Our current food system, largely fueled by factory farming and other forms of large-scale industrial agriculture, is unsustainable. Raising and slaughtering roughly 70 billion farmed animals each year comes at too high a cost for animals, workers, and the planet to bear. With our population expected to reach nearly 10 billion people by 2050, it’s important that we ask what does a more sustainable way of feeding the world looks like? What will we eat and how will we grow our food? The future of food is happening—right before our eyes.
Will There Be a Food Shortage in the Future?
In 2009, the United Nations (UN) warned that food production would need to double by the year 2050 if we are to meet the demand of a growing population. Yet, we are currently producing more than enough food to feed the world—over 1.5 times the amount needed—according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN. The real issues are food waste and unequal access to healthy foods and resources.
“Roughly one-third of all the food produced in the world for human consumption every year—approximately 1.3 billion tonnes—is lost or wasted,” reports the UN, which states that just increasing production will not be sufficient to feed the global population. “Hunger exists today although there is enough food for all. Even if we increase agricultural output 60 percent by 2050, we will still have 300 million people going hungry due to lack of proper access to food. Access is central to hunger. Most often the reason people are undernourished is because they cannot grow enough food for themselves, or do not have enough money to buy it.”
Significant changes to our food system are needed if we are to truly address food insecurity and meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
What Is the Future of Food?
This may not sound real, but just as we have created objects using 3D printing, 3D-printed food is already in the works. It is made through a process called additive manufacturing, in which “an edible paste (which can be made of anything, really) is added layer by layer to create foods,” according to Berkeley Wellness.
Israeli startup Redefine Meat, which produces 3D-printed steaks it believes are more sustainable than beef from cows, says that printing will produce “the next generation of Alt Meat” and is the key to “animal-free meat with the appearance, texture, and flavor of whole muscle meat.” The company has raised $29 million in funding towards a commercial launch, and Insider has reported that it “could upend the meat industry.” 3D printing is also a focus of research at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), as a possible way to produce food for long missions to space.
Algae is celebrated by many not only for its essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals but as a potential source of sustainable food that is currently underutilized. Food Dive writes “with research and Big Food partnerships, [algae] might be the next great sustainability story,” and that “it can be cultivated without using land or a large amount of natural resources.” The food outlet reports, “Algae are literally everywhere. The single-celled organisms grow in freshwater, saltwater, and wastewater. Algae can grow and flourish in the sun through photosynthesis, but it can also grow in the dark. And it can be cultivated without using land or a large amount of natural resources.”
Edible Food Packaging
By selling food in edible rather than disposable packaging, some believe that we could help to reduce both food waste and pollution, an urgent problem. A 2017 report stated that by 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish.
Food Tank reports, “To combat the harmful environmental effects of plastic, many companies are seeking to replace excess plastic packaging with edible materials. Using innovative technology and plant-based materials like seaweed, organizations have developed numerous packaging alternatives safe for human consumption.”
Fake Fish and Seafood
The ocean is under many human threats, from pollution to overfishing, as we deplete species from both the bottom and top of the marine food chain. While aquaculture, or the farming of fish for food, has been touted by some as a more sustainable way to meet demand, it has fallen short. Some feel that, with it hard for consumers to find truly sustainable seafood, the increasing varieties of plant-based and cultured seafood could offer the way forward.
With new options emerging on the market often, there are now plant-based alternatives to tuna, shrimp, crab, and many other popular foods. At the same time, cultured or lab-grown seafood is rising to the surface, as startups secure funding for products from bluefin tuna to mahi-mahi.
The World Sustainability Organization and Good Food Institute recently launched a sustainability certification program for plant-based seafood, which aims to label products as meeting certain eco-friendly standards. The organizations expect that plant-based products will be among those certified soon.
Fungi and Mushrooms
Wall Street Journal wrote in March 2021 that with us unable to continue at our current levels of meat consumption, “mushrooms are starting to look like one of the best answers to the question: What is the future of food?”
GMO stands for “genetically modified organism” and is commonly used to refer to foods made with genetic engineering. While there are questions and controversies surrounding GMOs, many foods are already produced from GMO crops. For example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that most corn and soy in the U.S. are GMO.
Many GMO crops were created to increase yields by preventing crop loss. FDA writes that the three most common traits of GMO crops are “resistance to insect damage, tolerance to herbicides, and resistance to plant viruses.”
While there are ethical questions involved when it comes to consuming insects, some encourage eating them as a high-protein option that takes a lighter environmental toll than the farming of other animals. It has long been done in many parts of the world, and in 2013, FAO estimated that insects comprise part of the traditional diets of 2 billion people.
Yet, there are some questions as to whether insects are truly a more sustainable option. All of this being said, this is one of few “sustainable foods” that involve eating animals. In 2019, Fast Company explored the question, “is eating bugs any morally different than eating cows?” They noted that while the currently available evidence is not conclusive, it points to the possibility that bugs can suffer or feel emotions—and that our consumption of them would require many more sentient beings to be killed.
Lab-grown, or cultured, meat is meat created in a laboratory using the cells of animals, typically without requiring any animals to be slaughtered. This means that it could hold one key to reducing animal farming’s environmental impact.
“The field of cultured food and material production is still in its nascency, but many of its underlying technologies are rapidly approaching breakthroughs that may soon enable mass production,” writes Bruno Decc. “Globally, technologies are available to replace every product that is currently derived from animal farming with cloned, lab-grown versions.”
In fact, the Guardian reports that in 2020, investment in lab-grown meat increased sixfold and new companies rapidly emerged. Writing that this cultured meat can produce lower emissions than raising livestock, the Guardian also notes that interest in this new food is rising.
Plants known as “perennials” are plants that grow for more than two seasons. Among the perennials that are commonly eaten are basil, garlic, artichokes, broccoli, rhubarb, sweet potatoes, apples, raspberries, several types of nuts, and more.
In 2009, a report from the Ecological Society of America found that perennial fields were more sustainable than annuals, contained higher levels of dissolved carbon and nitrogen in the soil, and were “more energy-efficient in providing productive harvests.” A study published in 2020 also found that perennial plants are currently “a neglected and underutilized class of crops with the potential to address 21st-century challenges” including carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and nutrition.
Plant-based meats are meat produced from plants rather than from animals. While many types of plant-based meat are highly processed, they remain a more sustainable option than meat produced from animals. The UN has urged a dietary shift towards plant-based foods and called for a reduction in meat consumption to help combat climate change.
Some researchers believe that sound affects the way we taste foods. Scientists from Oxford University found in 2012 that there “may be implicit associations between taste and pitch,” reports Scientific American. “High pitched sounds are mainly associated with sweet and sour tasting foods while low pitched notes are more commonly paired with more bitter and umami tastes. Further, their research found that taste may be altered depending on the accompanying soundtrack.”
Sonic-enhanced food has already been tried by some chefs. In 2012, BBC reported that on the menu at Fat Duck restaurant is a dish called the Sound of the Sea, served alongside an iPod playing “sounds of the seaside,” which “reportedly make the food taste fresher.” These findings mean that sonic enhancement could be used to make sustainable foods, as well as healthy foods, more appealing.
What Will Food Look Like in the Future?
Future Food Will Be More Nutritious
The World Health Organization writes, “In the future, genetic modification could be aimed at altering the nutrient content of food, reducing its allergenic potential or improving the efficiency of food production systems.”
In some cases, this is already happening. Cornell stated in 2018 that genetic engineering has “significantly increased” beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A, in crops including potatoes, wheat, oranges, cauliflower, and apples.
Future Food Will Be Less Cruel
Some foods may be produced to offer more nutrition and have fewer negative impacts on our health and bodies. But there are other questions at hand. Even if animals were removed from our food system, it is hard to say that the future production of food would be entirely cruelty-free.
Our current industrialized food system also involves the exploitation of workers, many of whom are people of color and immigrants, who work long hours in dangerous conditions and can suffer severe injuries. This is not only true of work in factory farms and slaughterhouses where animals are raised and killed for food but also in the production of other foods such as produce.
Many changes would likely need to be made to our food system to make the food we buy cruelty-free, improving the lives of workers, reducing the impact of food production on the environment and communities, providing equal access to healthy foods, and more.
Future Food Will Be More Creative
Innovative foods are already emerging almost constantly, as plant-based alternatives continue to arise and food science breakthroughs create new options. The need to improve our food system and lessen our carbon footprint will inevitably lead to ever-more creative foods, too.
Beyond innovative foods themselves, you can expect technological advances in the way we produce food as well. Among the creative changes that could unfold in the food system are the increase in robotic or automated farming and apps to reduce food waste.
Future Food Will Be Tailored to Your Genome
Many foods offer nutritional benefits, but some foods may begin to be tailored to our individual health needs. Companies currently offer genetic testing that they claim will suggest the best diet for you based on your DNA, but some researchers caution that this should not necessarily be trusted, as many factors impact our health and our body’s response to different foods.
However, ABC News reported in April 2021 that scientists are working to “better understand how food can modify predispositions to disease and immune functions,” and some doctors believe that DNA testing can lead patients to diets that will help to improve their health.
Future Food Will Taste Different
Some foods will likely continue to have flavors that we are familiar with. For example, plant-based meats are more and more often being created to mimic the taste (and texture) of animal-based meats.
However, the foods of the future could taste different than what we are used to. TASTE writes, “The question of pleasure, and suppressing it for a greater goal, is often brought up in connection to these futuristic, high-concept foods, and palate diversification offers a comforting assurance that embracing a diversity of flavor can be a form of pleasure. Eating pungent and strong flavors isn’t so much about sucking it up for the good of humanity, but about recognizing the abundance and diversity in a food type like algae. It also motions to a larger cultural challenge to address the racial dynamics of food. Who gets to determine what tastes good?”
Because other aspects of food–like smell and texture–affect the way we experience them, we should expect to see changes beyond taste, especially as “future foods” become more popular. Food futurologist Morgaine Gaye told NPR in 2013, “We know that texture is one of the things that repels most people from food. So there’s a big place to go in unusual textures. We’re already seeing these unusual textured spoons coming in, where it affects what you feel about the food because the spoon itself is textured.”
What Foods Will We Eat in 2050?
In 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, and Health produced a report involving 37 scientists from around the world, and warned that “without action, the world risks failing to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement, and today’s children will inherit a planet that has been severely degraded and where much of the population will increasingly suffer from malnutrition and preventable disease.”
The scientists concluded that there will need to be a substantial shift, largely toward plant-based foods, by 2050. “Global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes will have to double, and consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar will have to be reduced by more than 50 percent,” the report states. “A diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal source foods confers both improved health and environmental benefits.”
Even some foods not produced from animals could be impacted by environmental degradation. Sirin Kale reports for the Guardian, “By 2050, climate change will dramatically affect what we can eat and drink. Specialty crops such as avocados, coffee, and wine grapes—which can only be grown in a very narrow climate range—will be at risk.”
Jennifer is a writer and editor based near Washington, DC. Her background is in communications in the animal protection movement. She is also a contributing writer with Sentient Media.