The Future of Food: Five Frontiers
How nanotechnology, vertical farms, and lab-grown meat may change the way you eat.
And for a couple of years, another corporation has been seeking FDA approval for genetically engineered salmon, dubbed AquAdvantage, that matures to its full size in half the time. But the process has been mired in controversy, particularly over concerns about the environment.
Gregory Jaffe, the director of the Biotechnology Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says that there are other concerns about GM foods in general. For example, genetic modification could introduce a new gene that produces an allergen in a food, posing consumer health risks. Scientists also have to worry about introducing a new gene and, in the process, inadvertently activating an existing gene in the plant that could produce a harmful substance in the edible part.
2. Tiny Titans
Nanoparticles aren’t new: The minuscule units appear naturally in some foods. But in the past decade, researchers have begun trying to use the particles to alter the taste and texture of food. Nanotechnology could be particularly useful for concocting diet-friendly foods: The particles can enhance the flavor and consistency of products without adding calories, sugar, or fat.
The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies’ comprehensive database of nano-products in the United States lists only four in the food and beverage category. Canola Active Oil uses nano-particles to inhibit “the transportation of cholesterol from the digestive system into the bloodstream.” Another product, Nanoceuticals’ chocolate-flavored SlimShake, promises “enhanced flavor without the need for excess sugar.” (If you’ve tried it, let us know how it tastes by weighing in in the comments.)
But some scientists worry that nanoparticles in food could pose a danger to human health, and that companies are releasing products without adequate safety testing. Todd Kuiken at the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, which is affiliated with the nonpartisan Woodrow Wilson Center and advocates for the advancement of nanotechnology, says he hasn’t heard of much current research “on actual food products—what happens when [nanoparticles] get into the body, blood stream, and brain.” The FDA says it’s funding some research into the safety of nanotech. But the paucity of testing means that right now, no one can be certain that ingesting these tiny particles won’t come with big health consequences.
3. Lettuce Skyscrapers
Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier says Babylonians, with their hanging gardens, were first to pioneer the idea of vertical farms. But it was Despommier’s 2010 book The Vertical Farm—and website, launched in 2004—that inspired the modern movement. Despommier defines a vertical farm as a building that’s at least two stories with crops growing inside—stacked greenhouses, if you will. Back in 2010, there were none. Today, seven have sprouted around the world in places like South Korea, Japan, the Netherlands and Chicago.
Horizontal farmland can’t grow enough food to sustain the swelling population, Despommier says. Not only do vertical farms do more with less land; they also allow food producers to grow crops in cities next to consumers, eliminating transportation costs. Cultivating food indoors with hydroponics (a system of growing plants without soil) uses 60 percent to 70 percent less water than traditional farming, and indoor crops aren’t susceptible to drought, pests, diseases or floods.
PlantLab, based in the Netherlands, is a vertical farm that goes beyond Despommier. Rather than sunlight, it uses red, blue, and far-red LED lights to grow plants. But PlantLab isn’t a food producer (though the researchers there do sometimes eat the tomatoes they grow). Rather, they glean information from the plants they grow to create growing recipes for food production companies. These formulas specify the temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide, airflow, nutrients, water, and LED light necessary to grow a crop most efficiently. Gertjan Meeuws, the managing partner of PlantLab, told me he’s currently developing recipes of more than 40 crops for about 20 companies—most of which have traditional greenhouses. He guesses that in five to 10 years, retail houses like Wal-Mart will be producing their own vegetables and herbs.
But unlike outdoor farmers, vertical cultivators don’t get government subsidies or tax breaks. “Indoor farmers aren’t looked at as serious yet by the U.S. government -- there are no major incentive programs to make vertical farming part of the landscape,” Despommier says, stressing the vast size and influence of the American farm lobby. That means “the U.S. government will not be a big player in establishing vertical farming in the U.S.—but city governments might. If you talk to the mayor of Chicago or Philadelphia, you’ll learn that they’re passionate about this idea.”
4. Lab Burgers
Dutch scientist Willem van Eelen imagined creating animal meat—or muscle tissue—in a laboratory back in the 1940s. Decades later, Mark Post, a stem cell scientist at the Netherlands’ Maastricht University, is currently growing meat by capturing stem cells from cow muscles. His goal: to create a hamburger by November. But it’s slow work, as he’s forming the patty piece by piece. He’s produced about 500 slivers of muscle tissue and estimates he needs 3,000. Once he’s finished, Post estimates the hamburger will cost about 250,000 euros.