107. Insects, Artificial Meat, and Microbes: What Is The Future of Food? (English Vocabulary Lesson)

What is the future of food? If we do not change the way we eat and produce food, we are going to struggle to feed the entire planet in the future and cause damage to the environment. So what can we do? Let’s discuss this issue in today’s episode of Thinking in English!

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Vocabulary List

Motivating (adj) – able to influence someone to behave in a particular way

The motivating factor behind our company’s success is concern for customers

Cattle (n) – a group of animals that includes cows, buffalo, and bison, that are often kept for their milk

This farm really cares a lot about their dairy cattle

To graze (v) – to eat grass

The cows were grazing

Sustainable (adj) – able to continue over a period of time

That sort of extreme diet is not sustainable over a long period

Efficient (adj) – working or operating quickly and effectively in an organized way without any waste

They are building more fuel-efficient cars to save gas

Delicacy (n) – something especially rare or expensive that is good to eat

In some parts of the world, sheep brain is considered a great delicacy 

To accommodate (v) – to have or provide the space that someone or something needs

The centre can accommodate up to 220 students

Microbe (n) – a very small living thing that can only be seen with a microscope

It is microbes that create the unique flavour and smell of blue cheese

A few weeks ago, I talked with one of my students about her choice to be vegetarian and her desire to eventually become vegan. She justified her decision with many different reasons, but one of the factors motivating her change in diet is the environment. I, like millions of other people around the world, enjoy eating meat. Unfortunately for us, eating meat is causing problems for our environment. 

Meat, and beef in particular, is one of the major factors contributing to global warming and climate change. Although we tend to underestimate how bad food production is for the environment, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change the global food system is responsible for 21-37% of the world’s greenhouse gases. Moreover, in March this year the European Commission and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Office claimed 34% of greenhouse gases in 2015 came from food. As you probably already know, greenhouse gases are one of the biggest dangers to our climate and environment as they contribute to the warming of our planet. And as our population gets bigger, it is going to become increasingly difficult to find suitable foods to feed everyone.

The foods which produce the most emissions include beef, cow milk, rice, pork, chicken, and wheat – all of which are major parts of people’s diets around the world. However, maybe it is not clear what I mean when I say beef is damaging our environment, so let me try to explain how! First, cattle produce a significant amount of methane, a damaging greenhouse gas. Farms around the world own, keep, and feed cows, which almost constantly release gas into the environment. Second, in order to keep cattle and sell more beef, farmers are constantly expanding their land. By clearing forests, meadows, and woods to make fields suitable for cattle to graze or to grow crops to feed them, we are losing trees and other natural ways to stop greenhouse gases. Third, other factors like animal feed, processing, transport, retail, and packaging all ensure beef is not an environmentally friendly product. 

In fact, beef is by far the most damaging food to the environment. Due to the size of the animals, the space needed to raise them, and the amount of methane they produce, cows produce seven times more greenhouse gases per calorie than pigs. Beef is now being described as the ‘coal’ of food production. Coal is known to be the most damaging amongst all sources of electricity. The simplest way to reduce the impact of beef on our environment is to eat other animals instead, or stop eating the meat altogether. However, making sure that everyone has quality sources of protein, low carbon food, and the freedom to make their own decisions may require other major changes in our diets. I believe it is unreasonable or perhaps naïve to suggest that the whole world stop eating steaks and hamburgers. However, once our population reaches 9 or 10 billion in the next fifty years or so, it is going to become necessary to find new and sustainable sources of food. 

So, what is the future of food? I’m going to suggest a few things that could help to make our diet more sustainable, better for the environment, and still allow us to enjoy protein. No single one of these options is the perfect solution, but thinking about these issues will hopefully allow us to begin to change the way we eat!

In order to feed our planet in the coming centuries, a lot is going to need to change in terms of what we eat and how we grow our food! We will need to stop wasting food and making sure that our current food production methods are as efficient as possible. Furthermore, we will need to add new things to our diets: things that are more environmentally friendly, easy to produce, but not currently eaten by everyone. There are countless examples of foods that are ignored in one place, but considered a delicacy elsewhere. I think a great example is the internal organs of animals, or sea creatures such as sea urchin. 

Feeding 10 billion people will require rethinking what is food and what isn’t food, across the entire globe. As cultures, we will need to change our preferences and tastes to accommodate different products. For example, Americans eat more tortilla chips than the entire world eats seaweed – despite seaweeds like kelp being incredibly healthy and much more sustainable than other crops. Many of the countries that eat the most meat actually only consume a few different species of mammals, fish, and birds. Perhaps we need to start eating different things? 

Many scientists argue we should be eating more insects. In fact, already around 2 billion people choose to eat insects as part of their daily routines. In Mexico’s Oaxaca, people eat grasshoppers with lime, salt, and chilli; in Thailand a common drinking snack is fried beetles; in Southern Africa people sometimes eat mopane worms. Around the rest of the world, we actually eat insects unknowingly – insects are commonly found in vegetables, fruit, coffee, and other products. 

Why eat insects? There are a few reasons. First, they are more efficient at making protein than the animals we usually eat. Keeping insects does not require destroying forests or jungles, releases less greenhouse gas, and can be bred at the same time as growing crops. Some insects actually contain more protein per gram than meat and eggs. There are clearly some good reasons to eat insects. However, if you are like me, and come from a western country that finds the idea of insects strange or even disgusting, maybe you will be reluctant to try!

Luckily for you, there is a chance we could be able to eat meat in the future that was never part of an animal. Have you ever heard of lab grown meat? It is the idea of taking cells from an animal like chicken, and then reproducing them in the laboratory to make a product that looks, smells, and tastes like chicken – but was never actually alive. As I’ve mentioned many times already, the market for meat and fish is increasing, but this is not sustainable. Plant based alternatives to meat are popular, but they can’t compete with steaks or chicken breast. Growing meat in laboratories is more environmentally friendly, and might be able to help us feed more people in the future. 

There are other possible solutions as well. How about microbes? Human’s have been using microbes in food for tens of thousands of years. Microbes are how we preserve cabbage in the form of kimchi or sauerkraut, they make alcohol and vinegar, keep cured meats safe to eat for months, preserve cheese, and form the foundation of yoghurt and bread. Scientists believe that in the future, bacteria and other microbes could be designed and used to produce proteins and fats that we could incorporate into our diets. Other technology could be developed, new ways of farming established, and alternatives to our everyday diets popularised. 

Final Thought

What is the future of food? If we keep with our current diet, it is likely that we will not be able to feed the future people of our planet and potentially destroy the environment at the same time. In this episode of Thinking in English I briefly touched upon a few potential solutions to our future food crises. Adding more sustainable and environmentally friendly sources of nutrition, developing lab grown meat, or using products from microbes could all help. What do you think? Can you think of any other possible solutions to the food crisis? Are You willing to change your diet?

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