Food fuels the mind, body, and soul. It’s one of the greatest unifiers across countries and cultures. But right now, the way we get our food is unsustainable. And worse, it’s killing the planet.
If you think we’re just trying to Al Gore you, consider a few facts: Today, over a third of arable land is being used for agriculture; mostly for meat production, a huge contributor to global warming. Raising cattle creates more greenhouse gases than all the planes, trains, and automobiles combined.
All of this means we’re on the verge of a food crisis. But thankfully, scientists and entrepreneurs are reimagining food production, so maybe if they get it right, we’ll all avoid starving (fingers crossed!).
The real question is, what’s going to be on our plates when 2050 hits. Will we even need plates at all?
Replacing meals with mush
Remember “astronaut food” from when you were a kid? Welcome to 2018. Companies like Soylent are getting rid of food entirely, pushing a magical shake with all the elements of a healthy diet instead.
On the plus side, they’re plant-based, which means making it isn’t terrible for the planet. The idea is also completely scalable, so feeding the world with Soylent is theoretically feasible. But there are a few problems worth pointing out.
Number one: there aren’t any clinical studies on this stuff, so getting a credentialed dietician to sign off would be a stretch.
Also, studies that look at the effects of an all-liquid diet find that, in the long-term, it’s unhealthy. One animal study found that a diet of only powdered food gave the animals high blood sugar levels and hypertension as well as made the animals start to go crazy. The researchers also found that chewing food benefits physical and mental health — imagine if every single meal was Go-GURT…
No one actually knows how this would play out in humans, but it seems unlikely that people could live on an all-liquid diet without going insane. Besides, eating only for the purpose of getting nutrients is kind of like having sex only to procreate. Let that sink in.
The rise of the replace-meats
Here’s an idea: instead of ditching food altogether, replacing ingredients with more sustainable, environmentally-friendly ones could offer a solution.
Recently, there has been a big push to eat bugs; even the United Nations suggests switching to minibeasts. With that, some companies are trying to make bug protein a thing — for example, EXO uses crickets in their protein bars. But when it comes to the creepy crawlers, food historian Gabriella Petrick, from Boston University, says it’s never going to happen unless there’s a nuclear holocaust.
“People aren’t going to eat bugs because they don’t taste that good […] Whether it has the legs on or not, people are grossed out by it,” she says.
Yuck factor aside, bugs don’t actually provide as much protein as everyone claims. And raising crickets for consumption isn’t really feasible yet; it’s pretty easy to forget that crickets need to eat, too. From an efficiency standpoint—when it comes to getting the same amount of protein—cricket farms aren’t any better than raising chickens.
Okay, let’s take bugs off the plate for now. There are some plant-based alternatives to meat that are starting to look less like inedible mush. Thanks to the rise of vegan and vegetarian diets things like Tofurky, Beyond Meat, and The Impossible Burger are popping up in burger joints and supermarkets.
While these meatless “meats” are hoping to completely replace the animal alternatives, change won’t come easy. For one thing, vegans or vegetarians are in the minority, and even people who avoid meat eventually go back to eating it.
Plus, making these meat alternatives is expensive. The Impossible Burger cost $80 million to develop and it still isn’t FDA approved. Even the more mainstream meat alternatives like Beyond Meat are still a long way off from surpassing meat in terms of price point. So, until these products cost less than meat, they likely won’t be replacing regular cheeseburgers on the Dollar Menu.
This is all skirting a huge obstacle; the proverbial elephant in the room… or, rather, hole in the Ozone. No matter what we eat in the future, climate change will forever alter how we grow and get our food. This past year alone severe weather devastated crops and livestock around the world. So, if we still want to eat what we like, at a reasonable price and without further harming our planet, finding new ways to grow and produce food is necessary.
In 2013, a Dutch scientist named Mark Post grew the first burger in a Petri dish. Since then, others have attempted to grow meat in the lab. Memphis Meats, for one, is currently working on lab-made chicken meat.
But lab-grown meat takes a long time to make and is super expensive. The lab-grown burger took three months to grow and would have cost $1.2 million per pound to sell. While the price has dropped in recent years, Post says that it will still be 20 to 30 years before you might see lab-grown meat in the grocery store. That is, if you can convince people that Petri dish-to-shelf is the new farm-to-table.
Then, there’s the hurdle of how to meet demand and make it just as tasty as its real life alternative. Apparently, lab-grown meat doesn’t taste that great because scientists haven’t figured out how to grow fat. Sad.
As for plants, things like vertical farming have started to generate a lot of buzz, especially with Kimbal Musk starting a tech-food revolution. Fans of this type of futuristic farming focus on how food can be produced all year-round, conserve resources, take up less space than traditional farming, and can be executed locally.
But critics are quick to point out that vertical farms don’t necessarily conserve resources. It’s actually quite expensive to run these sci-fi farms. And depending on what kind of electricity vertical farms use, they can produce more greenhouse gases than traditional farms. Besides, we’ve become pretty efficient at transporting our food compared to a few decades ago, so we don’t have to grow everything locally.
Genetically modified foods that don’t succumb to extreme weather might be our only hope, but the technology still takes years to get to market.
End of food?
In short, this means food—not just the avocado—is going to get more expensive in the near future. We’re already seeing prices rise, even for the most basic items, and it is only going to get worse. Logically, we’re looking at a lot of people struggling to afford basic means, which is terrifying.
Also some of our favorite foods are going to straight up vanish. Goodbye coffee, chocolate, and the will to live.
So, what do we do now? Even for all of our busy white coats and tech, there’s no great answer.
But if everything fails, maybe start building a food bunker.