Photo: Lappeenranta University of Technology, LUT
The impact of climate change could soon affect many aspects of everyday life, potentially even the dinner plate.
As a result, the food of the future may look a little different if crops are affected by extreme weather and nutrient levels in plants start to drop.
Looking for one solution, researchers in Finland were able to create a new kind of energy efficient food nearly out of thin air.
The researchers from the Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT), and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, used microbes, electricity, water, and carbon dioxide to create protein in a container the size of a coffee cup.
“The process has similarities to beer making, but the main inputs are CO2 and electricity instead of sugar,” Juha-Pekka Pitkänen, principal scientist at VTT, told Healthline.
These researchers are part of the NEO Carbon Energy group, which hopes to create a system that can produce energy that “is emission-free, cost-effective, and independent.”
Not necessarily flavorful
The goal with the product is not taste, but creating a protein that is not taxing on the environment or uses a large amount of energy.
In order to do that, Pitkänen said the team wants the process to be more efficient than even plants. The researchers think their electricity-based process will be 10 times as energy efficient as common photosynthesis.
As a result, it would be less damaging on the environment than current animal feed, which can require large swaths of land being turned over to cattle or other herds for food.
“It could be a feed, if we could be successful in optimizing the production,” Pitkänen said.
It may also someday be used for “human nutrition.”
But it may be a while before this protein is added to any meal for people, especially one with any flavor.
“The cell mass has no clear taste or smell. One can say that it is very neutral,” Pitkänen said. “This cell mass contains approximately 50 percent protein. There is still work to be done to make the actual food product like [meat substitute] Quorn or tofu, and the regulatory aspects need also to be taken into consideration.”
For the Finnish team, Pitkänen acknowledged they are in the beginning stages of this process. In the future, the team hopes they’ll fine-tune production so that they can be able to produce about 5 kilograms of protein per day.
How climate change could affect your diet
Extreme weather may hurt crop production.
Acidified oceans could mean more mercury in seafood.
And high heat could increase the growth of dangerous pathogens, like certain molds or salmonella, in food.
A changing climate is also associated with increased risk of famine. Already the United Nations cited climate change as one reason for livestock deaths, and a drought in the Sudan and could contribute to 100,000 deaths.
Additionally, carbon dioxide itself can affect plants in a variety of ways. While it can help plants grow abundantly, too much of the gas can affect their nutritional value so they have less protein and other essential nutrients.
The U.S. Global Change Research Program estimated that if carbon dioxide levels reach the rate expected by 2100, major food crops, including wheat, rice, and potatoes, could have 6 to 15 percent lower protein concentration.
This could not only affect human diets, but human health as well.
“An increase in dietary carbohydrates-to-protein ratio can have unhealthy effects on human metabolism and body mass,” the research program experts wrote in a 2016 report.