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Imagining the Future of Food



Predicting the future is risky business. I think it’s more fruitful to imagine the future we would like to see, and then get busy strategizing how to realize it. I imagine a future of food in which everyone on the planet has enough good food to eat. By “good” I mean nutritious, delicious, aesthetically pleasing, sustainably and, where possible, locally produced food.

The UN reports approximately 3 billion out of 7.3 billion people are malnourished with roughly one third of those chronically undernourished and the rest overweight or obese. According to Statistics Canada, self-reported obesity and overweight people number 13.8 million with just over 400,000 of these being children. Toronto-based PROOF estimates 12.2% of Canadian households experience some form of food insecurity.

The current food system is broken. The wonderful news is that a rosy future of food is entirely achievable.

A futuristic place setting from the Fungi Mutarium & Fungi Cutlery projects conceived by LIVIN STUDIO in collaboration with Utrecht University. Both the edible agar agar fungi dish called “FU” and the cutlery were designed by the Studio. Photo credit: Paris Tsitsos, 2014.

The chief barrier to healthy diets is poverty. Charity is not the answer. We need deep thinking and collaboration to change the socio-political-economic realities in which families with two incomes are still too poor to feed themselves. Jane McGonigal makes the argument that the skills gamers develop through play—such as optimism, a sense of productivity, and cooperation—could be valuable in this quest. The trick is transferring these skills to real-world scenarios. Together with colleagues at the Institute for the Future, McGonigal has been piloting hybrid games—online games that include real-world activities—in a bid to generate solutions to problems like the inequitable food system. This strategy could increase understanding of the complex factors that delivered the inequitable distribution in the first place, as well as foster collaboration and yield a plethora of solutions executable in local communities for global benefits. The game Evoke, which empowers people all over the world to come up with creative solutions to social problems, is an early example. We’ve barely begun to tap the potential of gaming to address complex global challenges. Let’s play!

“The chief barrier to healthy diets is poverty.”

We also have to make better use of under-utilized resources. The UN reports that the planet currently produces enough food to feed everyone; around 2,700 calories per person. Leveraging technology to better distribute food so that waste, estimated at about 30% of global output, can be minimized, is the approach of Montreal-based Provender. That company connects farmers with restaurant owners for a just-in-time harvest of exactly what is ordered. This concept is replicable and scalable.

Harmonizing our two-tier food system to address the disparity between those who can afford a healthy, fresh diet and those who cannot, could include mobile fresh-food markets that travel to food deserts (places in which there are no local grocery stores or produce stands). FoodShare is piloting this effort in Toronto, and, in the process, untangling a web of local regulations and paving the way for similar enterprises.

Designers and artists are also stepping up to the plate. “Ghost food” by artists Miriam Songster and Miriam Simun convinces your brain you are eating something you are not through the use of powerful scents. Katharina Unger, founder of Vienna-based LIVIN Studio, is working on an agar-fungus combination that eats plastic while producing edible biomass.

Decentralization of food production is also key, by reversing the trend toward monolithic factory farms in favour of family-sized farms. Shorter distances from field to table increase transparency and traceability of production, giving consumers more control over their food. Small, sustainable farms look very attractive indeed once we use the triple bottom-line (social, environmental and economic) to assess costs.

Vertical, intensive farming (think high-rise farms), using sustainable techniques pioneered by Columbia emeritus professor Dickson Despommier and developed by the likes of Will Allen and Growing Power in Illinois, help expand food production on a small land footprint in increasingly dense cities. Due to minimal land requirements, the cultivation of edible insects like crickets—a healthy, ecologically sound protein source—is also best done in urban centres, where shipping costs can be minimized, and already stressed rural land resources can be spared. Tiny Farms in Silicon Valley is pioneering methods that leverage digital technology to bring the prices of food grade bugs down from current rates of $30-40/lb in North America to $3/lb.

Early model of Kubo Dzamba’s Cricket Reactor, a habitat for the urban cultivation of micro livestock, i.e. nutritious crickets.
Photo credit: Michal Labnik 2013.

“Everything old is new again.” There’s a deepening trend to re-value the things we previously got right in our food culture, as witnessed by the recent popularity of cookery workshops on canning and preserving at food hubs like Toronto’s the Depanneur. These returns to basics will go hand in hand with cutting-edge innovations.

While plants genetically modified to tolerate pesticides deserve their questionable reputation, I think that we have to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Science and technology are our partners in the future of food. 3D Printing has proven exceedingly useful for prototyping and producing made-to-order articles such as prosthetics for a growing child. The reality of 3D Food Printers at home will come into its own if there are foodstuffs we can print that we cannot otherwise make, and if those foods are not just novelties, but rather delicious and nutritious products. A step in that direction is Chloé Ruterveld’s Edible Growth, 3D printed shapes that develop into edible baskets of growing mushrooms and sprouts.

It’s great fun to contemplate the future of food: Jetsonian machines that pop out our heart’s desire, a “smart” refrigerator that suggests recipes based on its contents, 3D-printed living delicacies, cruelty-free meat from a vat in a lab. On the other hand, it can be discouraging when we think of the growing disparity between the (broadly speaking) two tiers of food consumers: those with a fresh healthy diet and those without. I remain wildly optimistic. Human ingenuity is a beautiful thing. As William Gibson famously said, “The future is here. It’s just not very well distributed.”

Aruna Antonella Handa, PhD, is a writer-researcher and founder of Alimentary Initiatives, a future food think tank.

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