Soy Protein and Other Innovations Help Feed Our Cities

Feeding Future Cities

In a world of deeply divergent opinions and lifestyles, there’s one thing we all have in common: food. Whether it’s porridge or steak tartar, each meal we consume can contribute to our survival. How will the food we eat change in the years to come? And with global populations set to explode in the future — especially in urban areas — how can we meet the food supply needs of families in cities around the world?

Sarah Smith, Research Director at the nonprofit think tank Institute for the Future, has studied the issue extensively and notes that the answer is closely linked to other significant global changes predicted for years to come. When it comes to feeding the cities of the future, Smith has noticed that, “The focus on increasing food production and reducing waste leaves out some other important aspects of the challenge.”

To elaborate, Smith refers to the work of Matt Rothe, head of the Feed Collaborative at Stanford, who has asked, “how do we feed 9 billion people and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, lower obesity rates, and improve local economies?”

Fortunately, some of the same approaches to feeding future urban dwellers may also help alleviate these problems.

New options for protein in urban diets

As a recent United Nations white paper has stressed, improving the quality of our food supply is as important as increasing its quantity. And when it comes to nutrition, protein is key. However, the large-scale production of meat can be costly and resource-intensive. Insects are one possible solution to this challenge. While this idea may be difficult for many westerners to stomach, in some parts of the world grasshoppers, crickets and other bugs are commonplace on the menu. Extensive research into this food source is currently being undertaken in the Netherlands. The Dutch government is so enthusiastic about the prospect of edible insects that it has invested about a million euros in exploring whether, or how, crickets can be raised cheaply on food waste like apple pulp. Another economic advantage of this small-scale “livestock” is that, unlike cows and pigs, insects can be raised in population-dense environments, which saves space and money.

Another key source of additional protein — and one that will require less cultural change — is soy. DuPont Nutrition & Health works with food companies around the world to create locally-focused solutions, such as biscuits in India or non-dairy shakes in Asia, to fulfill people’s need for protein.

New alternatives to bring food production “closer to home”

Another nutritional challenge for people living in urban areas is the simple fact that most food production is located outside of these areas — in some cases, hundreds or even thousands of miles away. The transportation of foods produced elsewhere is expensive and can reduce their quality. As an alternative, many growers are now producing crops on urban rooftops. This approach optimizes precious urban square footage, puts fresh produce close at hand, and mitigates the urban “heat island” effect by reducing the temperature of the roof’s surface and the surrounding air. These green roofs can also reduce air pollution and the building’s energy needs. Many urbanites are already growing their own food; the U.N. has found that 800 million people are already cultivating produce or raising livestock in cities, and Worldwatch Institute reports that this accounts for up to 20 percent of food consumed globally. However, scaling this production up may prove challenging in climates and seasons that don’t allow for outdoor growing. Smith, says that “Growing salad greens in an electricity-intensive process isn’t the best way to feed a city — but this technology is advancing such that controlled indoor growing environments could become a good solution to overcome natural ‘limitations’ such as sunlight or water or soil quality.”  These technologies could include low-cost LED greenhouses and aquaponic systems that use wastewater to grow plants.

An example of this technology was on display at Expo Milano 2015, where the USA Pavilion featured a 9,250 square foot Vertical Farm, featuring everything from Russian Red Kale to Tabasco Peppers to Antigua Eggplants.

New technology could reduce waste

Technology can also assist in connecting the food supply chain to the people who need it most. Rod Falcon, who also conducts research at the Institute for the Future, is optimistic that “matchmaking” platforms will be key in connecting future growers with consumers. These tools are currently used in apps like Tinder and Uber, but Falcon asks “Can we use these platforms to aggregate our demand for food and feed everyone more equitably? Can we put together knowledge about urban growing and share it?” Using these kinds of technologies could reduce waste, too, by connecting producers or large-scale consumers like universities with those who can put excess food to use. This new kind of food “matchmaking” could help keep food out of the landfill.

And combined with other technologies like precision farming, which uses data to help farmers better target inputs like water and fertilizer exactly where it’s needed, these technologies could add up to big environmental benefits.

GMO crops can help provide enough food for everyone

A challenging issue in the future of urban food is how technology, such as GMOS, will be used to more sustainably produce crops. While GMO crops have been deemed as safe as non-GMO counterparts by the leading international authorities and they require fewer resources while producing increased yields and improved hardiness, some remain skeptical of them. Opinions on the subject are strong, and often polarized. In the future GMOs are expected to be an even more important tool — among other advanced plant development techniques — to help feed urban dwellers as resources become more constrained and growing conditions more adverse.

Whether they’re shopping for halal groceries in Mumbai, snacking on dumplings in Taipei, or grilling in a Brooklyn backyard, all urban dwellers need steady sources of nutrition. As these populations grow with extraordinary speed in the decades to come, merchants and food producers will tap into a diverse array of solutions to keep our plates full.