The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s recent council meeting in Rome comes at a time when innovators in food science are grappling with paradoxical challenges — a global obesity epidemic and persistent threats of food scarcity.
Obesity rates are rising around the world, and along with them, the risk of so-called Western diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. The World Health Organization says worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980, and the problem is affecting low- and middle-income countries, as well as rich ones.
But even as diseases of plenty threaten the health of the global population, weather patterns are shifting in ways that threaten agricultural production. American farmers watched their soybean and corn crops shrivel this summer in a drought the U.S. Department of Agriculture called the most severe and extensive in 25 years. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency predicts climate change will make such droughts and other extreme weather patterns more frequent in the future.
Fortunately, several breakthroughs stand to improve both food production techniques and health. Here, The Financialist highlights six such innovations.
Beyond eliminating the need for slaughterhouses and crowded feed lots, growing synthetic meat in a Petri dish requires far less land and water, emits fewer greenhouse gases and uses less energy than conventional meat production. Researchers and private companies are trying to grow meat using animal stem cells, a technology that would make it easier to keep pace with rapidly growing demand for meat among African and Asian populations.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the British government are backing research into C4 rice, which scientists think would produce higher yields and require less water than conventional rice. The International Rice Research Institute thinks that rice production could increase 50 percent with C4 rice, while requiring less water and fewer soil nutrients.
The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, along with other agencies, has been circulating new strains of wheat in Africa and Asia that stand up to Ug99, a windborne pathogen that causes the wheat-killing rust disease. Scientists developed new, resistant wheat varieties after the disease mutated to evade a gene called Sr3 that previously conferred resistance.
Healthier Soybean Oil:
Developed by DuPont, high oleic soybeans offer a healthier alternative to oils containing trans fats. The company says industrial bakers can use its soybean oil, which can also fry food at high temperatures. The soybean oil also increases the shelf life of packaged foods.
Nu-Tek Potassium Chloride (NPC) is a salt replacement that uses potassium chloride instead of sodium chloride, providing an alternative for people and food manufacturers looking to cut down on levels of heart-damaging sodium.
A research team led by Dr. Alan M. Fogelman, the executive chair of the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, has engineered a tomato plant with a peptide that mimics the action of HDL, or “good” cholesterol. Mice that ate the tomatoes as part of a high-fat, high-calorie diet registered higher HDL levels and less atherosclerotic plaque than their tomato-free counterparts.