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Future food: health and sustainability



09:15 - 17:30


The Royal Society, London, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AG


Read the conference report (PDF).

This conference, held by the Royal Society, brought together leading experts from industry, government and the wider scientific community to discuss the future of food sources and the human diet in decades to come.

The conference focused on two broad themes: the sustainability and health benefits of plant-based foods, and the application of synthetic biology in food production. The UK’s current standing in terms of food research, technical challenges, changing consumer preferences and public perception, safety and ethical issues, and the regulation of genome edited products was also explored.

Attending this event

This open event was free to attend and intended for those with an interest in food security and novel food technologies, from a variety of backgrounds including academia, industry, government, as well as regulatory and other scientific bodies.

Contact the Industry team for more information.

About the conference series

This meeting forms part of the Royal Society’s Transforming our Future series. The Transforming our Future meetings are unique, high-level events that address scientific and technical challenges of the next decade and bring together leading experts from wider scientific community, industry, government and charities.

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Event organisers

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Schedule of talks

12 December


Registration and refreshments


Welcome remarks

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09:15-09:20 Welcome

Dame Sue Ion FREng FRS, Chair of the Royal Society Science, Industry and Translation Committee

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09:20-09:30 Opening remarks

Professor Cathie Martin FRS, Group Leader, John Innes Centre and Professor of Plant Sciences, University of East Anglia

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Session 1: Sustainability and the benefits of reducing animal-based food production

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Professor Cathie Martin FRS, Group Leader, John Innes Centre and Professor of Plant Sciences, University of East Anglia

09:30-10:00 The role of plant-centric dietary patterns: the potential for a double win

Dr Walter C Willett, Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health


The challenge of feeding the world’s growing population a healthy and sustainable diet is huge. At present we are on track to greatly exceed the limit of 2 degrees C of global warming set by the Paris Climate Agreement, and at the same time poor quality diets are contributing to massive epidemics of obesity and diabetes that can reverse many of the major health gains of the last century. The EAT-Lancet Commission addressed this challenge by identifying dietary targets based on the best available evidence from all sources and then determined whether these foods could be sustainably produced for the expected population of 9.8 billion people by 2050. The identified dietary pattern was primarily, but not exclusively, based on plant protein sources, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Together with conversion to green energy, reductions in food loss and waste, and improved agricultural practices, such a diet can be sustainably produced. 

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10:00-10:30 Securing the food of the future: a foresight approach

Professor Sir Ian Boyd, Professor of Biology, University of St Andrews


It is possible to tension the planning for future food requirements against a number of trends which have both regional and global relevance. These trends show that, assuming they continue, a likely outcome will be some form of systemic failure of the food system. Research is generally currently focused on making small-scale incremental changes, but this is too slow and too conservative to meet medium-term needs. However, transformation is possible because of the very low efficiency with which food is currently produced. This needs a conceptual transition from food produced by agriculture to food produced by manufacturing. Many of the technologies for this transition already exist, but they need to be stitched together to develop new production processes. Unless these changes are made the environmental impacts of food production will eventually cause feedbacks in ways which will lead to declining productivity. I will provide an example from the UK as to what kinds of policies are needed to drive rapid change.

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10:30-11:00 Alternative Meat – future of food or just a fad? A commercial view on the potential market size

Benjamin M. Theurer, Director and Head of the Mexico Equity Research Office, Barclays


Alternative meats have a long list of names, be it “cultured, clean, fake, mock or meatless”. All of the above have one thing in common - the rising flexitarian population has led to growth of this market segment due to various drivers, which I will elaborate on during the presentation. At present, when we talk about alternative meat we mainly refer to plant-based alternatives which, among others, are either soybeans, pea protein, mushrooms or lentil based. Lab-based or more precisely “cell-based” are still not commercially viable, yet a sector not to be underestimated when it comes to its future potential. Hence, during the presentation I am mainly going to focus on the plant-based meat alternative market. While good old veggie burgers have been around for a while, I will elaborate on what “flexitarian consumption behaviour” is based on and what ultimately should drive growth for the alternative meat market: 1) health and wellness, which to us is the most important but also most controversial one; 2) increased awareness of consumers about sustainability and the GHG footprint of agriculture worldwide; and 3) concerns around animal welfare, growing conditions and use of hormones in the process of raising animals.

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Refreshments and networking


Session 2: Alternative food sources

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Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne, Founder, Genius Foods and Royal Society Entrepreneur in Residence

11:35-12:05 The technical challenges of delivering vegan products in a meat-free environment in a sustainable manner

Dr Muyiwa Akintoye, Head of R&D Quorn Foods


We are facing one of the biggest global issues of our time. With the world’s population estimated to reach 9 billion by 2050, we need to find ways of ensuring that we can feed people without severely damaging the planet in the process. The effect of meat on the planet is receiving almost weekly coverage in the UK. The UK market has dramatically changed over the last 12 months.

Vegan Innovation is the biggest driver in Meat Free and the SKU count has increased by +126 (net). As most of these are targeted at people who have a predominantly meat-based diet, the challenge remains of trying to deliver a similar eating experience but using plant-based ingredients. The discussion will centre around what these challenges are and what Quorn Foods is doing technically and scientifically to overcome them.

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12:05-12:35 The Potential and Power of Pea Protein

Professor Claire Domoney, Head of the Department of Metabolic Biology and Biological Chemistry, John Innes Centre, Norwich Research Park


We live in an era of unprecedented need to promote the use of plant-derived ingredients in order to enhance human health, and to reduce the environmental impact of food production through increased utilisation of plant foods. As legumes, pulse crops are of increasing interest in achieving these goals; their seeds provide an excellent source of protein, starch, fibre and micronutrients while, as nitrogen-fixing crops, they do not require additional nitrogen fertiliser. Pea has grown in popularity for the manufacture of plant-based foods, including meat alternatives, in recent years.  As a source of substantial natural and induced genetic variation, pea can be adapted to meet the divergent needs of food manufacture. Removal of proteins with antinutritional properties and enhancing those that contribute to desirable industrial processes can be achieved through genetic means. ‘Speed breeding’ can be used to deliver commercially-relevant materials in a shortened timeframe.

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12:35-13:00 Swimming against the tide – optimising the accumulation of omega-3 LC-PUFAs in transgenic Camelina seed oils for use in aquaculture

Professor Johnathan Napier, Flagship Leader, Rothamsted Research


We have been evaluating the possibility of producing omega-3 LC-PUFAs in different transgenic hosts to provide a sustainable source of these important nutrients, with a specific interest in producing de novo these health-beneficial fatty acids independent of oceanic sources. Attempts to metabolically engineer plants with the primary algal biosynthetic pathway for LC-PUFAs has been successfully carried out in a range of species and leading to the production of a transgenic oilseed crop (Camelina sativa) which contains over 30% omega-3 LC-PUFAs in its seed oil. We have carried out field trials in Europe and North America and also evaluated the use of GM Camelina seed oil as a replacement for fish oil in aquafeed diets, observing effective substitution in feeds for salmon and sea bream. Collectively, these data confirm the original potential of using transgenic plants to make omega-3 fish oils. However, many challenges beyond the laboratory remain to ensure this innovation delivers for the public good.

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Lunch and networking


Session 3: Synthetic biology approaches to food production

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Dr Stephen Chambers, Founding Partner, Subsero and Royal Society Entrepreneur in Residence

14:05-14:35 Using biotechnology to brew animal proteins and nutrients

Jason Kakoyiannis, Corporate Development, Ginkgo Bioworks and Board Member, Motif Foodworks


Microbial fermentation of proteins for food processing and nutrition is well established and vital to the global food system. Recent advances in cheaply reading and writing DNA combined with lab automation and data science – the field known as “synthetic biology” – now allows for brewing an ever greater variety of proteins, including complex animal proteins that have useful food and nutrition functions. This possibility has captured the imagination of food brands, food creators, consumers and advocates for reducing dependency on animal agriculture. Ginkgo Bioworks is a Boston based cell programming company with one of the world’s most sophisticated platforms for engineering microbes. Ginkgo’s large-scale synthetic biology platform, or Foundry, can take uniquely powerful approaches towards microbial production of animal proteins. This allows us to imagine a food system where a diverse range of brewed animal proteins and ingredients plays a more prominent role in mainstream food and nutrition.

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14:35-14:55 How CRISPR technology can help us all eat more fruits and vegetables

Haven Baker, Co-founder and Chief Business Officer, Pairwise


If predictions hold true, gene editing technologies will have a dramatic benefit on human health. While many of the early agriculture-based biotech efforts have focused on increasing the efficiency and production of corn and soy, there is also a substantial societal benefit to be had from improving specialty crops. Diet is the single largest contributor to human health and currently over 2 billion people are obese or overweight, and are thus at high risk for a myriad of diet-related diseases. At Pairwise, much of our effort is focused on using CRISPR technology to improve fruits and vegetables, so that people want to consume more of them. Not only are the health benefits of eating fresh produce well established, but the use of CRISPR to create more desirable produce means that the benefits of the technology are easier to understand and communicate. My presentation will focus on different approaches to gene editing in agriculture, and what Pairwise is doing to develop better fruits and vegetables for us all.

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14:55-15:15 The Meat Machine

Dr Joshua Flack, Senior Scientist, MosaMeat


The first animals were domesticated for meat production over 10,000 years ago. Despite their incredible inefficiency, these archaic “machines" are still our only source of meat. The rapidly expanding field of cellular agriculture aims to overturn ten millennia of dogma, and produce real meat grown from animal cells, without the devastating environmental and animal welfare consequences of our current food system.

MosaMeat, a Dutch start-up company founded in 2016, aims to produce beef grown exclusively from muscle and fat stem cells taken from a small biopsy of muscle from a living cow. This talk will present a vision for an alternative “meat machine”, one which may be only a few years away…

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Refreshments and networking


Panel session: Regulation, ethical issues, changing consumer preferences and public perception

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Professor Wendy Russell, Gut Health Theme Lead and Professor of Molecular Nutrition, University of Aberdeen Rowett Institute

Ernesto Schmitt, Co-founder & Arch Crafter, The Craftory
Dr Andreas Sewing, Head of Research and Development (Vegetable Seeds), BASF
Helen Munday, Chief Scientific Officer, Food and Drink Federation
Professor Chris Elliott, OBE, Institute for Global Food Security, Queen’s University Belfast
Professor Alan Raybould, Professor of Innovation in the Life Sciences, University of Edinburgh

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Closing remarks


Drinks reception

Related events

Future food: health and sustainability

Bringing together leading experts from industry, government and the wider scientific community to discuss the future of food sources and the human diet.


The Royal Society, London 6-9 Carlton House Terrace London SW1Y 5AG UK
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