WHAT WILL WE BE EATING IN THE FUTURE?
The way we feed ourselves in the Smart City of the future will depend on much more than just technical innovation. The huge increase in the number of city-dwellers in the coming years – the statisticians tell us that eight billion people will be living in megacities around the world in 2050 – together with the need to effectively brake global warming, while at the same time finding solutions for feeding a constantly expanding global population, are forcing us to come up with new approaches to production and consumption. Today, a number of potential major developments provide blueprints for future food production scenarios. On the one hand, an agricultural Smart City, equipped with large urban farms, could ensure environmentally-friendly, locally-based food production. Widespread urban agriculture – ‘urbaculture’ – could well ensure food production autonomy. On the other hand, 3D printing may bring about a far-reaching technological revolution in our eating habits. Not least, scientific research will make its contribution, creating ‘augmented foods’ or ‘super-foods’. But the fact is that none of these three scenarios allows us to predict with any confidence what we will find on our plates in 30 years’ time. We offer some explanations below.
ARE WE MOVING TOWARDS MASS URBAn AGRICULTURE?
The Smart City as the new self-sufficient farming space?
URBAN FARMS ARE THRIVING IN THE SMART CITY
During the last few centuries, it has been the role of the countryside to produce sufficient food to feed everyone, because that’s where the space is. However, since urban agriculture appeared in the 1970s the boundaries have constantly been pushed back. These days, with the need to switch to an environmentally-friendly approach, the number of urban farming ventures is increasing all over the world, holding out the promise that the city of tomorrow will be able to produce its own food in large quantities. While it is true that hydroponic culture techniques are now proven – results have demonstrated that city-dwellers can obtain high-quality agricultural produce and enjoy fresh fruit and vegetables in an urban setting – it is nevertheless very unlikely that large towns and cities will in the future have enough space to enable mass food production. Even if urban farms succeed in working on the basis of vertical structures laid out over a number of floors so as to maximise planting, they will still – given their relatively poor yields – need to focus more on quality rather than quantity so as to meet our future nutrition needs. Nicolas Bel, an agricultural engineer who teaches at the Paris Institute of Technology for Life, Food and Environmental Sciences (AgroParisTech), explains that “In Paris, if we take a highly simplified and optimistic hypothesis of 5 kilos of fresh vegetables per square metre over 320 hectares, that would add up to 32,000 tons of vegetables per year, only enough to feed 230,000 Parisians at most.”
"Growing rice, maize and wheat calls for huge crop biomass. To obtain from 5 to 12 tons of cereals per hectare, you will need to harvest close to 20 tons of crops dry weight in vertical farms at altitude."
– Erik Murchie, Associate Professor of Crop Science at the University of Nottingham, UK
In addition, apart from the problem of insufficient capacity, urban farms, like the cooperative market gardens we see thriving in car parks or on roofs, would have great difficulty in producing anything other than vegetables and fruit. Growing cereals, an essential element of our diet, requires far greater resources. And the idea of breeding animals to enable city residents to buy meat locally is also a rather hypothetical notion, given the need for even bigger spaces and resources. Those urban farms that are increasingly becoming part of our city landscapes will in fact only be able to provide a small percentage of what goes into the meals we eat in the future.
'AUGMENTED’ FOODSTUFFS DEVELOPED IN THE LABORATORY
Will super-foods be our main sustenance in the future?
These days, innovations from FoodTech companies lead us to believe that ‘augmented foods’ might enable us to eat differently in the future. In Silicon Valley, a number of startups are developing laboratory-produced, nutrient-filled foodstuffs that are beneficial for our health and produced without causing damage to our planet. In recent years we have seen an increasing number of ventures in this field. The first lab-grown hamburger, cultivated in the laboratory from stem cells taken from the shoulder of a cow, made its appearance in 2013.
We could also point to the lab-grown chicken meat produced by San Francisco Bay Area-based startup Memphis Meats or the vegan minced meat substitute made of wheat, potatoes and soya roots – the Impossible Burger – from Silicon Valley startup Impossible Foods. Or even the super-concentrated drinks such as Soylent, which is sold as a meal substitute. All these innovations seem to be taking us towards a future of synthetic and artificial food that is easier to produce and faster to eat and so better suited to the hectic pace of modern life, as well as promising such added benefits as improvements in our concentration or a stronger immune system.
"We’re now able to produce meat that’s better for your health, while at the same time reducing greenhouse gas emissions”
– Uma Valeti, CEO, Memphis Meats
THE LIMITS OF FUTURISTIC FOOD
However, this futuristic food has its limits, both in qualitative and quantitative terms. On the one hand, the vast majority of nutritionists are very concerned about the potential long-term effects of these new foodstuffs on our health. Synthesising food in the laboratory is still at the experimental stage. It is technically possible, but it has only been done on a very small scale, with a market comprising well-off people. In order to feed Smart City residents, mass production on a huge scale will be required. Unless these super-foods can manage to break out of the niche market to which they are currently confined, and get beyond being a mere fashion followed by bohos and geeks, they will certainly not become a prominent item on our menus going forward.
3D printing: a new cook at your home?
“When we artisans manipulate ingredients, we also manipulate the taste. 3D printing of food will never enable you to achieve the same result as when you prepare it yourself by hand”
– Luis Estrada, chocolate maker.
It’s quite an appealing idea: In the future, all our homes will be equipped with 3D food printers. Instead of cooking our food, we’ll print it out. The technology is already functional and advances continue to be made. Future cooks will insert a tube containing a basic ingredient, such as a paste, and will then programme the type of food product they wish to create. In exactly the same way as you would use a traditional 3D printer, you can combine a number of tubes and so put together dishes comprising a number of ingredients and layers. If you want to make a pizza, the contents of the first tube would serve to form the pastry base, the second would add the tomato sauce and the third supply the cheese. In London the conceptual pop-up restaurant Food Ink last year started offering a gastronomic menu in which all dishes are made using Additive Layer Manufacturing (3D printing) techniques and served up in 3D printed crockery on a 3D printed table! A key advantage of this new way of cooking is the potential for personalising food dishes – not only their appearance and taste but also their calorie content. 3D printing may well be opening up the path to mass production of food à la carte, tailored to each individual’s needs.
Nevertheless, there are still many hurdles to surmount before this technology becomes the norm for producing our daily meals. Firstly, because 3D printing cannot be used for complex food preparation or skilful combinations of ingredients. You cannot cook a ‘cassoulet’ (pork and bean casserole), a Beef Stroganoff, or meat or fish using Additive Manufacturing techniques, so use of 3D printing technology may well lead to less variety in our menus and fail to cover all our nutritional needs. Secondly, if and when we start using this technology more widely for preparing our meals, it will bring about massive disruption in our food industries. It may signal the end of agriculture as we know it and sound the death knell for the pleasures of fine dining. It is difficult to imagine that having all our meals printed will catch on if we are going to lose more than we gain. There is little doubt that 3D printing will make an appearance in our homes in the near future, but it will not at a stroke take away people’s pleasure in cooking. It might, rather like the micro-wave oven in its heyday, help us to prepare meals faster and more easily when we are in a hurry. It is always difficult to see into the future clearly and none of the current main trends on the food front enable us to see with any degree of certainty what our future diet and menu will look like. Perhaps the innovators will be smart enough to draw full benefit from all these new inventions without entirely doing away with our food heritage and gastronomic culture.