You probably have already heard that scientists have successfully created human tissue in a lab. They are using innovative techniques to grow or 3D-print organs such as livers, esophaguses, and hearts. However, did you know that they are also growing animal tissue that we can eat? Can you imagine eating a synthetically grown steak?
The size of the human population exceeds 7 billion people today. The UN predicts that the human population will continue to grow to about 9 billion people by 2050. Using those numbers, it is predicted that food production would need to increase by 70% in order to feed those extra mouths. A large portion of extra production would come from increased crop yields of existing farms versus increasing farm size. This is because much of the arable land has already been deployed, and water irrigation is impossible in many regions. Luckily, over the past several decades, we have made great strides to increase food production by using new technologies and improved farming techniques.
One resource-intensive agricultural industry is meat production. It takes a lot of land, water and energy to raise a herd of cattle. However, one company, Modern Meadow, has found a way to produce beef without slaughtering a single cow. Their method uses 99% less land, 96% less water, 96% less greenhouse gases, 45% less energy, no risk of livestock diseases, and no animals harmed. No animals harmed in meat production? They are growing meat tissue in a test tube. They claim that they can make the tastiest burger you ever had, too.
Another potential animal product being targeted is milk. Now, they can create cow’s milk using yeast. Not only will this milk be both tasty and nutritious, it is also technically vegan and organic! Muufri, a company looking to market synthetic milk, inserts cattle DNA into yeast cells to grow cultures that can then be used to harvest milk proteins. This process can potentially be applied to any mammal…which could mean that breast milk could be synthetically manufactured in the future.
Besides animal production, they are also innovating plant production as well. Researchers are beginning to test large-scale vertical farms. The idea is that since arable land is a scarce commodity, what if they could increase production per square foot by going up? In order to do so, they started to plant up vertically in racks versus out onto bigger fields. They took over abandoned warehouses, and set up elaborate racking, LED lighting, sensors, and irrigation systems. The results? Increased harvests by a factor of 4-30, depending on the crop.
The benefits of vertical farming are vast. It takes the risk of weather out of the equation for one, and it eliminates seasonality since temperature and lighting can be strictly controlled. Pests and disease can be minimized so toxic pesticides can be eliminated or greatly reduced. Energy and water use is also reduced significantly. What is interesting about this method is that it can bring farming into any area of the world, including warehouses in the middle of New York City. So, “farm to table” can have a whole new meaning, and your next salad could potentially be sourced from a warehouse down the street.
All of these new farming techniques are a direct response to the global grand challenge of feeding the world in a sustainable way. There may be a point in the future where we won’t have the luxury of eating food made the “traditional” way. The benefits of vertical farming are clear and probably will not see much backlash. However, meat production might be another story. I mean, would you eat a steak made in a lab? I guess you can’t knock it until you try it.