Future of Food

Part of the Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture exhibition.

The Future of Growing

Will we one day grow meat in labs and salad in skyscrapers? Who knows—but something has to change. By 2050, there will likely be nine billion people to feed, and our planet is already under stress. Agriculture is a leading threat to rivers, lakes, and coastal environments, and up to 40 percent of all cropland worldwide is experiencing soil erosion, reduced fertility, or overgrazing. As our climate changes, so will the ways we grow our food. Fortunately, many people are working on ways to produce more healthy and delicious food while sustaining the environment.

More Efficient Farms

All over the tropics, forests are being converted to pastures and farmland: 80 percent of all new tropical farmland is created by replacing forests, with huge environmental costs. But we could produce 50 percent more food without new farmland by increasing yields, shifting diets, and using water and fertilizer more efficiently. 

Test-Tube Beef

The livestock industry uses 75 percent of all agricultural land for grazing and growing animal feed and produces at least 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Some argue that safer, healthier meat could be grown using animal cells, instead of living animals—thereby reducing animal suffering, waste and pollution.

Next Generation Fish Farms

Promising new methods of farming fish rely on giant tanks. Water, nutrients, and waste are recycled—sometimes to grow plants—and fish can’t escape. Such methods could relieve pressure on wild stocks, drastically depleted by overfishing. And closed-system fish farms don’t have the same environmental downsides as certain cage or pen fish farms, which use more wild fish for feed and can cause pollution and disease.

Staying Power

Most farm crops, including wheat, rice, and maize, must be planted again each and every year. The roots of these “annual” plants are shallow, and farmers often use resource-intensive cultivation practices to grow them. But many wild plants, such as wheatgrass, are “perennials”—they live several years and produce food over many seasons. Their roots are extensive—and they help stabilize and build healthy soils. So what if we bred crops with deep, perennial roots? 

Castles in the Sky?
By 2050, there will likely be two billion more people. Feeding them the way we do now would require immense amounts of agricultural land we don’t have. But 70 percent of people will live in cities—so why not grow food there, where they live? Urban farms can be found today in yards, roofs, and balconies. Some have even proposed farming in skyscrapers!

The Future of Eating

Our population is expanding, while standards of living are also changing and our environment is increasingly strained. How will future food production meet the growing demand? Will our diets have to change? Can technology provide the answers? New trends in biotechnology, health science, processing, and cooking technologies, as well as issues like climate change, will all affect what we eat. 

Exactly which foods will become fashionable in the future is impossible to predict. Most likely, some exist now, but are underutilized; some have yet to be found or invented; and some will be so radically different we would hardly recognize them today as food. 

Underused and Overlooked

About 2,500 plant species have been domesticated for food. But today, almost half our food calories come from just three grains: wheat, maize, and rice. What about the thousands of overlooked plant species—and an untapped diversity of animals? These resources could provide solutions to problems like the need for resilience in our food production systems and the need to meet growing demands without depleting natural resources. Here are a few promising examples:

  • Algae: Seaweed and other algae, already popular in Japan, are highly nutritious and can be grown in both fresh water and salt water.
  • Insects: Over 2,000 species of insects are already eaten worldwide, including mopane worms (Gonimbrasia belina) in South Africa. Insects are high in protein and require much less land, water, and food than animals raised for meat
  • Quinoa: This grain (Chenopodium quinoa) from the Andes contains all the essential amino acids the human body needs for protein and has no gluten.
  • Emmer wheat: While millions are spent on high-tech hybrids, neglected crops like the grain emmer (Triticum dicoccum), which requires less fertilizer and fewer pesticides than currently used breeds, are already being grown in places like Turkey.
  • Minor millets: These cereals have been grown in Asia for 6,500 years. Many farmers in India and Nepal are now switching from growing crops like maize and rice back to traditional varieties bred to grow on local mountainsides.
  • Peach palm: The peach palm (Bactris gasipaes) grows well in Central and South America and produces a large, nutritious fruit. The tree’s spiny trunk makes the fruit hard to harvest—but breeders are now developing spineless varieties.
  • Giant swamp taro: The giant swamp taro (Cyrtosperma chamissonis), which grows well in the salty, sandy soil of many Pacific islands, is rich in vitamins and minerals. Yellow varieties are high in beta carotene, which can help prevent blindness.
  • Sea buckthorn: Sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) uses nitrogen from the air as fertilizer, thanks to specialized bacteria in its roots. These dense roots are also used to prevent soil erosion in China. The berries are hard to pick, but new machines should help with the harvest. 

Foods of Tomorrow?

 Many foods we’ll eat in the future don’t yet exist. Researchers constantly tinker with plant and animal ingredients, processed foods and even packaging, to improve flavor and nutrition. A few samples are below—but the biggest changes may come from ideas we cannot yet imagine.

  • Breathable Chocolate: Want the flavor of real chocolate, without the calories? You can now inhale tiny particles of chocolate, as a mist.
  • Patch in a Pinch: Some essential nutrients could soon be given to soldiers and astronauts through a patch on the skin, for quick absorption in emergencies.
  • "Smart Packaging": In the near future, food packaging could monitor foods to detect ripeness or spoiling—or even actively prevent foods from spoiling.