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O Magazine
2015-2017

The future
of food:
cyberpunk
and utopia

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How to feed the world? We live in an unequal society divided between what an essay by economist Raj Patel referred to as “Stuffed and Starved.” Historically, food has been a social class and economic power indicator, but, even if it sounds quite obvious, the whole world is compelled to eat every day or perish. Why is food something so personal when it is really such a universal thing? What forces model our tastes and preferences? And, above all, what will we eat in the future?

Neovintage: old contents (such as marmalade), in new containers (tins).

 

The future of food: cyberpunk and utopia – O Production Company
The future of food: cyberpunk and utopia – O Production Company
The future of food: cyberpunk and utopia – O Production Company

In 2009, an international forum supported by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) asked how we’re going to be able to feed the 9,000 million people that will inhabit the planet in 2050. Food is culture, in the widest sense of the term, as it is marked by material conditions (as a brother of Groucho used to say) and our taste is far from “natural.”  There’s nothing less natural than food. As Ferran Adrià says in a video in which he explains the Sapiens analysis mode he defends from his Bulli Foundation, “natural tomato is an uneatable bush in Los Andes. Someone had to think about turning it into what it is today.” In the 1970s, it was thought that a green revolution in crops, pesticides and fertilisers would lead to a utopia of abundant harvests and continuous progress. Merely ten years later, the famine in Ethiopia already pointed towards a far from green future, rather a black one. Since then, the spectre of Malthus periodically haunts the world, even if hunger does no longer appear in the shape of a lack of food but, more and more among the lowest classes of the developed world, the stuffed that Patel talks about, as bad food. What we eat has an important geopolitical (access to drinking water is an important factor in many wars and revolts), economic (the real controversy over transgenes isn’t scientific –it does not exist–, but about property rights of the genetic material of plants) and cultural component. We often see headlines advertising that in the future we will eat insects, or that a complete food has been invented, with the ominous name Soylent, that can be ingested in milkshake form. But it’s difficult for both concepts to be accepted if they don’t become something that society can integrate as its own, and most of the world doesn’t see this thing of eating worms or of changing a sandwich for some dust as very appealing. The concept of food sovereignty, coined by the activists of the Vía Campesina organisation, is opposed to food security. The latter refers to the access of individuals to food, and the former refers to the right of the population to food that is healthy and culturally appropriate (my own underlining). All this is important to understand that each time we choose a restaurant, or how we take our coffee, or what we prepare for dinner, we are influenced by processes, organizations and companies we aren’t even too conscious of.

Meals will be fragmented and not as strict when it comes to hours and structure.

Water will take up an important space within future foods, be it because it will position itself as a gourmet or functional product, be it because it will be at the centre of many geostrategic conflicts.

 

The future of food: cyberpunk and utopia – O Production Company

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Crystal balls
and shopping bags

npp_8824-edit

Morgaine Gaye

“No, no, science fiction wasn’t so wrong. We’re already eating through pills,” food futurologist Morgaine Gaye tells me. “Supermarkets are full of functional foods, enriched with vitamins, most of all in drinkable forms. At the end of the day, we don’t eat very differently than in the PanAm space trip scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Gaye’s work, undertaken for such diverse clients as supermarket chains or universities consists in, according to her, “explaining both the whys and whats.” Her opinion coincides with that of the report by company Reimagine Food, a food industry consultancy, incubator and start-up accelerator, which forecasts that in 2020 some of the great trends will be superfoods and functional or pharmaceutical foods. The latest Reimagine Food report highlights things we have already mentioned: meat alternatives, food substitutes and insects. But how do these food fortunetellers operate? Gaye works from the UK, and her field covers such different perspectives as those offered by sociology, food technology, anthropology or environmental science. “I usually work with no briefing, so what I generally do in January each year is looking at what will happen in three-four years and formulate my hypothesis. Some things will take longer, but I try to limit myself to ten trends for the next three years and micro-trends under those same groups. Then I try to demonstrate or refute their existence. In the summer, I prepare my Bellwether (sheep that leads the flock) report, which I sell to industry companies, so it’s all there. But when I work for clients, trends take longer to reach the market, and timings can take up to a year more. Some eight or nine years ago, I talked about eatable insects and it was horrible, because English newspapers illustrated this with flying pigs and so forth… But it’s finally happening: the trend has taken longer to reach than I expected. And this is important: sometimes a client asks what trends we’ll see in the future, and many are phenomena that are already happening in the present but we pay no attention to them because it’s not the right moment yet. A product that appears too early will have as bad results as one that arrives too late,” Gaye admits, who also says “great political events, unless they imply an environmental disaster, don’t usually make a difference. Besides, my work doesn’t consist in looking at a crystal ball, but in looking at the present. We all think that what we eat is “natural” in this moment. It’s by putting it into perspective that we see it isn’t.” Gaye says that, despite globalisation, food trends are usually hyper local, even though, as happens with fashion too, some countries lead the trend. “It often happens that a trend starts in Japan or Korea, then it reaches the US coast, and without touching the Midwest, it reaches Great Britain, where we quickly adopt foreign trends, something that doesn’t happen as quick in Spain, Italy or France.”

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Can these trends originate in a lab? “Yes, although the most common thing is for them to originate in high gastronomic kitchens. Going back to insects; Noma [one of the best restaurants in the world] included ants on its menu two or three years ago. This, in many people’s minds, turned them into an acceptable food. We trust it because it already has a great reputation. Something like this happens with veganism: many forces are making it a growing trend, but it’s when someone like Beyoncé says that she’s interested on the subject when it ceases to be hippy paranoia to become cool and acceptable to the world.” Gaye makes a difference between fads and trends. Cronuts [a hybrid between a croissant and a doughnut], for instance, are a fad, but some fads, such as cupcakes or gin&tonics, do not disappear. Trends are a way of producing or consuming during a longer period of time, and they can end up becoming a mainstream social behaviour. Trends do not come back as such. What trend does our fortuneteller predict for the next years, then? “We’ll see the rise of the old age consumer. For many, many years, ads have focused on kids and young people, but this will change. The models we’ll see in ads and shops will be in their sixties. And the message they will give is that of value. On the other hand, we’ll see the rise of marketing through the sense of smell, and the manufacturing of smells for brands, New rituals: religion and meal times disappear, but we create new rituals; more and more people work from home, so organised meals disappear. We’ll also have to think about what to do with Sunday meals, or Christmas dinners. We’ll change how we structure our eating hours, in general they will occur later… Many things will happen with water; water with colour, with taste, with vitamins. Water will still be key in some wars in the future, and in the price of meat, of food, because it will become more and more scarce.” What about nostalgia? Why do we look back to brands or products that no longer exist? “We can wear 70s jeans again, but with a 2016 perspective. It’s the same with food. And generally when we look back it’s because we don’t like what we see in the present, and because we’re living a strong recession.”

Gaye, our futurologist, says that while studying she never predicted she would end up forecasting food trends, but that today food seems to her “the only thing connecting the whole of humanity. It doesn’t matter if you eat or starve, if you love or hate cooking, if your diet is strict or not: we all have opinions on food and a perspective on the subject, because it’s really what sustains our lives.”