Analysis: just as no-one anticipated demand for soy-based sausages and seaweed burgers, there's another future food revolution swarming to our shops

By Laura Healy, Teagasc

The world's population currently stands at 7.9 billion, with projections expecting this figure to increase to 9.7 billion by 2050. As more humans arrive and more of us live extended lives, there is a need to allocate more resources to sustain our species. There are a number of problems to solve and the answer is not simply to produce more food. There are ways in which we can manage our current food production systems so that more of the food we grow actually reaches the plates of people all around the world. A key issue to tackle is food waste, a trend arising from inefficient processes and consumer predilection for picture-perfect fruit and veg.

A case can be made for a complete restructuring of our food production systems which have become institutions of mass production, using inefficient and pollution-producing processes. Frameworks like the bioeconomy can be employed to help develop sustainable systems. With more information becoming available on alternative protein production systems, we could use this opportunity to completely revolutionize the way we sustain ourselves.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Dave Fanning Show, food futurologist Dr Morgaine Gaye on grasshopper burgers, baking with flour made from crickets and eating artificial eggs

The future of proteins will be built on consumer demand: the power to shape what we see on the shelves is in our hands. Whether it’s grass-fed beef steaks or organic seaweed burgers produced in a carbon neutral system, consumers want to know where their staple protein comes from. They also want choice, whether it’s a particular variety of exotic fruit or milk squeezed from a multitude of nuts and this also applies to their next protein choice.

The solution to our food-shortage and waste crises has wings. One solution being widely proposed is the utilisation of insects to meet the growing demand for protein. Insects are high in protein and have rich amino and fatty acid profiles. They can bioconvert waste streams to produce a number of valuable products such as protein, fat, chitin (a biopolymer used to make biodegradable plastics) and organic fertilizer (called frass, or insect poop).

From BBC's What's New, are insects the food of the future?

Insects have powerful digestive enzymes and antimicrobial peptides in their digestive tract that allow them to convert potentially hazardous material, such as decaying food waste containing microbes, and produce safe, clean byproducts. They have rapid lifecycles, can be farmed vertically and use less energy and raw input materials when compared to traditional protein sources like beef, which require catastrophic quantities of water and feed.

These advantages make insect-farming a no-brainer. The last hurdle is actually getting the critters onto people’s plates. Earlier thus month, legislation was passed by the EU to allow the first insect species for human consumption in Europe. The legislation allows French biotech company Agronutris to produce whole mealworm for human consumption. It is expected that more legislation will follow for species like the Black Soldier Fly.

From Storyhive, everything you need to know about eating insects

Innovative startups around the world have already begun developing a range of insect-based foods for human consumption. Bug burgers, cricket pasta and mealworm protein bars are on the shelves of shops, with demand for such foods increasing annually.

It will be a task to convince the people of Ireland that a burger made from insects produced in an insect-tower is a better choice than their usual beef patty. But as more awareness about the benefits of insect-farming becomes widespread, the more curious of us will make the move. Food industry partners will play an important role in delivering messages about the benefits of these novel foods.

No-one expected a soy-based sausage could ever replace Irish pork and yet the alternative protein market is still expanding

We will soon see cricket patties and mealworm meat in supermarket freezers, much like the now staple section of vegan frozen food options. No-one expected a soy-based sausage could ever replace Irish pork and yet the alternative protein market is still expanding. Who would have thought that you could order a seaweed burger at your local chipper? Granted, there are many consumers who do not feel the need to change their eating habits, but many of us are trying to make healthier, sustainable and environmentally-conscious choices when it comes to our shopping trolley.

People choose to become vegan for a number of different reasons and some incurable ones were just born that way. Jokes aside, dietary choices play a huge role in the trends we see in demand for certain foods. The rise of gluten intolerance has seen supermarket shelves and even aisles dedicated to gluten-free products. This in turn urges food producers to develop new products to meet demand. As research into the importance of gut health for your overall well being grows, so too has consumer pursuit of fermented goods.

Remember that the demand for sustainable meat alternatives is driven by the consumer. The quicker you want to get your hands on an insect energy bar, the more pressure you need to apply to food producers and show your support for startups in this sector.

Laura Healy is a PhD student at Teagasc


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ