It’s the year 2038. The word “flavor” has fallen into disuse. Sugar is the new cigarettes, and we have managed to replace salt with healthy plants. We live in a society in which we eat fruit grown using genetics. We drink synthetic wine, scramble eggs that do not come from chickens, grill meat that was not taken from animals, and roast fish that never saw the sea.
Was this what we had in mind when we started seeking transparency, traceability, and sustainability of our food system many years ago in the early aughts? About a decade ago, we lived through an agricultural bottleneck caused by warm temperatures that caused plagues and diseases, which severely compromised the food sources we were cultivating and consuming. By the end, three quarters of the world’s food was derived from just 12 plant and five animal species. We learned from this mistake and started to embrace true biodiversity, grew meat in labs, and put robotics into farms. But the technological advances that have made clean, sustainable food possible have also created some horrifying scenarios.
Traditional farmers were left with no choice but to reinvent themselves, although very few had the capacity to adapt to the new kind of agriculture. Most of them were eliminated by robots. Vegetables like cauliflower, cabbage, and broccoli had seen soaring prices due to a lack of workers available to harvest them. The robots cut cost by 40%.
Agriculture is now mostly in the hands of the young generation, 70% of whom are college graduates and refer to themselves as “urban farmer-scientists.” They grow all kinds of plants in containers placed throughout cities, using efficient hydroponic setups and the latest technology to narrow the gap between citizens and their food. Farms are now located in cities and can be readily visited, but they now resemble an Apple Store more than a traditional farmstead.
In addition to this technology, the fields that remained for cultivation became sites for regenerative agricultural practices, a series of steps beyond what is required to obtain an organic label and which could contribute to combat climate change by locking carbon into the ground.
We live in an age of ultrapersonalization, but at the same time, we lack any kind of privacy. All of our nutrition follows a plan, there is practically no freedom of choice. The initial trigger was China’s pilot program–based on the launch of its big data and artificial intelligence system that assigned a rating to each Chinese citizen, what they called the social credit plan.
Once Chinese businesses entered the food market en masse, they applied their technology and control model throughout the world. The focus on climate change and food safety led the EU to create a kind of food police. This organization uses technology and the ongoing carbon footprint left by each citizen to trace everything we eat and monitor our level of food waste. The sum of all these elements results in our CFS (Citizen Food Score).
They are able to analyze everything, from the sandwich we take from a vending machine–1,441 grams of CO2 equivalent, equal to the emissions generated by driving a car for 10 miles–to our overall eating habits. This means that when you try to use your fingerprint on a vending machine, sometimes it will withhold the product, either because it would exceed your predetermined carbon level or because you have already ingested the necessary calories for that day.
An algorithm calculates our level of consumption and the waste we generate without needing to check the bags in our garbage containers, simply based on what we buy at the supermarket, the number of people in our household, and their consumption and habits. This is then used to impose significant fines when a high level of waste is detected.
We have ended obesity, but we are still analyzing the health effects of new food products coming from laboratories. As a preventive measure, we now have the Food Consumption Tax Agency, which analyzes the way we eat by means of a digital implant or tattoo, depending on the category. The government makes everyone ingest an edible nanorobot every six months to assess our food’s risk for our health and the environment. Insurance companies have started to offer policies with premiums that vary according to our health habits. Thanks to those implants, they are able to track almost everything in real time.
Kitchens have completely changed. We now have bioreactors in our kitchens, together with a whole series of smart cooking devices that do not simply manipulate or process food but can prepare any dish or recipe. We have gone from having urban gardens at home to robotic greenhouses that produce food at high speed, 500 times faster than that grown from the soil. We even have the ability to produce hybrid foods.
We can now teletransport food. The method of transportation that brought meals into our homes went from the motorcycle, bicycle, and robot, to a broadband connection. Instead of sending the food, we send its data. We can acquire recipes and dishes made by top chefs in their restaurants. Once we have “purchased” them, our 3D food printers can replicate them at home in a matter of seconds. Powdered food synthesizers can create simultaneous and changing snacks, with 10 or 20 different flavors in each bite.
This happened after companies digitized every foodstuff in the world, making it possible to 3D print them. They created a digital food database that stored information about the flavor, color, shape, texture, and nutrients of different kinds of foodstuffs. The user just had to select the type of food they wanted from the database and their 3D printer created small cubes in the shape of that food, which were then injected with the corresponding flavors, colors, and nutrients.
Artificial intelligence became completely enmeshed in our lives, and also in our kitchens. Each citizen is assigned a flavor-predictive algorithm, akin to culinary DNA, which logs every memory and taste linked to food from our earliest childhood. Since it perfectly understands our every culinary need, it can even anticipate our moods and instruct our cooking devices to prepare the most appropriate dish. Everything we need is recorded in a single database.
The few remaining restauranteurs have the same level of responsibility as doctors in terms of caring for their patrons’ health. Restaurants used to cater to emotions, instead of exclusively to stomachs. Back then, they didn’t just feed diners, but also served as a setting for reconciliations, negotiations, conspiracies, declarations of love, intellectual gatherings, deep conversations, and a very long and indescribable etcetera. Nowadays, most restaurants have become virtual. They still prepare dishes, but they send them to your home. They no longer have tables and chairs for diners to sit at. The progress made in food preservation allows us to enjoy any menu, from the best haute cuisine to the cheekiest snacks, in the comfort of our own homes.
Any customers who still visit restaurants in person find a space full of sensors that track operations in the kitchen and diners’ movements. Most restaurants download their diners’ FCS (Food Citizen Score) and flavor predictive algorithm (culinary DNA) as they walk through the door, to obtain information about weight, height, dietary requirements, and physical condition goals. Their applications will then provide personalized nutritional advice and recommend meal options. Customers also provide a saliva sample, so that the restaurant can cross-reference their genetic makeup against updated studies, in order to let them know if they have a significant probability of a genetic predisposition to food intolerances and also to inform the specific dietary contents of the perfect menu they will put together.
Abundance, coupled with artificial intelligence’s ability to anticipate every decision, has emptied our minds and lives of any concerns related to food. But as a result, we have destroyed the pleasure of eating: We never lick our lips in anticipation.
Marius Robles is the CEO and cofounder of Reimagine Food, the world’s first disruption center focusing on anticipating the future of food. He is currently finishing his book Eatnomics: The New Food Economy, which provides a new perspective on where the future of food is heading, along with the opportunities and challenges that will come within.
This is a work of fiction. Characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to reality is purely coincidental.