Imagine it's the year 2035. You're a tourist in New York City. You're also hungry, and craving a burger and a beer you wander into a nondescript East Village gastropub, the type that's found in almost any city. So what's on the menu?
As an appetizer, there's a salad of blue lettuce sprinkled with elderflowers and cloudberries, or a Zanzibari pizza – Indian-spiced rabbit meat served on a piece of naan bread.
For the main course, you can choose between fish – the "catch of the day" is plucked from a nearby indoor fish farm – or you can order a burger, made of cow, bison, chicken, or pork, fresh out of the bioreactor. "We have an excellent meat-grower," your waitress tells you.
This is a scenario imagined by Josh Schonwald in his new book, The Taste of Tomorrow: Dispatches from the Future of Food. For the past several years, he's been on a mission to discover the salad, meat, seafood, and Pad Thai of the future.
He's explored everything from genetically engineered foods and animals – like a cherry tomato modified to carry a lemon basil gene, and the designer cobia fish, which are both said to be delicious – to meat grown in a test tube.
Sound crazy? Here's What We're Doing Right Now
We have gluten-free "pasta" made from green bananas. We add inulin to damn near everything – cottage cheese, yogurt, pudding, protein powders and bars, cookies, and so much more.
We have highly modified orange juice – calcium fortified, low sugar with various sweeteners and unidentified flavor packets added, pulp-free, Vitamin-D enhanced, and on and on.
We have "butter" made from yogurt, plant sterols, and a laundry list of vegetable oils. While their health benefits are certainly debatable (or in my opinion, dubious), food companies are adding these stanols and sterols to more than butter substitutes – they're being added to cooking oils, salad dressings, yogurts, juices and more.
We also have milk with fish oil added to it, and yogurt too. And wisely or not, ice cream fortified with fish oil is coming down the pipeline as well.
In the US we're breeding North American cattle with their African cousins, who are more accustomed to hot weather and more drought tolerant. (This one is incredibly important and long overdue.)
Speaking of drought, we also have corn varieties that are being bred and genetically altered to be more drought-tolerant, with larger root systems, more efficient water collection from their leaves, and genes from moss so that they're able to bounce back more rapidly from drought.
Which segues nicely everyone's favorite topic – genetically modified foods.
Today in the US there's a tremendous amount of our food that's genetically modified:
- ˜88% of all corn, which has traits that are engineered to resist herbicides and pesticides (Roundup ready). There's also a variety designed to produce its own toxin to kill pests and worms (Bt corn).
- ˜93% of all soybeans, which are all engineered to be resistant to Roundup, the Monsanto herbicide.
- ˜94% of cotton, which has the Bt trait like corn to produce its own toxin to kill pests that reduce its yield while also being Roundup ready.
- ˜93% of canola, which is Roundup ready.
- ˜95% of sugar beets, also Roundup ready. Sugar beets provide about 50% of the sugar in the US.
These crops, along with newly allowed alfalfa, papaya, and squash, make up about 170 million acres of cropland in the US. The US grows more GMO crops than any other country in the world, more than twice as much as Brazil, who's second with 75 million acres.
What's In the Works?
Food scientists are currently working on some projects that are just as crazy sounding as that 2035 story. Some are a little scary, while others just might save the world.
How about creating genetically modified animals to meet our increasing food demands worldwide? Scientists are working on things like Enviropig to accomplish just that.
Enviropig is a pig that's been modified to digest plant phosphorus more efficiently than a regular pig by giving it some genes from mice so it produces the phytase enzyme.
This would allow the pig to break down phytic acid and digest the phosphorus that's bound to it and would normally pass through undigested and be excreted.
This is actually a cool idea, in theory – it would allegedly reduce feed cost, as farmers wouldn't need to add phosphorus supplements to their pigs' diets. It would also reduce the phosphorus pollution of waterways and soil as there would be far less phosphorus in the pig manure.
However companies are clearly hesitant – Enviropig has been bred for 10 generations but has yet to be brought to the market. The main reason for the lack of faith is food companies believe people wouldn't support eating genetically modified pigs. And they might be right.
As odd as a pig with mice genes might sound, here's something even stranger. In 2003 Chinese scientists created genetically modified cows that can produce human breast milk.
Scientists essentially added human genes to cow embyros and boom, cows were born that provide milk that's 80% the same as a human mother's, and which contains particular proteins and antibodies found in human milk that are thought to be beneficial to infants.
They plan to have this milk on the market in 2014. And that's not the only scary idea in the works.
They're also working on a personal scanning code that can determine our needs for nutrients based on age, activity levels, health condition, and our genes. Sounds interesting, but I wonder who (or what) determines our "needs" or decides on appropriate recommendations? Leaves far too much room for influence by the food industry if you ask me.
There's also a lot of work being done with nanotechnology. Scientists want to pack nutrients and compounds into foods. But not just any nutrients – with nanotechnology they could put the flu vaccine into milk, for example, vaccinating nearly the entire population without anyone having to go in for a shot.
With this nanotechnology they're also working on naturally indigestible fat substitutes that pass through the GI tract unabsorbed, and unlike Olestra back in the day, won't cause massive diarrhea. We shall see.
Scientists are also looking to replace saturated fats in hot dogs with omega-3's. Fact is, this has already been done; they're simply in the process of perfecting the sensory qualities to make the new dogs indistinguishable, taste wise, from the regular ones.
However, do we even want this? Do we really want to encourage hot dog consumption so people can get in their fish oils?
Beyond hot dogs, labs are working on growing meat from cow stem cells. It's believed that with this method they could decrease the livestock population by a factor of one million!
This would take a population of 10 billion down to 10,000, and would be a huge environmental win, as we devote vast amounts of resources to livestock production.
Using this stem cell concept, with the right DNA it might be possible to make a burger out of anything – zebra, panda, even dinosaur DNA (if we can ever get it). We could also alter the fatty acid profile of these burgers to be "healthier"; for example they could mimic that of an avocado.
This might all seem far-fetched, but scientists have successfully produced this test-tube meat and hope to have a burger by some time in 2013. Does that 2035 story still sound so crazy?
Gross, But Not Scary
It's also been projected that soon we'll be making "meat" from "mini-livestock," i.e., insects. Mini-livestock is simply a more consumer-friendly name, much like the re-branding of prunes into dried plums – same product, just not the same connotation with old people and constipation.
Why the hell would we eat insects? For starters they have as much protein and iron as beef, plus they're a good source of calcium. They're also widely eaten in other areas of the world and in some more adventurous restaurants in the US.
While it sounds gross, this is very possible as "mini-livestock" cost far less to raise, consume less water, and have a minimal carbon footprint while providing high levels of necessary nutrients.
Along with insects, scientists are looking to farm algae. Algae can feed humans and animals, is rich in nutrients like omega-3's, protein, magnesium, calcium, and other vitamins and minerals, and it can be grown in the ocean, which is great with a limited supply of land and fresh water. It could also be used in place of fossil fuels and to replace salt in foods.
So Why Are We Planning All of This?
In reality there are many reasons – climate change, sustainability, and population growth.
Drought is the single biggest limitation for worldwide agriculture. In 2012 we had the worst drought since the 1950s, and 20 years ago corn crops would've been decimated, but today, thanks to breeding and technology, crops are surviving despite these harsh conditions
This past year was also incredibly hard on cattle due to the drought, hence the focus on increasing breeding efforts with African counterparts to make American cattle more drought tolerant.
Beyond climate change, our current methods of production and consumption are simply not sustainable.
- According to a 2006 United Nations report, livestock production takes up 30% of the arable land surface of the planet.
- Raising livestock produces more greenhouse gases than all the automobiles in the world combined.
- To produce one 4-ounce burger requires as much water as running your bathroom faucet 24 hours per day for a full week.
This isn't about bashing meat consumption, as I'm a devoted omnivore. But with an ever-increasing demand from developing countries, we simply can't stay on the path we're on.
Beyond meat there are several other environmental reasons:
- Contamination of waterways due to abundant use of nitrogen fertilizers and tremendous amounts of pesticides.
- We spend almost 13 billion dollars per year on pesticides, or about a third of the world pesticide expenditure of nearly $40 billion.
- Worldwide over 5 billion pounds of pesticides are used each year – in the US alone we use 1.1 billion pounds.
Then there's the population issue. It's projected that by the year 2050 there will be 9 billion people worldwide. And with a changing climate, limited resources like land and water, and growing wealth in developing countries increasing demand for meat and other resource-intensive foods, food prices are expected to soar. Alternatives are clearly needed.
As much as I love them, are organic and biodynamic growing methods going to be able to feed a world of 9 billion people? I doubt it, and clearly not any time soon. Is using technology to feed this world necessary? Many experts think so, as we can increase yield while using less resource-intensive methods.
Is Any of This Even Remotely Healthy?
It simply depends. Is putting the flu vaccine into milk healthy? That's certainly up for debate. Is adding omega-3's to hot dogs and ice cream actually making them healthier? While you could make an argument for that, in my opinion you simply can't make chicken salad out of chicken shit.
Is genetic modification healthy? Now that's a question that's impossible to answer. However, here's how I look at it – patenting a seed that's resistant to your pesticide is simply about business. But inserting moss genes into corn so they can be more drought-tolerant sounds absolutely brilliant.
Either way you feel about the topic, just realize that it's not all black and white.
Beyond the GMOs, though, eating insects and algae may be quite good for you. Humans have eaten insects and sea vegetables throughout our existence, and still do in many places of the world. These are two ideas that could go a very long way in providing resource-saving alternatives.
Though I can't say I find the idea very enticing at the moment, I like to use sushi as an analogy. Twenty years ago, how many people viewed eating raw fish as a normal part of American cuisine? Practically no one.
Today? I live in a small town in Maine and there are at least five places serving sushi. It's become a completely accepted part of our food intake, and I predict that algae and/or insects will be similarly accepted.
The future of our food is going in fascinating directions. Some you may support, others you might not. However, you, the consumer, have a very important say in the future of our food – you vote every time you purchase an item.
Don't like GMOs or pesticides and buy organic? That's a vote for a more traditional method of food cultivation.
Don't give a shit about the GMO controversy and buy what's cheapest? Then you're telling food companies to modify as they please.
I'm not here to tell you what's right or wrong, I simply want you to be an informed consumer, and to know the consequences of your choices, whatever they may be.