Food of the future used to be the stuff of science fiction. Who among us—at least those of us born before 1980—can forget George Jetson of The Jetsons, once America’s favorite cartoon space family? He made us crave the handful of flavored pills he hastily gobbled for dinner—until we learned they gave him heartburn. The original Star Trek TV series was also big on food. Just like folks on earth, space creatures enjoyed wildly divergent vittles: Klingons relished Pipius Claw and Rokeg Blood Pie, while the Vulcans made do with a simple Plomeek Soup. Many of the intergalactic dishes had evocative names, like Gagh and Heart of Targ, and there seemed to be a lot of worm-eating going on—which may be fantasy anticipating our future reality.
But what was once a fictive exercise—predicting the food of the future—became a challenge all too real as the new millennium dawned. Around the year 2000, the world’s population surpassed 6 billion, and then added a billion more over the next 12 years. How can Mother Earth feed so many? Indeed, hunger and outright famine have been worsening problems, as the planet has been beset by increasing periods of drought over the past 30 years, and violent tropical storms and other freakish weather more recently.
The old farming system—which started 23,000 years ago when Stone Age people began collecting and cultivating grass seeds, and proceeded through the domestication and factory production of farm animals—may be obsolete. It requires too many chemicals and produces too much pollution. Yes, yields have increased spectacularly, but feeding the swelling population has depended on growing more and more food and shipping it greater and greater distances. This requires resources, including clean water and fossil fuels, which the earth simply doesn’t have in abundance anymore.
Yet a solution may be on the horizon—or maybe it exists already. Just ask those who dream about food for a living.
Ben Flanner is a tall lanky Midwesterner who commandeers rooftops to grow restaurant-ready produce: In 2009, he and Annie Novak founded a 6,000-square-foot organic operation atop a building in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, where the neat rows of vegetables make a picturesque contrast with the craggy Manhattan skyline in the background. The farm, now called Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, delivers crops to markets and restaurants by bicycle. Flanner has since founded and oversees the Brooklyn Grange, a one-acre operation in Long Island City that is “large enough to sustain a full-time salaried farmer,” he says. When asked if rooftop farms will ever feed the entire world, Flanner observed, “No, not really. Rooftop farms make the most sense in densely populated cities.… This should not stop us from growing what we can where we can.”
Others aim to shore up more conventional farms for future generations—and detoxify them. Based in Wisconsin, the Cornucopia Institute is a watchdog for government organic-food regulations, and an advocacy group for small organic farmers. Codirector and senior farm policy analyst Mark A. Kastel forecasts a generally bleak future for farming, but with hopeful signs: “Our farming and food production system is now on two separate trajectories. One is all about massive, industrial-scale, genetic engineering, cloning of animals, and toxic agrichemical inputs.” He goes on to describe the alternative agricultural future Cornucopia envisions: “The other path is all about meaning and quality. We’ve seen an exponential growth in organic production, local foods, farmers’ markets, CSAs and other direct marketing infrastructure.”
What do chefs think food of the future will be like? Unsurprisingly, their interest tends to be more in what restaurants will be serving rather than what the entire world’s population will be chomping on. But René Redzepi of Copehagen’s Noma sees an expanded role for chefs in society. Quoted in the Australian magazine Travel and Indulgence, he asserts: “Look at people such as Jamie Oliver, who gets [paid to] change school menus.” In the same article, Elena Arzak, of the Spanish restaurant Arzak, says, “Everybody will always like to eat well. I think it will be the same in 50 years…not [at] extremely luxurious restaurants, but with luxurious ingredients. For me, the future of the cooking is going to be—like always—about very good products. More vegetables, and it’s going to be [simpler] food…not so many ingredients on a plate.”
Danny Meyer of the Union Square Hospitality Group, who is known for his high-end restaurants and for reinventing fast food with his slightly upscale hamburger chain Shake Shack, thinks that, though the world is generally headed in a high-tech direction, a half-century from now we’ll still be eating in restaurants, Jetson-istic inventions notwithstanding: “I cannot fathom food being cooked and served through any kind of handheld device—or any apparatus—and do believe that human beings are not going to lose their hedonist gene for gustatory pleasure, nor their emotional need to break bread with others in public.” He goes on to predict, though, that we’ll be eating lots more veggies than meat in our meals of the future.
Bioengineer Morris Benjaminson, of Zymotech Enterprises, disagrees. Starting in 1998, he’s directed a project originally funded by NASA that looked into the possibility of growing fresh edible protein in space, and discovered that goldfish tissue could be cultured artificially. He’s now working on beef at his Long Island lab, in what he calls “a muscle-protein production system.” A tall elderly man with a placid demeanor and ready wit, he had the audience at Thrilling Wonder Stories, a conference in New York City sponsored by Studio-X and Popular Science, in stitches as he described his project to grow meat from bovine muscle tissue. Benjaminson made gentle fun of a competing team of Dutch scientists profiled in a recent Scientific American who start with cattle stem cells and have ended up—so far—with pink mush. “In my lab we don’t use single cells, we use tissue,” he’s quick to say. Still, the Dutch group promises a substance that can be used like hamburger within a year. When asked when his meat will be shelf-ready, Benjaminson replies, tongue planted firmly in cheek, “the answer is a variable, and a variable by definition is variable.”