A few times a year, Intentional Futures gathers industry experts around a table to discuss one topic over dinner. Last month our theme was the Future of Food. Restaurant owners, farmers, writers, and technologists talked about everything from cultural norms to rats. We rhapsodized about food, worried about hunger, and wondered whether the future of food might be found in the past.
Dinner guests offered several insights:
- In the U.S., less than 7% of our household income goes to food; in some countries it’s higher than 40%.
- Women produce over half of the food worldwide, but continued discrimination threatens food security.
- We’re seeing an emergence of urban farming, heirloom wheat, and organic produce.
- Iowa imports 90% of its food, despite a vast amount of available growing land.
- In 2016 we threw out over 30% of the food we produced—the same year that over 12% of U.S. households experienced food insecurity.
Globally, we have both a food waste and a food shortage problem. Some U.S. companies like FoodMaven and Kroeger are trying to redirect this waste to restaurants and food banks; a good start, but a drop in the compost bin.
In the developing world, crop losses can be as high as 60% due to poor food storage, corruption, and dysfunctional transportation. In many countries, we simply can’t get food to hungry people. Inadequate food storage can also be a boon for pests, and for the carcinogen Aflatoxin, which grows in soil and, left untreated, produces contaminated crops. When untreated crops are processed, Aflatoxin goes on to poison livestock, the food supply, and people. At high levels, it can result in liver damage.
Considerations for the land and water requirements for food production had us taking a close look at animal proteins.
Today, the market for alternative proteins is tiny, though change is on the horizon. Big players like Tyson Foods are making investments in the makers of alt proteins, like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Memphis Meats is taking it a step further by producing lab-grown meat to deliver actual meat without the killing. And insects like crickets and grasshoppers, already enjoyed by less squeamish populations, are good sources of protein that can be farmed efficiently in a fraction of the space required by other proteins.
Investors in alternative proteins are making bets that cost, land, and the impact on the earth will drive more people to consume protein in different forms.
At the dinner, we tasted for ourselves. Attendees sampled cricket flour cookies, Soylent White Russians, Impossible Burgers, cashew cheese, and cricket chips. Thumbs-up all around. Some noted that we’re still in a skeuomorphic era of fake meat, with veggie dogs and lab-made chicken as a stop on the way to a still-unknown protein form factor.
The switch away from meat and toward more thoughtful consumption of food will be a long haul; food in the U.S. is a commodity and fast food permeates our culture. It’s not clear that we can retrain people to consider seasonality in a country where you can get a strawberry whenever you want, or that the war against carbs will leave room for breads made from grains as ancient as they are delicious. But perhaps a “square meal” could be reimagined without meat at its center. While perception change is slow and tedious work, we should remember that breakfast cereal was only invented in the 1800s. Traditions can change and marketing works.
We had more reasons for hope by the end of our meal. Even some though reporters love to write gloomy articles that predict we’ll run out of food in 2050, there are a lot of unused front lawns in this country that could easily grow food. Urban agriculture is growing, supported by big data and city ordinances.
In spite of all the recent focus on technology, the future of food is not simply a technological problem. We still want to eat something delicious so that we can perform well and feel better. We want to feel connected to food and to each other: when we can taste the roots of what we’re eating, we are tied to history and farming. The millions of photos of food on Instagram is evidence of that connection.
And like we experienced at this dinner, sharing meals matters. The social experience stays with us long after the food is gone.