What’s for Dinner?

The warming climate will force civilization to rethink the definition of prosperity, abundance, and lifestyle.  Among the industries that will see significant change is where and how food is produced.

Food that most people eat in rich countries, and increasingly in poor- and middle-income ones, is a product of a highly globalized economy.  While the proportion of undernourished people worldwide has declined from 15 percent in 2000-2004 to 8.9 percent in 2019, modern food production is highlighted by the spectacularly varied food choices from any place on the globe.

Today’s global food supply chain requires a large proportion of the planet’s surface devoted to farms and pasture. Further, this industry is driven by an energy-intensive system, where pesticides are abundant, intercontinental shipping cheap, and food processing an advanced industrial undertaking. The challenge is that a green energy revolution would be qualitatively different from any energy change in human history. It involves moving from more concentrated to less concentrated energy rather than in the opposite direction.

With the rate of world population growth slowing, the primary question is not whether we will have enough food but whether we will adjust our food systems to be sustainable and fair to all.

Future food systems will need to be economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable.  

Economic sustainability means that the activities performed by each participant of the system are commercially or fiscally viable, including reducing food waste. Social sustainability refers to the equitable distribution of the economic benefits across all actors, taking into account cultural traditions, nutritional value and health, workers’ rights and safety, food security, animal welfare, and institutions. Finally, the system will be environmentally sustainable if it is neutral or positively impacts biodiversity, water, soil, animal and plant health, carbon footprint, water footprint, food loss and waste, and toxicity.

To reach these goals, the food production system will need to respond to changing consumer tastes, more efficiently manage production resources, and move toward a more localized “farm-to-table” supply chain. Synthetic food production techniques that enable this evolution are “precision fermentation” through genome sequencing and gene editing, microbe-based biochemistry for food preservation, a greater variety of meat and milk substitutes from plant-based ingredients.

Land and aqua farming techniques are being employed to manage resources better. Permaculture, a food production system that mimics how plants thrive in natural ecosystems, reduces the waste of resources and increases production efficiency while lowering the chances of diseases affecting plants and vegetables through crop rotation and crop diversification that contributes to healthier soil and improved soil pest control. Vertical farming systems employing aquaponics and hydroponics are soil-less growing processes that are more resource-efficient than other farming techniques, and they use much less water. An added benefit is these controlled environments are usually near the point of consumption, such as urban environments. Agroforestry is a land-use management system that combines trees, shrubs, crops, and animals on the same land, increasing crop yields and decreasing the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Bioremediation uses microbes to extract pollutants from soil and water. Emerging aquafarming techniques include systems that create an upwelling of cooler waters to stimulate algal growth that enables enhanced seaweed production.

Filling gaps in the world’s food web requires unlearning some tastes and preferences, and evidence abounds that consumers’ food preferences are changing. Plant-based diets are hitting both ends of the food spectrum. High-end eateries are putting out vegan tasting menus, and fast food joints are serving up fried vegan chicken and meatless burgers.

The amount of meat eaten globally is growing, but less so in more prosperous countries than poorer ones. The share of people who identify as vegetarian, vegan, or “flexitarian”—meaning their diet is centered on plants but not entirely eschew animals’ eating—is rising. In Britain, the number of vegans more than quadrupled from 2014 to 2019.

These shifting values represent a moral statement: the belief that participating in the hyper-rationalized, hyper-calorific, hyper-processed industrial first-world food system is wrong. People want what they eat to say good things—both to others and to themselves. This is neither an ignoble desire nor a new one. There are dietary restrictions set down in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

What will a slap-up menu from 2021 look like to people in 100 years? They may marvel at the idea of a slab of ribs when the meat they eat has never seen a bone, skeleton, or even a blood vessel. They may pity dining choices limited to a small number of living creatures—no fried, giant crickets, or cultured, cured panda ham. They may be astounded at fruits and vegetables sourced from far away rather than coming—as all the finest produce does—from a farm just a few floors below the restaurant. They may shudder at the risks of eating line-caught fish or grow envious at the idea of a world where the climate allowed coffee to come from beans grown on hillsides rather than from yeast which still doesn’t quite get the flavonoids right despite a century of genetic tinkering.

Some will deem the cruelty and environmental damage done by their ancestors’ diets unimaginable and unforgivable. Some will be thankful that the technologies described above have become mainstream. In either case, it will be evidence that humankind is managing tolerably well, both delighting the palate and lying lightly on the conscience.