Artificial meat, nanotechnology and genetic tools are among the "tools of science" that may be needed in the coming decades to help supply food to the world's population, scientists say.
"The tools of science will be critical for bringing about food security and well-being for a global population of more than nine billion people in 2050 in the face of enormous technological, climatic and social challenges," predicted a paper published Monday by the Royal Society.
The author, Philip Thornton of the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, looked into recent trends in livestock production and the future prospects of the industry as part of a series of 21 papers on the future of the global food and farming system.
The reports by scientists around the world were published in the latest issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
Thornton's report noted demand for meat, milk and other animal food products has been growing quickly with increasing urbanization and higher average incomes worldwide.
Meanwhile, water and land for agriculture is growing increasingly scarce — a problem made worse by climate change and biofuel crops competing with regular food crops. The study predicted that will lead to much higher prices for meat, milk and eggs in coming decades.
The growing of animal muscle in vats to produce artificial, cultured or "in- vitro" meat, is one possible way to help meet demand, it said.
"From a technological point of view … its development is generally held to be perfectly feasible," the report said. It acknowledged the public may be slow to accept cultured meat. But such a product could be made healthier and more hygienic than "traditional" meat, the paper said, and it could also reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by livestock.
However, it estimated another decade of research is needed, and challenges such as cost and scale will need to be addressed before artificial meat hits grocery store shelves.
Nanotechnology — which uses minute particles under 100 nanometres in size — could also help boost meat production, the report said. Nanosized sensors are being developed to monitor animals' health. Nanoparticles may be able to help target drugs and boost animals' nutrient uptake, the study said.
Genetic tools could 'revolutionize' breeding
Meanwhile, more developed molecular genetic technologies will likely have "considerable impact" on the livestock industry.
For example, DNA testing could be used to predict meat quality and disease resistance among livestock and "revolutionize animal breeding."
The study noted that genetic modification of animals is technically feasible, even though the technology is at an earlier stage of development than it is with plants.
"In combination with new dissemination methods such as cloning, such techniques could dramatically change livestock production," the study said.
But these new yield-boosting technologies are emerging at a time when polls have shown the public to be increasingly distrustful of science.
Public wary of science solutions
"Social concerns could seriously jeopardize even the judicious application of such new science and technology in providing enormous economic, environmental and social benefits," the report said.
A paper summarizing the series said that concern was a recurring theme.
On a more optimistic note, most of the papers said much more food can be made available by reducing waste and boosting productivity using existing knowledge.
The series was the result of a study undertaken by the United Kingdom's Government Office for Science as one of its "foresight" projects, which examine major issues in the next 20 to 80 years.
"The need for action is urgent given the time required for investment in research to deliver new technologies to those who need them, and for political and social change to take place," wrote John Beddington, head of the office and chief scientific adviser to the U.K. government, in explaining the timing of the study.
The office for science is inviting comments and is scheduled to release its final report in late 2010.