4 big ideas for improving the world’s food supply

Almost 800 million people suffer from food insecurity—yet one-third of the world’s food goes to waste. With a problem that big, it’s no wonder that there’s such an appetite for food-related solutions at Falling Walls Lab 2016.

Isadora Schmidt, a Chilean researcher at the Universidad Gabriela Mistral, proposed a new system of labeling and pricing food. Right now, supermarkets regularly throw away foods that reach their expiration dates; some products may sit on shelves for weeks, only to be thrown away. Schmidt argued that if prices fall when foods languish on the shelf, it’ll be less likely to stay there until it expires. A low-cost prototype suggested that such a process could reduce food waste by 40%.

Toine Wilke also emphasized what we don’t eat—but he wasn’t talking about food waste. He was talking about seaweed, a food that could be grown in huge quantities in the world’s oceans. Wilke, who works for Allsea Seaweedfoods, thinks we have to stop thinking of seaweed as a food that’s served with sushi. Sure, sometimes it tastes like salty spinach. But other types can taste like spaghetti, or even bacon. “The real problem is up here, in our minds,” Wilke said. He argued that in the form of a protein-rich burger, seaweed can become a global staple food.

Graham Cuff thinks we need to re-design industrial farms, which rely on fertilizers that pollute the environment and subsidies that distort the free market. “Everywhere you look, you see the profound imbalances in the system,” said Cuff, an engineer at the Leibniz Universität in Hanover. Farms contrast sharply with forests or oceans, where there’s no such thing as waste: stray energy and nutrition are harnessed by plants, animals, and microorganisms. Cuff argued that to bring the system back into balance, farms should learn lessons from nature.

Hannah Schneider, a researcher at Forschungszentrum Jülich, says that to solve food crises worldwide, we can’t just look at the parts of plants that we eat. We also have to look below ground—at the roots. Below the surface, plants aren’t very well-understood. But Schneider discovered with her colleagues that in some plants, specific traits like narrower roots are correlated with higher crop yields. “The next step is to integrate these traits into breeding programs,” she said. And the next step after that? Bon appétit.

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