Fake steak: The future of food production and sustainability

Melbourne is a city for foodies: one only needs to monitor Instagram on any given weekend morning to witness Melburnians’ collective worship of the latest brunch craze or lazy lunch outlet. And with around 1000 eateries within the bounds of the Hoddle Grid, according to City of Melbourne data from 2015, we’re spoilt for choice any day of the week.

 

People sitting along long tables in restaurant

Situated in a foodbowl – a highly productive agricultural area including the Yarra Valley, Werribee, the Mornington Peninsula and the Casey-Cardinia region –  Melbourne serves up fresh produce all year round. But as the population of our city and its surrounds continues to grow, so do fears that such abundance may not be something we can rely on for too much longer.

Urban sprawl is just one factor threatening our food supply. Climate change and its effects, including extreme weather events and the availability of arable land, also have a significant influence on whether crops and livestock can thrive. Environmental factors have little effect on conditions in laboratories, though, so perhaps it’s lab-grown meat that we should look to as a solution for providing protein before traditional sources start becoming scarce.

Memphis Meats, a San Francisco startup, is creating “clean” meat grown from animal cells, and in March offered some visitors to their kitchen a taste of the future in the form of chicken strips that had been cultivated from cells. The Silicon Valley’s Impossible Foods create a completely plant-based burger that replicates the flavour, smell and sensation of a meat patty, thanks to the addition of lab-grown heme, an oxygen-carrying molecule that imparts meat with its characteristic slightly bloody taste – but in this case, the heme contains no blood at all, as it is derived from soybeans and cultivated on yeast.

hamburger

The conventional hamburger could soon be a thing of the past

Still in the US, yeast is also the host for the production of Perfect Day’s lactose-free milk, which is created through a fermentation process comparative to craft beer brewing – resulting in a chemical composition identical to milk from a cow, but with no bovine participation and therefore no need for grazing land, feed or any of the other infrastructure currently required by dairy industries.

In laboratories closer to home, CSIRO’s food innovation centre in Werribee is developing drying technology to create a range of possibilities – not only in preserving foodstuffs such as milk in powdered form but for processing food at more sophisticated levels. Melburnians’ all-important coffee, for example, would retain more flavour and aroma using this Extrusion Porosification Technology than through conventional methods, with other applications including the creation of new ingredients and taste combinations.

It’s not only scientists who are thinking of our city’s food future, though. Movements such as community gardening have operated at a grassroots level for years, with members swapping garden produce (and knowledge) at regular meetings, which are now communicated online, and social media is helping connect guerrilla and amateur gardeners to take over verges and abandoned green spaces for community crops. Things have been happening at rooftop level, too. The uppermost floors of Melbourne’s city buildings are becoming a veritable hive of activity, housing bees that visit metropolitan gardens to produce Rooftop Honey and in some cases being retrofitted with planter systems to allow residents to grow their own herbs and vegetables.

In the same vein, City of Melbourne have teamed up with with Do Something Good to create Local Food Launchpad. The program invigorates local food systems by supporting innovative enterprises and campaigns that create resilient local food systems from paddock to plate.

link to youtube video about food launchpad program

Click to play video about the 2015 Food Launchpad program

Architects with sustainability and community in mind are designing apartment complexes to include gardens – The Commons in Brunswick is one example that has communal and individual garden plots and beehives, with similar plans for Nightingale, another Brunswick development by Breathe Architects.

bee keeper in gear tending to hive

Just as it’s taken a shift in mindset (and innovations such as lightweight, well-draining planting systems) to transform empty rooftops into productive gardens to help feed communities, much of the potential in future food lies in altering our perceptions. Hemp seed, for instance, is yet to be legalised as a food source in Australia and New Zealand, but with this situation tipped to change, the superfood could soon start to become one of our main sources of plant-based protein. Our passion for superfoods also has farmers diversifying – planting teff in addition to traditional wheat crops in Shepparton, for example; or considering growing “poor man’s fruit” jackfruit in India due to its potential as a nutritionally dense food that can be eaten fresh, canned, processed into flour and even cooked to resemble pulled pork.

Pulled pork doesn’t grow on trees, you say? A few years ago hamburgers weren’t grown in labs, either. But technology and new ways of thinking are fast creating possibilities for us to ensure our food favourites from the past remain on the menu – along with many new taste sensations for the future.

Continue the conversation about the future of food at one of our MKW17 Food events.

Article by Leeyong Soo