Green hope for world food

Pea and Co have potential for world food. (Image: hidesy / iStock)

The need for food is growing enormously – how can the growing earth population be supplied in the future? In the March issue, bild der Wissenschaft focuses on the potential of plants for human nutrition: the title topic shows how yields can be increased, which plants could be used more and what new approaches in genetic engineering can achieve. In addition, plants in a special form could become increasingly important in nutrition: converted into artificial meat.

The situation is becoming increasingly critical: according to forecasts, the world’s population could break the ten billion mark in the middle of the century. Therefore, more and more food has to be produced before developments that curb further population growth take hold. However, the general conditions for this are deteriorating: The consequences of climate change are making agriculture in many regions more difficult and another trend also appears to be questionable: The demand for meat is increasing strongly. The first article of the three-part title topic deals with this aspect: bdw author Jan Berndorff reports on the potential of “vegetarian” or artificial meat.

As the author first makes clear, there are several critical aspects associated with traditional meat consumption. The most important thing for world food is that meat can be used to feed far fewer people than the food necessary for its production. In addition, meat production increases agricultural land requirements and causes greenhouse gas emissions. Animal suffering also occurs and high meat consumption is also harmful to health.

From meat substitutes, orphan plants and genome editing

It is well known that replacement products have been around for a long time. But meat lovers have so far hardly been enthusiastic about veggi burgers and the like, since taste and consistency did not match the model. But as Berndorff reports, a lot has happened in this area recently. He reports on new processes and concepts in the processing of vegetable raw materials into increasingly refined meat substitute products such as veggie mince and sausage. Tasty steaks or fillets on a vegetarian basis still cause problems for the producers. In this case, artificial meat from the laboratory could become an alternative. Meat is made from animal cells using stem cell cultures. Berndorff explains in the article “Meat without animals” which concepts there are currently, what potential the farmed meat has and what hurdles have to be overcome.

In the second part of the title topic, the bdw authors Vivien Kring and Ludger Weß focus on the potential of previously underestimated plants for world nutrition. These plants are referred to as “orphan crops” or “orphan plants” due to the lack of attention. They are crops with high nutritional value that contribute to basic nutrition in some regions, but are hardly traded on the world market. As the authors report, some of these plants have promising properties that warrant a targeted change in this status. They present a list of five orphan plants that have the potential to improve the world’s nutrition.

The title topic is rounded off by a look at a current trend in genetic engineering that could lead to higher yields in plant cultivation: “Genome Editing”. No foreign genes are inserted into plants, as in previous methods. Instead, it speeds up basic principles on which classic plant breeding is also based. In “genome editing”, genetic tools specifically switch off or adapt certain genes. Plants can be made stress-tolerant or equipped with a higher nutrient content without lengthy breeding processes.

Find out more in the March issue of bild der Wissenschaft, which will be available in stores from February 18th.

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