From bugs to beef-free burgers: what’s the future of food?

Saturday 2 November, 17:3018:45, Frobisher 1-3Solving 21st-century problems

Fashions in food come and go all the time. The hot, celebrity-backed food trend in the past year or two has been the rise of veganism. Where vegans were once a tiny minority – one vegetarian food company rather knowingly calls itself Cranks – the idea of eschewing all animal sources of food has definitely gained more prominence in recent years. This year, even Greggs the Bakers made a splash by launching a vegan sausage roll to great acclaim. Beyond Meat, which makes plant-based meat alternatives, was a huge hit with investors when it floated on New York’s NASDAQ exchange.

The Vegan Society has claimed that the number of dietary vegans has risen from 150,000 in 2006 to 542,000 in 2018. In addition, a further 1.1million people have given up eating meat, with animal welfare a primary concern, while many more have expressed a desire to cut their meat consumption in response to health or environmental concerns. Alongside the rise of veganism, sales of organic foods have risen consistently for the past few years, reaching a record £2.2 billion in 2017.

Yet while these food trends are getting a lot of attention, they are a tiny part of food retail in the UK, spending on which reached £112 billion in 2017. Vegans still make up less than one per cent of the UK population. Globally, meat sales continue to rise as poorer countries become wealthier. According to the UN, global meat production leapt from 197million tonnes in 1994 to 318million tonnes in 2014.

Then there is the potential impact of technology. For example, in 2013, researchers at Maastricht University showed off the first lab-grown burger. The aim is to produce meat without the resources required to rear animals or the ethical conundrums of killing them. Firms like Memphis Meats are now making these cell-grown ‘meats’ on a commercial, if still limited basis, while other firms like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are working to improve meat substitutes made from plants.

Others suggest that we should embrace sources of animal protein that don’t have as big an environmental impact as traditional meat. They suggest we eat insects – a common practice in some parts of the world – as a way to feed a rising population, arguing that if we can overcome our squeamishness we could enjoy a more eco-friendly way of eating.

Then there are genetically modified foods. While the EU remains generally hostile to them, they are commonplace in other parts of the world. Moreover, modern methods of genetic manipulation could make the process of modifying foods more predictable, overcoming concerns about unexpected side effects.

But while the potential for new technology is fascinating, the reality is that most of our food is produced in ever more industrialised processes. One fear around Brexit is that any trade deal with the US would involve accepting ‘chlorinated’ chicken – birds washed in a bacteria-killing rinse – that would be a poor substitute for UK standards of welfare. There are also concerns about the use of antibiotics and growth hormones.

How can we best confront the challenges of a growing and richer population, rising temperatures and other environmental concerns? Will the trends towards giving up meat continue? Can technology allow us to eat ‘meat’ with a clear conscience? What is the future of food?