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The task of ensuring affordable access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food for all is one of the major challenges of the 21st century.
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Kelp, maggots and mycoprotein among future foods that must be mass-farmed to combat malnutrition

Thu, 13/05/2021 - 16:46

Researchers at the University of Cambridge say our future global food supply cannot be safeguarded by traditional approaches to improving food production. They suggest state-of-the-art, controlled-environment systems, producing novel foods, should be integrated into the food system to reduce vulnerability to environmental changes, pests and diseases. Their report is published today in the journal Nature Food.

The researchers say that global malnutrition could be eradicated by farming foods including spirulina, chlorella, larvae of insects such as the house fly, mycoprotein (protein derived from fungi), and macro-algae such as sugar kelp. These foods have already attracted interest as nutritious and more sustainable alternatives to traditional plant and animal-based foods. 

The production of these ‘future foods’ could change the way food systems operate. They can be grown at scale in modular, compact systems suitable for urban settings as well as isolated communities such as those on remote islands. In an approach the researchers call ‘polycentric food networks’, food could be produced locally and consistently by communities - reducing reliance on global supply chains.

To reach their conclusions, the researchers analysed around 500 published scientific papers on different future food production systems. The most promising, including microalgae photo-bioreactors (devices that use a light source to grow microorganisms) and insect breeding greenhouses, reduce exposure to the hazards of the natural environment by farming in closed, controlled environments. 

“Foods like sugar kelp, flies, mealworm and single-celled algae such as chlorella, have the potential to provide healthy, risk-resilient diets that can address malnutrition around the world,” said Dr Asaf Tzachor, a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) at the University of Cambridge and first author of the report.

He added: “Our current food system is vulnerable. It’s exposed to a litany of risks - floods and frosts, droughts and dry spells, pathogens and parasites - which marginal improvements in productivity won’t change. To future-proof our food supply we need to integrate completely new ways of farming into the current system.” 

The report argues it is dangerous to rely on food produced through conventional farming and supply systems, which are at risk of serious disruption from a variety of factors beyond human control. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted this vulnerability: government-imposed restrictions on travel disrupted food production and supply chains across the world.

In parallel, recent environmental challenges to food systems include wildfires and droughts in North America, outbreaks of African swine fever affecting pigs in Asia and Europe, and swarms of desert locust in East Africa. Climate change is anticipated to worsen these threats.

“Advances in technology open up many possibilities for alternative food supply systems that are more risk-resilient, and can efficiently supply sustainable nutrition to billions of people,” said Catherine Richards, a doctoral researcher at Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk and Department of Engineering.

She added: “The coronavirus pandemic is just one example of increasing threats to our globalised food system. Diversifying our diet with these future foods will be important in achieving food security for all.”

The burden of malnutrition is arguably the most persistent humanitarian crisis: two billion people experience food insecurity, including over 690 million people undernourished and 340 million children suffering micro-nutrient deficiencies.

The researchers say that reservations about eating novel foods like insects could be overcome by using them as ingredients rather than eating them whole: pasta, burgers and energy bars, for example, can all contain ground insect larvae and processed micro- and macro- algae.

This research was made possible through the support of a grant from Templeton World Charity Foundation, Inc. The opinions expressed in this press release are those of the researchers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Templeton World Charity Foundation, Inc.

Reference
Tzachor, A., et al. ‘Future Foods for Risk Resilient Diets.’ Nature Food, May 2021. DOI: 10.1038/s43016-021-00269-x 

Radical changes to the food system are needed to safeguard our food supply and combat malnutrition in the face of climate change, environmental degradation and epidemics, says new report.

Advances in technology open up many possibilities for alternative food supply systems that more risk-resilient, and can efficiently supply sustainable nutrition to billions of peopleCatherine RichardsVaxa, Iceland Enclosed, modular photobioreactor cultivating Chlorella, a rich source of essential nutrients including amino acids, iron, zinc and B-vitamins.


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Exploit plants’ ability to tell the time to make food production more sustainable, say scientists

Fri, 30/04/2021 - 00:01

Like humans, plants have an ‘internal clock’ that monitors the rhythms of their environment. The authors of a study published today say that now the genetic basis of this circadian system is well understood and there are improved genetic tools to modify it, the clock should be exploited in agriculture - a process they describe as ‘chronoculture’ - to contribute to global food security.

“We live on a rotating planet, and that has a huge impact on our biology – and on the biology of plants. We’ve discovered that plants grow much better when their internal clock is matched to the environment they grow in,” said Professor Alex Webb, Chair of Cell Signalling in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences and senior author of the report.

A plant’s circadian clock plays an important role in regulating many of the functions that affect yield including flowering time, photosynthesis, and water use. The genes controlling the circadian rhythm are similar in all major crop plants – making them a potential target for crop breeders wishing to gain more control over these functions. 

Chronoculture could also be applied by adapting crop growing practices to the optimal time of day, to reduce the resources required. The study is published today in the journal Science

The simplest and easiest approach, say the scientists, would be to use knowledge of a crop’s internal clock to apply water, herbicides or pesticides at the most effective time of day or night. Low-cost technologies including drones and sensors could collect round-the-clock information about plant crop growth and health. Farmers could then receive advice about the best time to apply treatments to their specific crop, for their precise location and weather conditions.

“We know from lab experiments that watering plants or applying pesticides can be more effective at certain times of day, meaning farmers could use less of these resources. This is a simple win that could save money and contribute to sustainability,” said Webb.

He added: “Using water more efficiently is an important sustainability goal for agriculture.”

Webb says that indoor ‘vertical farming’ could also be improved using chronoculture. The approach, mostly used for leafy greens at present, grows crops under highly controlled light and temperature conditions but can also be very energy intensive. With knowledge of the plants’ internal clock and the ability to change it through genetic modification, the lighting and heating cycles could be matched to the plant for highly efficient growth.

“In vertical farming, chronoculture could give total control over the crop. We could breed specific crop plants with internal clocks suited to growing indoors, and optimise the light and temperature cycles for them,” said Webb.

A third potential application of chronoculture is post-harvest, when plants slowly deteriorate and continue to be eaten by pests. There is good evidence that pest damage can be reduced by maintaining the internal rhythms of the harvested plants.

“Plants’ responses to pests are optimised – they’re most resistant to pests at the time of day the pests are active,” said Webb. “So just a simple light in the refrigerated lorry going on and off to mimic the day/ night cycle would use the plants’ internal clock to help improve storage and reduce waste.”  

The researchers say that in selecting plants with particular traits such as late flowering time for higher yield, crop breeders have already been unwittingly selecting for the plants with the most suitable internal clock. New understanding of the genes involved in the clock could make this type of breeding much more targeted and effective. 

Webb says there are many opportunities for chronoculture to make food production more sustainable. The specifics would be different for every location and crop, and this is where more research is now needed. He is confident that the approach can form part of the solution to feeding our growing population sustainably.

It has been estimated that we will need to produce more food in the next 35 years has ever been produced in human history, given the projected increases in global population and the change in diets as incomes rise. 

A similar idea is now being applied in human medicine: ‘chronomedicine’ is finding that drugs are more effective when taken at a specific time of day.

This research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Reference
Steed, G. et al: ‘Chronoculture, harnessing the circadian clock to improve crop yield and sustainability.’  Science, April 2021. DOI:10.1126/science.abc9141

 

Cambridge plant scientists say circadian clock genes, which enable plants to measure daily and seasonal rhythms, should be targeted in agriculture and crop breeding for higher yields and more sustainable farming. 

Plants grow much better when their internal clock is matched to the environment they grow in.Alex WebbPhilip Junior Male on UnsplashCrops being watered


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Global food security is a major research priority for UK and international science.

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