What's food got to do with it?

COP26: What’s food got to do with it?

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Experts hope delegates at COP26 will be more environmentally conscious about what they eat and drink at this year’s conference in Glasgow.

When delegates at COP26 sit down to eat, they’d better choose carefully. Back in Poland in 2018, some 30,000 attendees munched their way through a meat and dairy-laden menu. Every plate of fried beef, pork and burgers consumed in Katowice at COP24 helped contribute several thousand tonnes of greenhouse gases over the 12-day conference, campaigners say.

Food production accounts for a third of global emissions today, and we’re running out of water, land, and time. Business as usual in the Glasgow food courts won’t help the world meet the 1.5°C target. Campaigners and food and farming groups all have an opinion about what international delegates should be eating. “We’ll only achieve net zero if we fundamentally transform food systems,” say campaigners Nourish Scotland in a joint letter.

Food tech has a role to play as the population grows and the planet warms – it’s transforming the sector, boosting efficiency, cutting packaging, limiting waste.

What should be on the menu? Think like a vegan. Wild mushroom pie or scrambled tofu, anyone? If everyone were to become a vegan, it would be possible to slash emissions and produce enough food for all by 2050 when the global population is forecast to swell to 10 billion – it’s the biggest action delegates could take for the environment, says campaigning charity Viva. They’ll be in good company.
By 2025, vegans and vegetarians are forecast to make up a quarter of the UK population. Biofortified crops – already on supermarket shelves – are predicted to become mainstream this decade and could boost global health.

Should all food be local? Not everything we eat must be produced nearby, says Sofie Quist at Nourish Scotland. “But food trade should be redesigned to protect local food systems rather than generating international profit. We shouldn’t be transporting food around in a way that’s carbon intensive,” she says. Shipping bananas that ripen is more sustainable, for instance, than flying frozen produce, and heating greenhouses to grow tomatoes locally can be more carbon intensive than transporting them. In the future, 3D printing might prove feasible – Nasa has looked into saving on delivery costs by ‘printing’ a pizza, and tech companies are experimenting with growing food onboard spacecraft.

Is local meat acceptable? You won’t find many rare mountain hares on the menu today, although Scotch beef and lamb have high sustainability credentials. However, rich nations eat far more meat than is healthy for them or the planet. Livestock farming accounts for 14.8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, while 70 per cent of deforestation takes place to make way for crops to feed animals. For delegates sniffy at the taste and texture of processed plant-based protein meat substitutes, then cultured meat – grown in a lab from animal cells – might be more palatable. Of the 80 companies racing to ‘grow’ meat, none can yet mass-produce it, though it’s inching closer to supermarket shelves.

“Making meat from plants and cultivating it from cells can reduce emissions by up to 92 per cent and use 95 per cent less land,” says Seren Kell, science and technology manager at the Good Food Institute Europe.

A warmer planet means more jellyfish, and a report commissioned by Sainsbury’s predicts we will have turned to these for our fishy protein by 2050 – they’re rich in some vitamins and low in calories, if a little chewy. Lab-grown shrimp meat could make an appearance in the future, grown in the same way as meat. But this year delegates could tuck into Isle of Skye langoustines and west coast crab – if fished sustainably. Line-caught mackerel with horseradish ice cream, buttermilk, dashi (meat free broth) and dill, or sustainably farmed halibut from the Hebridean Isle of Gigha, may tempt attendees, says Peter McKenna, owner and chef of The Gannet, one of Glasgow’s finest restaurants. “Our menu is based upon what’s local and sustainable,” he says.

Enticing salads, herbs and soft fruit are grown year-round at Scotland’s first vertical farm in Aberdeenshire, which now sells its technology around the world. Rainwater harvesting and renewable energy systems allow agritech specialists Intelligent Growth Solutions to grow crops stacked in airlocked towers under optimised LEDs. IGS says its farm uses 50 per cent less power and 96 per cent less water than traditional methods.

Algae are responsible for half of all oxygen production on Earth, can be rich in protein and even a potential meat replacement. Seaweed is a neglected superfood, and can be responsibly foraged from Scottish shores – laver seaweed is rich in vitamin C and iodine. Scotland even has seaweed farms – edible seaweed cultivation could be a game changer in the food system.

Hemp – a strain of the cannabis sativa plant without the psychoactive components – removes CO2 from the air more effectively than any other crop. Every hectare grown could remove 66 tonnes a year. “It’s time we understood better how to use it in food rather than demonising it,” says Peter Miles, chief executive of eHempHouse, whose business helps organisations offset carbon and has been invited to showcase innovation at COP26. From biodegradable hemp cutlery to hemp smoothies, wines, granola and more, food made using hemp seeds and hearts is nutritious and tasty enough to tempt world leaders, he promises.

Beyond soya milk, there’s now a tastier choice of nut and plant milks and yoghurts and even a potato milk launched in Sweden this summer – but delegates might soon be able to put the real thing in their coffee without guilt.

Biotech entrepreneurs are focusing on making milk – it’s actually simpler than meat to make, say academics, because fermentation is already an accepted method of food production. While cultured meat begins with animal cells, a process called precision fermentation gives microorganisms the genetic instructions to produce complex organic molecules – the milk proteins found in curd. Ice cream is currently the only dairy product on the market made in this way, but several companies are trying to make cheese.

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