future of food
Opinion piece by Suraya Hamdulay, Director at Themis Advisory Partners  

We live in a world where technology disruption is ubiquitous. As the pressures of globalisation and modernisation increase, traditional practices and knowledge slowly becomes obsolete. This is especially true in the agricultural sector.

Globally, these pressures have created a shift away from a food system dependent on millions of farmers to a system controlled by a few agribusinesses. Modern agricultural practices emphasize production, capital gain, input intensity and crop consistency. In contrast, traditional agricultural practices emphasize localisation, biodiversity, shared genetic resources and a cultural appreciation for many different crops. 

Shifts from traditional agricultural to modern agriculture already have significant implications for the biodiversity of cultivated and wild plants.  I, however, believe that tradition and modernity can co-exist and that there is indeed a space for both to flourish side by side.  
Indigenous knowledge and cultural practices can complement technology intervention and modernization.  

World-wide, as indigenous cultures fight to hold on to tradition which is fast being lost due to rapid urbanisation, we are seeing a revival of old and traditional farming methods, and the revival of ancient grains and foods eaten traditionally. As our collective understanding of the impact of raising livestock has on the climate, the global population is moving closer to an appreciation for plant based foods, cultivated meat and clean seafood. With the global population threatening to reach 8 billion by 2030 (https://buff.ly/2ZFRP1F), the race is on to find new sources of sustainable, healthy and just food systems to sustain rising populations. This is especially true in third world countries of the global south.

With one third of all crops grown used as feed for livestock, people are starting to realise that there is a better way to consume food. These crops are water and land intensive and have irreparable impacts on both soil and climate change. In addition, the United Nations scientists state that raising animals for food is “one of the major causes of the world’s most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.”

We need to find ways to combat this. This is where I believe technology can play a role. Leveraging digital capabilities and innovation to conserve traditional knowledge bases but also to help find new sources of food high in nutritional value is one solution. But this must be done in a way which is sustainable and less harmful to the earth. 

Cultivated meat is one breakthrough solution to the problems associated with raising animals for food. Cultivated meat is created by growing meat outside of an animal from a small cell sample, eliminating the need for factory farming and slaughter.

The result is 100-percent real meat, but without the antibiotic residues and bacterial contamination that come standard in conventional meat production. And the process is efficient, reducing land and water costs and slashing greenhouse gas emissions. Companies in the United States and Europe are already producing cultivated hamburgers, steak bites, and pork sausage, plus cultivated milk and egg products.

There is also incredible innovation underway in the world of plant-based foods. Food scientists are examining animal products at the molecular level and sourcing plants with matching proteins and nutrients to create delicious plant-based meats, eggs, and dairy products that are healthier and more sustainable than conventional animal products.

As we speak, scientists, investors, and entrepreneurs are partnering to make ground breaking good food a reality. They are focussed on cultivated meat and plant-based alternatives to animal products—foods that are more delicious, safer to eat, and better for the planet thantheir outdated counterparts.

In an attempt to increase plant based options to consumers in the developing world, there is a concerted effort being made to revive ancient grains and foods long lost to modern consumers. Mexico for example has 59 varieties of indigenous corn, with 21 000  regional adaptations, whilst Peru has 55. The USA in contrast grows under 10 varieties commercially.  Small farmers in Mexico are keeping corn’s genetic diversity alive and the demand for Mexico’s heirloom corn is growing annually. Similarly, in countries across the world from the Indian subcontinent to Africa, small farmers are helping to keep traditional varieties of grain and seeds alive.

In the past, many traditional communities have lost out to global multi-nationals who now grow, package and export foods which were grown traditionally. In the Western cape, no great value accrues to communities  growing crops such as Kraalbos (used to treat skin infections, eye inflammation, toothaches and wounds) and Buchu (used to disinfect the urinary tract during infections of the bladder, urethra, prostate, or kidney). 

More recently, the industry behind the herbal tea rooibos has agreed to pay a percentage of the money that is made to the indigenous people who used the plant before production was industrialised. South Africa’s KhoiSan people now receive 1.5% (https://buff.ly/2ZJBdGh) of the value farmers get when they sell to the tea processor. This was very much a dignity issue and the recognition by the industry that the Khoi and San are the knowledge holders to the uses of rooibos. BBC article: https://buff.ly/2ql3QKO

As the race to secure global food security, more scientists, innovators and farmers are looking to tradition to inspire future food innovation. There is a notable revival of traditional food ingredients, demand for organically harvested foods and free range meat products, but the world is taking it to the next level by using new knowledge and expertise to create new foods which are better for people and the planet. And as they harness the power of technology, so too are they leaning on the old, and the traditional to reinvent the future of food. 

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