Three decades from now, will we still sit down to table with family and friends, enjoying all the same sights and smells – or should we expect something completely different? Will overpopulation and resource depletion force us to make drastic changes in our diet? Will veganism be the lifestyle of a dedicated minority or the obvious choice for an uncertain future?
Although there may be enough food to go around in the West, experts say the realities of agriculture and economics will convince more of us to become vegetarians or vegans. “As the price of raising livestock goes up, we’ll eat less beef and more fish,” says Professor Sheenan Harpaz of the Volcani Center in Beit Dagan, Israel.
Harpaz predicts our reliance on genetic engineering will continue to increase as we strive to feed a growing, hungry world. Crops will be made more resistant to pests and viruses, he says, but food will look the same as it does today. Harpaz predicts a focus on function over form.
Eat What Our Food Eats
“Functional foods,” like their natural counterparts (think fish rich in in omega-3s), will be designed to provide added value to health-conscious consumers. This will be done not only through biotechnology, but through diet trends that contribute to better health. For example, “there will be a focus on foods that animals eat – since that is a reflection of what we ultimately eat.”
So in 2050, supermarket shelves will be stocked with functional foods. Instead of just a baby food section, we’ll have products tailored to every segment of the population – foods optimized for women, men, and the elderly. Food science will formulate the best nutritional profile for each demographic group, as well as for each individual.
“Once we have a complete picture of the human genome, we’ll know how to create food that better meets our needs,” says Prof. Yoram Kapulnik, director of the Volcani Center. When parents make their children’s school lunches in the morning, they’ll use a nutritional database to help them figure out what’s best for each child – factoring in everything from getting enough vitamins to dealing with digestive system issues.
“Food will be more expensive,” Kapulnik says, “but it will also be customized to each one of us.”
Tasteless? We Prefer Non-Traditional
The customized food of the future may come from natural sources, but given the limits of traditional production methods, 3D printing may become key in making functional foods more widely available. “Food will look exactly the same, but it will be printed to personal specifications,” predicts Kapulnik. We’ll have custom-designed flavors and colors, and ingredients formulated according to doctor’s orders or personal dietary needs.
Personalized 3D printed food in your choice of color sounds great, but it’s likely to remain a luxury affordable only to small segments of the world’s population. In the third world, food will be bland, monotonous, and increasingly a mere necessity of survival. The experts think developing countries will come to rely on some type of compact food rations similar to NASA’s famous astronaut packets – nutritionally fortified energy bars, biscuits or dehydrated snacks – to help feed growing numbers of hungry people. These items may not be very appetizing, but they will be functional – formulated to provide maximum nutrition and a feeling of satiety.
Kapulnik predicts that developed countries, too, may come to rely on food concentrates to meet some of their needs. When the time comes, if people are still eating traditional sit-down meals, 3D printers will help meet the demand for culinary variety and novelty. Otherwise, good old energy bars will do the job.
The Insect Option: Functional Food
Food experts are all but certain that we’ll soon be forced to find substitutes for our limited sources of animal protein. The solution, it turns out, is right under our noses and is already a familiar staple in parts of the developing world: bugs.
“Is eating grasshoppers more disgusting than eating a cow?” asks Dr. Nitza Kardish, CEO of Trendlines Agtech. “After all, we don’t think of a cow when we eat a steak, and we don’t see a chicken when we eat schnitzel – it’s just a matter of perception.”
People in Africa and the Far East may be used to eating all kinds of bugs whole, but Westerners may be easier to sell on processed insect powders that can be used to make passable substitutes for traditional items: steak, burgers, mashed potatoes – the possibilities are endless.
Industrial-scale bug farming is not yet a reality, but some Israeli companies have recently started to produce insect-based foods commercially. Can’t wait? Not to worry – frozen grasshopper schnitzels are on the way.
Some say the answer is even simpler – we don’t really need meat substitutes from a nutritional point of view. “There are plant-based foods that provide protein and iron, and there’s no such thing as getting too little cholesterol or saturated fat,” says Hila Keren of Anonymous for Animal Rights. Keren says it’s easy to find tasty alternatives without resorting to high-tech solutions. “All the big café chains serve vegan omelets. Bakeries make vegan pies, cakes and cookies. Even steakhouses serve vegan burgers, and of course there are thousands of recipes online,” she adds.
The Algae Alternative
It may sound gross to most of us, but insects are known to be highly nutritious. More than just a smart alternative to traditional protein sources, bugs can be used for nutritional fortification. As Dr. Harpaz reminds us, health will be the priority when it comes to the food of the future, and it should also be the focus for research aimed at developing new strains.
So it seems that our diet in 2050 will include more superfoods – foods with much healthier nutritional profiles than those that make up the typical Western diet. Kale is one example already familiar to many of us: the dark green super-cabbage is rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals and anti-cancer compounds. While marketers may try to take advantage of the “superfood” label to sell their products, true superfoods like kale and its relatives will be the superstars of the health-savvy dinner table for years to come.
Another low-tech solution to the challenge of healthy eating is algae. Algae contain more calcium, protein, iron, vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants than any known fruit or vegetable. The aquatic plants can be farmed in pools just like fish but are much cheaper and more abundant. Algae may be the ideal non-animal food source for sustainably feeding the world while minimizing environmental damage.
How are we planning for an international water shortage?
A Helping Hand
The challenge of improving the food of the future is inseparable from the issue of genetic engineering. With the help of genetic engineering, it will be possible to develop strains of non-allergenic peanuts or flood-resistant rice. Professor Danny Chamovitz, dean of the life sciences department at Tel Aviv University and a prominent proponent of genetic engineering, believes it’s important to emphasize that it poses no health or environmental hazards.
“It’s just transferring a gene from one place to another – like in cross-breeding,” he says. “In 20 years of engineered strains all over the world there have been no cases of death or illness.” According to Chamovitz, the fear of genetic engineering is holding back research. Resistance from organizations like Greenpeace, he says, does the world a disservice, and in many cases prevents life-saving and life-improving research.
Greenpeace members assert the opposite: that many substances we have been using for years are harmful, even if the damage they cause has not yet been proven. The organization believes that in a world grappling with ever-worsening climate change, we cannot afford to put all our eggs in one basket, so to speak. “Maintaining diversified agriculture is an insurance policy for future food security,” according to Greenpeace, and “a takeover of the world‘s food resources by a small number of strains will do more harm than good. The agricultural conglomerates promoting genetically engineering are cynically exploiting world hunger and manipulating the guilty feelings of Westerners to sell their products.”
Professor Nir Ohad, director of the Manna Center Program for Food Safety and Security at Tel Aviv University is convinced that “a lot more effort is needed just to maintain the status quo.” With all the complicated issues that stand between us and our daily bread, Ohad says, the question we should really be asking is not what sort of food we will be putting on our plates, but how it will get there.