The rise of the artificial food industry is not a good portent : The Tribune India

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The rise of the artificial food industry is not a good portent

It makes sense to use plant waste for biofuel production, like paddy stubble in Punjab, but to convert food crops to biofuel is a criminal waste.

The rise of the artificial food industry is not a good portent

UNSUSTAINABLE: The launching of the Global Biofuel Alliance during the recent G20 summit extends a misplaced development pathway a little further. Reuters



Devinder Sharma

Food & Agriculture Specialist

THE world is moving in a strange direction. While farmers are being encouraged to grow crops that feed automobiles, agribusiness companies are getting ready to produce lab-grown food for human consumption.

It is getting much closer than you think. The romance with food that we have enjoyed over the centuries is slowly getting to a close.

Several years ago, an American company dealing with a variety of nutritional food products announced a proposal for setting up a manufacturing plant somewhere near Bengaluru to convert rice bran into nutritious food, for which the company owned a patent. Given the high levels of nutritional insecurity being a serious cause for worry in a country which continues to trail in the Global Hunger Index (GHI), the idea was initially welcomed.

I question the development model that relies on converting rice bran, traditionally used as cattle feed (and also for producing edible oil) in India, into nutritional food for human beings and, at the same time, encouraging the export of rice, a staple food. It is clearly at a cross purpose. My argument is that when India exports rice (in 2021-22, it was the top rice exporter), much of it goes to feed the cattle of the western countries. Knowing that the protein pathway that western countries follow is by first heavily feeding livestock and then slaughtering it for human-edible protein conversion, my suggestion is to, instead, use the rice grain available within the country for meeting the human nutritional needs.

The project eventually didn’t take off.

In a lot many ways, the launching of the Global Biofuel Alliance during the recent G20 summit extends the misplaced development pathway a little further. With multi-stakeholder support coming from 19 countries and financial backing from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, World Economic Forum, International Renewable Energy Agency and other international agencies, the alliance hopes to triple biofuel production by 2030.

Although it is aimed at providing a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable alternative to fossil fuels, the basic idea to produce fuel from food is in itself at variance with the development pathway for a sustainable future. Instead of adding more cars and other automobiles on the streets, the global effort should be to drive out cars from the cities. While more cars add to higher GDP calculations and that is what policymakers are keen to achieve howsoever unsustainable it may be, the real development index should be measured by how many car-free havens can be created. That’s the future.

If you think this is a utopian dream, you ought to know how Pontevedra, a small Spanish city with a population hovering around 80,000, has become almost car-free. There are at least 10 cities where most urban centres are becoming car-free. Knowing that automobiles leave behind a large environmental footprint, the challenge should be on how to drastically lower the air pollution levels. Investing in mass transportation systems and drastically reducing car sales should be a goal that G20 countries should, instead, be laying out.

To say that the annadata will soon become energydata may be a simple way of luring farmers to continue with the business. While it makes sense to use plant waste for biofuel production, like the 20 million tonnes of paddy stubble that Punjab produces every year, but to convert food crops to biofuel is a criminal waste. In America, 90 million tonnes of foodgrain are diverted for biofuel production. In the European Union, nearly 12 million tonnes of food crops are used for biofuels. Even during the Russia-Ukraine embargo on grain supplies, the G7 countries rejected a proposal from Germany and the UK to cut on diversion of grain for biofuel production.

According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the US diverts 44 per cent of its domestic corn production for biofuels. In addition, another 44 per cent is used for animal feed. The remaining is used for human consumption, seed and industrial applications. This is happening at a time when the popular perception is that less land should be under cultivation. What we don’t realise is that the crop area is expanding not for human consumption but for biofuels. While this is necessary to achieve ‘net zero’ emissions, as is generally believed, the reality is, as many studies have shown, that biofuels actually lead to increased Green House Gas (GHG) emissions.

Producing worth 38% of the global biofuel production, the US is the world’s largest producer. India’s renewed focus on biofuels has seen a huge diversion of rice in just two years — between April 2021 and May 2023 — by the Food Corporation of India (FCI). With the Global biofuel Alliance in place, the diversion of food crops will substantially go up.

Biofuel production is increasing at a time when globally, the trend is shifting to artificial food production. In the US alone, 15 per cent of the milk products on supermarket shelves are derived from non-dairy sources. Startups are already into the business of producing milk without any dairy cows and several techniques like fermentation and precision technology are being used for artificial foods.

The first commercial-scale food factory has already been set up near Helsinki in Finland. It has announced plans to manufacture 4 to 5 million meals per year using carbon dioxide from the air to interact with bacteria. It doesn’t require any farmer, nor does it need land for growing plants.

This trend is fast catching up. Seen in the light of coercive action against 3,000 Dutch farmers, farmers in the developed countries are becoming a soft target to reduce the gas emissions emanating from intensive farming practices. Already, the insect-protein industry is booming at a scale that it is expected to partially meet the rising protein requirement. The insect industry is expected to grow to $7.9 billion by 2030.

Be prepared, because sooner rather than later, artificial food products are likely to hit the supermarkets close to you.


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