Future of food
Bugs, in-vitro meat, synthetic GMO foods—your future diet might surprise you. Learn insider secrets about the future of food.
Future of the economy
Your future diet in bugs, in-vitro meat, and synthetic foods: Future of food P5
We’re on the cusp of a gastronomical revolution. Climate change, a population spurt, an excess demand for meat, and new sciences and technologies around making and growing food will spell the end of the simple food diets we enjoy today. In fact, the next few decades will see us enter a brave new world of foods, one that will see our diets become more complex, nutrient-packed, and flavor rich—and, yes, maybe just a smidge creepy.
‘How creepy?’ you ask.
Insects will one day become a part of your diet, directly or indirectly, whether you like it or not. Now, I know what you’re thinking, but once you get past the ick factor, you’ll realize this isn’t such a bad thing.
Let’s do a quick recap. Climate change will reduce the amount of arable land available to grow crops globally by the mid-2040s. By then, the human population is set to grow by another two billion people. Much of this growth will occur in Asia where their economies will mature and increase their demand for meat. Altogether, less land to grow crops, more mouths to feed, and an increased demand for meat from crop-hungry livestock will converge to create global food shortages and price spikes that could destabilize many parts of the world … that is unless we humans get clever about how we meet this challenge. That’s where bugs come in.
Livestock feed accounts for 70 percent of agricultural land use and represents at least 60 percent of food (meat) production costs. These percentages will only grow with time, making the costs associated with livestock feed unsustainable in the long term—especially since livestock tend to eat the same food we eat: wheat, corn, and soybeans. However, if we replace these traditional livestock feeds with bugs, we might bring food prices way down, and potentially allow traditional meat production to continue for another decade or two.
Here’s why bugs are awesome: Let’s take grasshoppers as our sample bug food—we can farm nine times as much protein from grasshoppers as cattle for the same amount of feed. And, unlike cattle or pigs, insects don’t need to eat the same food we eat as feed. Instead, they can feed on biowaste, like banana peels, expired Chinese food, or other types of compost. We can also farm bugs at way higher density levels. For example, beef needs about 50 square meters per 100 kilos, whereas 100 kilos of bugs can be raised in just five square meters (this makes them a great candidate for vertical farming). Bugs produce fewer greenhouse gasses than livestock and are far cheaper to produce at scale. And, for the foodies out there, compared to traditional livestock, bugs are an extremely rich source of protein, good fats, and contain a variety of quality minerals like calcium, iron, and zinc.
But, what about humans eating bugs directly? Well, over two billion people already consume insects as a normal part of their diets, particularly throughout South America, Africa, and Asia. Thailand is a case in point. As anyone who’s backpacked through Thailand would know, insects like grasshoppers, silkworms, and crickets are available widely in most of the country’s grocery markets. So, maybe eating bugs isn’t that weird, after all, maybe it’s us picky eaters in Europe and North America who are the ones that need to catch up with the times.
Okay, so maybe you’re not sold on the bug diet just yet. Luckily, there’s another wonderfully weird trend that you could one day bite into test tube meat (in-vitro meat). You’ve probably heard about this already, in-vitro meat is essentially the process of creating real meat in a lab—via processes like scaffolding, tissue culture, or muscle (3D) printing. Food scientists have been working on this since 2004, and it will be ready for prime time mass production within the next decade (the late 2020s).
But why bother making meat this way at all? Well, on a business level, growing meat in a lab would use 99 percent less land, 96 percent less water, and 45 percent less energy than traditional livestock farming. On an environmental level, in-vitro meat could reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with livestock farming by up to 96 percent. On a health level, in-vitro meat would be completely pure and disease-free, while looking and tasting as good as the real thing. And, of course, on a moral level, in-vitro meat will finally allow us to eat meat without having to harm and kill over 150 BILLION livestock animals a year.
It’s worth a try, don’t you think?
Drink your food
Another growing niche of edibles is drinkable food substitutes. These are already quite common in pharmacies, serving as a diet aid and necessary food substitute for those recovering from jaw or stomach surgeries. But, if you’ve ever tried them, you’ll find that most don’t really do a good job of filling you up. (In fairness, I’m six feet tall, 210 pounds, so it takes a lot to fill me up.) That’s where the next generation of drinkable food substitutes comes in.
Among the most talked about recently is Soylent. Designed to be cheap and provide all the nutrients your body needs, this is one of the first drinkable meal replacements designed to completely replace your need for solid foods. VICE Motherboard shot a great short documentary about this new food that’s worth the watch.
Going full veg
Finally, instead of messing around with bugs, lab meat, and drinkable food goop, there will be a growing minority who will decide to go full veg, giving up on most (even all) meats entirely. Luckily for these folks, the 2030s and especially the 2040s will be the golden age of vegetarianism.
By then, the combination of synbio and superfood plants coming online will represent an explosion of veg food options. From that variety, a huge array of new recipes and restaurants will emerge that will finally make being a veghead completely mainstream, and maybe even the dominant norm. Even vegetarian meat substitutes will finally taste good! Beyond Meat, a vegetarian startup cracked the code of how to make veg burgers taste like real burgers, while also packing the veg burgers with way more protein, iron, omegas, and calcium.
The food divide
If you’ve read this far, then you’ve learned how climate change and population growth will negatively disrupt the world food supply;you’ve learned how this disruption will drive adoption of new GMO and superfoods; how both will be grown in smart farms instead of vertical farms; and now we’ve learned about the entirely new classes of foods that are bustling for primetime. So where does this leave our future diet? It might sound cruel, but it will depend a lot on your income level.
Let’s start with the lower class folk who, in all likelihood, will represent the large majority of the world population by the 2040s, even in Western countries. Their diet will largely comprise of cheap GMO grains and vegetables (up to 80 to 90 percent), with the occasional helping of meat and dairy substitutes and in-season fruit. This heavy, nutrient-rich GMO diet will ensure full nutrition, but in some regions, it may also lead to stunted growth due to a deprivation of complex proteins from traditional meats and fish. Expanded use of vertical farms may avoid this scenario, as these farms could produce the excess grains needed for cattle raising.
(By the way, the causes behind this future widespread poverty will involve expensive and regular climate change disasters, robots replacing most blue-collar workers, and supercomputers (maybe AI) replacing most white-collar workers. You can read more about this in our Future of Work series, but for now, just know that that being poor in the future will be far better than being poor today. In fact, tomorrow's poor will in some ways resemble the middle class of today.)
Meanwhile, what’s left of the middle class will enjoy a slightly higher quality of munchables. Grains and vegetables will comprise a normal two-thirds of their diet, but will largely come from slightly more expensive superfoods over GMO. Fruits, dairy, meats, and fish will comprise the remainder of this diet, in much the same proportions as the average Western diet. The key differences, however, are that most of the fruit will be GMO, the dairy natural, while most of the meat and fish will be lab-grown (or GMO during food shortages).
As for the top five percent, let’s just say the luxury of the future will lie in eating like it’s the 1980s. As much as it’s available, grains and vegetables will be sourced from superfoods while the rest of their food intake will come from increasingly rare, naturally raised and traditionally farmed meats, fish and dairy: a low-carb, high-protein diet—the diet of the young, rich, and beautiful.
And, there you have it, the food landscape of tomorrow. As drastic as these changes to your future diets may seem now, remember that they will come about over the course of 10 to 20 years. The change will be so gradual (in Western countries at least) that you will barely realize it. And, for the most part, it will be for the best—a plant-based diet is better for the environment, more affordable (especially in the future), and healthier overall. In many ways, the poor of tomorrow will eat far better than the wealthy of today.
Future of Food Series