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.

Juicy bacon cheeseburger.
Will lab-grown meat ever taste as good as the real thing?

Jupiterimages/Getty Images/Thinkstock.

Read more from Slate’s special issue on the future of food.

Generations of kids have grown up forbidden to taste chocolate cake batter. The rationale for this quasi- torture: fear of salmonella poisoning.

And at the current rate of food technology, the kids of 2040 may be eating healthier cookie dough, too—gooey hunks infused with nano-sized nutrients, with chocolate chips engineered to be less fattening.

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But future children may never know what salmonella is: A Dutch company is currently developing a consumer spray to kill the bacteria on contact. Salmonelex may sit next to Windex on future kitchen counters.

But most of the latest advancements in food technology go beyond dessert. Rather, scientists are motivated by an impending agricultural crisis: The world population will likely hit 9 billion by 2050, while climate change may render current agricultural systems and seeds inadequate. To stave off an agricultural doomsday, researchers are developing new techniques to transform our unsustainable practices.

For the month of June, Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University—will look at the future of food in both the developed and developing world. We’ll explore how we grow food, package it, genetically engineer it, and cook it at home.

To kick things off, here are five of the exciting food frontiers, some of which we’ll be addressing more thoroughly in the weeks to come. Bon appetite.

1. Coding Corn
Some of the first genetically modified commercial crops in the ’90s were tweaked to be tolerant to herbicides and resistant to plant diseases caused by viruses. Scientists built these superfoods by introducing certain genes into the plant’s DNA.

Today, most genetically modified foods on the market are commodity crops used for animal feed or processed ingredients, like corn, soybeans, and sugar beets. Typically, they aren’t manipulated to be more nutritious for human consumers. But that may soon change. A DuPont-owned company is currently marketing a “high oleic” heart-healthier soybean—meaning its oil has 20 percent less saturated fat than normal commodity soybean oil. Monsanto is also developing omega-3 enriched soybeans.

Researchers are working to enhance the nutrients in staple crops like sweet potatoes and cassava, which provide some populations in developing countires with the majority of their daily calories.  That’s a problem because though sweet potatoes, for example, are nutritious, they alone don’t contain all the nutrients necessary for a balanced diet..

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.

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.

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.