Vertical Farms, Lab-Grown Meat, and Other Food Frontiers

What's to come?
June 1 2012 9:02 AM

The Future of Food: Five Frontiers

How nanotechnology, vertical farms, and lab-grown meat may change the way you eat.

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When will products from Post be on supermarket shelves? With sufficient funding, Post says, “we can probably make it happen in the order of 10 to 15 years.” But, he says, “If the research continues to be funded the way it’s funded now, it’s never going to happen.” 

Another obstacle: Right now, cell division outside the body is induced with fetal bovine serum—liquid produced from the fetal blood of a dead cow. Not exactly PETA-friendly. Post tells me he would like to create a solution to replace the fluid. Alternative liquids that induce division in certain cells do exist—but so far, Post hasn’t found them to work as well with skeletal muscle cells. Creating a replacement will be tough, he says, since fetal bovine serum contains about 10,000 individual proteins. But it’s doable. The bottom line: You won’t be chowing down on an in-vitro steak any time soon.

5. Salmonella-Fighting Soldiers
Bacteriophages (also referred to as “phages”) are viruses that infect and kill bacteria. At Micreos, a company based in the Netherlands, researchers have created a phage spray to target particular bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses, like listeria and salmonella. (If you’re keeping track at home—that’s the third food technology incubated in the Netherlands.)  The technology arose from research into antibiotic alternatives that began at the National Institute of Health in 1993. Micreos, a spinoff from the NIH project, was the first company to introduce phage spray technology—but others are entering the field, too. Recently, the FDA approved an American company’s E. coli spray. Right now, its main customers are large scale food producers. But Micreos plans to release a consumer spray in the next year, CEO Mark Offerhaus told me. The industrial spray costs a penny per pound of meat, and Offerhaus guesses that the consumer spray will run about $10 per bottle.

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Martin Loesser, a professor of food microbiology at the Institute of Food Science and Nutrition at the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, has been researching the consumer safety effects of phage technology for 25 years. Though early critics of phage treatments worried that since phages contain proteins they could cause allergic reactions, Loesser dismisses this risk. He’s confident because he can identify the proteins that comprise each phage through genetic sequencing and then test those proteins against a database of all known allergenic proteins—like those from wheat, soy, peanuts, and milk. He hasn’t found a similarity between a phage protein and a known allergen yet.  “The amount of protein that's in [these treatments] is still so low that even if that was allergenic, I doubt that this would cause any kind of reaction,” he says.

A Nano-Grain of Salt
Pondering the future of food has long captivated the imaginations of science fiction writers and policymakers. But these visionaries are often way off the mark. Take the food pill.  Matt Novak, writer of the Paleofuture blog for Smithsonian magazine, recently traced the pill’s origins, finding that the premise—encapsulating a meal’s worth of calories synthetically—harkens back to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. As part of an essay project to promote the fair, suffragette Mary Elizabeth Lease predicted that Americans would be eating synthetic food essences by 1993, freeing women from their kitchen shackles.

The food-pill prediction appeared again in various newspapers, magazines, TV shows (like The Jetsons) and in the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. We now know that cramming a meal into a pill isn’t scientifically possible. Turns out that consuming 2,000 calories—what the average person needs daily—would mean swallowing about half a pound of pills per day.

Lease’s prediction now sounds both quaint and sweeping: Cooks of the future, she wrote, “will take, in condensed form from the rich loam of the earth, the life force or germs now found in the heart of the corn, in the kernel of wheat, and in the luscious juices of the fruits. A small phial of this life from the fertile bosom of Mother Earth will furnish men with substance for days. And thus the problems of cooks and cooking will be solved.”

Her prose offers an important reminder: Be wary of any scientist who suggests her technology is a food future panacea. Predicting which technology will radically change the food landscape is tough. For now, we’ll have to be content with the promise of licking a safer cake batter spoon.

Also in the special issue on food: smart packaging may help keep your produce from going bad; small-scale farmers decide whether to embrace automated agricultural equipment; and the case for bringing back home ec. This article arises from Future Tense, a joint partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.

Elizabeth Weingarten is the associate editor at New America and the associate director of its Global Gender Parity Initiative.