THE FUTURE OF FOOD: WHERE DO BEES FIT?

As Bob Dylan quipped over half a century ago, the times they are a-changin'. Mr. Dylan's famous remark is as true today as it was in the turbulent 1960's, when his landmark album first came out.

In case you haven’t noticed, the agricultural food production landscape has been undergoing a major cultural shift. Investors worldwide are beginning to funnel mountains of cash into companies working to develop "alternative" foods.

These forward-thinking investors hope to capitalize on the harsh reality we face in the near future: producing enough nutritious food to feed a booming world population. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that by 2050, a 70% hike in global food production is required in order to feed a projected 9.1 billion people.

Agrifood investments 2012-2017, from AgFunder News

A CHALLENGE THAT'S HARD TO SWALLOW

In basic terms, our challenge by 2050 is to produce:

  1. Highly nutritious foods

  2. In mass quantities

  3. Using fewer resources

We have a good idea of what's required for the latter two points, but how do we define "highly nutritious foods"? It all ties back to protein. Volumes of research point out a well-established link between growing countries and protein consumption. As countries get richer, their citizens consume more meat and dairy. The visual tells a compelling story:


WHERE ARE THINGS HEADED?

The reality is that livestock farming is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Raising livestock consumes far too many resources (e.g.: land, water, feed, labor, etc.) to fit into the FAO's 2050 plan. Beef production in particular requires a colossal amount of land. As global markets begin to lose interest in beef and dairy, cattle farmers are facing grim consequences.


Some quick math reveals that almonds stack up pretty well against more traditional protein sources. In 1995, the land use per gram of protein for almond production was 0.055 m2, putting it right between poultry and dairy in terms of land use efficiency. By 2017, that number dropped to 0.0249 m2. ​


WHAT'S ON THE MENU?

Alternate food startups map, from CB Insights

So what exactly are "alternative foods"? Well, look no further than your nearest Bait & Tackle shop. No, seriously. Insect meat is one of many hot topics being researched in the alternative food landscape.

​Some of the less attention-grabbing items on the year-2050 menu include things like algae-based foods, dairy-free "dairy" products and lab-grown meat. Perhaps the most promising development is Impossible Foods, a plant-based burger company that's raised nearly $400 million so far.

That said, all hope is not lost for traditional agriculture producers. As long as crops meet the three criteria listed above (highly nutritious, scalable production, low inputs), they're in a strong position for the future. 


THE GOOD NEWS FOR BEEKEEPERS

All this talk about insect meat probably has you wondering where I'm going with this. Just to set the record straight: No, I don't think consumers will be eating bees in the near future.

Here's what beekeepers should take away from this: almonds aren't going away anytime soon. The latest USDA Almond Report suggests that the high-protein nut is poised for sustained growth moving forward. Some key takeaways:

People will continue to make a fuss about how almond growers are ruining the environment, but the truth is almond growers are rapidly advancing innovation and sustainability. What matters is that as long as almond production continues to depend on bee pollination, the outlook is encouraging for beekeepers.


FINAL THOUGHTS

It'll be interesting to see how these trends in food production and consumption will pan out over the next few years. I'm willing to bet that 20 years from now, human nutrition will look drastically different than today. As Bob Dylan would remind us, the times they are a-changin'.

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