A stroll down your supermarket aisles may seem like a tedious chore. Lettuce? Check. Carrots? Check. Beef? Check. But that same stroll can also offer lessons in innovation. New products appear and disappear over time, reflecting changing tastes and technologies.
In a new book, The Taste of Tomorrow: Dispatches from the Future of Food, author Josh Schonwald examines how foodies, farmers, scientists and entrepreneurs will revolutionize what’s on our dinner plates by 2035. Schonwald says the lettuce we buy two or three decades from now might be a new variety, the carrots could be red because they've been engineered to include lycopene – and the meat may have been made in a lab.
PHOTO GALLERY: 7 Surprising Foods You'll Be Eating by 2035
He also looks at the potential of agricultural biotechnology to improve the lives of millions – and why, as he writes, “many of the ideas of the foodie mainstream are dangerously myopic, potentially destructive, and possibly the source of widespread blindness in Southeast Asia.” The Fiscal Times spoke with Schonwald recently to find out more about what we’ll be eating in 20 years.
The Fiscal Times (TFT): You explore what our food will look and taste like in 2035. Why that year?
Josh Schonwald (JS): It often takes a long time for a technology to make an impact. An example is bag salad. “Modified atmosphere packaging” enabled this revolution in the salad section. That process began in the late ‘60s and took a long time to refine. Foods often take a considerable amount of time to gain acceptance. Broccoli was first introduced in the ‘20s by a family of entrepreneurs, the D’Arrigo Brothers, but it was a long process before it became a mainstay. I wanted to look at stuff other people weren’t looking at, or was at an earlier stage. I wanted to look further out.
TFT: Is salad a good example of the process for foods in general – for how much innovation, development and breeding goes into our everyday food?
JS: In the story of how salad changes, you have changes in technology – for example, packaging. You have changes in agriculture and breeding, with different varieties of lettuce and those that are suitable for industrial scale production. You have foodies contributing new varieties. Alice Waters has had an influence on salad in introducing mesclun mixes from France into Californian cuisine. Someone could revive an heirloom variety and embrace it, and it trickles down from an appearance in a farmers’ market for adventurous foodies.
TFT: What other innovations are coming along?
JS: There can be changes in breeding that are unnoticeable to consumers – a change in the variety of iceberg lettuce that a producer will know and a consumer may not. There could be changes that are very visible – more colored carrots, for instance. It has to do with the interest of consumers, but also with production and figuring out how to raise different varieties of carrots suitable for scaling. There is going to be a growth in indoor recirculating aquaculture, or land-based fish farms. If this method of growing fish becomes a bigger part of seafood production in the U.S., and more economically viable, we’ll probably see more species.
TFT: You write about a “new” type of fish called cobia, and the University of Miami’s director of aquaculture says it will be “the next salmon.” Where can you get it?
JS: It’s not widespread. You can get it in New York City. A good reference point is halibut. It’s a thick, steaky, white fish with a neutral flavor. A lot of people think it’s going to be incredibly popular – because, by and large, American consumers don’t like a fishy taste. This is not fishy. It’s thick, it’s white. You can see the spectacular success of tilapia and it’s expected that cobia could be an upgrade in the industrial white fish category.
TFT: To what extent will we be switching to wholly new breeds of fish like cobia?
JS: Tilapia had never caught on in the U.S. because it was described as having what people in the fish industry call “off-flavor.” It had this muddy taste. What made tilapia explode is that aquaculturists figured out that the right water quality can eliminate this off-flavor.
TFT: Which makes it taste like nothing.
JS: Exactly. It tastes like nothing. And it became an industrial success. With cobia, just like with other species of fish, scientists struggled to figure out how to make it grow at scale and efficiently. It wasn’t as easy as they thought. That’s also true for the salmon industry. It took 20 years for the Norwegians to figure out how to successfully grow Atlantic salmon. Consumers are interested in trying new species of fish in general.
TFT: You say insects are going to be a big part of our future diet. Why?
JS: Insects are one of the relatively untapped sources of protein – they’re high in protein, low in fat, contribute a fraction of the greenhouse gas emissions of livestock. Something like 80 percent of the world’s countries already eat insects. Insects provide a lot of promise as an untapped source of food. A couple of things provoke a yuck factor, such as in vitro meat [meat produced in a lab or factory]. Insects are possibly the one thing that has a higher yuck factor among most people in the U.S. than in vitro meat.Lobster in the 19th century was viewed as such a taboo food for most Americans that there were laws that forbade serving it to prisoners more than twice a week. Broccoli, on first arrival in the early part of the 20th century, was spurned by many. And you are starting to see the more adventurous restaurants experiment with insect-derived products. Twenty-five years is a long time and there is a trickle-down process that will take place. Insects will become a bigger part of Western food in the future.
TFT: You say you weren’t a foodie when you started this project. Were you familiar with the questions about genetically modified foods – “Frankenfoods”?
JS: Vaguely. The idea of taking bacteria and putting it in corn – it sounded creepy. But I was curious to see what was going on. Over the course of looking at it, my attitudes definitely changed.
TFT: You say you didn’t expect to side with Monsanto over Alice Waters. What convinced you this is the wave of the future?
JS: I just realized people shouldn’t be so black and white about [genetically modified foods]. It should be situational. It’s a technology that can do good or bad. There are genetically engineered crops that encourage the use of chemicals in agriculture and there are those that reduce it; genetically engineered crops can do a great deal of benefit for the world. One example: a crop called golden rice. It is taking genes from a daffodil plant and putting that into rice to increase the vitamin A content.
This could be used to help vitamin A deficient people in parts of the world. That is lab engineered. It’s not done through conventional crop breeding. I don’t believe the technology is inherently wrong. There’s a lot of potential and given the challenges of the world’s population growth and the changing climate, we shouldn’t reject this toolkit.
TFT: Will people be able to overcome the yuck factor with test-tube meat?
JS: I think they will, when you consider conventional animal livestock production and the amount of land and water used; if you think about the contribution that animal livestock provides to global warming in terms of greenhouse gas emissions; and if you think about antibiotics and the growth promoters used in industrial livestock production. Test-tube meat starts to sound far more appealing when you think of [the current] default. Theoretically you could feed the entire planet with one stem cell.
There are also ways to engineer meat grown in a test tube to have desirable qualities – take out the bad fatty acids and put in the good omega-3s. As one of the people in the book says, you could have hamburgers that instead of causing heart attacks prevent heart attacks.
TFT: To what extent will health benefits like these be driving new food developments and to what extent will it be about costs and business decisions?
JS: It’s both. So much of what genetic engineering has focused on [so far] is so-called input traits. Those are focused on producers – like improving yield, improving uniformity, insect resistance. But there is also the potential for using agricultural biotechnology to fortify foods or to lower the oil content of potatoes. Further off, it can be used to focus on taste. There hasn’t been that heavy focus on consumer needs to date.
PHOTO GALLERY: 7 Surprising Foods You'll Be Eating by 2035
TFT: Is there any food you won’t try now? Anything you’ve been turned off to?
JS: I am more skeptical of the source of my seafood. I would like to know what farm it comes from. It’s often mislabeled. Tilapia is being sold as cod and all kinds of stuff like that. I guess I am a more skeptical seafood consumer than I had been. And I feel a hell of a lot guiltier about eating hamburgers than I used to.
TFT: So you’ll eat the burger – you just feel guilty about it?
JS: Right. I haven’t reached the point where I can go without the burger, but I just feel guilty about it.