The 2013 Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting and Food Expo in Chicago kicked off Sunday with a challenge from Fareed Zakaria to find opportunities for innovation in global problems, including water supplies and population growth. Scotland's Head of Energy and Environmental Foresight David Robson carried that theme a step further on Monday in his Beacon lecture for IFT 2013, raising three what if questions that stand to change food on Earth forever.
"Surprise is not a product of what we don't know, but of what we expect," Robson stated in his lecture. "In the absence of of expectation, a surprise is merely an event."
With that mentality, he urged his audience to think about unpredictable scenarios and "potentially game-changing developments." He went as far as to share three examples that he has contemplated involving combinations of radical technological change, political change, economic change and social change. According to Robson, any of these developments could turn the global food supply on its head under the right (or wrong) circumstances.
1. COULD 3-D PRINTED FOOD HELP THE PLANET?
"It's seems to me that 3-D printing—or additive manufacturing—has got some very interesting potentials for food," Robson suggest. He pointed NASA's recent investment in 3-D printing technology as a sign that the technology is being taken seriously. He also explained why the food industry should be watching.
"The principal of 3-D printing—or additive manufacturing—is quite fundamentally a different principle of making things than [is typically our experience]," Robson said. In most cases when we make something we take a big block of whatever it is. We chop bits off, and we're left with the bit that we want."
The process of additive manufacturing alone is a marvel, constructing objects from the cells up, but Robson pointed to another solution that the tech could introduce, perhaps taking a significant step toward solving issues felt around the planet.
"Just imagine the impact that something like this could have on the food supply chain," Robson urged. "This technology also has the prospect of printing food—producing food, if you like—at a fraction of the use of water, a fraction of the use of land, significantly less energy and far less waste."
2. WHAT HAPPENS IF WATER BECOMES PUBLICLY TRADED?
"What if water was treated in the same way as grain and wheat and corn is traded now?" Robson asked, introducing the issue. "There's been a lot of talk about water being the new oil."
Robson isn't the first voice to raise this issue. Peter Brabeck, the chairman and former CEO of the Nestlé Group, has suggested exploring new privatized water options, and Robson shared insights from a two-year-old Citigroup report that anticipated a globally integrated market for fresh water within 20-30 years.
"Two-thirds of humankind is likely to be water-stressed," he explained. "Our water consumption globally is doubling every 20 years. 135 million people in India rely on food grown by water that is being extracted from non-replenishable sources."
Robson anticipates numerous problems developing if water-trading is implemented as an answer to such supply problems.
"I don't know about you, but I get slightly scared of the prospects of water being traded as a financial instrument," he explained. "Commodity trading has undergone a revolution in the last 10 years, where, in many commodities most of the trading now is an exercise in financial transaction, rather than actually purchasing commodities."
So what would the world look like if water joined the family of publicly traded commodities?
"Water is not unique, but it has an extraordinary wide range of value," Robson said. "For us in Scotland, it literally falls out of the sky; it's free. From a stream, it's free, but in other parts of the world where you don't have enough water it's priceless."
Therein lies the potential for volatility, and Robson believes that a market where speculators thrive on wide swings in value could be quite dangerous.
3. COULD WE ALL BENEFIT FROM EATING MORE INSECTS?
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization released a report earlier this year to make the case for more insects in human and livestock diets. Nutritional value and small ecological footprint make insects an increasingly enticing option—if people can just get over being disgusted by them.
"It turns out that two billion or thereabouts people in the world regularly eat insects as a part of their diet," Robson said. "And yet for many of us, particularly in the West, there's a distinct kind of yuck factor about insects."
The thought exercise led Robson to share one great question to come out of the insects-as-food PR problem, though. Couldn't we just rename them? In Australia, for instance, a cookbook has re-branded locusts as "sky prawns." Perhaps the U.S. could use something similar.
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