Surroundings and the availability of plants, mushrooms, humans and other animals have shaped humans’ diets for thousands of years. Eating and the struggle for existence is one of the most powerful forces behind human decision-making. There were remarkable milestones in human diets; such as the emergence of cooking, food production, and various food processing technologies. In this blog article, I will give a short introduction to pasts and futures of food. I will cover the most important trends but save detailed information for upcoming articles of the Futures of Food blog series.
Here are the questions: How did we evolve and where are we right now? Where shall we go next? Humans (Homo spp.) used stone tools for at least 3.3 million years (Harmond et. al. 2015). Some societies learned how to produce bronze and iron tools fairly recently. Nowadays, societies know how to produce and use new sophisticated tools. If not earlier, controlling fire could be traced back to 790.000 ago (Goren-Inbar et. al. 2004). Anatomically modern humans emerged at least 200.000 years ago, probably earlier. Even though there is evidence of long-distance trade in archaeology, people relied on their immediate environment for more than 99% of our past. Approximately 12.000 years ago, some societies started food production. Since then, modern humans’ relationship with the environment has changed. Many people continued their nourishing and reliable hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Others started to manipulate the land to cultivate and created entangled relationships (sensu Hodder 2012) with other plants and animals. I am considering the possibility that this relationship might have led to co-domestication, in which some of the plants, humans and other animals (also presumably mushrooms) increased their interdependency and opened the path of domestication for all agencies involved.
We, as modern humans, are impacted by our evolutionary past. However, we do not make decisions exactly as our ancestors did. As Daniel Lieberman (2013) -acknowledged Evolutionary Biologist- once wrote: “…just because we evolved to eat certain foods, it doesn't mean they are good for us”. Humans tend to change their minds and technology to create new opportunities. For instance, some conventional agricultural practices using animals were not nearly as effective as modern-day technology. The power and effectiveness of a tractor is higher than that of cattle cart.
Bringing the focus from the past to present, we can observe that there are new ways of producing and distributing food. Today, billions of people can easily eat a banana grown on a different continent and forwardly shipped to the shelves of the supermarkets next doors. There is a lack of environmental limitations on subsistence in almost every part of the world. This is powerful but fragile. Therefore, we need to reconsider our choices related to food gathering, processing, distributing and eating. For example, in an era in which food is grown in excess, we no longer require the subsistence from animal consumption. Some pre-industrial societies might have needed to exploit both plants and animals to survive and get their nutrition, but today circumstances are different for the vast majority of the people. Abundance of food could lead to catastrophic results due to correlated (but often related) human population increase which occurred in a dramatically tight time-scale (in less than 0.1% of the human past). As a direct consequence of this, billions of people nourished enough to survive but not enough to not have a functioning body. Likewise, animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of climate change, deforestation and antimicrobial resistance. Our dependence and necessity of exploiting animals has not only decreased dramatically, we have eliminated the need to use animals. It is time that we consider the environmental and ethical aspects of our actions (see Singer 1975) as well as survival of our species.
From the present to the future, what will be the next stop on our evolutionary food journey? It is time to imagine the futures you want to live in. The following list could potentially help us make food production and consumption more sustainable. Some technologies might not be “better” and could create unpredictable problems. For instance, Vertical farming could be more efficient in terms of water usage and depends on highly elaborate energy productions systems; algae farms could negatively impact the local marine environment; Nutritional Genetics technology has a high privacy risk, and so forth.
1) Vertical Food Production: Food production emerged approximately 12.000 years ago which is a fairly recent invention. We had a tendency to produce food horizontally and this is what we keep doing today. Yet, if we would question the ways we are used to grow food, vertical farming is so much more efficient in terms of water usage. Vertical farms could be erected close to where the consumers and/or prosumers live. We can call this "Re-emergence of Local Food Production". This innovation is a chance for us to fix the globalized food system´s disconnection from the local environment. However, vertical farming highly depends on organisation-based technologies, such as power plants (including solar panels) and water pumps. Therefore, it is not very resilient per se.
2) New Food Processing Systems: Cooking and chopping are probably the oldest food processing technologies. I will focus on newer technologies: 3D food printing has the potential to automate many food processing steps. Cartridges could be filled with food and the machine can process. Therefore, speed and accuracy could be increased. However, this system highly depends on organisation-based technologies and extraction of materials from various parts of the world for the 3D food printing devices. We tend to increase our dependency on machines to process food. We are using machines like blenders as artificial jaws. In the relatively long term that habit has a potential of impacting our anatomy.
Another way of manipulating food items is a molecular or nano scale. This could create unpredictable results.
3) Plant & Mushroom meat are going mainstream: Plant and mushroom meat are positive in terms of thermodynamic efficiency, environmental aspects (e.g. land use) and animal liberation (not killing a sentient being with a nervous system). Furthermore, it could be reliant on local food sources and produced in bulk very easily. These systems are currently on their way to scale-up. We will probably see more of this in the near future.
4) Cultured Meat (a.k.a. Cellular Meat or In-vitro Meat): This way of tissue production will probably make the current way of meat production redundant. “Animal meat” is basically muscle and fat tissues of animals. There are two approaches to gather animal tissue. (a.) top-down, (b.) bottom-up. The first approach includes finding or breeding the animal, feeding it, killing it and gathering the related tissues (a.k.a animal meat). The second approach starts with gathering the tissue, feeding the culture and gathering the meat. This approach is way more efficient. However, its biggest shortcoming is the feed for the culture. It relies on a pregnant mother and its offspring to gather Fetal Bovine Serum. Once humans find a way to make a reliable, economic and ethical feed for the culture, this technology most likely will make the top-down approach of gathering meat redundant.
5) Changes in Food Hardware: Approximately 60 years ago we started to introduce plastic food hardware out of plastics (e.g. cutlery, food storage containers). We know that there are immense problems related to this (e.g. microplastics in the ocean). Biodegradable or eatable cutlery and packing could solve some of the issues. Another trend is avoiding single use petroleum-based plastics as practiced in the zero-waste culture.
6) Super Foods: I would like to put special attention and focus on algae: superstar of efficiency. It could be used for both machine and human fuel. Important to note, it can be grown in salty water.
7) Internet of Food (IoF): This is basically the food version of Internet of Things (IoT). It is a connected system where various measuring devices gather data related to the plant and then apply the appropriate measures (e.g. watering). This could automate many farming practices.
8) Nutrigenomics (a.k.a. Nutritional Genetics): It focuses on the relationship between genome, nutrition and health. Nutrigenomics offers personalized nourishment and is linked to medical applications. This technology has started to gather important data to improve personalized medicine and preventive measures. However, this technology could be delayed or reframed due to high security and privacy risks.
9) Outer Space Food: Gravity is different in outer space. Growing medium and chemistry could also be different. Many organizations think about smart ways of producing, processing, and storing food for outer-space explorations (e.g. International Space Station, Mars).
There are many factors causing uncertainties regarding how the futures of food will actually look like. These include (a.) current antibiotic usage in animal farming and the possibility of a pandemic based on antimicrobial resistance, (b.) constant increase in human population, (c.) fragility of global food trade, (d.) animal slavery in food industry (including tiny farms), (e.) changes in land and marine environments (e.g. deforestation, overuse of groundwater, killing vast amounts of individuals to force a species to go extinct).
Furthermore, we need to consider that there is a possibility for “lack of predictability” and “delayed foresight”. We cannot predict what will (not) happen. A part of this depends on us. We are responsible for our actions and therefore the individual should be competent and aware of these trends, which could be shaped. The question is what kind of a future we desire to live in?
We have a playground and it is called Futures.
Goren-Inbar N., Alperson N., Kislev M. E., et. al., 2014, “Evidence of Hominin Control of Fire at Gesher Benot Ya'aqov, Israel”. Science 304: 5671, 725-727.
Harmand S., Lewis J. E., Feibel C. S., et. al., 2015 “3.3-million-year-old Stone Tools from Lomekwi 3, West Turkana, Kenya”, Nature, 512, 310-315.
Hodder I., 2012. “Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships Between Humans and Things”. West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons.
Lieberman D., 2013: “The Story of Human Body: Evolution, Health and Disease, Vintage Books”, New York.
Singer P., 1975, “Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals”. New York: New York Review.