Future of Food: Science or Fiction?
How will the human race feed itself in the distant future? If we look to science fiction for answers, we find ideas that range from the gruesome to the downright ludicrous – but some of them are closer to reality than you might think.
In most fictional post-dystopian worlds, steak isn’t on the menu anymore. Instead, our heroes of the future find themselves eating things we today would barely recognise as food – often something akin to the nutrient-rich “bowl of snot” waiting for Neo once he escapes The Matrix.
Perhaps this forecast isn’t surprising, given the modern-day challenges of rising world populations and a changing climate. We’re already seeing shifts in the way people think about food, with vegan diets and meat substitutes growing hugely in popularity across Europe over the last few years,1 but science fiction imagines we might see some slightly more radical shifts in what’s on the menu in future. Just how realistic are they?
"It's okay to dream a little" | Eating insects in Blade Runner
Science or fiction?
In the metropolis of Blade Runner 2049, traditional farming has failed and so humans rely on eating invertebrates - like worms, cockroaches and a range of insects - to keep them alive where other food sources have failed. But will grasshopper and worm burgers ever reach your dining table in the real world?
Photo Credit: Essento
Insects and other invertebrates are packed with proteins and healthy fats and are an excellent source of essential vitamins and minerals. They also require less space, less water, less food and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than larger animals, making them an incredibly sustainable option for feeding the world in the future.2
In fact, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has highlighted welcoming insects into our diets as a key way of improving the world’s food security over the next 30 years.3 They might not be appearing on your dining table just yet, but insects are already a staple in many parts of Asia and are fast becoming popular in other parts of the world including North America and Europe (where sales are growing at over 20% per year).4 It might not be long before a cricket salad appears on a menu near you, but creative start-ups are also thinking of how to incorporate edible insects in our everyday meals (like burgers)!
"A 'miracle food'... high-energy plankton" | Thinking Small in Soylent Green
Science or fiction?
In sci-fi classic Soylent Green, its energy bars made of algae fished from the oceans that sustains the human race after a year-long worldwide heatwave burns up all chances of growing food in fields. But would such tiny microorganisms actually be able to keep us going?
Scientists have actually been considering algae and other similar plants as an option for feeding the world since the 1970s, since they represent a renewable and highly nutritious source of clean protein and another step forward in food sustainability.5 Phytoplankton are tiny plants (including lots of types of algae) floating around in the ocean, which feed themselves by making their own food via photosynthesis using sunlight, just as plants on land do. But unlike land-based plants they don’t need to be planted in fields - instead they grow incredibly well simply suspended in tanks, meaning we can farm them far more efficiently. Perhaps the Soylent Corporation was onto a good thing after all.
Phytoplankton are packed with vitamins and minerals, but it’s unclear just how much energy humans can get from it. It hypothetically could be great for your health, but we’re still not sure whether it could feed the world. Plankton-based foods have recently started taking off, with ‘Euglena Corp’ in Japan and Spirulina in Europe both now commercially farming and processing phytoplankton into edible products,6 so why not get some and try it for yourself?
"The logic is undeniable" | Farming Fungi in I, Robot
Science or fiction?
In Isaac Asimov’s novel I, Robot, three course meals are still a reality - except from your starter of creamed yeast soup through to a dessert of iced yeast, everything on the menu is made of a fungus grown in vats. We’re friends with the humble mushroom, but should we explore more of what the kingdom of fungi has to offer?
We’re not farming yeast in vats just yet, but there is actually a very similar product you’re likely to have seen on supermarket shelves: Quorn™. It’s a meat supplement made of mycoprotein, a protein extracted from a fungus rather than plants or animals.7 The process for growing this fungus is quite similar to that of brewing beer, and since it takes place in giant vats rather than open fields it needs around 90% less land or water than traditional farming methods.8
On top of that, the fungus is fed using agricultural waste, further reducing their environmental footprint. Quorn has a protein content similar to that of eggs, but with no cholesterol, much more fibre and absolutely no sad chickens in tiny cages: it truly is a future food.7
"No eyes or beak…they don’t need those" | Growing Meat in Oryx and Crake
Science or fiction?
In other dystopias, humans are so wedded to real meat that they find new, more sustainable ways of creating it, so they don’t have to give it up entirely. In Margret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, chickens have been genetically modified to the point where they are grown in labs as lumps of muscle, barely recognisable as animals. But could we ever actually grow the meat we know and love in labs rather than on farms?
Here, reality actually surpasses our imagination: scientists have already gone one better and begun growing meat in petri dishes, bypassing the rest of the animal altogether. Key to this process is our understanding of stem cells: unique cells in the body which haven’t yet become specialized to do a particular job. By carefully controlling the environment around these stem cells, scientists can turn them into anything they like.
Encourage these cells to turn into muscle cells and suddenly you can grow a beefburger inside a test tube without any need for a real cow. Not only does that remove all animal suffering, but it also massively reduces the environmental impact of meat and, unlike other options, gives mankind a new sustainable food source without requiring us to change our diets.9
At the moment, running these labs is very expensive and so lab-grown meat remains a novelty rather than an industry. The science is also still developing, so whilst relatively simple ‘processed’ products like beef burgers and pork sausages are already available, producing a convincing T-bone steak is still a huge challenge.10 However, if lab-grown meat can mimic the real thing closely enough it could well be the key to enjoying late-night fried chicken completely guilt-free.
Living in Hope
Scientists and storytellers are both guided by their imaginations, but now our research has started to catch up our tales of the future might be like. If we’re willing to change our views of what counts as ‘food’ then you might find your dining table starting to resemble that of your favourite sci-fi flick, and our chances of feeding the world in the years looking promising.
There’s a clear moral lesson here for science fiction writers too: with so many new and highly sustainable food sources out there, there’s absolutely no excuse for anyone to resort to eating other people.