Food: The 2050 Challenge and the Women Addressing It

May 8, 2023

by Patricia Soochan

The world has a major dilemma: food is more abundant for humans than it has ever been, but there are growing concerns, both literally and figuratively. Climate change and bad agricultural practices threaten our food supply. Easy access to processed food is making us sick, with alarming rises in adult and childhood obesity and its comorbidities. Burgeoning birth rates in some parts of the world further threaten our food supply. In fact, as the World Resources Institute warned in its 2019 report, Creating A Sustainable Food Future, we will need 56% more food globally than we produce today to feed 10 billion people in 2050—less than three decades from now.

Creating a Sustainable Food Future by 2050 infographic,

Figure 1. Creating a Sustainable Food Future by 2050,

These wickedly intertangled problems demand multifaceted solutions as we search for new sources of food and look for ways to reduce our carbon footprint (Figure 1). The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research, which provides funding for innovative projects, identifies six key challenge areas that reflect the complexity of agriculture and food production: soil health, sustainable water management, next-generation crops, advanced animal systems, urban food systems, and the health-agriculture nexus.

Even if we could cast aside the dire prediction that the world ’s population will soon exceed its food supply, and laugh it off as a misplaced Malthusian redux, we would still have to address concerns about environmental sustainability and inequities in our food accessibility and agricultural practices. The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, an international organization founded by the United Nations, cites a current, disconcerting statistic: every third person around the globe is malnourished (Figure 2). Diving more deeply into the data, we learn that 821 million people now experience chronic hunger, 2 billion don’t consume enough micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) for healthy growth, and 1 in 5 deaths is linked to poor diet.

1 in 3 people are malnourished.

Figure 2.

Fortunately, the future of food is a subject that’s grabbing lots of attention from funders, the science community, and the popular press. Initiatives like the Rockefeller Foundation’s Food System Vision and the American Geographical Society’s Geography 2050: The Future of Food demonstrate this growing interest. Commercial innovators are also giving the subject some serious attention, announcing, for example, that lab-grown chicken breast meat will soon be available in restaurants and grocery stores, perhaps as early as this year, now that the US FDA has declared it safe for human consumption.

Solutions Should Focus on Food Systems

Women scientists are also taking a close look at ways to solve our food problems. Dr. Brandy Phipps, an assistant professor and researcher in Central State University’s (CSU’s) agricultural program in Ohio, and a 2022 AWIS Spark Awardee, has been laser focused on inequities in food systems.

Dr. Brandy Phipps, an assistant professor and researcher in Central  State University.

Dr. Brandy Phipps, an assistant professor and researcher in Central  State University.

CSU is among the nation’s historically black colleges and universities and is also a landgrant institution (founded in 1890) that has a dedicated agricultural research station. These attributes make the university the perfect environment for Dr. Phipps to engage in her two professional passions: investigating systems approaches to agriculture/food science and mentoring students who are typically excluded because of their ethnicity, race or economic disadvantages.

Her research revolves around the intersectionality of climate change, nutrition and health equity, and food systems transformation. Her projects follow two general lines of inquiry—agricultural and biomedical—with concurrent grant funding from various US government agencies. One project for which she serves as principal investigator brings together researchers from six land-grant institutions, with funding from a $10 million USDA-NIFA sustainable agriculture systems grant. The project has the attention-grabbing acronym SUSHI, which stands for Sustainable Use of Safe Hemp Ingredients. Its objective is to explore hemp as a nutrient-dense sustainable and safe source of feed for land-based aquaculture. (Since the multiuse hemp plant was removed from the US government’s list of controlled substances in 2018, there has been a resurgence in research into its many applications [Figure 3]).

Figure 3. Hemp, a paradigm of sustainable agriculture.

Figure 3. Hemp, a paradigm of sustainable agriculture.

The project, which also includes the College of Menominee Nation in Wisconsin as a partner, aims not only to provide sustainable economic, community-wide opportunities in aquaponics and hemp production but also to offer learning experiences in basic and applied aquaculture and other AgStem fields to Native American students from the college. Last year, Dr. Phipps shared important agricultural, cultural, and economic ramifications of the project in key testimony to the US House Committee on Agriculture.

Dr. Phipps’s other grant-funded research aims to develop or enhance nutritional or nutraceutical interventions (including those informed by traditional ecological knowledge) to treat chronic disease in underserved populations; to understand the interaction and potential health effects of biomolecules in plant extracts and functional foods (those modified or bred to have additional beneficial traits); and to identify the chemicals in smoked and vaped hemp products.

Other Innovative Approaches to the Future of Food

Dr. Leila Strickland and Michelle Egger, Co-Founders of BIOMILQ

Dr. Leila Strickland and Michelle Egger, Co-Founders of BIOMILQ Photo credit: Michelle Egger

Today many other diverse women are also pursuing these breakthroughs. One is Dr. Leila Strickland, cell biologist and the CEO of BIOMILQ, which she cofounded with Michelle Egger, a food scientist, after receiving start-up funding from Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures. In 2021, BIOMILQ announced that it had produced human breast milk from cultured human mammary cells. Even though cell-cultured human milk lacks antibodies, its nutritional and bioactive composition makes it a more nutritious option than bovine-based infant formula.

Another innovator in this space, Dr. Fei Luo, is a chemical engineer and the CEO and co-founder of Liven Proteins, a company that models a circular food economy. Scientists at Liven Proteins are using synthetic biology and precision fermentation to convert food that would otherwise be lost into functional protein ingredients. These animal-free protein ingredients are then used to improve the taste, texture, and cooking of plant-based foods (Figure 4).

Dr. Fei Luo, CEO and Cofounder of Liven Proteins Photo credit: Liven Proteins

Dr. Fei Luo, CEO and Cofounder of Liven Proteins Photo credit: Liven Proteins

Figure 4. Liven Protein’s precision fermentation technology,

Figure 4. Liven Protein’s precision fermentation technology,

Fermentation technology has also drawn the interest of Dr. Nieves Martinez-Marshall, who launched Novel Farms with fellow molecular biologist Michelle Lu, using startup funding from a small-business- innovation research grant from the National Science Foundation, along with additional funding from Big Idea Ventures. Novel Farms uses a proprietary fermentation process to produce whole cuts of meat. In 2022 the company announced it had successfully produced the world’s first cultivated, marbled pork loin.

Drs. Nieves Martinez-Marshall and Michelle Lu, Co-Founders of Novel Farms Photo credit: Novel Farms

Drs. Nieves Martinez-Marshall and Michelle Lu, Co-Founders of Novel Farms Photo credit: Novel Farms

Dr. Lisa Dyson, CEO and founder of Air Protein Photo credit: Air Protein

Dr. Lisa Dyson, CEO and founder of Air Protein Photo credit: Air Protein

One additional food pioneer, Dr. Lisa Dyson, is a physicist and the CEO and founder of Air Protein. Her company seeks to produce animal-free protein by using repurposed NASA technology to transform the air that astronauts breathe into protein to feed them on long space trips. Soon after launch, the company received an entrepreneurship award from the Clean Energy Education and Empowerment (C3E) Initiative, which seeks to close the gender gap in women’s participation in clean energy fields. In 2020 Air Protein won the Davos World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer Award.

All these diverse women scientists are leading the way, in hot pursuit of a food supply that meets the needs of a growing, worldwide population while keeping both sustainability and equity front and center.


AWIS member Patricia SoochanPatricia Soochan is a program officer and member of the multidisciplinary team at Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), with primary responsibility for the development and execution of the Inclusive Excellence (IE1&2) initiative. Previously she had lead responsibility for science education grants provided primarily to undergraduate institutions, a precursor of IE. She has served as a councilor for the Council on Undergraduate Research and is a contributing writer for AWIS Magazine and The Nucleus. Prior to joining HHMI, she was a science assistant at the National Science Foundation, a science writer for a consultant to the National Cancer Institute, and a research and development scientist at Life Technologies. She received her BS and MS degrees in biology from George Washington University.

Editor’s Note: The contents of this article are not affiliated with HHMI.

This article was originally published in AWIS Magazine. Join AWIS to access the full issue of AWIS Magazine and more member benefits.