’s one of the reasons why Larissa is so driven to look into the health and environmental claims made by these tech companies.

Larissa Zimberoff: I appear in these offices with companies with millions and millions and millions, or even a billion, in funding. And then I have to sit there and taste food with the CEO and a chef — he or she has got an apron and knives — and everyone’s just looking at me and watching me and I kind of just want to take the plate and go in a closet.

Manjula Selvarajah: So right. I can totally imagine. I’m like, let’s watch her as she puts that morsel on her tongue.

Narration: One of the things she’s tasted recently was salmon tissue grown directly from cells. The idea here is to sidestep the problems associated with fish farming or declining stocks.

Larissa Zimberoff: It was on a crème fraîche and like a piece of bread. It was more gelatinous than I wanted it to be. I didn’t have that — sort of — muscle, muscle fibre feel. It was a little too smooth.

Narration: Cells left to their own devices grow into a kind of meaty sludge. So scientists have to find a way to replicate the shapes and textures that people expect.

Larissa Zimberoff: One of the things I noticed and mentioned to them was that it was scentless. They told me that fresh fish is actually milder than I know, and not knowing that meant that I actually didn’t truly know what fish tastes like.

Manjula Selvarajah: But it is again, the fish that you know —

Larissa Zimberoff: But the fish that we know, right — so it brings up a quandary for this company. Do they make it mild like it is from the stream? Or do they make it with a little more — amp up the flavors — so that people will get what they’re expecting. So right now we’re sort of stuck with what we know and replicating what we know. I think that there’s — 10 years from now — a future where we’re creating foods that are brand new.

Narration: In theory, this kind of cell agriculture could enable us to design custom meats like cholesterol free beef — but there’s still a way to go.

Larissa Zimberoff: They’re at lab scale, so everything is real small. They call it lab scale or bench scale, but to feed the world, they’re going to have to go to like 100,000 litres, 200,000 litres, and almost nothing is made in that kind of size. Sugar might be, corn syrup, things like that are made at that scale, but little else. The technology that they’re doing is kind of like making a vaccine. It’s really complicated. And so we’re looking at something as complicated as making vaccines, but we need to make it at the scale of something like sugar, and it’s going to take a long time to get from one place to the other.

Narration: What will we eat tomorrow? That’s a question futurists have been asking since forever. In 1955, Science Digest speculated that we’d have mini cattle the size of dogs grazing in each of our yards. A century ago, people thought that by now we’d be turning to tablets to replace food entirely. But some of those wild predictions are coming true. Take what Winston Churchill wrote in the 1930s — by growing chicken wings or breasts in the lab, we could solve the problems of raising livestock. Fast forward to this summer, the USDA actually approved the sale of cultured chicken. As food scientists try to figure out how to scale up production of cultivated meat, others are looking to a much older source of protein.

Manjula Selvarajah: [knocking] Hello?

Narration: We found one possibility in a barn about two hours east of Toronto.

Darren Goldin: My name is Darren Goldin. I’m one of the founders of Entomo Farms, and I’m responsible for overseeing the farming operations.

Narration: Darren considers himself a free range cricket farmer.

Darren Goldin: Right now the primary market is in pet food, but we have a fairly diverse customer base. So we have customers that are making sports nutrition type products, fun products like pastas infused with the insect protein, and then lots of dog food, dog treats. It’s a pretty varied customer base.

Narration: Entomo is one of several cricket farms that have sprung up to meet the growing interest in more sustainable food choices. I asked Darren to give me a tour of one of his barns.

Darren Goldin: So this species we raise is — the common name is the tropical house cricket. And when we were selecting a species, we wanted one that did well in captivity, could handle high density, grew relatively fast and would be non invasive.

Narration: Looking inside Entomo’s barn is like looking at an insect city. Rows of cardboard are stacked up and resemble tiny condos. Some even come with balconies — it’s actually kind of adorable.

Manjula Selvarajah: That is so neat. You know, it’s been ages since I’ve seen a cricket really close.

Darren Goldin: So you can’t just farm them on the floor like you would other animals. We create more surface area so they’ve got somewhere to live. So they don’t want to be out in the open because they’re always worried about predators. So not only does it create surface area, but it creates lots of dark space and places where they can feel safe and relaxed.

Narration: And unlike other livestock, there are no off-cuts. Nothing gets wasted.

Darren Goldin: Customer base that we relied on when we first started is people that cared enough about the environment to want to eat a protein that had less of an impact on the environment. But I think that the really cool thing with crickets and the cricket powder or protein that we produce is that it does taste good, and it’s very very versatile. It can be hidden or it can be an upfront thing.

Manjula Selvarajah: I look at news stories — you know, a few years ago — crickets are the food of the future. We’ve been talking about that for over a decade now. Why hasn’t it happened? What’s holding this back?

Darren Goldin: I don’t know that I would say it hasn’t happened because we have seen growth all through the time. But I think it’s, you know — food is one of those things that is, it’s hard to change. I mean, taste is kind of like a relative term — if it tastes good. So it’s just about exposing people and letting them try it and then once you try it you realize it just tastes like food. It’s very familiar, there’s lots of other foods that we eat that taste similar. And so it’s really about exposure.

Narration: Darren made sure we got some samples to try, so we stopped at Entomo’s giant industrial kitchen, where I sat down to taste cricket.


Manjula Selvarajah: That’s delicious. So I’m having the chili lime, and I can certainly feel the heat. But the nice thing is that, it’s almost like the cricket — the protein — is this great base for the flavour. And if you think about most of the proteins that we eat, that’s what we do. We flavour them so much, right? I mean, chicken, we add all sorts of things to it. So that’s what this is. It’s small. It’s very crunchy. I feel like it’s puffed with air. There’s still a little bit of a nutty taste at the bottom, right after the chili lime.

Narration: Although insects are part of the diet for millions of people around the world, they’re not something I’ve eaten before. Crickets may seem like an exotic food to those of us used to a Western diet, but the basic idea behind raising insects is familiar. It’s still a farm with barns and machinery. And whether it’s growing meat in a lab or looking for other sources of protein, the question is: will consumers accept these ideas?

Preeti Simran Sethi: So it’s not simply about being presented with a food, but it’s the whole story that we tell around a food.

Narration: I asked Simran what it’ll take for us to change our tastes.

Preeti Simran Sethi: What psychologists will tell you is: one meal at a time. You know, the way we get over our fears and aversions to certain foods, is by understanding and experiencing more of them. If you think about something like lobster, they’re bottom feeders. A lobster is the oceanic equivalent of a rat — or what my friend’s mom used to delight in calling “the cockroaches of the sea”. Before the mid-19th century, they were what fishing communities in the northeastern United States only ate when they ran out of the good stuff. They were used as fish bait, and they were served as prison fare. Now they’re a mark of sophistication.

Manjula Selvarajah: That lobster story is fascinating, I think I’ve heard a hint of it before and it still shocks me. When you’re half eating one or eating one, there is that moment that you think: kind of revolting — expensive — but not exactly very attractive.

Preeti Simran Sethi: Right, exactly! You know, but then you’re just like: ooh, look at me. I mean, it’s something I love.

Manjula Selvarajah: And you smother it in butter. It’s the butter!

Preeti Simran Sethi: There we go, right? I mean, it doesn’t — taste is something we all do, and we all have, and we all shape it.

Narration: While crickets and ingredients from a bioreactor have yet to achieve the same level of prestige, things are changing. Take lab grown chicken — it’s only available for fine dining at two places in the U.S.; one of them is a Michelin starred restaurant. But to feed the world in a changing climate, Simran believes we need to protect the diversity of what we have.

Preeti Simran Sethi: And I think this idea that like “this is sophisticated, this isn’t” — you know, that is what we need to start to erase. If we’re going to solve this problem through the mouth, you know — through tasting, through savouring — then I just think it’s about opening our eyes and our palates and our hearts to everything that’s available, because the one thing we know that will happen in climate change is every system, every natural system will be stressed, and that includes the food system. So the number one thing that we can do is start to be grateful for what we have, waste less of it, purchase less of it, do whatever we can to appreciate what’s before us because there’s a chance that next season it might not — or next year it might not — be available.

Lenore Newman: The food system isn’t quite a free market. Governments have their thumb on the scale in a huge way. They subsidize activities that are literally killing the planet. And so you know, we subsidize the oil and gas industry, which is madness at this point. But we also subsidize clearing of rainforest for sugar, and palm oil, and cows. To me, those subsidies are a big part of the problem and if the public had to pay the real cost of everything, it can push technology to make things better, cheaper, and more efficient. I think we don’t need to overthink it. It’s actually — the solutions are easier than they look.

Darren Goldin: So I wanted to do this thing once where we took a really close-up image of a cricket’s head, and then a lobster’s head, and a shrimp’s head — because they actually look very similar with the antenna and the mouth parts and stuff like that — because I thought that would be an interesting way to challenge people’s perception. But the issue was that they’re all very ugly creatures so it wasn’t a good way to sell “you should eat this” because they’re not …

Solve for X is brought to you by MaRS. This episode was produced by Ellen Payne Smith. Lara Torvi and Heather O’Brien are the associate producers. David Paterson is the senior editor. Mack Swain composed the theme song and all the music. Gab Harpelle is our mix engineer. Kathryn Hayward is the executive producer.

MaRS helps entrepreneurs looking to scale solutions in climate tech, health and software. We offer targeted support through our Capital and Growth Acceleration programs. For more information, visit marsdd.com. And we want to hear from you — drop us a line to share your ideas, questions and feedback. Email us at [email protected].

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