Apr 03 2012

The Future of Food

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The following article appeared in Sharp Magazine in March 2010.

The Future of Food

From beaker-meat to pancakes-in-a-can, a five-part look at what we eat, and how it’s changing

By Jonathon Narvey

When it comes to the food we eat, paradoxes are all around. People in burgeoning third-world countries are eating more meat, even as many in the first-world have become vegetarians. Fishermen from poor countries face malnutrition as they scrape the oceans clean for small fish to supply fish farms in rich countries with obesity epidemics.

There is a movement to get more of our food locally, but how much can we rely on that to satisfy demand? We want ten thousand organic menu choices and we want them fast, safe, cheap and home-cooked—except when we want them instant-packaged for maximum convenience.

“Thinking about the future of food is a little bit like trying to predict the future of desire,” says Terry Glavin, author of Waiting for the Macaws: And Other Stories from the Age of Extinctions. Glavin has traveled from the orchards and salmon runs of Canada’s west coast to the jungles of Central America and the far reaches of East Asia, getting a handle on how we sustain ourselves in an unsustainable world.

“Around the world, a lot of food decisions are purely rational decisions because they have to be,” Glavin notes. “But as individuals, we are motivated by desire. It’s not rational. There’s this strange disconnect.

The average Canadian meal has changed a lot in the last century, but the change in the food itself is relatively minor compared to the change in where that food comes from. In the next fifty years, as the world’s population continues to grow, as developing nations gain the means to consume more meat, as the ocean’s fish supplies dwindle, the way in which we feed ourselves will continue to change, in some cases drastically. Disconnected or not, we will soon be forced to take a closer look at our food, and decide if the way its produced, processed and transported makes sense in our world.

The future of food will largely reconcile the behavior of those who eat to live and those who live to eat. Our food supplies and our eating habits are going to be healthier and more sustainable not just because we need them to be, but because that’s what we want. To an extent, the future of food will be determined by what we want to eat and how we want to eat it. But the smarter way of framing our relationship with food will be determined by how we want to live.

Part 1: Agriculture

The urban farm

Imagine an ultra-modern eight-storey tower with wind-turbines sprouting off the top and cascading windows. Computers regulate everything from power and water use to airflow to nutrition for the plants inside. Almost the whole building is automated.

The rows of green growing under a soft light on every floor aren’t decorative – they are the reason for this place to exist. They are food crops, grown to supply all of the restaurants and green grocers in the vicinity of this operation.

This is the dream of Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier, who wants to integrate food production into our cities, letting our rural farms return to a state of ecological diversity. The idea is to keep production as close as possible to consumers and reduce our reliance on the carbon-spewing system of transporting our food by plane, truck and train. Despommier criticizes the wastefulness and vulnerability to climate of the typical rural farm and sees his indoor farms not just as supplements, but as replacements of our current farms.

There are no vertical farming prototypes in existence on the planet today. Simply put, no one knows how to build them in a way that won’t break the bank, largely due to energy costs. But Despommier and his investors are confident he can make it work: “If you gave me $30 million today, I could build you a 5-storey vertical farm prototype. Three years from that point, we would be ready to produce commercially-viable crops.”

For now, the closest thing we’ve got to farming towers are vegetable factories, essentially high-tech greenhouses, in abandoned industrial areas that have started sprouting up in Japan, among a handful of other places.

Vegetable factories have been slow to take shape in Canada, where we have no shortage of space to grow stuff. Still, greenhouse production is big business, worth more than $2.3 billion in Canada alone. Operators can get 10 full growing cycles out of their facilities each year, and require less land than conventional agriculture. So even if vertical farming doesn’t take off immediately, there is no technical challenge to incorporating more greenhouses into our urban fabric, perhaps in under-utilized community centers or even in our own homes.

But the future of urban agriculture isn’t all so high-tech. “Urban farming” by individual city residents is already taking off in our cities; though Michael Levenston, Executive Director of City Farmer in the Kitsilano neighborhood of Vancouver, would probably just call it gardening.

Levenston and his green-thumb group have been around since 1978 and lay claim to the oldest regional compost training program in Canada. Lately he’s been fielding unprecedented demand for education on urban farming.

“There’s the local food movement, the economy is tanking, there’s a scare about food that’s not quite safe, so these are all motivators for getting people interested,” he says.

“Actually, there hasn’t been this much interest in gardening and local food production since the Victory Gardens,” Levenston adds, referring to the millions of emergency wartime fruit and vegetable gardens planted in cities and suburbs that hugely supplemented produce from Allied rural farms. Hedging our bets against a potential gap between food supply and demand in future decades, urban farmers can help us “dig for victory” of another kind: beating hunger.

Part 2: Seafood

Aquiring a taste for anchovies

A school of gray and yellow tilapia swim back and forth in an indoor tank heated to 24 degrees Celsius. Perhaps one will glance up uncomprehendingly at the Boston lettuce and fine herbs grown alongside the tanks. This self-contained environment is the sort of aquaculture that will feed us in the future.

Right now, salmon is king in the royal court of imported seafood at the fish market. However, tilapia, carp, catfish and other lesser-known species are about to become the new stars of the seafood palate, for a very simple reason: they’re relatively easy to produce.

Already, half of the seafood we eat is farmed, not wild. But the bizarre thing is that right now, most fish farms don’t actually add anything to the total amount of seafood we harvest.

We’ve developed a taste for big carnivorous fish like salmon, which are fed ground-up smaller fish. Then, third-world countries like Peru, whose people often aren’t getting enough protein in their diet, export fishmeal to countries of the North to feed our farmed fish.

“For every ton of salmon, you lose three or four tons of small fish that you grind up into fishmeal,” says global aquaculture expert and University of British Columbia Fisheries Center researcher Dr. Daniel Pauly, noting the obvious drawback. “For sustainability, the best criteria is this: are we using the fish or are we consuming them?”

Researchers at the University of Alberta, Dalhousie University and the Salmon Coast Field Station in Echo Bay, B.C. suggest that west coast salmon could be virtually wiped out within 10 years. Meanwhile, the WWF warns that bluefin tuna could be extinct by 2012. As catches of wild fish continue to decline, aquaculture will be part of the solution. But instead of using small fish to feed big fish, we’ll be eating more fish like sardines and anchovies directly.

These changes aren’t going to happen overnight. The UBC researcher notes that the price of fishmeal will need to go up for land-based aquaculture to work, and government subsidies will have to back-end these operations. As with our energy supply, eventually food supply will trump price. It’s only a matter of time.

Part 3: Meat

Where’s the beef, indeed

“It’s not that more people are eating meat, but that more people are eating more meat,” says historian Maureen Ogle, author of the soon-to-be-published Carnivore Nation: Meat in the Making of Modern America. The trend has been particularly dramatic in Asia, where incomes are on the rise. “People thought they would always eat this ‘inferior’ diet that has little meat in it. But it turns out they want to eat as much meat as we do.”

Winston Churchill was talking about one futuristic solution to the supply problem as far back as the 1930s: “Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”

The solution has a lot to recommend it. Artificial meat comes without the bloody mess, pollution or ethical problems that come with slaughtering livestock. No contamination of water tables. No farting cows killing our ozone layer with methane gas. Negligible risk of contamination or disease. It’s as close to a win-win situation as anyone looking into the future of food is likely to find, that is, once you get past the notion of eating a chicken wing that was grown in a lab.

Netherlands-based researchers have come close, using a method involving extracting cells from the muscle of a live pig. They then incubated them in a nutrient bath produced from the blood of animal fetuses. The product was a soggy inedible substance, in effect muscle that has never been exercised. You couldn’t get a paying customer to eat it, but that doesn’t mean later versions won’t fix the problem.

Unlike urban solutions to agriculture supply, unless lab-grown meat becomes a reality, our big meat industry plants may not look all that different in the future from what we have today. Except, there will be more of them—a lot more. Even if all Canadians became vegetarians overnight, worldwide meat consumption is going up. The Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization expects meat consumption in the developing world to rise by 2.7 percent per year (as opposed to an average of 0.6 percent in places like Canada), putting upward pressure on consumer prices and giving poor farmers more incentives to illegally burn down more jungle and forest to make way for cattle farming.

How about our production processes? We’ve had national scares from e-coli and salmonella contamination in massive centralized facilities where we process and package our meats. That’s certainly a driver for radical change, but going back to smaller-scale production would actually cause more problems than we have now, Ogle says. Remember, people don’t just want meat; they want it safe and as cheap as possible. Unlike other areas of our food supply, meat is an area where it’s hard to get what we want by going small and local.

“In New York City, they had a population of around two million people in 1880, with slaughterhouses all over the place,” Ogle notes. “You’d see a slaughterhouse every three or four blocks… but going back to that small-scale slaughter, critics haven’t thought about issues that go with having piles of intestines in front of a building.”

The stench alone would drive up tempers and drive down neighboring real-estate prices in equal measure. And the price of going local would be intolerably steep: “Think of $25 or $35 for a pound of hamburger,” Ogle says. What pays for the meat is all the byproducts like pharmaceuticals, industrial cleaners and manufacturing lubricants. Smaller, local operations would have difficulty setting up the sort of global supply chain required to keep prices low for the consumer.

Like today, only those who can afford to pay for meat produced and processed on a small-scale will have the benefit of its relative safety.

Part 4:

GM vs. Organic

Scientists and consumers were optimistic at first about the possibilities of growing super-foods on smaller areas of land while producing bigger and more nutritious yields. They promised to eliminate the need for pesticides and provide cheap and reliable sources of food for rich and poor alike.

Twenty years on, consumers aren’t quite sold on the idea and the producers have taken note. But longer term, genetically modified (GM) foods may be the key to ensuring basic human survival.

Today, consumers in Europe and elsewhere, fearful about GM crops’ potential harm to human health, have banned the import of GM crops and foodstuffs. This has led some North American farmers, wary of losing access to foreign markets, to give up on them. Only nine per cent of Canadian farmers were willing to plant GM wheat according to a 2009 Canadian Wheat Board survey, reflecting the lack of acceptance by consumers. There is also deep suspicion of an industry that could disrupt millennia-old farming practices; instead of keeping seeds for use year-round, GM crop farmers could end up getting locked into contracts to buy so-called Terminator seeds that only produce once.

In Canada, more than 20 years after GM crops were first introduced, people are still relatively scared of them, notes UBC Associate Professor in Human Nutrition Tim Green. “They’re more likely to eat vitamin-fortified food than genetically modified foods that have higher vitamins already in them,” he adds. That said, this fear may have little scientific basis; Health Canada has approved over 81 genetically-modified foods for sale in this country. Indeed, no applications have yet been turned down.

However, there is a cost to industry to create GM crops: $100 million, partly from research for each new GM food, but mostly to get past regulatory hurdles to get the product to market, according to Ecophysiologist Rowan Sage of the University of Toronto.

His research aims to boost productivity of some crops by up to 50 per cent by reducing their need for water and fertilizer. The payoff could be worth $100 billion to the global economy, making those regulatory hurdles look insignificant. He points out that GM crops could also overcome a dire problem down the line that most people don’t even know about: we’re running out of phosphorus and potassium to use as fertilizer. If we can’t stop this process, mass starvation could result by the end of this century.

That may sound overly dire, but Sage is dead serious. Other findings suggest that using only organic fertilizer alone, we could not feed half of the world’s population. As the world’s population continues to grow, inorganic fertilizers may become increasingly critical to basic survival.

”These are minerals, so they can’t be replaced,” Sage cautions. “If we use fertilizers without phosphorous and potassium, we’re back to pre-industrial days…” This single problem alone could keep GM science going out of sheer necessity.

Number 5: Cooking

“Make a better breakfast faster, Batter Blaster!” The tongue-in-cheek jingle is not the only addictive thing about entrepreneur Sean O’Connor’s invention. His waffle mix in a spray can is now in 13,000 stores across North America, including Costco and Walmart, with plenty of accolades and YouTube testimonials by dedicated fans of the product. “Just shake, point, blast and cook,” the slogan goes.

“We believe we’re consistent with the innovative path that led to microwave popcorn, or lettuce in a bag,” O’Connor notes. It’s organic, easy to use and, increasingly, represents the future of how we prepare our food.

There are certainly enough other examples of packaged foods, unrecognizable a few generations ago, that have become commonplace. But as the demand for high-tech foods increases, so does the demand for organics and local food. Once again, we face a paradox. People have less time to cook, so more and more of our meals, by necessity, are packaged. But the burgeoning “slow food” movement and an increasing number of discerning “foodie” consumers still prize not only fresh ingredients, but also the cooking process.

One Canada-wide study on cooking and eating habits shows that home-cooking is still valued highly across all income brackets, as well as the urban-rural divide.

“The expectation was that poorer people couldn’t afford to eat out, so they’d cook more than the wealthier families,” says graduate research assistant Dean Simmons. “But there was no difference.” It seemed that wealthier families cooked their own meals because they thought they could do it better. They wanted control.

“Cooking could go the way of the dodo bird if it was just labor,” Simmons says. “But it has other importance to families. We’re moving from an age where we have to cook to an age where we want to cook.”

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