Beer drones, bug kebabs and 3D drumsticks? The future of food is here
Our current modus operandi as constantly connected fleshnodes has triggered a sprawling, internet-based exploration of how we approach the highly subjective art (and/or science, depending) of eating. Take, for instance, the newest flannel-drenched backlash against processed food, as filthy millennials take a shine to age-old rituals of hunting, skinning, curing meat, farming, planting herbs, and raising their own animals for dinner. There are whole communities devoted to these procedural reincarnations of “responsible eating,” as well as the ongoing debate over whether organic makes a difference. Monsanto’s technological push for “precision agriculture” spurred a greater slice of western society to pay more attention to what they’re eating and drinking, a new neuroticism justified by horrifying studies on the chemicals in food and consumables and devices that are so near and dear to our networked little hearts. Today, Instagram and Pinterest are hotbeds of amateur food photography. Street criminals are turning to food as a new business. Yelp, Seamless and Grubhub are staples of urban eating, and even popular dating sites like OKCupid acknowledge the importance of diet and “social” fooding in modern relationship dynamics.
TL;DR – it is no longer adequate to enjoy the simple preparation of a meal, nor is it enough to savor it. Eating culture has branched to encompass a holistic philosophical blend of technology and ethics – where did this come from, how was it killed, and how many chemicals are in it? Of course, what this all reflects is a desire to get back to nature without compromising the quality and ethical principles of our dietary resources. Food tech also includes delivery and preparation techniques, which over time, will reshape basic human interactions and the way we approach meal options (Restaurants? Food trucks? Delivery? Takeaway?) in the future. The real question is how ridiculous and hypocritical are things going to get?
Everyone’s obsession with proto-protein caveman diets is about to take a whole new turn for the (better/worse) as science pushes to resurrect extinct animals. Jurassic Park fantasies aside, reviving long-dead species as food could have stupendous implications for the environment and its delicate micro-ecologies – it has the potential to change agriculture, personal health, global trade, communicable diseases…the list goes on. Science news has been all sound and fury about the imminent resurrection of the wooly mammoth, though a successfully engineered mammoth would probably never see the outside of a lab. Nonetheless, taking a long view of such a godlike development would mean a complete overhaul of the way we run livestock farms and raise animals – one auroch would consume vastly more resources and provide more meat for people, but at what cost? Would it eventually resemble a giant meat-enhanced KFC chicken, boneless and docile and caged?
CELLULOSE SNACKS AND LEATHER CANDY
Biotech engineering has taken a turn for the weirder as bits of wood and leather might turn into food of the future. A Virginia Tech professor has developed a chemical rebonding system to process wood chips, corn stems, and “other agriculture refuse” into edibles; this involves mixing corn stover, “a mix of corn stalks, leaves and even weeds and grasses,” with enzymes. On a shadier front, a recent Chinese report claims that a German gelatin manufacturer used leather scraps to make “everything from gummy candy to medicine capsules.” The transparency of basically using garbage as food presents an interesting psychological dynamic wherein the scientific “for humanity” approach is unquestionably noble; disguising dodgy trash as food, however, isn’t a new thing – we’ve heard stories of street vendors selling dumplings made of cardboard and donkey meat instead of beef without diners knowing – and possibly, with the rise of synthetic nutritional additives in the future, without anyone caring.
Not unlike the paleo rage, eating bugs is something our ancestors did long ago that we, as a collective modern entity, have decided is a good thing again. A new startup called Tiny Farms is trying to cultivate a modern appreciation for insect-eating via raise-your-own-insect kits. It makes a lot of sense. We’re overpopulating the planet, which conveniently happens to be swarming with bugs. Nonetheless, in developed western countries, it isn’t quite the height of urbane sophistication to suck up your own ants with a dustbuster – yet. The most interesting aspect of these home kits, which a cursory glance might dismiss a fancy networked ant farm, is how Tiny Farms collects and uses data to study how a technologically-enhanced entomophagical industry could really impact world hunger.
Monsanto, the universal scourge of health-conscious humans, has completely shit the bed with their biotech corn (commonly referred to as “bt corn”). The corn was originally introduced in 1996 to kill corn rootworms by inducing septicemia via specially-engineered bt proteins. Now, the worms have become immune to the very protein designed to kill it, raising numerous (and totally unsurprising) red flags for the future of mass food production. Scientists point to mismanagement as the main issue, as farmers should’ve kept unmodified corn crops where rootworms could live and reproduce without developing a resistance to the new tech. Evolving flora and fauna, silently adapting to defeat the best (and worst) intentions of man, is most terrifyingly portrayed in The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi; the novel. So while detractors tune up the world’s tiniest violin for Monsanto’s self-induced genetic abomination, the bigger questions are: what and how other species have been affected by GMO crops, how long will it take for us to find them, and what does it mean for the future of food?
Dubai’s Ebony Interactive Restaurant taps into a wider trend of urban dwellers taking a greater interest in where food comes from and how it’s prepared. As its name suggests, Ebony features interactive touchscreen tabletops that patrons can use to order food and kill time until their meals arrive. On a quasi-creepy note, the screens also let you watch the staff in the kitchen and update your respective social media presences of this absurdly Orwellian spectacle. One ‘smart’ establishment seems small in the greater scheme of things. But considering its location, in the sleek metal heart of a technopolis still built on the backs of questionable labor practices, Ebony represents a blinding social hypocrisy and an example of the sort of regressive social dynamics that technology should avoid, not encourage.
Inspired by the Amazon Prime hype, a U.S.-based beer company now offers a drone delivery service; Lakemaid’s first successful delivery was to an ice-fishing shack off Minnesota’s Lake Mille Lacs. Small batch orders of non-perishable food and specialty liquor could fuel the first real wave of commercial drone startups, given the constant demand for convenient grocering and impulse cravings for a favorite drink. In rural areas and isolated communities, drone food services could signal the beginning of a new wave of non-profit/grassroots initiatives.
IBM’s favorite son isn’t exactly using peripherals to physically cook food, but it uses a large recipe database to learn how we differentiate between cuisines. The actual cooking is, of course, performed by people. The six-course SXSW menu included a pork belly moussaka, a beet salad, and roast duck (pictured). Culinary purists are sure to resist the idea of leaving food curation to an A.I., but on a greater scale, a scale-dependent, scientific approach to recipe calculations eases the ways in which artificial intelligence could learn how to understand nuances and subtleties in a supervised environment.
Sometimes (possibly all the time) there doesn’t need to be a reason to do something. We can print 3D molds of KFC fried chicken if we want to, and this is exactly what the writers for Lifehacker did at iJet, a Japan-based data modeling company. Japan is known for its massive fake food (“sampuru” or sample) industry, and the plastic meal models often seen in restaurant displays are still usually made by hand. Frankly, the handmade sampuru looks worlds more palatable than the primordial plastic meat-blob produced, but with time, perhaps 3D printing could revolutionize a multi-million dollar F&B industry in ways that don’t even involve eating.
THE RISE OF ASEPTIA
Aseptia, which seriously needs to reconsider the more unflattering, diseasey aspects of its name, is a food tech company that “enables the production of shelf-stable fresh food products without using preservatives or refrigeration.” The really interesting word choice here is “fresh,” as another source describes Aseptia’s catalog as sauces and soups, which are decidedly not considered fresh foods. The company recently just received a fat chunk of funding to pursue its mission of immortal eats. We’re not sure what kind of colonel’s-secret-recipe business is going on behind the scenes, because eating forever-fresh-food doesn’t sound especially healthy without a fully accessible explanation of what is done to the food to make it keep.
PillCam is not the name of a medical treat. It isn’t a soylent-style food substitute. PillCam is not a cute little capsule of dehydrated nutrients. It is literally, as it sounds, a tiny, swallowable camera that lets you follow its journey from mouth to ass. Now, given the intense (and, at times, absurd) concern that we have with personal health and diet, there are all sorts of people – artists, gung-ho nutritionists, medical researchers, technophiles, food scientists (have we come up with a better name for them yet) and so on – whom PillCam could propel to the forefront of the nascent field of art-science that has raised hackles among the scientific community. Will watching our food digest (and then exit our fleshy bodies to be lost in a cesspool of communal sewage) become a new form of reality TV? For some, this could signal the beginning of a fresh new breed of OCD. Check out this insanely disgusting video.