The Nobel Peace Prize of 2020 was awarded to the World Food Programme (WFP) for its continued efforts to combat hunger and promoting food security worldwide. To realize its importance, consider the UN report of July 2020. It showed that 690 million people went undernourished in 2019, which is 8.9% of the world’s population. The report also forecasted that the pandemic could grapple 130 million more people into chronic hunger and worsen food security and nutrition by the year-end of 2020. In the early days of the pandemic, as countries went into lockdown, people had empty shelves, scarce food products, and there were widespread supermarket hoardings to get hold of daily essentials.
On the other hand, farmers saw their crops rot in the field, dairy products being washed down the drains, and meatpacking plants being shut down. Since all businesses were suspended, it was cheaper to destroy these crops than to harvest and process them. In the face of the pandemic, the WFP intensified its efforts to bring people out of this hunger crisis worldwide, especially in war-struck regions. These efforts led to them receiving the Nobel Prize. As the organization aptly states, “Until the day we have a medical vaccine, food is the best vaccine against chaos.” The year 2020 had a bleak ending, but here are some of the most exciting food success stories of this year.
1. People of the largest refugee camp in the Middle East solved their hunger crisis using waste mattresses.
The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan is the world’s largest camp for Syrian refugees, home to around 80,000 people. These people fled from their home country in search of safety and security due to the Syrian civil war that has been going on since March 2011. They have since been living in makeshift camps in a mere three-square-mile area of the desolate desert, where temperatures often shoot up to 37℃ in summers. Having a job, constructing houses, and agriculture are all forbidden activities as they suggest permanence. Most of these refugees were farmers back in the Dara region of Syria; however, low organic matter and water scarcity in the deserts made agriculture not only forbidden but also impossible. Then how can so many people be fed?
It turns out that the UN Refugee Agency provides the inhabitants with polyurethane foam mattresses as a part of their basic setup. However, once these mattresses have been used, they keep piling up as trash. When a team of researchers from the University of Sheffield arrived at Zaatari camp in 2016, the two things clicked instantly. Although they couldn’t reuse mattresses, they could repurpose them! The group had worked with polyurethane foams (PUF) before. PUF forms highly efficient hydroponics. Hydroponics is a type of horticulture system where it is possible to cultivate crops without soil. Since polyurethane foams (PUF) have voids in them, plant roots can grow through them. Photosynthesis doesn’t mandate soil use; all it needs is sunlight, water, and minerals. Instantly, researchers started growing crops in discarded tubes or yoghurt containers and taught it to the people residing there.
The way it works is; initially, the seeds are sown in trays of soil for an average of 9 days and are allowed to grow. After this, the plants are washed and wrapped in the foam from the mattresses. This helps to prevent contamination from the bacteria. These are then placed in a closed hydroponic system with a continuous flow of recycled water. Since it is possible to control moisture, nutrients, and oxygen transport rates, plants can grow up to two to ten times faster than in the soil. This method uses 70-80% less water than planting in the ground and eliminates the use of pesticides. This came as a blessing for the people who face daily struggles to acquire even their basic necessities.
Five hundred people from the camp were interviewed this year. From the data collected, it was reported that not only were the inhabitants able to achieve food self-sufficiency but that it also opened up much-needed job opportunities for them. It boosted their mental health and brought greenery to the otherwise barren, desolate desert–something crucial for the refugees as well as for everyone else stuck amidst the pandemic.
Professor Tony Ryan, who has been working in the Zaatari refugee camp since 2016, commented, “The solutions developed in Zaatari are the sort of solutions the world needs in order to respond to another global crisis–the environmental one. We must reduce global consumption by recycling more materials. We also need to deal with growing food in a changing climate–one with less water and more CO2.
And we have to face the fact that many more people will be living in refugee camps in the future–predictions estimate there will be millions of environmental refugees as a result of climate change. Finding ways to help displaced people is all part and parcel of creating a sustainable future.”
This study was published in Nature in July.
2. Singapore approved the sale of the world’s first lab-grown meat
On December 2, 2020, Singapore Food Agency (SFA) became the first to approve Eat Just Inc., a private startup based in San Francisco, to produce and sell lab-grown chicken meat.
The lab-grown meat is essentially real meat, but it is grown on a petri dish rather than being derived from a slaughtered animal. Animal-rights activists argue that eating animal meat is inhumane. Every day, 130 million chickens and 4 million pigs are slaughtered for meat. Therefore, lab-grown meat is a vital advancement in producing safe and sustainable food.
For making lab-grown meat, a biopsy from animals such as pigs or cows is taken, and then stem cells from that sample are placed in a bioreactor to proliferate. These cells are fed with all the necessary carbohydrates, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals to grow. These nutrients allow the cells to develop into mature muscle cells that will form the cultured meat. However, they don’t possess the chewy texture of the conventional meat we see in markets. Thus, making a scaffold to support these growing cells is an important step to achieve the desired texture. There are several ways to do this, and it is currently a topic of extensive research.
In 2020, India alone consumed 3.9 million metric tonnes of poultry. Producing 1kg of conventional meat requires 9,000 litres of water while only 94 litres of water is needed for lab-grown meat. Thus, it will significantly reduce water usage. Moreover, cattle also belch methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. To put it in numbers, livestock contributes to around 14.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions each year, which is roughly equal to emissions from cars, trucks, aeroplanes, and ships all combined. Therefore, lab-grown meat is cleaner, drug-free, and also a cruelty-free alternative to conventional meat.
There is another alternative known as plant meat, i.e., meat derived purely from plant sources. While the former is grown directly from cells in a lab, the latter is derived from plant sources such as soy or pea protein. Unlike lab-grown meat, plant-based meat only replicates the texture and taste of actual meat but does not contain any animal product and is hence vegan.
According to a Nielsen report from May this year, the sales of plant-based meats grew by 264% in the US over just nine weeks during the pandemic. A survey conducted in April by The Vegan Society found that 1 in 5 people in the UK had cut down on their meat consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic. Half of these have tried vegan meat alternatives such as plant-based meats and sausages and have said that they will keep on purchasing even after the lockdown. All of this implies that consumers worldwide are willing to adapt to more ethical, compassionate alternatives to meat.
However, lab-grown meat is not a new idea. The first burger made in 2013 from lab-grown meat had a whopping cost of $300,000 and was presented to the journalists who suggested it to be overly dry (from too little fat). Since then, the lab-grown meat price has fallen to match the conventional meat price while keeping the texture and nutrient content intact. In this regard, Singapore’s sale of lab-grown meat is the first step towards achieving a safe, sustainable, and yet affordable food supply.
3. With the decline of global pollinator insects, soap bubbles have become an efficient means to carry out plant pollination.
Approximately 90% of all flowering plants depend on pollinators to reproduce. There has been a steady decline of insect pollinators due to land clearing, pesticides, and climate change worldwide. Therefore, it becomes important to resort to other ways of pollination to meet our food requirements. One of the traditional ways to achieve this is hand pollination. A cotton swab or brush is used to apply pollen to each of the flowers directly. However, this requires extensive human labour, and we tend to seek machines to automate this process. Automation causes the expense to skyrocket, and the pollination achieved this way is inefficient and often damages the crops. Recently, a team led by Eijiro Miyako at the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology came up with a unique idea to use soap bubbles as a cheap and effective way of pollination.
The study compared five different commercial surfactants—the molecules which spontaneously fuse to form a bubble. After choosing a foaming agent based on its bubble-producing and pollen-carrying capabilities, they optimised the soap solution’s concentration and pH. They also introduced calcium and magnesium additives to promote germination and pollen tube growth. Finally, the polymer hydroxypropyl methylcellulose, which is often used in eye drops, was added to improve the membrane’s strength and stickiness to targeted flowers’ pistils. The softness and flexibility of bubbles also prevent severe damage to delicate flowers.
This was tested on a pear tree orchard by shooting bubbles using a toy gun. Due to each bubble’s steady liquid membrane and high surface area, it could deliver 2000 pollen grains at once. Moreover, it is easy to control the direction of flying using the bubble producing device, therefore directly targeting the flowers. By analyzing the number and size of fruits produced this way, they concluded that bubble pollination is as efficient as hand pollination and about twice as efficient as natural pollination. This study would be significant in designing next-generation soft-materials-based robotic technology to improve applications in agriculture.
4. The first-ever radish plants were grown in space.
On November 30, 2020, NASA astronaut Kate Rubins harvested the first-ever radish plants grown aboard the International Space Station. This exploration is a part of the Artemis program, wherein NASA plans to establish sustainable exploration on and around the Moon by the end of this decade. With astronauts now going on more extensive missions to space, they need a healthy and nutritionally balanced diet. Currently, astronauts receive regular shipments of a wide variety of freeze-dried and prepackaged meals to cover their dietary needs; nonetheless, when travelling for months or years, very often, the vitamins in prepackaged food break over time and are detrimental to the astronaut’s health. Thus, packaged food is not good enough; they need fresh produce present in an easily absorbed form.
NASA’s plant experiment, called Plant Habitat-02 (PH-02), is grown in an orbiting laboratory in Advanced Plant Habitat (APH). It has cameras and more than 180 sensors monitored by researchers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. They regulate water distribution, moisture levels, temperatures, and carbon dioxide concentration of the chamber, requiring little intervention from the crew. In microgravity, fluids in space tend to form bubbles. Therefore we need to fixate the roots of the plants. Thus, each plant is grown in a “pillow”. It is essential for distributing water, nutrients, and the air around the roots. These pillows use a porous clay material preloaded with a slow-release fertilizer. In the absence of Earth’s gravity, plants rely on other environmental factors, such as light, which guides their orientation and growth. Light-emitting diodes in the chamber produce a spectrum of light suited for plant growth. Since plants reflect a lot of green light and mostly absorb red and blue wavelengths, the chamber looks magenta pink. This is how the radishes were grown in space; they were selected since they reach maturity in just 27 days. Shortly after the first harvest, the second batch of radish seeds was planted to increase the experiment’s sample size to improve scientific accuracy.
Since it’s impractical to test each crop’s growth in an orbiting laboratory, NASA scientists have resorted to an alternative for it on Earth itself. It turns out that Antarctica’s desolate wilderness exactly replicates the deep space’s extreme environmental conditions. In the year 2020, the EDEN ISS greenhouse managed by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) Institute of Space Systems in Antarctica produced nearly 600 pounds (268 kilograms) of fresh food, including cucumbers, lettuce, and tomatoes, in an area of only about 145 square feet (12.5 square meters) or about the size of an apartment bedroom, within 9.5 months. Most of the food was eaten by the researchers, and the rest was taken as samples for scientific research. This collaboration between DLR and NASA aims to shape future lunar or Martian greenhouse labs for food crop production, benefiting the astronauts’ deep space explorations.