“Future Foods” – novel food sources

Earlier this year I attended an interesting online event by Cambridge University on the prospects of algae as a future food source. Algae and insects are both regarded as potential “future foods”; both already feature in human diets, but advocates foresee a much-expanded role for them as nutritious and sustainable alternatives to conventional plant-source and animal-source foods. I’d like to open up a conversation about these kinds of novel food sources derived from non-traditional production processes.

There’s an interesting article on this theme here, focussing on the implications for food system resilience:
Future foods for risk-resilient diets | Nature Food
And a more accessible student newspaper report based on the above:
Insects and algae: The ‘Future foods’ which could combat malnutrition | Varsity

What role do people think novel foodstuffs like these will play in future food systems? How important are these kinds of approaches compared to those which focus on the adaptation/improvement of existing (agricultural) practices to produce standard foodstuffs? Would anybody like to discuss any other “future foods” in particular?

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I think initially there is an important role for these as animal feed to replace some of the masses of soy, corn and other cereal crops that are going to feed pigs and chickens on an industrial scale. Of course, we should all be drastically reducing the amount of meat we eat, but it is not going to go to zero (nor should it, in my view, but that is another discussion). Seaweed is another sustainable foodstuff that we could be producing a lot more of, too. Or perhaps encouraging more foraging of invasive wakame seaweed in the UK!


Regarding insects, we recently featured a paper that suggests using insects as animal feed for chickens doesn’t necessarily improve the carbon footprint of the resulting meat and can increase it in some cases: Can insect protein reduce chicken’s carbon footprint? Insects consumed directly as food for people can have a lower carbon footprint than chicken fed on soybeans, especially if the insects themselves are fed on industrial by-products as opposed to feed produced for the purpose. I personally think that insects as food will have a harder time gaining widespread acceptance than other “future foods”, at least in the West, so my impression is that their future role could be limited.

I do think that certain types of future food could replace some meat consumption. What I find interesting is the foods that are already accepted although they are produced in non-traditional processes, for example Quorn (made by industrial-scale mycoprotein fermentation) and nutritional yeast (which is perhaps not as well known, but which is to my mind tasty and useful in vegan “cheese” recipes - it’s also very high in protein).

What I’d like to know more about is novel microbial fermentation for direct use in food, for example the processes that use solar energy combined with air as a feedstock, e.g. Solar Foods. Modelling suggests that photovoltaic-powered microbial fermentation can have significantly higher yields of protein per unit area of land than staple crops such as soybeans - as much as ten times higher in the right circumstances. See our summary Solar-powered microbial biomass offers low-impact protein.

I think these technologies have the potential to be game-changing because they could enable a great reduction in the area of land used by agriculture - and hence permit more areas to be reforested or rewilded as ecologically appropriate.

Some of the main challenges I see are:

  • Does microbial biomass actually taste good? Nutritional yeast certainly does, but the modelling paper I mentioned uses bacteria - these have to be purified to be safe for people to eat. How could they be prepared or incorporated into food in a way that is both tasty and healthy?
  • Consumer acceptance beyond taste. On the one hand, there are likely to be real and significant concerns around the power structures, ownership and control of novel food production processes - these need to be addressed. On the other hand, I am concerned that the potentially significant benefits of new food technologies could be lost if these genuine concerns are spun into a narrative that paints novel foods as inherently evil - the products of large multinationals that don’t care about people’s wellbeing, etc.

@jeanmck - in case you haven’t already heard it, one of our podcast episodes discusses seaweed. Ep4: Sahil Shah on Scaling Seaweed | TABLE Debates


Thank you both for your replies. There’s a lot to consider here.

The article on insect-fed chicken is a useful corrective to the “silver bullet” kind of hype that sometimes surrounds innovative tech “solutions”. I wonder nonetheless whether insects as animal feed might still be beneficial (a) under certain circumstances and/or (b) for reasons other than carbon footprint reduction e.g. reducing land use requirements, increasing resilience (as outlined in the paper I linked in the original post), more circular and more local food chains. On the latter two points, for example, Better Origin produce on-farm units for conversion of agricultural/food waste into insect feed for livestock (though NB the tagline on their homepage strikes me as exactly the kind of hype I was referring to above!).

Consumer resistance is clearly a major barrier to be overcome with these kinds of products. Use as animal feeds is one way of circumventing this, and I wonder whether any of the other novel foodstuffs might have greater potential here than insects – e.g. the Sahil Shah podcast discusses seaweed as livestock feed. Another approach might be to incorporate them into processed foods – we’re already widely consuming algae-derived ingredients (and insect-based additives to a smaller extent), so would people notice/care if these played a greater role in our diets, provided they weren’t expected to consume recognisable bugs etc.? I’m thinking along the lines of what if part of the meat in processed meat products were to be substituted with novel protein sources (with minimal impact on taste/texture etc.), and I am instinctively shuddering a little at the idea as I personally err towards the “let’s all eat more wholefoods” perspective on things… but I suppose if people are going to eat those kinds of products, any means of making them a little more sustainable could be helpful. I’d also tentatively suggest that algae could have a role in improving the nutritional quality of foods – potentially a low-impact source of a whole bunch of useful nutrients.

I wonder whether production methods are more significant here than products themselves. I am thinking of things like vertical/soilless farming (hydroponics etc.) where novel methods are used to produce familiar foodstuffs. Could some approaches along these lines (although they have their drawbacks e.g. often energy intensive) realise similar benefits to those of the “future foods” we’ve been discussing (e.g. reduced land use, increased resilience) but with less likelihood of consumer resistance?

The concept of solar-powered microbial biomass is new to me and very fascinating. I also thought Helen’s second bullet point nailed a very important issue – the need on the one hand to address problems of power/control, and on the other not to allow these kinds of concerns to be over-inflated. Potential parallels with some of the debates around GM here (technology itself v. how it is used).

On a lighter note, I need to google Wakame seaweed and how/where to find it! :slight_smile: