It’s 2028. Your kids make cultured cheese in cheap bioreactors for lunch; you eat sushi made with lab-grown shark meat for dinner. Throughout the day, a sensor embedded in your intestines helps you track the health of your gut microbiome. Your kitchen appliances download a smoothie recipe and order you blueberries after using some underhanded social media to help to manipulate the market price; when you order a grocery delivery box, you pay extra for transparency to ensure food safety, but get a government discount for choosing plant-based foods. At a seafood store, you notice that digital displays have been hacked to show data about slavery in Thai fish farms.
These “artifacts” from the future of food aren’t predictions, per se. For researchers at the nonprofit Institute for the Future, who created a series of possible scenarios based on signals from the present, they’re meant to be tools that we can use to consider how we might prepare for future possibilities–and how we might shape the future that we want, rather than reacting to it as it comes to pass.
“When we open our minds to these types of possibilities, it allows us to better prepare for the future by addressing a lot of the challenges today in more creative ways,” says Max Elder, research manager at the nonprofit’s Food Futures Lab. “The images that we use to think about the future today actually often become part of the future, and so we have a really important responsibility to ask questions about who’s creating these images, whose voices are included, whose aren’t, who are these products designed for, and what values are built to optimize for.”
Each scenario is meant to elicit an emotional response. “It’s really like a first-person exercise in immersion,” he says. “The question is, really, what part of these images might be something you want to create? What might you want to fight against? Would you want your children living in these futures or eating these lunchables?”
Gotta Eat ‘Em All
As it becomes easier and cheaper to track the trillions of microbes living in your gut, maintaining gut health could become a game. In “Gotta Eat ‘Em All,” a Pokémon-style game, you’d use an intestinal sensor to get real-time data about your gut microbiome, and then use computer vision to hunt down foods in real life that can help you boost the diversity of those microbes. When you capture a new microbe in your gut, your score goes up.
The concept of the game is an example of a trend that Institute for the Future researchers call “scalable biodiversity”–a growing focus on biodiversity at the microbial level, which may, in turn, also impact biodiversity at the scale of farms. New studies of gut data keep revealing the uniqueness of each individual microbiome (and a corresponding variation in what each of us needs to eat to optimize health) and suggesting that the typical diet needs much more diversity, because a lack of diversity is linked to diseases such as type 2 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease. As it becomes easier to track what’s happening in your own gut and see what you’re missing, that will increase demand for diversity in the food system.
While industrial-scale food production has traditionally used a sterile environment, that may change. In Italy, one major cheese producer is already changing production methods to manage, rather than obliterate, microbial ecosystems; preserving this diversity also optimizes the flavor of the company’s parmesan.
Craving some Tasmanian devil tartare or great white shark sushi? At Churchill’s Carnery–a cultured meat restaurant in future Sydney, named after Winston Churchill’s prediction that we’d eventually grow chicken breasts separately rather than raising whole chickens on farms–the researchers envision people lining up to eat rare “meat” produced in bioreactors. As at beer breweries today, customers would visit the warehouse to watch as products are made.
Cultured meat or “clean meat” is already deep in development today as part of a larger shift to protein without the environmental and animal welfare problems caused by raising livestock traditionally. The cost of making a burger from cow cells, rather than a cow, has fallen dramatically. In 2017, Memphis Meats unveiled prototypes of cultured chicken and duck. The next step may be to go beyond trying to re-create meat that’s available today to make food that is currently unavailable–either because the animals are rare or endangered, or because food scientists have concocted something that has never existed before.
Clever Kitchen Agents
You want your “vitAImix” blender to make a blueberry smoothie–using the trending recipe it downloaded–but because everyone else is trying to make the same recipe, your kitchen can’t cheaply source the local, organic, aeroponically farmed berries that you want. The solution: you orchestrate a tweet about a fake food safety scandal involving blueberries, and the price drops. Your fridge places the order.
The long-hyped internet of things is finally manifesting itself, and as more objects come online–from livestock and crops with sensors to kitchen appliances–the food system will become more efficient and more responsive to demands and external forces like a changing climate. As data proliferates, retailers will use machine learning to automatically change prices in real time and respond to predicted future demand. Appliances, in response, will use their own algorithms to try to get consumers the best deal.
Fourth-graders in 2028 might grow their own cheese for lunch. In a concept called “Lunchabios,” researchers envision a Lunchables-like synthetic biology kit that would be marketed to children. Kids would use a bioreactor to culture cheddar, and then pair it with premade crackers and ham at lunch a few days later. A “Pro-GMO” certification on the package celebrates genetic modification, unlike GMO labeling today.
Lunchbox bioreactors are possible, the researchers say, because the technology is becoming cheap enough to make it accessible for everyone. If companies want to become more transparent about how they produce cultured food, and increase public literacy about synthetic biology, it’s likely that they’ll want to offer more hands-on experiences for consumers to try making that food themselves. It’s also likely that they’ll target children, whether or not parents support the idea.
It’s the not-so-distant future in a Seattle seafood shop, and the digital pricing displays for the food have been hacked by an activist group. Screens that would normally show the price, freshness, and nutrition of the fish now show “digital graffiti” about slave labor in seafood farms, overuse of antibiotics, and genetic modification.
The scenario is an example of the convergence of two trends. Already, thanks to Twitter and other tools, food companies no longer control the narrative about the products they create. As the range of new communications platforms grows–including digital displays in retail stores, but also technology embedded in kitchens and virtual reality simulations–there will be more opportunities for what IFTF researchers call “rewriteable narratives” about food. While some platforms can be hacked, others will be more open to consumers to begin with. Brands that are already becoming more transparent about their products might become more so, recognizing that sharing the data builds trust.
In China, a future food delivery box may be “curated” by food safety specialists, with an added transparency fee to help guarantee that consumers get healthy food in a marketplace where food fraud and safety issues are common. The receipt also lists a fee to support health insurance for farmers, a tax for waste, and a government-supported discount for choosing plant-based foods.
It’s one example of the growth of informed eaters; if consumers in the past didn’t know how their food was made, that is changing. In China, one company is already tracking chickens throughout their life cycle, using blockchain technology, to give consumers proof about the quality of the meat they buy. The search engine company Baidu designed chopsticks that it claims can measure the freshness of oil. Around the world, using tools like LED-lit countertop gardens, more people are growing their own food; others are helping crowdfund more responsible products like cricket protein bars. Consumers are becoming more engaged, and less passive.