Food of Future

The future of food

Our desires in food are laden with paradox. We love novelty, but are transfixed by nostalgia and tradition. We want to pay less while getting ever better quality. We want natural and healthy, though the two are not necessarily the same. We want to eat better than previous generations, but we revere what those generations ate. Nostalgia, neophilia, hypochondria and snobbery drive the hunter-gatherer today, all sauced with deep scepticism about science, supermarkets and the dark machinations of the “food-industrial complex”.

None of that seems likely to change over the next 25 years. But what will is the supply of food – more radically than at any time during the 20th century. Climate change and the end of the era of cheap fossil fuels for transport and fertiliser are altering the food system. The world’s three most important food crops – rice, wheat and maize – are largely grown in the countries most at risk from rising temperatures, and the predictions are stark. Maize, for a start, can’t be grown above 30C.

All food futurologists agree we can’t go on eating the way we have. But though the organic lobby is convinced that back to basics could solve the world’s problems, no serious scientist believes traditional farming alone will work. And so we will have to accept the new and “unnatural” if we want to stay fed. The public already accepts many things as natural that are not – from the bacteria-generated slime that gives bulk to low-fat mayonnaise to the chemicals that taste more real than the real thing (have a look at the label next time you buy “truffle oil”).

Author Josh Schonwald has found US bio-tech researchers are already far ahead with the nutrition of the future. As he reveals in his book, The Food of Tomorrow, the labs at the University of California-Davis are gene-splicing to create “grapes spiked with jellyfish, tomatoes spiked with carp…” and lettuce that will last on the shelf for weeks. There may already be pigs genetically engineered to grow up to five times faster. Notoriously – it was the subject of a Greenpeace campaign – there is a tomato made to last longer by using Arctic flounder genes, while in Israel a lemon basil plant crossed with a tomato has tested well with consumers.

In Schonwald’s view, all that the industry awaits is a relaxation of government regulation that will make development of these foods financially feasible. In the course of writing his book, Schonwald was converted. He began as a technosceptic: now he reckons that categorical rejection of GM is “reckless, dangerous and inhumane”. It’s the promise of adapting crops to get essential vitamins to millions of the poorest children that sold GM to him.

But, historically, hi-tech seems to let down the poor. Chemical fertiliser and pesticide has created dependency and pollution. Medical breakthroughs are for the rich world: drug companies spend more researching erectile dysfunction than they do malaria. But breeding and mutating food species, whether in a lab or on the farm, is the only convincing plan anyone has for feeding the whole world.

Something has to give in our present food culture. It doesn’t seem possible that food can ever be as cheap again as it was circa the year 2000. In Western Europe we now spend between 10% and 15% of household income on food – 60 years ago it was 60%. Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at London’s City University, says cheap food has been unrealistic, because at the moment we don’t actually pay its real price: “We’ve externalised the costs on to the environment, far-off places and cheap labour throughout food chains.”

Population growth alone is going to push up the price of grain; the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation reckons the planet will need to produce 40% more by 2050, while climate change is already affecting the great bread-baskets of the world. Lang has told the UK government that the oil-dependent food culture is over and that trading bio-diversity for food justice “will lead to Armageddon”.  When the future food arrives, most of us won’t have any choice about what we eat.

The Guardian: Read the full article