– An interview with Martin Reich –
Increasing population, depleting resources, environmental degradation, and climate change are some of the major challenges to our current (fossil-based) economy. The bioeconomy has emerged as a concept that promises to tackle these issues. To date, most of the proposed solutions to these global challenges have mainly focused on sustainable resource provision, materials and energy production. However, as these challenges are becoming more complex, the bioeconomy concept has expanded to encompass more areas of the economy and production systems. Food production is tightly intertwined with land use, agriculture and forestry. As the world population continues to grow, issue related to sustainably feeding the world are dire need for attention. Thus, besides its more obvious techno-scientific and economic promises (e.g., new bio-based materials and fuels), the future bio-based economy will have to find new approaches to our current approaches to food production and consumption. Transitioning to a more sustainable consumption plays a major role in our future nutrition, and may help mitigate some of the negative climate and environmental impacts we’re seeing today.
The German Bioeconomy Council has stepped up to the challenge and is currently leading the way through a series of background papers and memos on the topic, thus raising the issue of food consumption and production on the international (bioeconomy) policy agenda. Martin Reich works as a research associate in the office of the council. Martin’s background is in plant biology, and he holds a PhD from the University of Groningen. Recently, he became increasingly interested in issues related to health and nutrition, one of the topics that he is responsible for at the office of the council. I asked Martin to share some of his experiences and thoughts on sustainable food production and nutrition with us:
- The concept of bioeconomy is not usually associated with food production and nutrition, why are these topics so central in your work?
Sustainable consumption is a key topic for the German Bioeconomy council and therefore also for my work. The consumer side is of central and often undervalued importance for a successful transformation to a more sustainable economy. Only if new products are accepted by us, the consumers, they can really make a difference. Innovative concepts in the bioeconomy therefore increasingly focus on the direct benefits which they offer to people. And because nutrition and food belong to the most basic aspects of life they cannot be overestimated in their importance. Personally, this topic was the logical next step for me: After dealing with nutrient requirements of crop plants and with food security from the supply point of view during my PhD I now have the chance to learn more about the consumption side to complete the picture.
- Nutritionists usually advocate for a diet balanced in carbohydrates, protein, sugar, and fat calories. Why does protein take such a central role in the Bioeconomy Council’s report?
For two main reasons that reflect the fact that there are still extreme differences if it comes to the nutritional situation of the world´s population: First, proteins (or, more precisely, a balanced uptake of amino acids) had been shown to be of crucial importance for the physical and mental development of children and also for a healthy life of grown-ups. In many regions of the world people do not have access to a balanced protein intake. Consequently, even if having a sufficient supply with calories, they are undernourished and high-quality proteins have been identified as a bottleneck to food security. Obviously, reducing meat consumption is not an option in such countries, as animal products are a valuable source of high-quality protein. But some alternative protein sources might be easier to produce and cost less resources and therefore could help to alleviate protein deficiencies. Second, protein also plays a crucial role in the modern diet of industrialized countries, but in the opposite way: Instead of having a lack of high quality protein, consumption is exceeding the daily intake recommendations, e. g. given by the WHO [World Health Organization]. Animal products are the major source of this protein. And due to the demand for resources and the environmental costs related to the production of meat, milk etc. this over-consumption is an issue of sustainability. In the BÖRMEMO the council compiled an overview on the impact of protein production on climate, environment and natural resources such as water. A reduction of meat consumption in industrialized countries would therefore be a logic measure to increase sustainability of the food system. Additionally, alternative protein sources can also be part of the solution: High-quality protein produced with less resources would reduce the environmental foot print of the world´s growing middle classes.
- The BÖRMEMO highlights alternative food sources, most of which are plants or derived from plants. Are we looking at a vegan future?
We are probably looking at a future with a more diverse choice of high-quality protein sources. Plants will continue to play an important role, as eating them directly instead of feeding them to animals beforehand is sensible since in a food environment like ours sufficient high-quality, plant based protein is available. But in other parts of the world, more veganism is not an option at the moment. Practicing agriculture that produces enough protein-rich crops is more difficult in adverse conditions such as aridity. Ruminants such as cows and goats convert the scarce vegetation of such environments into valuable protein for human consumption. So when it comes to veganism we should not forget the big differences between food environments in different parts of the world.What I find intriguing with novel protein sources is that people start to think about and discuss what “vegan” really means to them. Plant-based meat alternatives obviously are vegan and algae and mushrooms are generally viewed as vegan, too (although they are in a strict biological sense no plants). Many people assume that insects suffer less in captivity compared to mammals and their consumption seems less critical from an ethical point of view. But they are animals, so can their consumption be vegan? And what about meat grown from stem-cells and cultured in an incubator? Even if no animal was harmed for its production it still is meat. Vegan or not? People whose veganism is ethically motivated might not have a problem with eating cultured meat.
- What are the main challenges on the way towards a more sustainable food production and consumption in Germany?
Consumer acceptance is of course crucial and cultural habits definitely play a role when it comes to food preferences and exotic new food sources such as insects, algae or microorganisms. But I do not think that cultural barriers are as insuperable as sometimes described and in fact should be regarded as a psychological rather than a cultural phenomenon. If you look back in time at how radically diets changed within the last century: Our grandparents used to have meat once per week and for special occasions – nowadays you sometimes have a hard time finding a vegetarian meal on a menu. People used to eat only regionally produced agricultural goods – today we have access to a huge variety of fruits and vegetables and other products from all around the world. If you lived far inland you probably would have never have seen sea fish on your plate – nowadays, everyone who can afford it has access to fish and sea food, no matter how far away from the coast. The scientific evidence on the psychology underlying the attitude towards new food like insects is still scarce but existing studies show a high willingness to eat or at least try them. And start-ups that present their insect burgers or snacks at fairs and other events confirm this. Especially if the insects are processed and not visible as a whole (although many people love to eat shrimps and lobster – not so much of a difference in appearance). And as laws are changing and novel food soon enter the shelfs in supermarkets, people will get used to them and serve them to their children. And within one generation it could be entirely normal to have plant-based burgers for barbecue, to drink milk made from microorganisms or to bake your cakes with insect flour. Another main challenge for consumer acceptance is the perception of potential risks. Of course the safety of new products needs to be assured and studies need to be done on, for example, on potentially allergenic substances on these novel products.
- Are there any potential conflicts that would arise if we were to drastically reduce our meat consumption in the near future?
Animal farming and processing is an important economic sector in which many people earn their income. As with other sectors of the economy it is important to organize a transition to more sustainability in a socio-economically compatible way. But if there is a societal consensus that such a transition is necessary (and public opinion polls suggest this is the case) these conflicts have to be faced and solved, not avoided. Reducing meat production would not necessarily mean that less food is produced in general but that business concepts and value chains would have to change. Instead of farming pigs or cows, a farmer could switch to insects. At a meeting about the food system of the future I once heard a young farmer answer the question if he was afraid of a possible rise of meat grown in cell culture with „I am mainly an entrepreneur. If consumers switch to cultured meat, I will invest in incubators and grow cultured meat.“ In the US we observe a whole new wave of veganism with a completely new kind of products and serious investments from venture capitalists. Many of these products will sooner or later enter the European market. Ensuring the jobs of the future might not only require to protect the existing industry but to invest in innovation and embrace the chances to create new kinds of jobs.
- Did you ever try insect burgers (protein)? Do you think this will become mainstream?
I tried different insect products during the last years: Whole insects as snacks, silkworms at a Vietnamese restaurant and yes: insect burgers and insect “meat balls” of different brands. If products with insects will become mainstream depends on the readiness of people to try them and on the future price compared to meat. I could imagine to buy insect burgers regularly but I honestly say that the decision will be easier if the price is lower than the price for meat. Research on consumer perception argues that meat should be more expensive and that would be accepted especially if animals would be treated better. But numbers from real life tell that the majority of consumers still goes for cheaper products when decision are made during the few seconds in front of the supermarket shelfs. Again: behavioral science and psychology.
- Could you recommend a ‘bioeconomy approved’ meal (healthy, nutritious, tasty and sustainably produced)?
Actually there are really nice books with recipes for meals with algae, insects and even in-vitro meat and we will display some of them in the media corner at the Global Bioeconomy Summit. Let´s see…in a few years it could be: fried and salted crickets as a starter, then a filet mignon, medium rare (in-vitro meat of course) or a burger made from plant protein served with mycoprotein wrapped in algae and a mixed salad from my own indoor farm with grilled tofu on top…or pasta with tomato sauce if it was a long day at work.