The Future of Food Goes Way Beyond Lab-Grown Meat

How late-stage capitalism, climate change, and space travel will transform our diets

Sophie Kleeman
Jul 12, 2018 · 12 min read
Illustrations by SUPER

When you think about the future, what do you picture? Is it a Jetsons-style province, filled with cities in the sky? Is it closer to Mad Max — a dystopian, environmentally ravaged hellworld where scarcity is the ruling principle? Or is it just like 2018, only people live longer and look a little more like robots?

Whatever the future looks like, one thing is certain: We’ll still need to eat something. But what exactly we’re consuming could take any number of forms: bloody burgers grown in a laboratory, goopy protein shakes, curiously uniform apples, nicely seasoned crickets.

And that’s just the food itself. Will we still value the act of sitting down for a meal? What will the first space colony’s food system look like? To find out what the future of food looks (and tastes) like, we asked a group of experts, including nutritionists, anthropologists, food historians, and one lucky entomologist, to give us the scoop.

  • Marion Nestle: Nutritionist, food studies expert, and author; former NYU professor and adviser at the Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Glenn Davis Stone: Professor of anthropology and environmental studies at Washington University in St. Louis.
  • Diego Rose: Professor and head of the nutrition section at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.
  • Megan Elias: Cultural historian and the director of Boston University’s gastronomy program.
  • Louis Sorkin: Entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History.
  • Richard Wilk: Former professor of anthropology at Indiana University; co-founder of the Food Institute at IU.
  • Kristie Lancaster: Associate professor of nutrition and a director of New York University’s graduate nutrition program; registered dietitian.

These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Medium: What are we going to be eating more and less of in the next 50 to 100 years?

Marion Nestle: People will still need food. Poor people will want more meat and processed foods. Wealthier and better-educated people will want more of a plant-based diet.

Megan Elias: It’s hard, I guess, from a sort of middle-class American perspective, to know what’s really going on in the rest of the world. I know here, all the trends are less meat, more vegetables. That’s what I ought to say. But I know in the developing world, it’s more meat and probably the same amount of vegetables.

Richard Wilk: I should preface by saying that I think we’re going continue to eat a very, very diverse diet, that probably most things are going to change price, but nothing is going to disappear. The biggest additions are probably going to be in things like lab-grown meat and things like surimi paste. I think, in general, the trend toward more and more science and technology is going to continue, just as is the trend toward more local food and more whole foods and organic foods.

Diego Rose: This brings up the whole idea of sustainable diets. What can we eat that will sustain us and the planet at the same time? (When I say we, I should point out that I’m talking about people in high-income countries and well-off people in middle-, lower-middle-income countries who are able to afford lots of meat and dairy, and afford to waste food, and afford to waste too much.) I think there’s pretty good evidence that our current methods of production and diet in general are not sustainable, and so if we’re here for another 50, 100, or more years, it would seem important that that the diet looks different going forward.

Kristie Lancaster: I hope that we will be eating more fruits and vegetables, but we’ve had a super-hard time trying to get people to actually do that. In some ways, maybe [we’ll be eating] less processed food — for example, trans fat. That’s a very specific example, but it seems like the trends are for people to want more whole foods, more holistic foods, as opposed to processed food.

Industrial-scale agriculture dominates our food system. Is it here to stay?

Glenn Davis Stone: Since the system overproduces so much, there’s tremendous amounts of money made off the industrialized food system. But I do strongly feel that probably 50 years from now, there still will be very much a thriving trade in non-industrial, non-synthetic foods, and that a lot of those values in foods will be greatly esteemed.

“Our current methods of production and diet in general are not sustainable”

Marion Nestle: I’m hoping the GMO industry will invest in solving world food problems, rather than promoting corporate industrial agriculture.

Richard Wilk: We’re not going to stop capitalism or its insidious attempts to take over everything in our lives. But we’re not going to stop resisting, either.

Kristie Lancaster: I think it’s here to stay. With family farms struggling, I don’t know how we completely switch to the old model. I think certainly with the lobbying efforts and everything else of industrial producers, that’s going to keep it going. And Americans like cheap food! Americans like cheap everything!

There is some movements in another direction, such as the slow food movement. What alternative approaches to agriculture might we start seeing?

Glenn Davis Stone: There are all sorts of innovations other than technological ones, and there are all sorts of innovation other than things that just make crops produce more.

In central Virginia, one of my favorite alternative producers raises goats and does goat’s milk and makes cheese. And to get an alternative source of revenue, she’s instituted the annual spring goat cuddle. One of the pork producers started selling bacon made out of the muscles on the head of a pig instead of just grinding them up as sausage. And people love it because it’s a food with a backstory.

Richard Wilk: There are these aquaponic systems that can be placed anywhere you’ve got clean water and electricity, and you can grow shrimp or fish, and then you take the fish or shrimp waste out of the water and use it to fertilize plants. These systems have been experimental for the past 10 to 15 years, but now, here in Indiana, I can buy shrimp raised in Indiana, or freshwater perch, in big plastic tanks in a barn.

Louis Sorkin: We have the introduced stink bug here. And everyone’s always trying to spray, kill them and everything. I met a student who was interested in : why not have these stink bugs collected, and they can be made into human food? You know, they’re not sprayed. And I said, yeah, put out houses for them, and they have to hibernate in the winter, so they’ll go into these instead of people’s houses. And then you mass-collect them.

Consider climate change. What is a decaying habitat going to do to our food systems?

Marion Nestle: This is a huge problem that will hit the poor much more than the wealthy, particularly in the global south. Large-scale agriculture will have to move closer to the poles.

Glenn Davis Stone: Most projections of the effects of climate change on food production make the remarkable assumption that agricultural practices will not change. But agricultural practices change all the time, even when climate is constant, and a lot of the most dynamic change occurs among smallholder farmers in the global south…and that’s where many of the projections suggest the greatest risks will be to food systems.

How successful will food producers in the global south be at adapting to climate change? A lot of this depends on how rapidly the climate changes. Smallholder farmers have a lot more trouble adapting to very rapid change than to more gradual change.

Richard Wilk: To me, the question is: are we going to have more conflict as we have more climate change? Are we going to have more arguments about who’s responsible and who’s going to pay to fix it?I think things are going to get a lot worse before they start to get better, with more people dying because they don’t have access to any kind of food or good food.

There are other threats to the food supply. How about growing inequality?

Kristie Lancaster: I think it’s a big threat. I think [food availability is] a big issue, not only in low-income urban areas, but also in rural areas, where it may be some miles to get to a supermarket.

Richard Wilk: The distance between what the rich eat and what the poor eat has never been greater…I think there’s nothing more human than expressing social differences through body practices. As long as we’ve got these incredible disparities, that’s what’s going to happen. Unfortunately, to my mind, that’s one of the biggest obstacles to sustainability. And that is that people don’t want to be equal.

Diego Rose: Every time people talk about undernutrition, there is the knee-jerk reaction to respond by saying there is not enough food to feed everyone, so we need to produce more. With current supplies of food, you could feed everyone enough so there would be no malnutrition. The problems are largely social, economic, and political, not technological.

Glenn Davis Stone: Wherever there is hunger, people … will claim that the agricultural system is not producing enough food. I mean, why else would people be hungry? Other that the fact that we don’t have enough food?

The problem is poverty. You can argue until the cows come home about what causes poverty in different situations … but even without going down that rabbit hole, whatever causes poverty, it is poverty that makes people hungry. It’s not lack of food production.

Does all this uncertainty mean meal replacements are the way of the future? Will Soylent or meals in pill form go mainstream?

Marion Nestle: I don’t even want to think about it.

Glenn Davis Stone: I think we are very, very susceptible to food fads. I think it’s quite possible that people could be persuaded that meals in a pill are a) sustainable, or b) a high-status thing, or c) really good for you.

Diego Rose: You can take a pill and get all of your nutrient requirements for micronutrients. But you can’t take a pill, even a horse-sized pill, to get to 2,000 calories and 50 grams of protein. You might be able to get that in a shake or in bars, but I think just in terms of producing the nutrients in something that can be swallowed, we’re not there yet.

Megan Elias: I think that’s the idea, that in the future we won’t be human. It’s funny, it’s almost like a sort of a Christian vision, that you go away from the bodily, like from the physical body, into the sort of plane where you don’t need anything material to survive.

Kristie Lancaster: I think plenty of people would love to get to a point where they can just pop a pill and get all their nutrients and feel full, in some ways. But I don’t see that coming in the near future, and maybe even in the distant future.

What other sorts of technology-driven food trends are around the corner?

Richard Wilk: We’re going to see a lot more mechanization in restaurants and restaurant kitchens, because right now, labor is — well, right now, we’re getting an artificial subsidy by having so many [undocumented workers in] kitchens. And over time, you see this in agriculture as well. There’s a really strong incentive to replace people with machines.

Megan Elias: Something that’s going to change food, at least in America, is immigration. Our demographics are changing, and that’s going to change our foodways.

[But] it’s this recurring thing in American culture that Anglos will adopt new foodways but not respect the people who produce that food. So you go out for Mexican but be rabidly anti-immigration, like we see with the current administration.

Diego Rose: I think you’re going to see online ordering of cooked foods in a way that’s much more tailored. That seems like what would happen next, just because you have the technical facility to take those orders and to make those specifications and the interest in doing it, and eventually there will be a kitchen that can satisfy that demand…I don’t know whether it’s just going to be takeout places or maybe your supermarket, you’ll place the order and pick up your tray of low-sodium food or lasagna or whatever it is that you specify.

Am I going to be feeding my future children lab-grown food?

Marion Nestle: At the moment, investors are focusing on lab-based meats, but these are under criticism for their additives and processing. They reduce meat consumption but add to processed-food consumption.

Megan Elias: I would think everything that can be [lab-grown will be]. But again, I’m not sure who’s going to eat it. I think everything will be tried. But I don’t know where it goes. Is it a sort of boutique thing? Is it food that the UN would be handing out to people in famine zones? What is this in the service of? Is it just for fun, or is it for feeding hungry people? And you know, there’s nothing wrong with fun. But I think the market for it — that’s what’s going to shape what’s created.

Diego Rose: It depends on demand. If all of a sudden there’s a scare, and there’s something weird that comes out with [something like lab-grown meat], then that’s going to set it back a long time…There’s already demand for romaine lettuce; there’s already demand for Chipotle. So, if it drops, people have that latent demand that may come back once they feel confident that it’s okay again. And assuming that these products get up to scale and people can enjoy them and like them before there’s a Soylent episode or some other kind of episode, then I think it’s more likely that they’ll rebound from that kind of thing, rather than it delay it for a bunch of years.

Give it to me straight: Are Americans going to start following the example of the rest of the world and incorporate insects into their diets?

Louis Sorkin: I think if it’s going to be something to really feed lots of people, it would be mass-produced as either a powder that people can use or as an extracted type of insect protein. Which is done for vegan dishes — you’re extracting plant proteins. That way, it could be mass produced and more accepted by people.

Diego Rose: We’ll probably see more insect foods being consumed. There is already cricket flour, and it’s being used in cookies and stuff like that. It’s relatively low impact and relatively nutritious. The whole idea of eating sushi 15 or 20 years ago was — there was the ick factor in this country…but now you can roll into a gas station in Kansas and find sushi. Not that there’s anything special about Kansas, but throughout the country. I think we’ll see something like that with insects.

Food is more than just fuel; it’s also a form of social capital. Will we ever get to a place where food, and sharing food, doesn’t have quite as much pull?

Richard Wilk: Just as much as people like kaiten sushi—the stuff on the conveyor belt—it doesn’t mean that you want to eat it by yourself. In that sense, I think food is never going to become a solitary vice. It’s going to be commensal; it’s going to be convivial. It’s going to be all the things that food does for us.

Glenn Stone: I think if there is some future in which people think a pill is high-status, desirable, delicious food, that’s also probably a future in which other people are saying, “Yuck, give me the garden-raised green peppers.”

“You can’t take a pill, even a horse-sized pill, to get to 2,000 calories and 50 grams of protein.”

Marion Nestle: Food is one of life’s greatest pleasures. There are people who do not care about food as anything other than fuel — this is the explanation for Soylent and other such products — but I am not one of them.

Kristie Lancaster: There’s the benefit of actually consuming food. And I think that does something for people that would not be there if you could just drink a shake or pop a pill and get everything…I think [sharing food is] such an important part of the human experience. We’d be in a bad place if we ever got to the place where that went away.

Finally, let’s look into the far-off future. What would a food system in the first human space colony look like?

Megan Elias: I think what you’d get, in the beginning, is the kind of greatest hits of world culture in food. Like, oh, we’ll take the rice and beans from here, and then we’ll take some dal, and some Korean rice and beef — almost like a library of foods that are considered archetypal of the cultures that are participating in space exploration.

Kristie Lancaster: My guess is that if we have adequate water, then it‘d probably be hydroponics to grow food. But I think that you’ve got to have at least some real food. You can’t take enough along with you of, you know, MREs or whatever type of food in a packet, to last you for so long. You’ve got to be able to grow your own food. Food diversity is important, so that if something happens, like in The Martian, where the hatch blew off, you haven’t lost your entire sustenance.

Sophie Kleeman

Written by

Writer and editor with words in Gizmodo, Motherboard, and the Outline.

Future Human
Future Human

About this Magazine

Future Human

Three-person babies. Extreme biohacking. Outposts on Mars. Cheating death. The changing nature of life as we know it. The future portends to be amazing (and terrifying), and it's right around the corner. The July issue of Medium's monthly magazine explores the stunning scientific, technological, social and medical advances that are changing where and how we live. Cover Art: Fanny Luor

Three-person babies. Extreme biohacking. Outposts on Mars. Cheating death. The changing nature of life as we know it. The future portends to be amazing (and terrifying), and it's right around the corner. The July issue of Medium's monthly magazine explores the stunning scientific, technological, social and medical advances that are changing where and how we live. Cover Art: Fanny Luor

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