Insect cuisine. Edible packaging. High-tech rooftop gardens. The future of food is around the corner.
With a current world population of 7.2 billion, the United Nations is projecting an increase of 1 billion people over the next 12 years, and 9.6 billion by 2050. To meet the population's needs, our food system is in transition. We need to produce, transport, sell and prepare more food, more efficiently. But which foods, and what kind of transportation?
It's the start of a new year and nearly the end of a new decade. We decided it was time to sit down with experts in different segments of our food system to see what their professional prognostication looked like, in their own words. Each interview has been edited for clarity and brevity but reflects the opinions of the experts interviewed.
Strap in; it's a wild ride.
Manager for the marine and freshwater aquaculture research program at Mote Aquaculture Research Park in Sarasota County
Big predictions: We will be eating more "sea vegetables," and we will find ways of growing traditional vegetables in a more saline environment.
Biggest future challenge: Availability of fresh water
The public has an increasingly strong interest in better sources of information about where their food comes from. With that will come more niche food resources and local food production options. We are looking at ways we can begin to produce seafood in the United States that meets our environmental concerns but provides local food at the same time.
An integrated aquaculture system is a food-production system where you have linked together multiple products that essentially feed off of each other: You feed your fish and then the fish feed the next component down the food chain.
Most of my work has been focused on systems with fish and plants like sea asparagus and sea purslane. There's huge potential with seaweeds. Many of my colleagues overseas have been working on incorporating seaweeds because they are huge nitrogen users (drawing down levels of dissolved nitrogen and phosphorus in ocean water). It's not a big product yet here, but it will increase as time goes on.
I'm concerned about the future for traditional vegetables. The key will be adapting some of these products to higher salinity conditions so that they can grow in the ocean. They already have salt-tolerant radishes and tomatoes, so the key is going to be to get the tolerance up to a higher level of salinity, to about half the strength of sea water.
Associate professor and undergraduate coordinator of entomology at UF. She runs an arthropod petting zoo and wears an electroplated cockroach pin from Etsy she calls her "roach brooch."
Big prediction: The future is entomophagy. That's eating bugs.
This already happens in most parts of the world — there are 500 species of bugs eaten in Mexico alone — but now the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization is promoting insects as a food source. Have pests on your crops? Just eat the insects.
A few years ago, a team of McGill University MBA students won the $1 million Hult Prize for a project that aimed to improve the availability of nutritious food to poor people by providing them with protein-rich insect-infused flour for bread or tortillas. And recently, there was a Livin Farms Hive Kickstarter campaign for a kitchen-counter farm for mealworms. That's where you feed your kitchen scraps to a starter colony of beetle grubs and they grow and move downward; eventually in the bottom drawer there are mealworms you can cook.
In this country, it will likely be mealworms and crickets because there's already an industry built up around those for pet food. But for now, bugs are considered a defect in food. The USDA has allowable levels for bugs — 2,500 aphids allowed per 10 grams of hops, 400 or more insect parts allowed per 50 grams of ground cinnamon — but the key will be more lobbying for bugs as food. Some people want to call bugs "land shrimp," and there will likely be a grocery store section called "insect cuisine."
Senior vice president of research at the National Restaurant Association
Big prediction: Food service will continue to outstrip meals cooked at home, and technology will continue to change how that food service works. Sixty percent of restaurant traffic is now either takeout or delivery, and that segment is growing.
The restaurant industry has become an economic juggernaut. In 2017, restaurant industry sales reached $799 billion (up from $766 billion in 2016), with 14.7 million people employed across 1 million restaurant locations. If you look at total food spending, roughly half is in the away-from-home market, which means we are outsourcing the production of food more often than we're making it ourselves. That trend will continue in the decade ahead.
The typical patron is more sophisticated than ever about restaurants and cuisines, and diners want to know the story behind their food. Increasingly, technology allows consumers to access more information about menu items and their sourcing — look at the rapid integration of tablets, which can bring up sourcing and nutritional information, as well as video menu boards and online reservation systems. And our smartphones will continue to have a dramatic impact on how people order and pay.
Will robots take restaurant worker jobs?
If you think of the banking industry and the development of ATMs, the automation was additive, meaning ATMs didn't ultimately get rid of the need for tellers and bank managers. How restaurant labor is used is already transitioning, and staff is being reallocated to higher levels of customer service. What drives consumers to use food service is twofold: convenience and socialization. With convenience as a priority when it comes to ordering our food, there will be a greater emphasis on technology that enhances that convenience.
Director of UF's Institute for Sustainable Food System and formerly WorldBank's leader of Global Program on Fisheries and Aquaculture
Big prediction: Aquaculture will dominate wild fisheries. Two-thirds of edible fish will be farmed by 2030.
The United States imports 90 percent of its seafood. And five species groups — shrimp, salmon, tuna, tilapia and catfishes — account for 76 percent of U.S. seafood consumption. All of those are mostly imported and, except for tuna, all are primarily farmed.
Aquaculture, which is essentially fish or shellfish farming, is the fastest-growing food sector, but our country has basically gone nowhere in three decades. There has been a negligible rise in wild fisheries. If every wild fishery were managed well, we could add only a little to the world's supply. So if we're going to eat fish, aquaculture is where it's going to happen. In the early 1990s, the United States and Norway had similar marine aquaculture production. Now, Norway produces about seven times the volume of the United States.
People are concerned about the wrong things these days due to lack of knowledge. They're fearful of things like farmed salmon. If you want to worry about fish, worry about tilapia and shrimp from China and Southeast Asia. We don't really know what happens in all those places that we import from. But the United States is in a position to do it right and to establish best practices.
Impediments to the rise of aquaculture?
In agriculture, there are demonstration farms at land grant universities. But where are they when it comes to aquaculture? Universities are underfunded in this area, with the USDA focusing more on traditional agriculture. Farming bivalves — mollusks like oysters and clams — is a no-brainer in Florida, but for shellfish, seed stock (tiny baby mollusks) is only produced by one or two places, so that's a hurdle to overcome.
Chairwoman of UF's agricultural and biological engineering department
Big prediction: Haman's own research is in irrigation and water management, and yes, water management will be important in food's future. But big changes will come with robots, drones and smart packaging.
The only way to produce the food we will need is to become much more precise and efficient. Optimization will include a lot of automation (in the field everything will be done by drone and robot) and reducing waste. Waste is a huge problem. We produce what we need for 9 billion people; we just do it wrong. We don't talk about all the imperfect fruits and vegetables left in the field.
The future is going to be about food logistics, movement and storage.
We will be able to extend shelf life through "smart packaging." We will have greater traceability with sensors in packaging that will tell you where your food comes from and what it took to get it to you — its exposure to temperatures, humidity and pollutants. There will be 3D-printed sensors that will measure things like distance traveled, and there will also be edible packaging and packaging that changes color with the pH of the food, so you can tell when it is going bad.
Food production will move into urban areas, probably with indoor vertical farming and rooftop gardens. It's local, and it eliminates the need for transportation and other logistics. And we'll see more anaerobic digester tanks that turn food waste into usable energy.
Chief operating officer of Innit, a new food technology company that integrates the planning, purchasing, preparation and cooking of meals at home
Big prediction: Artificial intelligence will kill the traditional recipe and cookbook, making it possible to automatically suggest meals for you to cook based on everything from your allergies and likes and dislikes to what's currently in your kitchen.
You'll be able to press a button to create a personalized meal, order the ingredients delivered to your door, generate smart cooking instructions and run your smart appliances. It's the difference between paper maps and GPS that knows where you are as well as where you're going.
With the proliferation of sensors, we'll begin to see more connected kitchen appliances, and those connected appliances will have some level of intelligence and understanding of one another: refrigerators that use machine vision to automatically place orders based on what you're eating and cooking apps that give your appliances instructions. It's leveraging technology to connect your home, kitchen and entire eating ritual so that you can spend more time with your family.