It’s the year 2035. Craving a burger and a beer, a hungry traveller wanders into a nondescript gastropub, the type that’s found in almost any city. 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. For the main course, the traveller can choose between fish—the “catch of the day” is plucked from a nearby indoor fish farm—or he can order a burger, made of cow, bison, chicken or pork, fresh out of the bioreactor. “We have an excellent meat-grower,” the waitress says.
This is the scenario imagined by Chicago-based writer Josh Schonwald in his new book, The Taste of Tomorrow: Dispatches from the Future of Food. For the past several years, Schonwald has been on a mission to discover what the “salad, meat, seafood and pad Thai of the future” will be. He’s explored everything from genetically engineered foods—like a cherry tomato modified to carry a lemon basil gene, which is said to be delicious—to meat grown in a test tube. Canadian scientists are working on this too, building healthier hot dogs and other processed foods.
In an age of rampant foodie-ism that prizes the traditional, local and organic above all, writer Michael Pollan’s famous advice not to eat anything packaged or anything with more than five ingredients has become a well-known principle. Schonwald disagrees, criticizing what he calls the “rising tide of food-specific neo-Luddism” that insists food and technology shouldn’t mix. If we’re going to feed the planet, solutions won’t just come from farms, but from the lab, too—and if scientists can engineer food that’s tastier, more nutritious and sustainable, all the better.
Idealistic eaters might hope that, by 2035, more people will be growing their own vegetables, shopping at farmers’ markets and hatching eggs in backyard chicken coops, but the methods popular with urban foodies won’t feed everyone. The world population of seven billion is expected to be more than nine billion by 2050; with climate change, limited resources like land and water, and growing wealth in developing countries—where more people are clamouring for a better diet, including more red meat—food prices are bound to go through the roof. “It’s already extremely expensive to eat well,” says Alejandro Marangoni, Canada Research Chair in food, health and aging at the University of Guelph. “When people get on a soapbox and say we have to go back to eating more veggies, I don’t know if everyone can afford it.”
Instead, packaged foods will be engineered to provide more of the nutrients we need. Milena Corredig, Marangoni’s fellow food scientist at Guelph, predicts that “we’ll all have scanning codes on our key chains that we take with us into the grocery store.” Based on our age, activity levels, health condition, and even our genes, these codes could point us toward specific foods. Corredig, who holds the Canada Research Chair in food nanostructure, is developing tiny nanoparticles (a nanometre is one-billionth of a metre) to pack nutrients into dairy products. With this technology, it’s possible to imagine a strawberry-flavoured milk that protects against this season’s strain of the flu, for example.
Supratim Ghosh at the University of Saskatchewan is developing several applications for food nanoparticles, including some that could serve as a fat substitute: made of a naturally indigestible material, they’ll pass through the body without being absorbed.(By comparison, olestra, a zero-calorie fat introduced almost 20 years ago, was “not a natural fat,” Ghosh says, and couldn’t be easily digested: it caused loose bowels and other harrowing side effects.) “Scientists working in this area think that food will be used to prevent disease,” Ghosh says. “Not to cure disease; you need drugs for that. But the future will be food that provides additional health benefits beyond nutrition,” he says, quoting Hippocrates: “Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food.”
Even “unhealthy” foods can be much more nutritious. In his book, Schonwald envisions a future hamburger with the fat profile of salmon or an avocado, supercharged with omega-3 or polyunsaturates instead of saturated fat. At Guelph, Marangoni is working on its precursor: a healthier hot dog that swaps out unhealthy fats for better ones.
The hot dog can contain almost one-third fat, a lot of it saturated. Marangoni and his team have found a way to replace some of that saturated fat with healthier oils, trapping them within solid structures to create what he calls an “oil Jell-O” that can stand in for beef fat. While these healthier hot dogs contain the same total amount of fat, they have more nutritious omega-3s. The challenge was to make a hot dog that’s suitably chewy. “If you replace animal fat with oil, it makes a tough, rubbery frankfurter,” Marangoni says, but his textured oil Jell-O is a good stand-in. At his Guelph lab, he tested the frankfurter for flavour and texture, squishing it between metal plates like a sort of mechanical jaw to get a sense of its mouth feel. The hot dog made with oil Jell-O had the right springy squishiness.
Even with healthier hot dogs and burgers on our barbecues, in the future we won’t eat as much meat as we do now—or at least, not the kind we’re familiar with today. The way we get our meat just isn’t sustainable. Livestock production takes up 30 per cent of the land surface on the planet, according to a 2006 United Nations report, and produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all the cars and trucks on the road. “Eating one four-ounce hamburger is equivalent to leaving your bathroom faucet running 24 hours a day for a week,” Patrick O. Brown of Stanford University has said. “We can’t go on like this.” Only a small percentage of the North American population is vegetarian, but as meat prices climb, more people will have no choice but to cut back.
Either that, or switch to new proteins that are bound to flood the market. Smaller animals, which are less resource-intensive, could start popping up on the menu, like rabbit, or even edible insects (including crickets, June beetles and caterpillars), which are already consumed in some parts of the world, and at adventurous North American restaurants. Our future seafood, Schonwald predicts, will come from “mega fish warehouses” spread across the country that raise fish in a model similar to the chicken industry. On-land fish farming sounds totally impractical, but Schonwald thinks this is the wave of the future. “It takes a lot of concerns about fish farming off the table,” he says, like pollution and fish escapes that can mess with the natural marine ecology. With the on-land model, faster-growing fish will be favoured, meaning our future grocery stores will probably be stocked with tropical species rather than cod and halibut.
Maybe the meat of the future will actually be made of vegetables. A small group of scientists are working on high-tech, veggie-based meat alternatives, but their goal isn’t to simply create more tofu. They want something even meat lovers will devour. At a February conference in Vancouver, Brown caused a stir by announcing he hoped to have a vegetable-based fake meat on the market within the year—one that’s impossible to tell apart from real meat, he claimed then, “even by hard-core foodies.”
Brown has revealed few details about his product, but Florian Wild, a food engineer working on a rival fake meat, is more forthcoming. Wild is project manager of LikeMeat, a European effort to make “meat” out of soy, wheat gluten, pea protein, or other plant-based ingredients. “It looks very similar to a cooked meat product,” says Wild, who’s based in Germany, which is known for its meat-heavy cuisine. “It comes out of the processing plant in a long strip, and then you can cut it and stamp it in any form you like.” The neutral-tasting strip, which is textured like chicken, is then coloured and flavoured to make it more like beef, pork or chicken; when it’s breaded and fried, or minced and served in a taco, Wild says it’s impossible to tell it apart from the real thing. But LikeMeat doesn’t have to be flavoured like meat: instead, it could be amped up with curry, he suggests, or coconut, creating entirely new types of food products. He hopes to have it on store shelves within a couple of years.
Some people doubt plant-based products will ever replace the taste and texture of a good rare steak, no matter how artfully soy and pea proteins are transformed in the lab. In the Netherlands, Dr. Mark Post is working on a different solution: growing real meat from a cow’s own stem cells. After extracting cells from its muscle tissue, Post’s team can get them to proliferate in a special nutrient bath, using Velcro to anchor them like an artificial tendon. The muscle cells eventually begin to contract on their own, and can be electrically stimulated to help them develop even more.
It sounds a bit like Frankenstein’s lab, but Post, a medical doctor by training, believes in vitro meat could help feed the world. With his method, “you still need donor animals to supply the cells,” he says, “but we think we could reduce the number of livestock worldwide by a factor of one million,” the equivalent of going from 10 billion animals to 10,000. Beyond freeing up land and water, “you could take care of every animal and make sure they didn’t suffer a death fraught with the issues of large-scale slaughter,” he says.
Post is slowly convincing others of the value of his in vitro meat. He received 300,000 euros from an anonymous donor to make one hamburger as proof of concept, which should be ready by November (Post still hasn’t tried eating his lab-grown meat). Schonwald, who met with Post while researching his book, writes about a possible future of “football-field-sized factories supplying chicken, beef and pork,” and in the home, “a toaster-sized appliance that makes meat making as simple as bread making.” Most mind-bendingly, with the right DNA sample, notes Schonwald, it would be possible to grow a hamburger out of virtually anything. “Endangered, taboo animals—zebras, giraffes, giant pandas, California condors.” If the idea of eating a panda burger isn’t exotic enough, keep in mind that if a scientist ever manages to retrieve dinosaur DNA, we could theoretically feast on a slab of T. Rex or brontosaurus meat.
On Schonwald’s quest to find the cuisine of the future, he started contemplating salad mix. It wasn’t so long ago that salads were mostly made up of iceberg lettuce; with better packaging and other advances, delicate spring mixes are now in virtually every grocery store, blending baby romaine, endive, oak leaf lettuce and radicchio, greens that weren’t mainstream until recently. It’s happened with other foods too, like broccoli, which was unknown in the U.S. until a Sicilian immigrant started planting it in California after the First World War, according to Schonwald’s book. “Tilapia’s another one,” he says. “It’s not that tilapia didn’t exist before, but 15 years ago not a lot of people knew about it.” Then fish farmers realized how easy it was to raise, and the public discovered its bland, non-ﬁshy taste, and it took off. “Today we’re at the point of tilapia fatigue.” Schonwald got to wondering, “What’s the next tilapia? What’s the next spring mix?”
It could be we’ll discover some delicious new green that’s barely known here, like a blue lettuce from Afghanistan that Schonwald describes, or maybe it will be a weed: dandelion, the scourge of gardeners, is starting to pop up on diners’ plates. One certainty is that, as the temperature warms, what we consume a few decades from now will be different from today. Lenore Newman of the University of the Fraser Valley, who holds the Canada Research Chair in food security and environment, “is going across the country looking at what Canadians are eating,” she says. Canadian cuisine is already adapting to the pressures of climate change.
Even 10 years ago, it would have been hard to define “Canadian cuisine,” Newman says, but now we’ve come into our own. “We’re an oil power, our dollar is higher, and people are moving around a lot more,” she notes. Today, our cuisine is “regional, it’s local, and it involves a lot of fresh seasonal stuff.” In the Fraser Valley, where Newman lives, blueberries are a signature crop. In Niagara, it’s icewine. But as the climate warms, these “signature foods” will start to shift.
The Prairies are known for their wheat farms, but Newman predicts a “thriving lentil industry will grow” as farmers opt to grow more legumes instead (lentils use less water). With less snow cover in the future, our maple-growing regions will likely have to migrate north, and the Vermont industry could eventually dry up altogether. “Here in B.C., salmon is our iconic food,” she says, “but salmon are really sensitive to temperature.” West Coasters might find themselves eating less salmon, and it will take careful management of rivers and forests to protect them.
Meanwhile, the foods we have to import, like coffee and chocolate, will become increasingly expensive. “It’s an interesting time for Canada’s food,” Newman says.
Considering the impact of climate change on what we grow today, Schonwald started to wonder if genetically modified crops—what critics like to call “Frankenfood”—might become more widely accepted. Wondering how GMOs, as they’re commonly known, could change the taste of food we eat in the future, he paid a visit to the Plant Transformation Facility at the University of California at Davis, where molecular biologists mix incompatible species, using tiny gold bullets to fire genes from one to another inside a bombardment chamber. “The Davis lab has given birth to grapes spiked with jellyfish, tomatoes spiked with carp,” and other surprises, he writes.
When Schonwald started out, he was vaguely distrustful of genetically modified crops. But as he learned more about them, he became convinced this technology could actually save lives and protect the planet. Take golden rice, which is augmented with vitamin A. Up to half a million children go blind each year from vitamin A deficiency, and half will die within 12 months, according to a World Health Organization report cited in his book. What a difference this rice can make. Genetically engineered crops can help the environment, too: designed to resist weeds and insects, they need to be treated with less of the toxic chemicals that leach into the environment. (In Canada, genetically modified food crops have been grown for the last 20 years, mainly corn, canola, and soybeans.)
As the climate warms and the population grows, engineered crops could play a more important role than ever. But first, attitudes have to change. The public is still wary of GMOs, maybe because they seem unnatural, or because of their ties to big corporations—often the only ones who can afford the lengthy and expensive regulatory process to get them approved. According to Nina Fedoroff, who was science and technology adviser to the U.S. secretary of state until 2010, the European Union has spent $425 million studying the safety of genetically modified crops over the last 25 years: “It concludes modification by these techniques is no more dangerous than by conventional techniques.”
If environmental and humanitarian arguments convince enough people to embrace genetically modified crops, and we reach the point where they’re treated like any other, Schonwald predicts it will have a major impact on what we eat. We could see more varieties too delicate to mass produce today, like heirloom tomatoes. We could see “pink lettuce and blue arugula,” or a Caesar salad without the dressing, the flavour bred right into the lettuce leaves. “You could also have a banana that looks like a banana but tastes like an ice cream sundae.”
Not so long ago, it was hard to find Thai food, even in some bigger cities. Today it’s everywhere, from Thai-style chicken wraps to Thai-flavoured buffalo wings, to countless bottled sauces and frozen entrees at the grocery store. Pad Thai, a dish with rice noodles stir fried with vegetables, eggs and fish sauce, is almost as ubiquitous as spaghetti and meatballs. When thinking about the future of food, Schonwald set out to discover what the next pad Thai would be.
In his book, he describes his meeting with Kara Nielsen, a “food trendologist” who tries to pinpoint the next big thing. She explains one theory of how a food trend hits: ﬁrst, it appears at a handful of ethnic or upscale restaurants, where chefs and diners are willing to experiment. Then it pops up on the Food Network and in specialty shops, before it starts going mainstream, infiltrating chains and retail stores. Then women’s magazines get hold of it, and finally, it’s on the menu at fast food restaurants and on grocery store shelves. There are reasons why some foods, like Swedish meatballs, never make it. “It’s not just novelty for the sake of novelty. It’s a meritocracy,” Schonwald says. “Thai food has a lot of appeal.”
Korean food, Middle Eastern food, and regional flavours from Mexico and India are already mainstream. When asked to identify a cuisine that isn’t upon us yet—one that could be big in 2035—Nielsen suggests African food. “It’s not on the radar screen at all.” Of course, bigger cities in Canada and the U.S. already have a smattering of African restaurants, but their dishes certainly aren’t available on the scale of chicken curry or sushi. Schonwald set out to investigate. Eating Nigerian soups, Zanzibari pizza and lamb yassa at restaurants in Chicago, he became convinced that, by 2035, some dishes from sub-Saharan Africa will be available at fast food places, family restaurants, and as frozen meals at the grocery store, just like pad Thai. “We’re talking about 40 different countries, and a wide range of flavours and flora,” Schonwald says. With economic development and increased immigration to North America over coming decades, “something from sub-Saharan Africa will inevitably become well-known.”
Canada’s multiculturalism is already a huge factor in its culinary landscape, and has led to the creation of some entirely new dishes. “I was at the Richmond night market and ate a butter chicken poutine,” says the University of the Fraser Valley’s Newman. “It’s such a weird, Canadian thing.” Burger Bar in Toronto’s Kensington Market neighbourhood has saag poutine, with Indian paneer cheese and spinach, on the menu. Vancouver is known for Japadog, a chain that puts Japanese toppings like daikon, miso sauce and seaweed on its wieners. West Coast sushi “uses salmon in a very Canadian way,” Newman adds. As more immigrants move here, our habit of blending traditional foods into entirely new, delicious creations is bound to continue. Maybe a sub-Saharan African-inspired poutine will crop up on the menu somewhere, if it hasn’t already.
More people than ever are interested in learning where their food comes from, and take extra care to seek out local, organic, sustainable ingredients. They’re guided by Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, who advises: “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” Pollan suggests we shouldn’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or that our grandparents wouldn’t recognize. Schonwald thinks Pollan gets it about 75 per cent right. In response, he quotes Nathan Myhrvold, who co-wrote the cookbook Modernist Cuisine: “Somebody had to be the first European to eat a tomato.”
The movement toward local, sustainable ingredients is “an overwhelmingly positive thing,” says Schonwald. But while we might agree with Pollan and his ilk—the “romantic heroes” of food, as Schonwald calls them—he argues that we should also admire scientists trying to grow meat in a lab, or to engineer more nutritious crops. These two, he insists, shouldn’t be at odds. “What’s perceived as ‘unnatural’ can support the ‘natural,’ ” he says. More likely, to feed the growing population in coming decades, it will have to.