Dr. Morgaine Gaye sweeps a hand over her blonde faux-hawk and smiles at me through oversize purple-tinted glasses. If she does n’t look the part of a self-proclaimed “food futurologist,” I do n’t know who she does she. The future, she tells me in her rapid-fire British accent, is all about Air Protein, a product that uses high-tech fermentation to turn carbon dioxide into chicken or whatever you want, really. Tens of millions of dollars are being invested into alternative proteins and air just might be one of the keys to feeding the world’s 9.8 billion people by 2050.
That’s nearly 2 billion more people than we (fail to) feed today, and an overwhelming amount of that growth, the UN predicts, will be in sub-Saharan Africa, where desert conditions make farming a challenge. Then there’s that pesky issue of climate change. If the planet warms 2.7 degrees by 2040, as experts project, the implications could be devastating. Ongoing droughts, flooding, extreme weather, it’s all on the table. What may not be on the table: California avocados, predicted to go all but extinct by 2050.
The good news is that the food industry is already planning for those pressures, as Amanda Little investigates in her revelatory book The Fate of Food. “I don’t know that there’s a future in which we’re all looking at a plate of wafers injected with specialized nutrients,” she says. “That just sounds like a culinary hell nobody wants to inhabit.” It’s the seeds, farming practices, technology, water, distribution, and behind-the-scenes innovations that are going to change the contents of our plates. She’s rooting for the avocados (though they might have to be grown indoors…and cost $20 a pop).
To take a look at what the future of food might look like, we talked to experts to come up with menu predictions for the future. For the years 2023 and 2024, scientists offered their insights on how food might change. But for 100 years from now—the year 2122—we spoke with people who were unafraid to make some bold claims: science fiction writers. See it all below.
2032: 10 Years
Within the next decade, grocery stores will stock cell-cultured proteins. Stem cells are collected, put into bioreactors, and fed nutrients like glucose so that they grow into animal-free chicken, beef, pork, and even duck (as opposed to the meat alternatives we have, which are very good imitations made with plant products). These proteins don’t need room to graze and expel methane, don’t waste uneaten parts of an animal, and are less likely to contain bacteria like salmonella. This is the beyond-Beyond burger.
- Upside Foods’ cell-cultured hamburger, concocted in a lab in Berkeley, CA.
- Animal-free American cheese made with protein powder brand Perfect Day’s patented cow-free whey protein.
- Bun baked with Kernza wheat, a hearty grain with long roots that retain water and rejuvenate the soil.
- Good old-fashioned pickles aren’t going anywhere—don’t panic.
- Hummus made with genetically edited chickpeas that can withstand extreme heat and drought.
- Food-waste-eliminating upcycled barley croutons fortified with algae powder (it’s nutrient-dense and a great binder, plus algae draws out more CO2 in the air than trees do).
- Side salad with romaine lettuce from an indoor vertical farm, which can bring local produce to densely packed city centers (where populations are predicted to double by 2050) without the need for farmland or even sun.
- Hidden Valley Ranch dressing, still the reigning ranch champ, but hopefully from a compostable squeeze bottle by then
- A squeaky-clean glass of locally (hyper-) filtered, recycled, delicious sewage water. In the next decade much of the world will experience shortages of fresh water and its cost will increase, especially in dry climates that already import water, like California.
2042: 20 Years
Personalized nutrition was the phrase I heard most from food industry experts, like the head of R&D at PepsiCo, which recently launched a sweat patch to tell you when you need more Gatorade (often). What 23andMe did for genetics, we’ll see in the nutrition and gut-health departments. Imagine a wristwatch that pings you when your sodium’s high. cool! Creepy!