When it comes to “future foods” the future is now. How we think about food is constantly evolving. It’s not just how we think about what we eat, but it’s also about how and where what we eat comes from. Some of the trends in the food industry are competing: One region of the world may be focused purely on obtaining a stable and robust food supply to feed their population. While other areas may be more focused on producing food that aligns with their sustainability goals. In some places these trends are converging in a way that (hopefully) addresses all of our global goals.
While the future of food may look very different, new technologies are helping us get creative. In this article we’re going to take a quick look at three surprising advances in the food industry that are having big impacts across global markets. These areas illuminate aspects of the landscape we see as fluid and shifting; where the outcomes could vary widely depending on how the solutions are applied.
1: Vertical Farming
According to Forbes Magazine, the world’s population is expected to reach 9.6 billion in the next 30 years, with 65% of us living in urban areas. This urbanisation process is going to continue to ratchet up the pressure on our natural environment. This means that the ways in which food is going to be produced is going to play a crucial role in making sure the world has enough food to feed itself.
The World Bank estimates that we currently dedicate about 37% of our land area to producing food. Theoretically, as population pressures increase, this will only lead to our needing more land for food production. However, some new food production initiative are looking at farming “up” rather than “across”.
Vertical farming initiatives, such as Plantagon Building in Linköping, Sweden are bringing fresh, sustainable approaches to urban farming. Dubbed a “plantscraper”, The 14-story Linköping building is expected to feed over 5,000 people per year. The entire operation is hydroponic, meaning vegetables are grown without the necessity for soil, utilising nutrient-rich water solutions instead.
This pioneering way of looking at food and crop replication is leading a wave of change around how we think about our options for growing our food: altering our very perception of where food comes from in the process. In the future, concepts like vertical farming not only have the chance to change the way we produce food, but also how and where we live.
2: Artificial Pollination
About three quarters of the world’s crops rely on pollination from bees or another insect. This natural pollination is a huge resource which helps maintain and keep our agriculture mechanisms afloat. With Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) inflicting heavy losses on worldwide bee populations, some sectors of crop farming are in danger of complete failure. However, researchers at the Harvard-based Wyss Institute are currently at work on developing Plan B: Robobees. These robotic pollinators provide the possibility that food pollination could be controlled, performed and monitored by machines.
Based on the biological design of the bee, these miniature drones are designed to imitate the crop pollination function of the humble honeybee. The technology seeks to create a miniature vehicle which reproduces the self-contained, self-directed and coordinated behaviours found in bee colonies.
The latest iteration of these microbots have the ability to dive underwater and propel themselves back out again. Other robobee developers envision that bees and drones will work together. Whether these new robotic pollinators can overcome the physical logistics involved in crop pollination remains to be seen, but the possibility that the function of bees could be assisted by manmade systems is opening up new ways of thinking about how we recreate and support natural systems in an increasingly modified environment.
3: Exclusion Diets
Although the reasons behind the increase in people with food allergies is still a topic of discussion, the fact remains, more people than ever are impacted by some kind of food allergy. According to research presented at the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI), peanut allergies in US children have gone up 21% since 2010. Gluten and lactose intolerance (among other dietary conditions) are on the rise. These factors are all leading to a world in which diets that exclude certain ingredients are gaining traction.
The GI tract for a typical person stretches from one end of a tennis court to another. That’s a long way for the food we eat to travel. As more people develop dietary intolerances, the global food industry is starting to see a larger and larger share of their market being made up of products which accommodate these dietary requirements. Somewhere between 10-15% of the US population now identifies themselves as lactose intolerant in some form while, according to a recent study by the Mayo Clinic, the number of Americans identifying themselves as gluten intolerant has tripled in the last 10 years.
For the global food industry, this means creating foods that are not duplicative and serve a wide range of needs. In the short run, it may be enough to create plant-based alternatives that resemble the “real” thing, but a more long term narrative sees alternative proteins and other future foods taking centre stage. These future foods have the benefit of being created from scratch. Therefore, they can serve the needs of both people with and without dietary allergies and food sensitivities.
The three trends we’ve outlined above are all slightly under the radar, but they help paint a larger picture of the various influences currently impacting the food industry. Whether its AI or architectural wizardry, alternative proteins or test-tube food products, the future of food has never been more wide open.