Cambridge Science Festival: what will we be eating in the future?

Growing food underground

From a giant banana and purple tomatoes to algae and insects, this year’s Cambridge Science Festival explores the future of food and asks, what and how will we be eating 100 years from now?

The Festival, which launches on 9th March, also explores how we grow food when faced with a growing global population and climatic and environmental challenges over the coming century. Further events look at our relationship with food and the weird and wonderful parts of the body that can taste.

In highland Ethiopia, a giant banana relative provides the staple food for 20 million people. It’s versatility and resilience, in a country more commonly known for food insecurity, has earned it the title of ‘the Tree Against Hunger’. But outside of Ethiopia, this remarkable plant is barely known. The Ethiopian banana is not alone. Around the world, more than 30,000 plant species have documented uses, yet day to day we exploit just a handful of these. What does this simplification of our domesticated flora mean for humanity? What will we be eating a century from now? Dr James Borrell, Kew Gardens, explores this important topic in Café Sci Cambridge: obscure crops to save the world (10 March).

Another country facing many challenges in improving food security is India. More obvious problems like drought are intertwined with a complex social and economic landscape. To be successful, India must meet head on with these challenges. A new, innovative vision of food security is needed. Changes in education, health and improving female empowerment will be crucial in providing food security for all. Could community-led education be instrumental in instigating such change? Researchers from the TIGR2ESS programme are working at a grassroots level in India to find out.

By empowering communities, particularly women, to take charge of their nutrition and health, a more robust food system could emerge: enter Mobile Teaching Kitchens. This ‘see one, do one, teach one’ teaching method, pioneered by TIGR2ESS partner NNEdPro, works with communities to put the future of India’s food system in the hands of those who rely on it. Community members learn how to cook nutritious meals for themselves and their families then teach others to do the same, serving all sections of society whilst developing business skills.

The TIGR2ESS Science Festival event, Mobile teaching kitchens: a community-led food revolution in India (14 March), offers visitors the chance to experience first-hand what a community-led food revolution looks like; find out how learning through storytelling around food is a powerful tool for improving health and livelihoods; and taste one possible vision of India’s food future. Please note, this event involves live cooking demonstrations with the chance to taste the finished meals.

Photos are powerful storytelling tools, but their meaning is open to interpretation. Food-related images increasingly divide opinion. Scientists and social scientists from the TIGR2ESS project host an exhibition exploring the underlying meanings of images from India that capture The good and bad of food production (18 March).

A further event, Skinny genes (19 March), deals with our relationship with food. Every day we make choices about the type of food we eat, when we eat and how much we eat. There is increasing scientific evidence that an intricate biological system underpins eating behaviour. Professor Sadaf Farooqi from the Wellcome-MRC Institute of Metabolic Science discusses key research into the biology of appetite emerging from genetics and neuroscience and the relevance of these findings to understanding eating disorders and obesity.

In a related event, Dr Havovi Chichger, Anglia Ruskin University, delves into the weird and wonderful locations in the body that can taste during Sugar and spice and all things nice: a journey into taste sensors in the body (21 March). She considers how and why these tissues and organs, including the kidney and lungs, sense taste and what this means in relation to our diet and health.

By 2050, the global population is estimated to hit 10 billion, and we are going to need to feed them all. This critical topic is explored during several events presented by researchers from the Department of Plant Sciences. In Flower power: making crops better at being pollinated (11 March), Hamish Symington explores how food crops rely on insects – around a third of our food depends on pollinating insects, but they are in decline. He discusses how current research aims to make flowers more efficient at being pollinated and help to feed all those mouths in future. In Algae: food for the future (14 March), researchers from the Smith Group introduce the algal species that could be a bigger part of our diet in the future. While researchers from the Henderson Group reveal how wild species could play a role in foods of the future (such as purple tomatoes!) in Sustainable approaches to increase future food production via plant genome engineering (14 March).

Urban farming is on the increase as an alternative local source of food. But how do you integrate urban farms into densely populated environments? Located in tunnels in West London, designed as World War II air raid shelters in the 1940s, is the world’s first underground farm. Growing Underground uses hydroponic systems to produce sustainable, pesticide-free crops of micro greens and salad leaves. In Growing underground (12 March), Dr Ruchi Choudhary, Department of Engineering, presents data from the world’s first underground farm in World War II air-raid shelters in London and highlights the challenges and opportunities of growing food in abandoned city spaces.

“Integrating urban farms within dense environments has the potential to utilise waste infrastructure and resources within cities with environmental benefits,” said Dr Choudhary. “My group’s involvement has proved an ideal opportunity to gather data on the impact of plants under controlled conditions. By monitoring temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide, air velocity and light, we can develop our simulation models and develop this tool to simulate the impact of plants at the design stage for all types of building.”

Further food-related events include:

  • Our sustainable food journey (9 March). Nick White, University Catering Service, Emma Garnett, Department of Zoology, and Amy Munro-Faure, Environment and Energy Section, discuss how a Sustainable Food Policy at the University of Cambridge has dramatically reduced food-related carbon emissions.
  • Once upon a food system (10 March). How can our food tackle global challenges like the climate crisis, biodiversity loss and world hunger? Global Food Security’s Maia Elliott and bestselling author and BBC presenter Dr Adam Rutherford present a unique scientific storytelling event, where five scientists are challenged not only to inform food system change, but to inspire it.

To view the full programme, which is packed with more than 390 events covering everything from Astronomy to Zoology, and to book tickets, please visit Cambridge Science Festival

Keep up to date with the Festival on social media via Facebook and Twitter #CamSciFest and Instagram.

This year’s Festival sponsors and partners are Cambridge University Press, AstraZeneca, Illumina, TTP Group, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge Epigenetix, Cambridge Science Centre, Cambridge Junction, IET, Hills Road 6th Form College, British Science Week, Cambridge University Health Partners, Cambridge Academy for Science and Technology, and Walters Kundert Charitable Trust. Media Partners: BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and Cambridge Independent.

Image: Growing underground

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