Foods of the future: will you be eating this?

From cultured beefburgers to vegetable cocktails, the food of the future could be hard to swallow

Cultured beef (© David Parry & PA Wire)

David Parry & PA Wire

Strands of meat grown in a lab are collected and coloured to make burgers

Perhaps you’re growing parsley by the kitchen window, you have a small herb garden out the back, or maybe you’re currently eating home-grown courgettes or runner beans with every meal after a bumper harvest. All of these are great contributions to cutting out food miles and reducing your carbon footprint, but if you’re a meat-eater, you’re massively in deficit when it comes to food resources. With the world’s growing middle class already wanting to eat more meat, and with demand for flesh and protein expected to increase by as much as 80% by 2050 – when the world’s population will tick past nine billion – humanity’s eating habits will have to change. Frequent eating of animals, eggs and dairy produce has also been linked to heart disease and other illnesses. So what are the foods of the future?

From mealworms and ‘cultured’ meat grown in lab conditions to vegetables raised inside special kitchen pods, the meat and two veg of the future might resemble today’s dinner in appearance, but the way it will be produced will have to be drastically more sustainable.

A different kind of burger (© David Parry & PA Wire)

David Parry & PA Wire

Cultured beef could help reduce the environmental impact of the meat industry

Take the first-ever Cultured Beef burger, which cost £250,000 to produce. The first examples of ‘cultured’ or in-vitro meat – in this case, beef – are initially made from muscle cells taken from a cow, which are grown in rings within a nutrient solution, forming strands of meat. The meat for a burger, which contains around 20,000 strands, is then enhanced by salt, egg powder and breadcrumbs. Red beet juice and saffron create its beef-like colour. “Our burger is made from muscle cells taken from a cow,” explains Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University. “We haven’t altered them in any way. For it to succeed it has to look, feel and hopefully taste like the real thing.” The same process is now being followed by Modern Meadow to produce ‘real’ leather, though the company also has plans to bio-print ‘animal muscle strips’. Yum.

A different kind of beef

The arrival in fast-food joints of the Cultured Beef (or ham, lamb, chicken or … horse) burger or other lab-produced flesh is only a matter of time – around 10-20 years, reckon its makers – because the meat industry is just too demanding of the planet’s resources. The UN calls the meat industry “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global”. A lot of the concern about intensive meat production and consumption surrounds the use of water; a third more water is needed to produce meat than crops.

An event staged in London in September saw the pest control company Rentokil serve members of the public with some possible foods of the future: pigeon burgers, salt and vinegar crickets, weaver ants, BBQ mealworms and insect lollipops. Is eating critters really the answer?

A food protest in Cardiff (© PETA)


Some argue that the water consumption of the meat industry is too much

A far simpler way to get around meat’s resource-heavy production is, of course, to simply stop eating it. Last month’s Water Week saw two almost naked members of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) sitting in a bathtub in the centre of Cardiff and holding signs that read “50 Baths = 1 Steak: Go Vegan”, to underline by far the easiest way to conserve water and help the environment. “It’s impossible to ‘go green’ without going vegan,” said Kirsty Henderson, Peta’s campaigns coordinator. “By simply going vegan we can help protect the Earth, our health, countless animals and can also save nearly one million litres of water a year – enough to fill Cardiff’s International Olympic Swimming Pool two and a half times.”

Vegetarian uprising

However, whether the majority of Britain’s meat-eating population have the stomach for a purely vegan diet is doubtful. “There are basically three things that can happen,” says Google’s Sergey Brin, who is financially supporting the Cultured Beef project, which is also tacitly supported by Peta. “One is that we all become vegetarian. I don’t think that’s really likely. The second is we ignore the issues, and that leads to continued environmental harm. The third option is to do something new.”

Oat-based ice-cream (© Oatly)


Oatly’s ice cream made from milk extracted from oats avoids dairy produce

The eventual goal is to switch from unsustainable, intensive farming of animals for meat – a practice common across the world – to one of ‘sustainable intensification’. The brainchild of the University of Oxford’s Dr Tara Garnett and Professor Charles Godfray (both also policymakers at the UN), sustainable intensification argues that farmers in many regions of the world need to produce more food, yet resist expanding farmland or using more fertilisers and agrochemicals. “Achieving a sustainable food system will require changes in agricultural production [and] changes in diet so people eat less meat and waste less food,” said Godfray.

“Around two billion people worldwide are thought to be deficient in micronutrients,” said Garnett, who thinks we need to intensify the quality of the food we produce by improving the nutritional content of commonly produced crops. One answer is to cook food more efficiently – and grow it at home.

An alternative growing area (© The Aqualibrium Garden)

The Aqualibrium Garden

The Aqualibrium Garden creates a closed system that produces both fish and vegetables at home

One way to do exactly that at home is to steam vegetables, a process that preserves more vitamins and nutrients. There could also be a role for technology in the form of health-checkers, to monitor us and decide exactly what it is we need to eat. A report called Kitchenology, which was published this month by the German white goods manufacturer Miele, predicts that the kitchen of the future will include home-grown ‘food walls’ that respond to what health scanners determine is missing from our diets. Using hydro-nutrition technology to grow fruit, vegetables, herbs and other plants in ‘growing pods’, this food of the future will always be steamed, thus ensuring no nutrition is wasted by being boiled away.

A new way of eating?

“There will be dramatic changes in the way we source food and even in what we eat in the next 50 years,” said Jaana Jatyri, CEO at Trendstop, which commissioned the 2013 Miele Kitchenology Report. “The way we are used to transporting food from the farm to the store to the home – as well as storing it at each stage – wastes a vast amount of energy and resources. Future consumers will be growing more of their food fresh right in their kitchens. We also suspect they will be able to take advantage of advanced technologies that work on cellular and atomic rather than mechanical levels.”

One easy solution is the Aqualibrium Garden, a project currently looking for funding on the entrepreneur website Kickstarter. Fish in the bottom of the container supply the nutrients that fertilise the plants above, creating a closed system that produces both fish flesh and almost any leafy green vegetables.

A similar drive is behind Evogro’s Farmino Plant Growing Appliance, a refrigerator-sized cabinet that uses LED lighting, hydroponics and smart cloud software to optimise growing conditions in any home.

Worms in a bowl (© Wikimedia)


Could insects one day become humans’ main source of protein?

As part of Kitchenology’s launch, Miele had the chef Ben Spalding cook up a range of dishes that could be popular 50 years from now, in 2063. As well as dumplings filled with insects and bean paste, his menu included clamped root vegetables cooked in sweet yoghurt and spices, and 30-ingredient salads served hot, cold, raw and cooked. “Insects on the menu will become as normal as eating bread,” said Spalding, who thinks that the ‘five-a-day’ motto will be upgraded to ’10-a-day’ juice drinks. Forget the ‘space age’ one-a-day pill that contains everything you need to survive, too – Spalding reckons that ‘food cocktails’ that contain all essential vitamins, minerals and macro-nutrients needed will become popular. He added: “Consumers will also have a much wider range of flavours available to them as people will rediscover plants that aren’t suitable for commercial food storage or transport, but which suit home growing.”

If you thought brewing your own beer at home was exotic, wait till you start growing your own bacon, eggs and … mealworm sausages.

Home Beer Brewing

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