Feeding Spaceship Earth

As the world inches closer to 2050, the deadline to meet net-zero emissions, the alternative protein industry needs scientists and students to help decarbonize and future-proof the global food system.
Sun rising over earth

Have you ever been on a spaceship?

For most people, their answer is no. What if I told you that we’re on a spaceship right now, traveling around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour? Do you see where I’m going with this?

Earth is just one big spaceship with a very, very big crew. It has all the systems needed to sustain life—gravity, water, oxygen, and food. Like a complex machine, it has to be maintained and looked after properly, or its cosmic voyage will come to an end. 

Let’s try this again: have you ever been on a spaceship? That’s right, we’re all on Spaceship Earth together, and Spaceship Earth needs our help!

From feeding astronauts to feeding the world

After getting my Ph.D. in food science, I started working as a civil servant for NASA managing the Food System for the International Space Station. We were responsible for producing the food for NASA’s astronauts, which included everything from freeze-dried macaroni and cheese to thermostabilized cherry-blueberry cobbler.

Improving the International Space Station’s Food System on metrics like nutrition and sustainability was very important to me, so I worked with food scientists, engineers, and astronauts to add more fruits and vegetables to the menu and to cut down on food waste.

Through the International Space Station, NASA has shown that a small number of humans can be kept alive for up to a year in the hostile environment of low earth orbit. With my background in food science, I started to wonder if we could apply the same principles to the food system for Spaceship Earth.

I realized that I wanted to shift focus and increase the scope of my work to tackle a huge issue: how will we feed a projected population of 10 billion people by 2050, without ruining Spaceship Earth in the process? Houston, we have a problem!

We’re less than 30 years away from 2050—the year by which humanity must achieve net-zero emissions. If that doesn’t scare you, it should.

Charting a course toward a better food future

Current meat production is unsustainable and inefficient. It is a key driver of climate change, environmental degradation, and antibiotic-resistant disease. We know that keeping global warming below 1.5° C by 2050 is virtually impossible unless conventional meat production goes down. However, these facts have not sparked significant behavior change—in fact, people are eating more meat than ever in the United States and around the world. Luckily, we have a solution.

Alternative proteins—making meat from plants and cultivating it from cells—offer humanity a chance to chart a new course toward a better food future. By producing meat in far more sustainable and efficient ways, alternative proteins give us the ability to transform Spaceship Earth’s food system into one that is sustainable, secure, and just.

We’re less than 30 years away from 2050—the year by which humanity must achieve net-zero emissions. If that doesn’t scare you, it should.

Why alt proteins need scientists and students

I joined The Good Food Institute’s Science & Technology department to help future-proof the global food system.  If you are not yet familiar with our organization, GFI is a nonprofit 501c (3) that is dedicated to accelerating the shift to a sustainable, secure, and just food system. We are funded by philanthropy and have earned GuideStar’s Platinum Seal of transparency, an honor obtained by less than 1 percent of nonprofits. Our organization employs over 100 staff around the globe to help advance alternative proteins.

Our team of Ph.D. scientists works to advance and open-source the foundational science of alternative proteins, but we can’t do it alone. There is a strong need for additional scientists in the alternative protein field, and we are confident that this is a limiting factor for the field’s scientific progress. Although numerous technical challenges exist, these problems are highly tractable.

Scientists are already helping alternative proteins overcome key challenges through activities such as developing cell line repositories, reducing the cost of cell culture media, and breeding plants that are optimized for alternative protein production. Numerous opportunities exist to support scientists developing solutions for the industry, including GFI’s research grants program and our guide to external funding opportunities.

If you are a scientist or student and are interested in alternative proteins, I invite you to get involved. Start exploring GFI’s resources, join our community of researchers, or check out our featured seminars and upcoming events. For guidance on how to position yourself for a future career in the alternative protein sector, download a copy of GFI’s Student Resource Guide. If you are a current job-seeker, check out GFI’s Alt Protein Careers Board

Remember: Spaceship Earth needs our help!

Author

Ryan dowdy

Ryan Dowdy, Ph.D. SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY ANALYSIS MANAGER

Ryan Dowdy spearheads technical analyses for GFI’s Science & Technology department and oversees SciTech’s Science & Technology Analysis Team (STAT). Areas of Expertise: food science, fermentation, technical analyses, forecasting and modeling, public speaking, data science