The Nutrition Future

It’s National Nutrition Month, a good time to contemplate the future of nutrition.  Our food supply is on the brink of some big changes, some of them encouraging, some of them essential, some of them purely for marketing.

What does the crystal ball show for the future of food?

  1. One of the biggest challenges to our future food supply is adequate food for 9 billion or so humans.  That means adequate calories, protein and nutrients for 9+ billion people using only the limited amount of land available.
  2. A second challenge is that, as people around the world move into the middle class, the demand for meat rises.  And there simply isn’t enough land on the planet to raise enough livestock to meet that demand.  What can we do about that?
  3. Another challenge: making food supplies more local, to reduce transportation logistics and costs.  An abundance of food is great, but if the food is 3000 miles away, or across an ocean, it isn’t going to do you any good if shipping is disrupted for any reason.
  4. There is no healthy diet without healthy food.  Nutrition does not come from pills or supplements, so it’s essential that our future food is healthy, or at least mostly healthy.

Many of the solutions to our future food supply will rely on technology.  Genetic engineering is going to play a significant role, despite the Luddite protestations.  Around the globe, people struggling in Third World countries want to eat food, not high minded ideals.  Farmers will make their decisions based on results. If a GMO crop can be grown without expensive or toxic pesticides, resistant to a devastating insect or fungus infestation, that’s what will be grown.  Results talk.  Other agricultural practices will be equally important: companion planting, encouraging more small local farms and better management of soil and water,  Drones, robots and satellite technology will certainly be important, too.

I’m excited about hydroponics for growing food locally, in some cases very locally.  I recently stayed at a hotel that had its own hydroponic grow facility for greens.  I also read about a company developing industrial-scale indoor grow facilities for urban locations.  This particular company is working on a technology that uses a grow medium and a constant mist, rather than straight hydroponics.  Imagine buying local arugula or leaf lettuce in the middle of New York City or Minneapolis?  Even in winter.  It’s not just possible, but likely.

Right now, greens are fairly easy and quick to grow with these experimental indoor farms, but what’s to stop someone from developing the technology to grow vegetables, legumes, soybeans, peanuts or even grains?  Imagine an indoor rice paddy in a high rise building.  Facilities like these have other benefits: control of the “weather”, control of the nutrient mix, avoidance of insect pests and control of microbial diseases.

Indoor greens sound almost commonplace compared to the idea of lab-grown meat.  But I think this is where we’re heading in the not-that-distant future.  We simply do not have the land available to feed everyone the amount of meat they want.  Plus there are plenty of other problems with the current state of livestock agriculture: use of antibiotics, animal waste disposal, energy and water input to produce just one pound of edible meat, bacterial contamination of meat and concerns about treatment of animals.

People are already working on growing pieces of meat from scratch in labs.  So far reviews have been mixed, to say the least, but I have no doubt eventually they will succeed.  We’ll have standardized boneless rib eye steaks, boneless chicken breast, bone-free salmon filets and maybe even boned Thanksgiving turkeys, grown in labs, all of the same quality and flavor.  It’s possible that people in the future will look back in horror at the idea that we actually slaughtered animals and butchered them to get steaks.  It will create a new dilemma though: what will vegetarians and vegans think about “meat” that has nothing to do with animals?

Which brings up one more important application of our future food technology: personalized health.  Food that’s produced by technology — whether meat or greens or grains — can be designed to deliver specific amounts of certain nutrients.  And as our understanding of the relationship between genes, metabolism and health improves, we’ll have the ability to tailor diets to individual needs.  One-size-fits-all nutrition recommendations will be obsolete.  For optimal health, you might be characterized as a Type A metabolism, for example, and the local grocery store or restaurant (or your computerized food replicator) would have Type A foods for you to buy.  Could this mean the end of supplements?

Of course there could be less wonderful aspects to future food technology.  Chips engineered to deliver all your nutritional needs?  Ice cream that tastes like premium, but has few calories and all your nutrients?  Both possible, but think about this: would you really want to eat nothing but chips or ice cream?  Both of those would get old really quickly.  I’m hopeful that the future of food involves technology, taste, convenience, health and freshness, not just a higher-tech version of the over-salted, over-sugared processed food we’ve got now.

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