The Future Of Food

Technological advancements may have saved us once during the Green Revolution, but will they be able to deal with the food challenges of tomorrow? Sim Shuzhen investigates.

In December 2012, a young man in San Francisco was struggling to keep his start-up afloat. Although Rob Rhinehart, then 23, was subsisting on a diet of instant ramen and frozen dinners, the process of preparing and eating food still seemed a time-consuming and expensive hassle.

Applying his electrical engineering background, Rhinehart set out to deconstruct food into its component nutrients. After putting together a list of essential nutrients, he bought them online, blended them together into a slurry and began living on the result that he named Soylent.

Meanwhile, at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, Professor Mark Post and his colleagues harvested stem cells from the shoulder muscle of a cow. These were placed into a nutrient solution and painstakingly coaxed into differentiating to tiny strips of muscle fiber. Post and his team harvested 20,000 of these strips, bound them together with breadcrumbs and egg powder and in August 2013 unveiled the world’s first piece of in vitro meat. The 150 gram burger patty—which tasters declared a little bland but reasonably burger-like—cost €250,000 (~US$340,000) to make.

Are Soylent and lab-grown burgers the future of food or just a faddish flash in the pan? Although they may seem somewhat fantastical, the development of these new foods was motivated by the very real challenges of supporting a rapidly growing global population and our changing expectations of what food can do for us. It remains to be seen whether technological advances will be able to address these issues or whether Soylent and in vitro meat will remain in the realm of science fiction.

Sustainably feeding the planet

While the technology is still in its infancy, in vitro meat is an important step towards meeting the growing demand for meat. With a burgeoning middle class, worldwide demand for meat and dairy products is expected to increase by more than two-thirds over the next forty years, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. There is simply no way to keep up with this volume using today’s resource-intensive livestock production methods without taking an enormous toll on the environment.

“[In vitro meat] may reduce the use of animals in farm production and thus contribute to reduce the high percentage of greenhouse gas production coming from meat production overall,” Ms. Lisbeth Nielsen, a research associate at the National University of Singapore’s Center for Biomedical Ethics, tells Asian Scientist Magazine.

“Similarly, the potential for growing meat in factories may also contribute positively to the effort to avoid expansion of land use that is foreseen needed to meet the demand for food in the near future.”

Its astronomical cost aside, in vitro meat still needs work. Post is trying to add lab-grown fat to the meat to improve its flavour (his burger was completely protein, which would not work in a steak, for example). Also, only small pieces of meat can currently be produced. Larger pieces would require incorporating blood vessels to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the centre of the meat.

There is debate among vegetarians about whether the technology sufficiently addresses the ethical issues surrounding the farming of animals for meat. Those who see vegetarianism as a means to reduce animal suffering and protect the environment might be willing to try it. Those who do not see the need for meat at all, however, may continue to object.

In any case, the production of in vitro meat is not yet entirely cruelty-free: the nutrient solution in which cells are grown contains fetal calf serum, which will have to be replaced if the meat is to be suitable for strict vegetarians.

Something to chew on

Instead of global food security and ethical issues, the development of Soylent was motivated by convenience and is part of a larger trend in the corporatization and commodification of food. No longer simply a means to an end, food now is a product to be marketed to consumers by touting benefits like enhanced health or greater convenience.

Ironically, Soylent is marketed as the ultimate utilitarian food; a convenient, cheap and nutritious alternative to fast food or frozen dinners for the workaholic too busy to even get up from his desk. Thanks to a wildly successful crowd-funding campaign, commercially manufactured Soylent is now available at about US$3 a meal.

The biggest criticism of Soylent is that there is no scientific evidence to support its purported health benefits, or even to suggest that drinking it long-term will not be bad for you. Notably, there is hardly any soy in Soylent, its manufacturers say. The company has been reported to be in the process of conducting a large-scale study, but it’s unclear when these results will be available.

In the meantime, there is some evidence that a long-term diet of non-solid food may not be ideal, for one simple reason: chewing. This seemingly rudimentary function turns out to be important not only for breaking down food, but also for mental and overall health.

Professor Masahiro Tsuchiya of Japan’s Tohoku University told Asian Scientist Magazine that chewing helps reduce psychological stress and, much like physical exercise, also stimulates the release of molecules such as insulin and interleukin-6, which are important for maintaining healthy glucose metabolism.

In a 2014 study by his group, they reported that mice fed powdered food for 17 weeks displayed a range of adverse health outcomes, including increased stress hormone levels, low insulin levels, hyperglycemia and high blood pressure, as compared to mice that ate regular pellet food. Professor Tsuchiya added that chewing function–or mastication–is an important but often neglected aspect of the care of diabetic patients. Dietary habits, it seems, are as important as the diet itself.

Redefining food for the future

What else could find its way onto the dining tables of the future? Insects, which are as good a protein source as ordinary meat at a fraction of the cost and carbon footprint, are a likely candidate. These “mini-livestock” can be ground up and used in familiar foods such as sausages and burgers. Recently, Chinese scientists survived on a diet of mealworms in a 105-day long mission to test the feasibility to living in space. Other potential trends include the farming of algae as a food crop, 3D-printed food and probiotics.

While new technologies are to some extent limited only by the imagination, their acceptance can be limited by cultural resistance, a force perhaps just as formidable. Beyond the “yuck” factor inseparable from eating lab-grown meat, blended nutrient powder, or insects, food has always played an integral role in our histories, cultures and communities. It may take much more than a fancy marketing campaign for future foods to take pride of place in our homes.


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Shuzhen received a PhD degree from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, USA, where she studied the immune response of mosquito vectors to dengue virus.

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