By Tracie McMillan
National Geographic • March 8, 2018
Peer into the future of what we eat, and you will encounter many questions about what will happen to our meals. As the world’s population climbs above 9 billion by mid-century, our food needs will grow by 70 percent. How do we meet them without mowing down every forest or without resorting to industrial agriculture, which the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has cited as the most significant contributor to climate change? How do we maintain soil health, and keep it from washing away, so that crops can thrive? These questions get into murky territory. But here’s one thing that’s clear: Dinner in 50 years won’t look much like dinner today.
There are two very different paths that lead to that singular dinner table. The high-tech industrial path is the most striking, winding through laboratories, DNA maps, and crowdfunding campaigns. Along that route you’ll encounter heretofore unknown proteins assembled into animal-free meat, watch algae turn to butter, and consider replacing your meals with no more than a bottled drink.
Then there’s the quieter path—a little more pastoral and a bit less tethered to tech—that pushes our current system into a new iteration. On that route, you’ll find ancient grains coaxed out of obscurity for their deep roots and perennial nature, offering the hope of an earthbound agriculture with a fraction of the environmental cost. You’ll find, too, a modern repurposing of one of the oldest proteins known to man: bugs.
Those paths aren’t all that far apart, says LinYee Yuan, editor of Mold magazine, which has covered the future of food since 2014. “The reality is that to feed nine billion people, we’re going to need all hands on deck,” she says. “The major things people are talking about are insects and cellular agriculture.” There’s a role for those approaches, she says, but adds, “Our ultimate future is soil based.”
Global food expert Raj Patel says much of the future will be concerned with making better use of what we already have. “A lot of our industrial agricultural system is about deciding on a favorite companion species, like grain,” he says, and then considering everything else a weed or a pest. “The 21st century is recognizing that the things that were weeds and pests can turn out to be food.”
So what would that newly edible food look like? Here are five foods that may soon grace the dinner table.
What You’ll Be Eating: Cricket flour
How You’ll Be Eating It: Energy bars, chips, and other processed foods
There are only hints of it on grocery store shelves, but cricket powder is rapidly gaining ground in Western foods. Whole crickets are staple snacks in many countries—on the Indonesian island of Java they are battered and fried as rempeyek, while Thailand’s ching rit are merely fried—but the idea of eating bugs has been a slow sell in the North American market.
From an environmental perspective, the appeal of bugs—particularly crickets—is clear. Crickets offer more protein and micronutrients per pound than beef. They thrive in dark, densely crowded conditions, so they can be farmed vertically, allowing for large-scale production on a tiny footprint. They produce relatively little waste, avoiding the manure lagoons that plague hog and cattle farms. And although crickets are pricey now, Aspire, which runs the largest cricket farm in the U.S., is building a 250,000-square-foot automated facility in Texas in hopes of lowering its prices significantly. The company has a sound reason to go big: Aspire’s current farm is one-tenth that size, and all its output—most of it ground into a fine powder called cricket flour—is already spoken for over the next two years.
And that, say observers, may be the way America becomes a nation of bug eaters. “We’re not going to replace meat with bugs,” says Julie Lesnik, an anthropologist and author of the forthcoming Edible Insects and Human Evolution. But we may raise bugs as animal feed, or turn them into other foods we already know: snack chips and protein bars, or among devotees to the paleo diet, a smoothie powder. “Yes, it’s bugs, but it’s food,” says Lesnik. “It can become an ingredient like anything else.”
What You’ll Be Eating: Kernza
How You’ll Be Eating It: Bread and beer
On a shiny list of future foods, a humble grain might not stick out. But don’t let intermediate wheatgrass, a grain long found on America’s Great Plains, fool you. Originally grown for forage, it was considered little more than a weed. Then, in the 1980s, researchers began to worry about the ways annual tillage and monocultures—the methods used to grow most grain—can diminish soil health. They began to look for perennial alternatives and landed on intermediate wheatgrass.
By the 2000s, the Land Institute, an ecologically focused agricultural research group in Kansas, was selectively breeding intermediate wheatgrass to create a variety with better yield, seed size, and disease resistance that it is calling Kernza.
The plant boasts a 10-foot root system and produces grain for up to five years. Standard wheat, by comparison, produces grain for just one year, and its roots are less than half the length.
Deep-rooted perennial foods like Kernza offer a “double benefit,” says Lee DeHaan, the agronomist leading its development at the Land Institute. Like all plants, perennials deposit carbon into the soil, helping to battle climate change. But, unlike annuals, they stay put, keeping more carbon in the soil while also boosting soil health and physically fixing soil and nutrients in place. The result: richer soil, less erosion, and less fertilizer washing into the water supply.
Though only about 500 acres are currently in production, DeHaan has been parceling out grain to culinary innovators: the much-lauded Bien Cuit bakery in Brooklyn has been testing breads made from Kernza; Hopworks in Portland, Oregon, crafted a Kernza-tinged pale ale with Patagonia Provisions, and Bang Brewing in St. Paul, Minnesota, offers a Kernza-forward brew.
Still, the goal is not to create boutique artisanal fare. General Mills’ Cascadian Farms plans to debut a Kernza-based product later this year and prove—to farmers and eaters alike—that there’s a mass market for the stuff.
What You’ll Be Eating: Meat from plants
How You’ll Be Eating It: Bleeding burgers
As the global population grows, it’s hard to fathom seeing a decline in demand for meat, which is widely considered both delicious and a sign of success. And yet, even at its best, industrial animal production—especially beef—is a strain on the environment. Livestock production accounts for about one-fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions. Beef production typically requires eight times the water and 160 times the land per calorie as vegetables. No wonder United Nations officials have been urging everyone to eat less meat.
That might be the obvious solution, but a handful of marketing-savvy entrepreneurs are proposing something different: What if the problem isn’t meat, but meat from animals? “If you look at what meat is, you can understand it in terms of its composition,” says Ethan Brown, CEO of Beyond Meat, which manufactures a range of “meats” made from peas and soy. “It’s not rocket science; it’s amino acids and lipids. None of that is exclusive to the animal.”
That is the bet being made by two vegetable-based patties, Brown’s Beyond Burger and competitor the Impossible Burger, both of which have earned headlines for how their products resemble hamburgers. Both come from high-tech scientific experimentation; both have calorie, protein, and fat counts comparable to beef, albeit with far more sodium. Both boast to customers that they approximate the flavor and, importantly, the juicy mouth feel of beef.
Both patties are making big plans for the future. Beyond Burger, which derives its beefy coloring from beets and its protein from peas, is already available nationwide in about 25,000 stores and 5,000 restaurants—including mainstream TGI Friday’s. Impossible Burger currently operates at a smaller scale, selling its patties—which “bleed” juice, thanks to a lab-manufactured protein called heme—in select restaurants. Although the burger faced a setback in 2017, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration voiced concerns about heme’s safety, the company plans to be in 1,000 outlets by the end of 2018.
“We believe we’re sort of inventing meat,” says Jessica Appelgren, a spokesperson for Impossible Foods. “But we are meat from plants.”
What You’ll Be Eating: Algae
How You’ll Be Eating It: Oil and butter
The story of how man first thought to press olives into oil, circa 6000 B.C., is shrouded in the darkness of prehistory, but algae oil will have no such problem. In true 21st-century fashion, it emerged already branded under the name Thrive in 2015, born after enterprising scientists procured algae harvested from the sap of a German chestnut tree. They engineered it to exaggerate its oil production, fed it with Brazilian sugar in six-story fermentation vats, and pressed it. Thus algae oil—a light, neutrally flavored cooking oil with monounsaturated fats and a high smoke point—was born.
From an environmental standpoint, Thrive requires less land and water than most oils, while providing more monounsaturated (“good”) fat and less saturated fat than other oils, according to its backers. “From one hectare [of sugarcane], we can produce three to four metric tons of algae oil,” says Jill Kauffman Johnson of Corbion, the Dutch biotech firm that owns Thrive.
In 2017 Corbion added another algae fat to its mix: butter. Waxy-looking and hard at room temperature, it can stand in for other hard fats in manufactured foods like croissants and cakes—even hard-shelled ice cream toppings.
“Some products are very chemical-sounding—‘partially hydrogenated,’” says Corbion’s Mark Brooks. “If you don’t want that on your label, you put algae butter instead.” They expect it to hit distribution channels later this year.
The idea is to create an efficient and humane alternative to commercial oils—particularly palm oil, which has fueled deforestation and has been linked to violent labor suppression. The company built their factory alongside a sugarcane field in Brazil certified sustainable by Bonsucro—a nod toward, if not a repudiation of, the sugar industry’s history of environmental degradation as well as slavery, even in modern times. And it uses the spent cane to power both the factory and the mill hired to process it, creating a low-resource system for production. It’s also an enormous operation. The factory’s massive tanks can hold enough to supply, says Brooks, all of the U.S. and Europe.
What You’ll Be Eating: Lab-cultured chicken
How You’ll Be Eating It: Nuggets and beyond
If the idea of eating chicken that began in a petri dish creeps you out, the people trying to sell it to you have a solution: Change the nomenclature. “We’re not keen on ‘cultured meat,’” says Bruce Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute, an industry group. “‘Lab-grown meat’ we’re even less thrilled about,” he says. “We all prefer the term ‘clean meat.’”
Whatever it’s called, meat grown from animal cells and brought to edible size in what Friedrich calls “meat breweries” is rapidly nearing in-store debuts—and the most likely debutante is chicken. Today there are 15 companies working to bring lab-brewed poultry, beef, and even foie gras to market, buoyed by research suggesting its production requires a fraction of the environmental resources consumed by industrial animal production. Friedrich’s GFI, which also advocates for plant-based “meat,” operates as a clearinghouse. Each quarter, GFI organizes calls to discuss scientific issues and regulatory strategy; it also employs a Washington, D.C., lobbyist.
In 2016 Memphis Meats announced a prototype for lab-produced beef meatballs and added chicken a year later. In January of this year Israel’s SuperMeat, which expects to introduce a chicken product in the next couple years, announced an investor partnership with PHW, one of the largest poultry companies in Germany. “There’s roughly about 50 billion chickens killed every year for food,” says Shir Friedman, a cofounder of SuperMeat. With this new process, she says, “instead of having the animals being the manufacturer of the meat, you would have meat-making factories—just like you have factories that make corn flakes or ketchup.”
Still, it’s unlikely to begin as a nugget for the masses. Producing Memphis Meats’ chicken cost $9,000 per pound; SuperMeat says it will likely enter the market as a premium product.
That’s par for the course, says Paul Mozdziak, a biotechnologist at North Carolina State University who helped pioneer the science behind the new products. “In terms of having something that’s really profitable and scalable that you’re going to buy in Walmart,” he says, “I think we’re looking more to a 30-year timeline for that.”