Within the next 12 years there will be another 1bn people on this planet. In fact, the UN forecasts that by 2050 the worldwide population will have reached 10.9bn. The current total is about 7.6bn; to put that in context, 200 years ago it was 1bn.
To keep up with this population growth, food production will need to increase by 70% by 2050
Great, you might be thinking, if you are a marketer: millions more people to buy carbonated drinks and chocolate bars.
Greater pressure on resources
Well, not quite, because that population increase will put even greater pressure on the planet’s resources and, in particular, our food resources.
To keep up with this population growth, food production will need to increase by 70% by 2050. Meat production will need to increase significantly, and cereal production enormously; not only to feed humans, but also to provide all the extra animal feed.
If we can’t produce enough food, then the price of it will increase, though some people already spend up to 80% of their income on it.
For years, the most plausible future of food has seemed to lie in agricultural solutions, not least because of the negative publicity genetically modified food, in general, and Monsanto, in particular, have attracted.
The new bio-disruptors
But there is a new attitude, mood and set of solutions on the horizon in the area of bioscience. At a recent Trends Briefing, the Future Laboratory introduced an emerging industry or category known as ‘the new bio-disruptors’.
This theme was meant to recognise the shift that will take place from what we know as ‘life sciences’ toward ‘bio sciences’, to reflect the change from a focus on molecular biology to synthetic biology.
Venture capital firms have invested more than $400m in companies with a significant synthetic biology focus since last year (according to a VCJ analysis).
Several companies are investigating ways to use biotech to make milk without pasteurisation. The Future Lab cited Muufri, which is producing what is, in effect, animal-free milk.
Away from milk, cleaning-products brand Ecover has developed a replacement for petroleum- and palm oil-based ingredients produced from algae, and genetically engineered for that purpose.
In Europe, the population is forecast to decline over the next 50 years
Moreover, Dutch scientists have produced in-vitro meat using stem cells taken from cows, growing strips of muscle tissue that were said to resemble calamari.
Ginkgo BioWork, based in Switzerland, is another ‘synbio’ company. It is working on a genetically modified yeast product that will soon be on our supermarket shelves as a vanilla ingredient.
As a corporation it talks about what it does as "engineering, naturally", going on to explain: "Ginkgo learn[s] from Nature to develop new organisms that replace technology with biology."
It tries to remind us that biology is a natural technology that we have used for years to develop the things we consume: "Humans have been culturing foods for millennia.
Beer- and wine-brewing using yeast cultures began about 8000 years ago and cultured foods then expanded to cheese, yogurt, soy sauce, sauerkraut, breads, and many more."
In Europe, the population is forecast to decline over the next 50 years. We will continue to use food not only to assuage hunger but also to signal our status, our social mobility, and to express our individuality.
Returning to Muufri and other plant-based milks, these kinds of processes make the product highly customisable: cholesterol-free, lactose-free, as well as other variations.
We like variations, and to be able to make personal choices in food. Perhaps one day we will be commissioning a synthetic biology lab to make a food product for us that is so highly personalised it is based on, or complements, our DNA.
Dr Morgain Gaye, speaking at Futurefest recently, pointed to the emergence of texture as a new trend in food. Her contention is that nothing much has happened in food texture since the 1970s and we’ve spent the past 40 years or so focused purely on flavour .
If it is true that we have been living in a texture-free food world, perhaps there is an opportunity to introduce into man-made foods a new dimension such as this, which makes them more aspirational, explorative and interesting.
Then again, if synthetic food does not completely mimic the original, that could add to consumer suspicion.
We have heard a lot about the ‘maker movement’ in computer science and technology, but there is one in biology, too. Increasingly, we will produce man-made food, because globally we have to, and personally we want the highly desirable results.
If synthetic food does not completely mimic the original, that could add to consumer suspicion
We are slowly but surely becoming bio-curious, and it is time for marketers to lead the way in communicating and exciting consumers about the benefits and opportunities before the tabloids revive their ‘Frankenstein food’ headlines and create another food crisis.
There are hundreds of foods that used to be made one way, and are now made another way. But not only did the food-production process evolve, so did consumer understanding and education.
It is hard to imagine today’s retailers, under unprecedented price pressure, being able to think long-term enough to even consider publicising or promoting anything in this area, and, frankly, the public no longer trusts them enough to do so, following the horsemeat sandal.
Perhaps the likes of the Unilever Foundry or Coca-Cola Founders seed-stage incubators should work with start-ups in the area of synbio as their sole focus, so that when their products are ready to bring to market, they come not from strange-sounding, new tech companies, but familiar, trusted food corporations that taught us the importance of eating breakfast, cutting cholesterol, substituting sweeteners, choosing low-fat… and so many other food habits we now take for granted.