Climate change is liable to continue to endanger humanity’s sources of food. Scientists are already developing edible alternatives

A photobioreactor used to grow single-cell chlorella algae.
A photobioreactor used to grow single-cell chlorella algae.Credit: Vaxa, Iceland

Netta Ahituv May. 13, 2021

The world’s ecosystems offer humanity more than 20,000 types of edible plants. Yet human nutrition for the most part is based on just 30 species, and 40 percent of the average daily calorie consumption of every person on the planet is based on just three plants: wheat, corn and rice. Basic human existence thus rests on a dining table with three legs. Any major fluctuation of weather can lop off one of those legs and could lead to global hunger. And it’s not just the weather. There could also be an epidemic that disrupts the food-supply chains, or locust plagues (as occurred this year in East Africa), or diseases originating in animal-based food, such as swine flu and avian flu (necessitating the slaughter of sick livestock), or even small fungi that run rampant through whole silos of grain and ruin a whole year’s crop.

The existence of this nutritional fragility has long been known, and efforts are underway to address it. Research studies, experiments and methods used in the field are being devoted to improving the cultivation of wheat, corn and rice so that they are better able to withstand bouts of cold and periods of drought. The best minds are working on this, but the result is an improvement of a mere 1 percent a year in the crop yield of wheat, corn and rice. That’s a minuscule difference given what’s at stake: More than a billion people who are hungry; 250 million more people suffering from malnutrition during the past year alone, due to the coronavirus pandemic; 25,000 people around the world dying every day from malnutrition; and, looming over everything, climate change that is liable to endanger all the sources of food in the near future.

“The global agricultural system today is not fulfilling its principal goal: to provide universal nutritional security,” says Asaf Tzachor, head of the program for outstanding students in the School of Sustainability at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, and director of the world food security project at the Center for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge.

“In light of the current world economic crisis, the erosion of farmlands, deforestation and the emission of greenhouse gases, it’s clear today that old methods of production no longer work, that improving crop yield by fractions of a percent will not save us. It’s like rearranging the chairs on the deck of the sinking Titanic, when what needs to be done is to alter completely the ship’s course. A radical change is required.”

In an article published on Thursday in the prestigious journal Nature Food, Dr. Tzachor and two colleagues from the Center for the Study of Existential Risk – Catherine Elizabeth Richards, an engineer, and Dr. Lauren Holt, a sociobiologist – argue that despite the efforts, the present world food system will not meet the rate of the rise of the demand for food and it will not be immune to the impact of climate change. Here’s how the article opens: “Future foods, such as microalgae, mycoprotein and mealworm, have been suggested as nutritious and sustainable dietary options. Here we consider one of their most profound yet neglected benefits – their potential to deliver risk-resilient diets … in the face of systemic disturbances.”

The article is actually a meta-analysis – that is, a survey – of some 490 scientific articles published over the past five years, and containing proposals for different engineering systems intended to produce food in the future. The authors narrowed these down to include only food systems that met tough criteria of sustainability in conditions of every conceivable danger.

The systems, for example, need to be closed, in order to minimize contact with the warming process outside; to operate or be capable of operating on the basis of renewable energy sources, so as not to be dependent on dwindling fossil fuels; must be modular to enable them to work everywhere on the globe; and above all, they must be ready for immediate deployment, in the event we wake up tomorrow to a new pandemic or to a situation in which all the world’s coastal cities are flooded.

Black soldier fly larvae breeding zone, farmed by InnovaFeed.
Black soldier fly larvae breeding zone, farmed by InnovaFeed.Credit: InnovaFeed

“We are dependent today on grains and legumes,” Tzachor, 37, says via Zoom from England, where he is currently living within the framework of his work at Cambridge. “The animals we eat are also dependent on grains and legumes. You can see how tropical cyclones in South America, monsoons in the Indian subcontinent, waves of heat and cold in Europe, drought in the northern United States, or simply pests and plant illnesses, affect corn and soy crops the world-over. Our present food system is irreparably vulnerable to hazards. It is impossible to correct the flaws. Even after three agricultural revolutions, we find ourselves with a defective, flawed system. The world food system rests on a flimsy foundation.”

That sounds frightening and threatening, but also remote and not related to our life. Fortunately, the refrigerators of most Israelis are not completely empty.

Tzachor: “The food crisis will affect each and every one of us, even sated people in sated countries. It will be seen in a rise in food prices, persistent disruptions in supply chains and in the collapse of farms. In this case, the writing is very plainly on the wall. Israeli farmers and consumers will be affected in all kinds of negative ways.”

Improving crop yield by fractions of a percent will not save us. It’s like rearranging the chairs on the deck of the sinking Titanic, when what needs to be done is to alter completely the ship’s course. Tzachor

After setting forth a terrifying scenario, Tzachor and his colleagues suggest a road to salvation. Formally, it can be termed a route to “future food,” a term that encapsulates both the type of food and the methods used to produce it. Future food includes micro- and macro-algae, a class of fungi called sac fungi, fly larvae, beetle larvae and mollusks. All of these contain a high amount of concentrated protein, minerals and vitamins, and they can be bred efficiently in engineered, sustainable, centralized production facilities – be it in the basement of an apartment building, the roof of an office building or in your local community center.

For example, larvae of the common black soldier fly (Hermatia illucens) or the housefly (Musca domestica) are easy to grow and are rich in protein, minerals and vitamins. A surprising fact about them is that they feed on organic waste so they can be fed with food wastes (a process known as “nutrient recycling”) and will yield a large amount of protein in exchange. Under proper conditions, 14 tons of fly larvae can be grown in a single month, using 40 tons of organic urban waste, and can supply the necessary protein intake of approximately 2,500 people.

A kilo of chlorella

A perhaps more pleasing example is the single-cell chlorella algae, each millimeter of which is packed with nutritional benefits and which can be bred in small areas and with the use of little energy. If we compare beef with algae, the one devours energy and is nutritionally meager, while the other is efficient, essential and loaded with protein, vitamins and healthful acids. A kilo of chlorella algae contains a concentration of 10 times more vitamin B-12 than a kilo of beef. In addition, unicellular algae are phototropic plants – meaning that they create a biomass from a combination of light and carbon dioxide; as a result, their production removes greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and moderates the greenhouse effect on a very large scale.

Asaf Tzachor.
Asaf Tzachor.Credit: Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya

“The algae can be grown in different conditions of exposure to the external environment,” Tzachor explains. “The more the system is exposed to the external environment – weather conditions or natural sunlight – the more vulnerable it is and subject to production fluctuations. The engineering facilities that we are examining, known as photobioreactors, are used to grow microorganisms under controlled conditions, in artificial light, and they offer multiple advantages. For example, control of photosynthesis by controlling light waves, which provides a flexibility that the traditional agricultural system does not allow.

“When the demand for proteins and essential fatty acids increases,” continues Tzachor, “more can be produced; when demand slackens, less can be produced and fewer resources wasted. Another advantage is that alternative and renewable power sources can be used to operate the bioreactors anywhere. Effectively, we are proposing that the food system be severed from external environmental or human hazards such as wars or financial crises. That is the main motivation of our article.”

You are not just talking about replacing animal-based protein with plant-based protein, but about something far beyond that: about food that will come to us from bioreactors in the neighbor’s house, instead of plants coming to us from the fields.

The food crisis will affect each and every one of us, even sated people in sated countries. It will be seen in a rise in food prices, persistent disruptions in supply chains and in the collapse of farms. Tzachor

“Yes. Even if it becomes clear to everyone that we cannot go on fattening and slaughtering cattle forever, because it’s environmentally inefficient, relative to the amount of protein we get from it, and that we have to replace all our animal-based food products with plant-based protein substitutes – even that will not be enough, because the improvement will take place only within the bounds of the present system, which is limited. Even if you alter the system’s parameters, you still haven’t changed its traits and you haven’t severed our dependence on things that can be destroyed instantly by weather, floods and drought. All the machines we propose can be deployed in almost every contour.”

Tzachor and his colleagues found that systems are dissociated from external hazards when they meet three criteria. The first is modularity, he explains: “We want a great many small, identical facilities that can be placed at different sites and isolated from each other so as to disperse risks. A disaster in one place will not affect a facility in a different place.”

That last sentence contains the second criterion: redundancy. This refers to severing dependency on one unit of agriculture and especially on the monopoly of a particular corporation. Instead of one wheat field that yields a hundred tons of protein, Tzachor and his colleagues propose having 10 advanced farming units in 10 different places, each of them producing 10 tons of protein. “If one fails, the impact on the overall food security is marginal,” he notes.

The final, and most basic, criterion is also the most challenging: decentralizing the world food network.

Iceland’s Hellisheidi geothermal power station. “Alternative and renewable power sources can be used to operate bioreactors [that cultivate microalgae] anywhere,” says Tzachor.
Iceland’s Hellisheidi geothermal power station. “Alternative and renewable power sources can be used to operate bioreactors [that cultivate microalgae] anywhere,” says Tzachor. Credit: Courtesy of Vaxa Impact Nutrition, Iceland

Tzachor: “You would actually subject the agricultural network to a process of redivision, dispersal of powers, bringing new players into decision-making and opening a fascinating window for trying alternate models of cooperative farming. Imagine an association or a community of manufacturers, biotechnological engineers, chefs, culinary experts, farmers and consumers who live close to food-production facilities and sustain themselves by themselves – a type of modern autarkic farmstead in a global era. No longer would there be dependence on a ship carrying wheat or cattle sailing to a very distant country, but healthful, nutritious and flavorful food that is grown within the urban fabric and is relevant to the local culture.”

“There is a deep social message here,” he adds. “Beyond the ecological and nutritional values [imbued in these ideas], these are tools to emancipate population groups. By these means, the hungry of the world can be freed from a hierarchical, centralized and discriminatory food system, which also happens not to meet their nutritional needs, either. For example, in cases such as Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia, the systems mentioned in the article could serve as a source of iron and zinc for pregnant women, who particularly suffer there from anemia and disorders of the immune and digestive systems.”

The food conglomerates and global agriculture won’t forgo their power and money so easily.

“True – a fundamental cultural, nutritional and economic transformation is needed. But we have no choice. There’s a trade-off working here that clearly favors one side of the equation. We will still need fruit and vegetables to maintain a healthy, balanced diet. Our main goal is not to eliminate food as we know it, but to reduce the risks of major food shortages in the world, or in certain parts of it.”

What about culinary traditions – what will happen to knaidlach [matzo balls], mafrum [stuffed vegetables], wonton and asado?

“There is no doubt that this is also a culinary challenge and it’s clear to us that people have gastronomic preferences. It’s true that the thought that we will soon be eating larval powder, capsules of algae and mollusk blends will take some getting used to. It’s possible to turn those future foods into powder or flakes and to integrate them into other foods, and that way enrich existing foods with nutritional values.

“That’s also the way to reduce the diseases of Western civilization, which stem from satisfying but unhealthy foods, such as junk food. We want to liberate the future from the aberrations of the past where nutrition is concerned. It’s not only a question of sustainability, but also one of resilience.”