Food is one of life's absolute necessities and one that people take great pleasure from, so it's no surprise that the future of food is one of those topics that always draws significant interest. So what will we be tucking into in the year 2036? A plate of bugs with a side order of seaweed? A glass of milky liquid? Cajun Swedish fusion cuisine? Or will it be a world of shortages where we munch on government issue Soylent Green and try not to think about where it came from? Take your places at table and join us as we take a look at what mealtimes in the future might look like.
If there's one thing that's marks predictions about food, it's that they go wrong with such regularity. If you were to ask someone in 1950 what the average diner in the 21st century would be eating, the answer would be that people would either be downing food pills that eliminated meals, or they'd be at home where their autochef machines would prepare their meals from start to finish and even do the washing up.
However, there wouldn't be much food. How could there be in a predicted world population of three billion people and the United States alone holding a staggering 200 million? Meat would be something only the very rich could afford and even the middle class would have carefully rationed portions built around soy steaks and side dishes derived from sawdust.
Why food predictions go wrong
How could they have got it so wrong? Part of the reason was that though food pills had been predicted for half a century and were standard jokes about the future, no one bothered to do the math. Yes, you can pack all the food a person needs into a pill, but it would need to be the size of a boiled ham.
Another problem the predictors didn't foresee is that technology often progresses in unpredictable ways. We didn't get an automatic chef sliding plates of food onto the dinner table, but we did get frozen foods, dehydrated foods, tinned foods, convenience foods, and fast foods – which is basically like an autochef, only the meals are prepared in a factory hundreds of miles away and then zapped in a microwave oven at home. Better yet, we can now just pick up the phone and get hot food delivered to our door.
As to the need to ration food, modern farming ended that with new crops and agricultural methods. Today, obesity is an epidemic in the developed world, and in the rest of the world famine and malnutrition are more the product of bad governments than absolute scarcity with the number of hungry, though too high, declining.
But a major problem with prediction is that man's relationship with food is so amazingly complex. People don't just eat to survive, they eat to socialize and do so to a surprising degree. Most other animals just eat, then go about their business, but human beings eat in public; they eat in groups; they share food; they give it as gifts; they use it to display status, as a mark of community or identity; and it plays a large part in religion, politics, and ideology. We even eat at funerals and the condemned man, no matter how guilty or vile, is famously given a last meal.
We even use food for entertainment. We give dinner parties, and cook books are best sellers. People like to cook, they like to eat food for simple pleasure, and they do so to the point where millions will tune in to watch someone prepare food that they can't eat.
Then there are the obvious factors of economics. Over the centuries, trade, new technology, and advances in science have made some luxury foods (like mayonnaise, mushrooms and gelatin desserts) common, while increasing scarcity has turned "common" foods (such as oysters, lobster, caviar, and salmon) into delicacies.
Fashion plays a part, too. One moment, everyone is eating out of fondue pots. The next, they're drizzling balsamic vinegar that no one ever heard of into dipping oils that no one ever heard of either. And then there are fads for organic foods, locally produced foods, gluten-free foods, and the inexplicable popularity of cilantro.
Trade, tourism, and migration have had a bigger part than many realize in shaping how food changes. In a few short years, spaghetti went from an exotic dish in 1960s Britain to a mainstay, for example. Meanwhile, in the United States, immigration gave rise to whole new schools of cooking, like "Chinese" food that would be unrecognizable in Shanghai, corned beef and cabbage that was probably never served in old Ireland, and pizzas that are nothing like what's served in Naples. Not to mention the spread of near identical fast food menus from New York to Tokyo.
Growing food in 2036
So, what will food be like in 2036? Barring some major social upheaval, much of it will probably be very similar to what's on the menu in 2016 – at least, in terms of taste and appearance. There might be some new dishes, some new ingredients, but we won't be served (hopefully) an Ameglian Major Cow bred to want to be eaten. But how the food gets to the table may be very different from today.
For one thing, the origins of food in 2036 might be a lot less bucolic than today. In fact, the farm of tomorrow may look more like an antiseptic light manufacturing plant than Mr. MacGregor's garden. It might be grown in vertical farms that from the outside seem like apartment blocks with too many ferns, but on the inside are automated gardens with a balanced, high carbon dioxide atmosphere, 24-hour robotic attendants, and LED lighting for optimum growing conditions. Between the rows of locally produced corn and potatoes will be closed-loop fish ponds that use fish waste to fertilize the plants, which, in turn, create fish food.
If there isn't enough cheap real estate in the city, such farms might be placed on barges, or underground, or even in orbit, so astronauts can enjoy fresh salads with their freeze-dried shrimp cocktails.
Some of these items on the vertical or conventional farm of tomorrow may seem a bit odd to us. New items like quinoa, emmer wheat, or peach palms might be cultivated. Some might be perennials that don't need replanting yearly. Some might even be what we think of today as weeds.
Once these urban crops are harvested robotically and delivered by self-driving trucks, the human chef may be replaced by another robot working from recipes written by a computer. Even fast food places may have done away with the burger flipper in favor of something more high tech.
Cooking in 2036
Cooking itself might even be very different in 2036. Instead of frying in a pan or baking in an oven, food may be 3D-printed to exact specifications. It might even be that your doctor or personal trainer (human or electronic) can alter your printed meal for the optimum number of calories, vitamins, minerals, and even medicines.
How far this will go is hard to say. One major advance in recent years has been in the field of molecular gastronomy, where researchers have looked at the food rules built up over the centuries and turned them into science. Now chefs can not only look at how to cook a meal, but why it comes out the way it does. Meats can be cooked to an exact degree of tenderness and kept that way for hours until served, and hard boiled eggs can be just hard enough and never overcooked.
Even which foods go with what is no longer a mystery. Like bruschetta? The same chemicals that make tomatoes go well with balsamic vinegar and basil are also found in strawberries, so why not strawberry bruschetta? Or how about chocolate flavored with tobacco? Or snail porridge? It's all not only possible, but somebody's already done it.
Food in 2036
Many new foods will certainly be genetically engineered. Though highly controversial, Genetically Modified Organisms have proven safe (so far) and much more efficient and direct than traditional breeding methods that rely on haphazard mutations.
It's already produced vitamin A-enriched Golden Rice, as well as faster-growing salmon, cattle with the same fatty acids found in fish, plants that need less pesticide and fertilizer, and much more. Perhaps by 2036 bread will be baked from wheat that can trap nitrogen like soybeans, and cookies will be made from hypoallergenic peanuts.
Eating the pests
But all the food won't come from farms. Many things will still be gathered in the wild and some creatures will be hunted to extinction — some with the blessing of environmentalists.
We may see jellyfish and chips being served as a way to combat their periodic population explosions (the jellyfish, not the chips). Russian red crabs invading Norwegian waters or lionfish decimating the seas off the North American East Coast could be controlled in 2036 through the simple fact that they're delicious and may soon be as rare as truffles outside their home waters thanks to hearty appetites.
If you want a side dish to go with your invasive seafood, then what about seaweed? It may sound nauseating to Western diners, but seaweed is already a major part of Asian cuisine and in the West a surprising amount is now eaten outside of sushi bars, as anyone who's enjoyed lavarbread in Wales can attest. Kelp is used commonly in ice cream, jellies, and salad dressings among other products, and the University of Oregon says a red seaweed called dulse makes a passable substitute for bacon, so could seaweed and eggs be far behind?
One thing that regularly hits predictions of our future food is insects. Though chowing down on grasshopper and meal worms may seem more like a dare than a meal, it's not as strange as one might think.
Today, insect products, including honey, are widely consumed and insects are already eaten in many parts of the developing world, though it's often frowned upon in Western cultures. Many advocates say insects should be promoted as food because they have a lower carbon footprint than traditional livestock, take up less room to raise, and use less energy and water, yet have as much protein as meat and poultry. And then there's cockroach milk, which is claimed to be a superfood.
Not surprisingly, there's a lot of consumer resistance to the idea of eating insects, which may not be so easy to overcome in the West no matter how they're advertised. This is a society where the discovery that horse meat was mixed into the food chain in Britain was a major scandal and where getting kids to eat the offal that was a common part of their grandparents' diet elicits reactions that suspect encroaching madness on the part of the server.
But that might not be so difficult to overcome so long as the entomophagous advocates don't start out with scorpion on a stick or grub tartare with weevil dressing. Some experts believe the way to introduce "mini-livestock" into the mainstream to grind them up and use them as a filler or substitute for ground beef or sausage meat.
Unfortunately, that may prove academic because at least one study shows that insect farming doesn't scale well and that under controlled conditions insects like crickets need to be fed on the same high-quality food as conventional livestock to thrive and that their protein conversion rate is about the same as chickens. So, whether insects go mainstream, niche market, or are a flash in the sauté pan remains to be seen.
Going further down the food chain, other possible foods of 2036 are those from microorganisms. For decades, algae have been considered as a likely new source of food. Common species, like chlorella, are rich in fat, protein, and vitamins with each cell producing 50 percent protein consisting of 10 amino acids.
In 1950, Stanford University built an algae pilot plant to grow it in a process similar to brewing beer, and well into the 1970s NASA and the Soviet space agency aggressively studied algae as a possible food for astronauts. At first, it all looked promising. Chlorella was easy to grow, could be handled like an industrial chemical, and could yield up to 40,000 lb (18,142 kg) of protein per acre compared to 800 lb (363 kg) of soybeans. At one point, Stanford confidently predicted that protein powder from chlorella would sell for US$10 per ton.
Then problems started to crop up. Chlorella was very sensitive to bacterial contamination. It didn't scale at all well either, with its energy conversion rate peaking rapidly as the algae shut down when crowded. It was also very fussy about temperature, and needed complicated equipment and constant monitoring. Worst of all, the chlorella cells had thick walls that needed to be removed to make them edible.
Then the final blow came when the price of the finished product was eight times more than conventional protein sources. The result was that chlorella products ended up in the health food stores and on the Asian market, where algae was more in line with the local cuisine.
Today, another algae being cultivated as food is spirulina, which has larger cells and no hard walls like chlorella. Processing it is much simpler and though it still ranks as little more than a food supplement today, by 2036 new developments may make it a more common dish.
Another surprising contender in the micro-food stakes is yeast. Used today in brewing, baking, and wine making, yeast is already a key ingredient in Vegemite and Marmite – yeast pastes that are either the most brilliant food ever conceived or a salty, nauseating mess, depending on your tastes.
But yeast has a surprising promise because it doesn't need the sun for cultivation. Back in 1962, British Petroleum became interested in yeast after noticing that it's one of the microorganisms that feeds on petroleum. In experiments, company scientists discovered that by adding a few mineral salts to crude oil, yeast could be induced to feed on the waxy components in the oil and convert it into protein with 100 percent efficiency. And because it derived its energy from the oil, no sunlight was needed to grow the yeast.
It was a remarkably promising start and BP built a pilot plant in France. The hope was that by using yeast, it would be possible to refine oil more efficiently and produce food as a byproduct. The only problem was that yeast has too much nucleic acid to be fit for human consumption in any quantity, so it was relegated to pig fodder.
Whether we'll be eating oil-fed bacon in 2036 is still in question, but with increasing interest in biofuels that need help to compete with fossil fuels, yeast could still end up somewhere in the future food chain.
Then there's plankton. Trail a fine net behind a ship in the open sea and you'll soon gather a surprisingly large residue of something that smells distinctly of fish. This is plankton – a collection of microscopic plants, animals, and animal larvae that are to the sea what grass is to the land. It's the bottom rung of the food chain that turns seawater into a very salty soup and is so nutritious even the giant whales live on it.
Humans can live on plankton, too. In 1952, French biologist and survival expert Alain Bombard sailed across the Atlantic in a Zodiac inflatable dinghy without much in the way of provisions. Instead, he lived off fish he caught, which provided water from their tissues as well as food. He also drank seawater, but the less said about that, the better, because it's extremely dangerous.
He also subsisted on plankton, which he collected in a fine net. Though he lost 25 kg (55 lb), he reached Barbados safely. If this wasn't enough to show that plankton can be a source of human food, the British government during the Second World War had a contingency plan to feed the population with plankton on a massive scale.
By 2036, it may be that we'll forego the fish and just eat what the fish feed on. Already one pair of restaurateurs are serving up plankton cocktails and plankton risotto, so it could be that the nouvelle cuisine of the next two decades may feature a Spongebob Squarepants villain.
But why wonder about the food at all in 2036? Why not just get rid of what we now consider food altogether and come up with something redesigned from scratch to suit the needs of the 21st century diner. The range, after all, would be endless. You could reinvent conventional foods in a more ecologically friendly way, or admit that food is just fuel and proceed accordingly.
Food substitutes aren't as simple as they seem. Food pills seem logical at first, but, as we've already discussed, the size of the pill could be problematic. And then there's getting the nutrition right. You don't want to end up like an acquaintance of mine at the University of Edinburgh, who back in the 1980s came up with his own food substitute by filling every drawer in his flat with cooked porridge, let it set, and sliced off a square whenever he got hungry. It worked, but only until he became the first case of scurvy seen at the Edinburgh Infirmary in 60 years.
We managed to get some samples of Ambronite for this article and tried it out as an occasional meal and a complete food substitute for one day. It's basically an enriched protein powder that's mixed with water in a bespoke drink bottle, then downed for a 500 calorie meal. Since Ambronite includes some dried fruit ingredients, it doesn't taste as bland as Soylent, but it's still like drinking protein powder and water.
As an occasional meal, Ambronite and similar products could work, but we didn't find that mixing or drinking it saved any time over alternatives that could be eaten cold. As for going full time on it, we found that we had to drink at least four to get the minimum calories and nutrients and that unless we were fairly thirsty it wasn't easy to finish off the roughly 750 ml (25 oz) portions. Worst of all, it was very low fat, so while it did kill hunger, it was very unsatisfying.
Will such substitutes be the food of 2036? Perhaps, but the young, insanely busy, and most food indifferent of diners will likely be its target market.
Test tube food
One type of food substitute that is more promising is the various replacements for meat and dairy products. Whether it's for ideological, health, or economic reasons, there's been great interest in such substitutes that go beyond nut cutlets, sunflower burgers, and spun soybean proteins. Some, like Beyond Meat try to mimic the taste and texture of chicken, while the Impossible Burger uses actual heme (a component of the red pigment in blood) derived from yeast to give veggie burgers the look and taste of ground beef. Meanwhile, other companies are looking for ways to create milk without the cow and a cheese substitute that is fully vegan.
But for real ambition, maybe the prize food of 2036 will be real meat without the animal. An idea famously put forth by Winston Churchill in the 1930s, lab-cultivated meat uses tissue culturing techniques to reach a final product that doesn't require a slaughterhouse.
One prime example is Maastricht University, which created the world's first lab-grown hamburger. At US$330,000 a go, it's a bit expensive, but by 2036, perhaps it will be more in the Big Mac range. Meanwhile, an Israeli start up, SuperMeat, is working on a chicken version. It says it can get the price down to US$5 per kilo (2.2 lb).
Since the cultivation method can be used with any animal tissue, we might see elephant, whale, gazelle, or yak becoming common fare – and all without harming any living animal.
But perhaps what will mark 2036 will be that we start eating totally synthetic food derived from base chemicals that never saw the inside of a plant or animal. It may sound a bit mad, but it's already been done. Back in the 1960s, NASA experimented with just using chemicals to feed astronauts on long space voyages.
It was a simple process. Unlike today's food substitutes that still use things like oat protein and spirulina, the NASA project scientists used off-the-shelf chemicals, including synthetic vitamins, amino acids, and carbohydrates. Mixed, they formed what looked and tasted like weak corn syrup.
Twenty-four men volunteered to live on this stuff for 19 weeks, but only 15 of them finished the course. No health issues were involved; all the subjects were perfectly fit, but the stuff was so unappealing that the men had to be locked up to avoid the call of the cheeseburger. Nine decided that lunch was more important than science.
And perhaps that's the answer to what we'll be eating in 2036.
People are omnivores who consume a bewildering variety of foods – some healthy, some not. Beauty may or may not be in the eye of the beholder, but what food someone eats is so personal that while we may argue with someone who says they don't like the movie Citizen Kane, we'll accept it if they say they like rhubarb regardless of our personal tastes. Given a choice, the diners of 20 years hence will eat whatever they fancy whether it's animal, vegetable or something else entirely.