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NEXT: The Future of Food

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I’ve started tracking trends in agriculture and the production and consumption of food, and there are some significant trends that I have been following.

It is possible that in the near future we will expand the number of plant species we consume. Today, almost half of the calories we consume come from just three grains: corn, wheat and rice. That ratio might be altered with the worldwide adaptation of algae as a food source, for example, which is already popular in Japan. 

Think of how quinoa — once consumed largely only in the Andes region — has become a more important part of our diets (well, at least some of us). Will quinoa join these other three as a worldwide staple grain? Other plants might also join this list, such as Emmer wheat, minor millets, peach palm, giant swamp taro and sea buckthorn.

Another potential new food source could come from insects, but this scenario seems highly unlikely at the moment. Thousands of different types of insects are currently consumed around the world, because they are high in protein and require significantly less water and land to cultivate. 

There have been attempts to market insect snacks in the West, with predictable results. It seems unlikely that Western palettes will ever be able to ignore the “creep factor” of consuming insects. However, there is reason to believe that insects could constitute the meal that is used to feed livestock and other animals that we do consume. Aquaculture — the farming of fish — might rely more and more on insect meal, for example. That is, insects might become a part of the agricultural supply chain. 

The invention of the Impossible Burger suggests that there will be a trend toward food that is designed and manufactured to be more nutritious and more environmentally sustainable. It is likely that we will design food such that we will take DNA from one source and insert into another, producing desirable traits. 

For example, we might design foods to have less sugar and salt, while retaining the flavor profile we crave. In another scenario, annual plants such as wheat and corn —“annual” in the sense that they must be planted again every year — could be bred with the characteristics of perennials, like wheatgrass, which can produce a crop for years without having to be replanted. 

Such selective breeding is what humans have been doing for millennia. It is a central feature of the Agricultural Revolution. But technology will make the process more precise. For this scenario to occur, of course, our skittishness about genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) will have to have dissipated, an assumption that is far from certain.

It is possible that food will be translated into data, a scenario I am calling “The Internet of Food.” Some companies have started digitizing food. One goal here would be to be able to track food stuffs, from farm to processing to table. This would introduce a new kind of transparency — or surveillance — about the provenance of food across its supply chain.

One Japanese company has created a database that defines food according to flavor, color, nutrients and so on. One implication of this digitalization of food is that the “code” could be transmitted to our homes where a 3D printer would sculpt out any number of food designs. Many of these designs could only be accomplished by 3D printers/robots, not by what a human chef could produce. 

In the way that some consumers are preparing their own food from kits sent by Blue Apron, it will be possible to assemble food at home from codes we have selected online. It is possible that incumbent grocery stores like Kroger and Giant Eagle will change their business models to be in the personalized home delivery of food. The weekly trip to the grocery gives way to more frequent, even daily, virtual trips to the store.

We now understand that every body absorbs and processes foods differently. We used to assume that counting calories — and exercise — was the best way manage weight. But we now understand that even if two people consume the same amount of calories, they may process these calories very differently, owing to factors such as genetic make-up and the specific composition of the bacteria in our guts. 

There are some companies today that provide “nutrigenetics services.” They test your DNA, like 23 and Me, and design meal plans around your specific genetic make-up. Expect these services to proliferate, especially as we are able to identify other body markers such as the specific contents of our gut biome. Food in the future will be more tailor-made and designed for the specific profile of every individual. 

The personalization of food would have significant implications for restaurants. The restaurant business is already very difficult to succeed in, but when potential patrons can so easily order food online to be “delivered” to the 3D printer/robot at home, there will be less of a need to travel out to eat. Those who do will expect a restaurant to be able to fulfill their specific and unique dietary and nutritional needs. Indeed, it seems that restaurants would likely become more virtual, the providers of the code that is sent to people’s homes. 

There would likely be a dark side to food personalization. As a condition for health insurance, for example, companies might insist that you follow a proscribed dietary regime, specifically tailored for your unique nutritional profile. Say I go to the grocery and select a Snickers bar. When I go to check out, I might be prevented from making the purchase, that candy bar not permitted under my personalized nutrition profile. We would certainly be healthier, with obesity brought under control, but with little or no personal choice in what we eat. Or perhaps my food choices will be monitored not for their effects on my body but on their carbon footprint. Perhaps I’ll have a weekly allotment of food choices that is determined by their environmental impact? 

This scenario is more likely to occur in China — an outgrowth of their “social credit” scheme— but also in the EU, where such regulations are a matter of course. It is possible that this scenario unfolds in the US, but it seems more likely that it will enforced by insurance companies rather than government regulation. I would think it unlikely that Americans would allow their food choices to be so easily dictated to them.

Technology will create the conditions for autonomous farming. A lot of farming is already automated. Combines that move across fields are guided by GPS systems, harvesting and planting controlled by algorithms that are analyzing the specifics of the soil, moisture and other such factors. There is still a human, of course, who rides along the combine, but that person is less pilot than co-pilot. 

Hydroponics labs like Iron Ox are seeking to grow food using robots and algorithms, without human intervention. Autonomous farming would be based around hydroponics, meaning the amount of arable land needed to conduct agriculture would be significantly reduced. Indeed, there is reason to suspect that autonomous farming will carried out in urban locations, making the distance from “farm to table” that much closer. 

David Staley is Director of the Humanities Institute and a professor at The Ohio State University. He is host of the “Voices of Excellence” podcast and host of CreativeMornings Columbus.

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