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Why Lab-Grown Burgers, 3D-Printed Pizzas and Insect Crisps May Be the Future of Food

12/11/2015 17:40 GMT | Updated 12/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Like all of the team here at How it Works, I am partial to a bit of future-gazing. Much of the time this is just Back to the Future-style speculation (self-lacing shoes - check; hoverboards - check; the internet - oh sorry, we didn't see that one coming) but when thinking about the future of food things start to get rather more serious.

What is the future for food production? What will restaurants look like in 2050 and what will they be serving?

In the year 2050, dining at your favourite restaurant is likely to be an altogether different experience. After being greeted by your robot waiter and taken to your table on a hoverboard, you will be left to peruse the holographic menu at your leisure. As you scroll through the options, you'll notice that all of the usual dishes are still there, but with a few unusual twists thrown in.

For your starter, you'll tuck into a delicious caesar salad containing protein-rich mealworms instead of chicken, and sprinkled with crunchy croutons made using cricket flour. Next, your android waiter 2.0 will bring over the mouth-watering main course; a meaty burger that has been grown in a Petri dish, garnished with crisp lettuce freshly picked from an underground farm and juicy tomato that has been genetically modified to contain extra vitamins. Then, if you still have room for dessert, you'll be able to choose from a range of sweet treats that have been designed on a computer and printed directly onto the plate.

These unconventional dishes may seem completely bizarre and perhaps stomach-churning to us now, but in the future they could help to solve a global food crisis. Over the next 35 years, the world's population is expected to exceed nine billion, meaning there will be an extra two billion hungry mouths to feed. To fulfil this demand, the amount of food we currently grow will need to increase by 70%, but with most of the planet's available farmland already being used, and billions of its inhabitants already undernourished, this is going to be a major challenge.

Today's global food industry is already unsustainable, with agriculture responsible for almost a third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. From the nitrous oxide given off by crop fertilisers, to the carbon dioxide generated as the produce is transported around the world, these gases are trapping heat in the atmosphere and gradually warming the surface. The changing climate makes it difficult to grow more crops, and so scientists will need to step in more and more to help. By genetically modifying the plants we grow, not only can the more vulnerable species be made able to withstand harsher, inhospitable environments, but the few species that can survive could also be made more nutritious to ensure we all get the vitamins and minerals we need.

Although growing fruit and vegetables generates a great deal of greenhouse gas, it is livestock production that is the biggest contributor to global emissions. Producing one half-pound (230-gram) hamburger generates the same amount of greenhouse gas as driving a typical passenger car for 16 kilometres (10 miles), and among these gasses is methane, which is about 25 times more effective at warming the planet than carbon dioxide. As demand for meat grows, so does the list of negative consequences for our planet, so something needs to be done very soon.

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Of course, one solution to the problem is to eat less meat, but for a mostly carnivorous global population that gets through around 285 million tons of the stuff each year, this idea is unlikely to catch on. Therefore, tasty alternatives need to be found, and our idea of what we consider to be meat may need to change too. For example, the beef and chicken in your burgers and burritos could soon be swapped for crickets and locusts, or perhaps be grown in a lab instead of on a farm.

Global demand for meat is expected to increase by more than two-thirds in the next 40 years, and we are already struggling to cope. Current methods for producing meat are not very sustainable, as huge amounts of land and other resources are needed to rear livestock. As these resources becomes harder to come by, the price of meat will continue to rise, meaning that it could soon become an unaffordable luxury.

The meat industry is also having a negative environmental impact on the planet, with the animals releasing huge amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

Many scientists believe the solution to this looming problem is cultured meat grown in the lab, and a team from Maastricht University in the Netherlands has already perfected the technique. By extracting stem cells from a living cow they have been able to grow muscle tissue and turn it into a burger that tastes a lot like the real thing. The cells taken from just one cow could produce 175million burgers, which would normally require meat from 440,000 cows; better still, the animal remains unharmed. It's not just beef that can be grown this way either, as the method can easily be replicated to create chicken, pork and other meats too.

Before you start planning your lab-grown BBQ though, scientists believe it could be another 10 to 20 years before the meat becomes commercially available. It currently costs around €250,000 (£185,000 or $280,000) to produce a single burger, but as the method is refined, cultured meat could become cheaper than the conventional stuff grown on farms by 2035.

In fact, even traditional farms as we know them are likely to look completely different in just a few decades time. Gone will be the days of farmers having to drive tractors and milk the cows themselves, as autonomous machines are already starting to take over and make the industry more efficient.

Once these eco-friendly and sustainable foods have been harvested we might not recognise the products that hit the shelves. Instead of packets and tins, your local supermarket will sell ingredients in cartridges that you can load into your 3D printer at home. Then, with a press of a button, you can sit back and relax while the machine builds a delicious dish - layer by layer - that is sure to impress your dinner party guests.

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