Feeds the world: The food generator

Using communities of microbes to convert waste materials into safe and nutritious food would help to feed the world’s growing population, with added potential to address plastic pollution.

10 billion hungry mouths

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicts the global population will grow to nearly 10 billion people by the year 2050. A rising demand for food worldwide means we will need to increase agricultural production by at least 50% compared to 2013, and that’s one of the more conservative estimates [1].

It's a complex problem with many challenges that go beyond having more mouths to feed. Climate change, for example, will have a growing impact on all aspects of food production. In some parts of the world, the amount of land suitable for farming is expected to decrease. Higher temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, and more frequent events such as floods, droughts, heat waves and tropical storms are predicted to dramatically reduce crop yields in the long term [1,2].

What's more, food production currently accounts for more than one third of greenhouse gas emissions, so it's important to approach the problem responsibly and sustainably [3].

The current world population is estimated at around 7.9 billion. Of those, some 690 million people go hungry and 25,000 will die from hunger and related causes every day. More than 2 billion people also lack vital micronutrients like iron, zinc and vitamins in their diets, which affects their health and life expectancies [4,5].

We need to come up with new and innovative solutions to transform food production, not just to feed a growing population in the future, but to provide food security for those living today.

Did you know?

  • 10bn

    is the expected world population by 2050 [1]

  • 690m

    people go hungry every day [4]

  • 50%

    of bacterial biomass is proteins [11]

A seed for civilization

Humans have been cultivating reliable food sources for over 10,000 years. Indeed, the dawn of crop farming and the domestication of animals was the seed for civilization. It allowed us to make the transition from nomadic, hunter-gatherers to settle around renewable food sources [6].

Over thousands of years, we began to develop new techniques to enable more intensive farming. We altered the land, and dug wells and channels to improve irrigation. Cows and horses were reared for food and work, and to fertilize the land. The invention of the plough allowed us to cultivate the soil deeper and by rotating the types of crop grown, we were able to replenish nutrients in tired land.

We began to prioritize cereals that were more resistant to the elements and could store for long periods of time without spoiling. As early as 7,000 BC, selective breeding methods meant we could increase the yields of certain foods, as well as make them better suited for human consumption. Modern corn, carrots, peaches, bananas, eggplants and watermelons are just a few examples of foods that are almost unrecognizable from their wild counterparts today [7].

But just as we succeeded in creating sustainable food sources that became a building block of civilization, so we created our reliance on them. This made food security a unique threat of our own design.

Fulfilling basic needs is complex

In more recent history, mechanization enabled us to farm at new speeds and scales, while widely available ammonium nitrate, the flagship artificial fertilizer, increased crop yields to bring about another step change in productivity [8].

By far the biggest boon to agriculture in the 20th century was the Green Revolution in the 1950s and 60s, which saw the development and widespread adoption of high-yielding varieties of crops. These share various traits such as improved disease-resistance and better responsiveness to fertilizers, as well as maturing earlier and producing more high-quality crops compared with traditional varieties.

This period was also responsible for the development and dissemination of new, more scientific farming practices, which all culminated in significantly improving food production in many parts of the world.

But despite all this progress, the threat of food shortages has persisted throughout human history. Even within the 20th century, the ten worst famines on record collectively claimed many tens of millions of lives [9].

And there are still many challenges to overcome in feeding the world. Today, food production is a complex global effort. A drought in one part of the world can affect the food security of people living thousands of miles away, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimated in 2011 that around one-third of the food we produce annually is lost or wasted [10].

Then there are the things that are harder for us to control, like outbreaks of pests and diseases, soil erosion, and the single most unpredictable factor that will impact our ability to generate enough food in the future: climate change.

The winner is: the world

Since 2019, we've awarded the Future Insight Prize for ambitious dream products in the fields of health, energy and nutrition. Attached to this annual prize is a grant of up to €1 million to support research into groundbreaking science and new technologies that would help make the dream product a reality.

This year, the Future Insight Prize has been awarded to Dr. Ting Lu of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and Dr. Stephen Techtmann of Michigan Technological University. Their Food Generator concept transforms inedible biomass – such as certain plants and the unpalatable parts of foodstuffs we already eat, also known as lignocellulosic waste – into safe and nutritious food within one day.

The Food Generator isn't a magic bullet designed to meet the needs of a growing population alone, nor can it promise delicious meals. Rather, it's intended as a supplementary or emergency solution to help address a crisis — in the wake of an extreme climate event, for instance. The Food Generator could be developed for personal use in homes, or scaled up to be an industrial process.

While the Food Generator may sound like an incredible feat, the concept is firmly rooted in science. It would be driven by intricate communities of microbes, such as bacteria and fungi, which work together to metabolize inedible material and waste, converting it into safe, palatable food.

There are many naturally occurring microbes that are capable of breaking down and feeding on things that we currently consider as waste. Dr. Techtmann is an expert in these recycling communities, while Dr. Lu's background is in engineering microbes by rewiring their metabolism.

Using the Future Insight Prize research grant, they will build on the work they're already doing to create combinations of natural and engineered microbes that can efficiently turn waste materials into food. While bacterial biomass is itself upwards of 50% protein and contains many essential nutrients [11], the researchers are developing microbial communities that can enrich this with additives such as amino acids, polyunsaturated fats and vitamins.

It may also be possible to create microbial communities that produce other substances with potential health benefits. Chemicals like gamma-aminobutyric acid, for example, which naturally occurs in the brain and has a calming effect, reducing feelings of stress, anxiety and fear. The dream is a Food Generator that can be personalized to meet an individual’s unique needs, and is flexible enough to convert all kinds of waste into food.

One type of waste the pair are targeting specifically is plastic pollution. We create 300 million tons of plastic waste each year, with between 8 and 13 million tons ending up in the oceans. Only 9% of all plastic society has ever produced has been recycled, with 79% dumped into landfills and the environment. Many plastics can take centuries to degrade, and that process creates micro-plastics that are often ingested by fish, invading the broader food chain to eventually be consumed by us as well [12,13,14].

Dr. Lu and Dr. Techtmann are working with bacteria that naturally break down plastics into protein. Their immediate goal is to further their work on communities that can process polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics, also known as polyester. The slow growth rates of these microbes have limited their use in the past, but Lu and Techtmann are engineering depolymerization enzymes to be more efficient, improving the ability of microbes to break down PET. In the future, they will expand that research to cover more plastics to tackle the issues of plastic pollution and feeding a growing population in tandem.

Thoughts for food

The research grant of up to €1 million that's attached to the Future Insight Prize is just one of the ways we're supporting innovations in food production. Just recently, we announced a three-year collaboration agreement with Tufts University in the U.S. and the Technical University of Darmstadt in Germany as part of our clean meat initiative [15].

Traditional meat production is resource-intensive, reduces biodiversity and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change. One alternative could be cultured meat. That is, real meat that's cultured in a lab from just a few animal cells. Our latest collaboration in this field is focused on the design of bioreactors that can grow cultured meat and seafood on a commercial scale.

Dairy farming is similarly unsustainable, creating the same environmental impacts. We've invested in Legendairy Foods, a company that's employing genetically engineered yeast to produce two milk-like proteins — the kind that give dairy products their unique taste and texture. By combining these with plant-based fats, the goal is to create milk and cheese that's as close to the real thing as possible, in both an ethical and sustainable manner [16].

We're also developing photonic materials that could be used in farms of the future. These are capable of fine-tuning sunlight to block harmful UV radiation and amplify the parts of the spectrum that plants need, thereby accelerating crop growth and increasing yields [17].

These are just a few examples that highlight our commitment to the role we must play in revolutionizing food production, both to support a growing population, and to do it sustainably.

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Curious Future Insight

The Curious2022 does not only feature an impressive range of top speakers – including 14 Nobel Prize winners. The conference will also feature the Future Insight Prize 2022. Take your chance to register.

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In 2012, the United Nations set out 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that meet the urgent environmental, political and economic challenges facing our world. Three years later, these were adopted by all member states. We are committed that our work will help to achieve these ambitious targets. Supporting research into a dream Food Generator product fits under ‘Goal 2 — Zero hunger; Target 2.4 — Ensure sustainable food production systems.’ A Food Generator that employs microbial communities to convert waste into safe, nutritious food will help to feed our growing population, and those facing food insecurity today. With the potential to turn plastic waste into food, it could simultaneously tackle the issue of plastic pollution.

Learn more about SDGs
  • The Future Insight™ Prize

    We intend to award researchers with up to 1 mio € annually for the next 35 years to stimulate innovative solutions to solve some of humanities greatest problems. Curious?

    DIVE DEEPER
  • 2019: Pandemic Protector

    Infectious diseases are one of the greatest threats to mankind. Our dream product "Pandemic Protector" could be a game changer. How this could work?

    DIVE DEEPER
  • 2020: Antibiotics 2.0

    Researchers are developing entirely new strategies based on bioorganic chemistry to fight multidrug-resistant germs - beginning a renaissance in antibiotic development.

    DIVE DEEPER
  • 2021: Food Generator

    This dream product and 2021 Future Insight Prize winner would use communities of microbes to convert waste into safe and edible food to feed our growing population.

    DIVE DEEPER

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2 Comments
  • Marlene Nasifoglu Aug 06 2021, 3:56 PM

    Representative was helpful

  • Stan Wright Aug 03 2021, 3:45 PM

    There is already enough food to feed everyone, that is NOT the problem. The problem is that an over-proportionate amount of our resources go to the 'meat' industry instead of the 'plant' industry. Also, political decisions and our 'awesome' capitalism society makes food a commodity instead of a right. These problems need to be resolved, not what you are talking about here. You look either stupid or disingenuous.