The future of food will change much about our world. Today, produce and meat products are planted and raised in farms and ranches covering millions of square miles across our planet. With modern advances, however, both your vegetables and your meat will come from the same building you buy them from -- your grocery store.
Producing Our Produce
Welcome to hydro and aeroponics, the practice of growing food within a closed, highly controlled environment using a fraction of the water, mineralization, chemicals and space of traditional farmland. This practice is revolutionizing the world as we know it and will improve the quality of your food.
This practice was pioneered in the 1920's and continues to gain steam today as urban centers now explore ways to increase access to fresh vegetables.
"For urban farmers, urban dwellers, restaurants, grocery stores, businesses, and even offices, aeroponics makes sense. Aeroponics uses the minimum amount of input to gain the maximum output. Using no soil and little water there are many advantages and benefits to aeroponic systems. As a zero-waste system, aeroponics answers many of the concerns growers have regarding lost resources. It’s clear that aeroponics is becoming the solution to filling the growing need to conserve water and energy, as well as healthy food systems especially in the city and high density populations." - PowerHouse Hydroponics (LINK)
That means that people are growing the freshest fruits, vegetables and herbs in the middle of urban neighborhoods without taking extra space that might be needed for new housing or businesses. The distance from where the food is grown to the shelf might be zero. Imagine walking through an aeroponics (or future derivative) section to pick your own vegetables from the spot in which they were grown?
Also, because of the controlled environment, there is a greatly reduced need to use insecticides or preservatives.
Meating New Expectations
Meat is now being grown in a lab. Sounds scary, right? Something out of a bad Syfy-channel B movie (e.g. Meat Zombies 3). The truth of it is, lab-grown meat has a huge number of potential benefits many people don't pause to consider.
First, while lab grown meat is still in its infancy and kinks still need to be ironed, the ability to grow a desired quality, cut and quantity of meat from within a metropolitan area to meet a specific demand is a staggering proposition. With fewer worries about ranch-borne diseases, inbreeding, cannibalism, drought, floods and even animal cruelty, a meat producer can control the amount of meat desired by a population without having to spend more time raising animals over years in order to meet the public need. To fine tune meat for specific dietary requirements by flipping switches sounds crazy and vulgar today, but it's the future.
Second, lab grown meat is part of a larger scientific goal to learn how to grow specific parts of a body, isolated from a fully living creature. Breakthroughs are rarely isolated to a single industry. Who knows how refining the growth of a lean cut of pork might lead to a better method of regrowing the human heart? Instead of waiting on a long list for someone to die for that heart you need, a local organ center grows your heart over three weeks and ships it to the nearest cardiac center for a perfect genetic match -- no more organ rejections when you're getting a 20-year-old version of your own heart.
Third, don't forget that lab-grown meat reduces the opportunity for animal cruelty. Imagine enjoying that cut of veal that never required chaining up a bovine calf to keep the meat soft; fewer steroid-pumped chickens and fewer animals living in tight quarters with each other.
All the meat still comes originally from an animal, but cut away as a sample and then grown. This sounds weird today, but, like nearly all innovations, will one day seem normal to our antecedents.
And if you think lab-grown meat is still a long ways away? Think again.
In 2013, when a burger made from lab-grown meat was presented to journalists, the patty cost more than $300,000 to produce and was overly dry (from too little fat). Expenses have since fallen. Memphis Meats reported this year that a quarter-pound of its ground beef costs about $600. Given this trend, clean meat could become competitive with traditional meat within several years. - Scientific American (LINK)
Let's take a look at broader impacts of these two developments.
First, producing our food where the people live means drastically fewer farms and ranches will cover property. That property becomes available either for housing and development or a return to wild and parkland for animals and the wild-at-heart. Growing any desired food (whichever customers want most) on the 2-3 floors above the grocery means no extra land area is required. I wouldn't be surprised if tiny on-site grocers become the norm for major metropolitan skyscrapers, or even for chains like Whole Foods serving suburban areas.
Second, there is a massive reduction in transportation requirements. While there will still be a few luxury ranches and farms for those who ONLY want it to come from natural sources (just like people still print photos despite shooting thousands on their phone), there will no longer be a need for massive trucking operations, fuel costs or carbon output, freezing and freeon, boxes, labelling, plastic protection, people driving to/from shipping centers to distribute the food, increased chance of food getting contaminated due to a shipping failure, etc. That also means a reduced footprint of the regulatory industry on the transportation side, because shipping boxes of dry goods vs shipping crates of consumables is vastly different.
Third, while agricultural conglomerates control most of the world's food supply, moving away from farms will help bring this trend to the local entrepreneur. To be fair and despite fears of world domination, conglomerates have worked out in our favor. Farming is experiencing higher yields than ever before thanks to ingenious experimentation from those companies.
For example, from Our World In Data:
While we are using more farmland than historically, it doesn't account solely for the yields. Never mind that innovations like aeroponics can produce up to 400% more than normal fruiting patterns.
As entrepreneurs begin their own aeroponics systems, it paves the way for incredible and cost-effective innovations that can change entire industries overnight. The more minds focus on a problem, the sooner that problem is replaced with a world-changing solution.
The Future of Grocery
Sometime in the next twenty years, Bill and Juanita live on the ninth floor of a small apartment building in Brooklyn. Gathering ingredients for dinner, they take the elevator to the 2nd-floor grocer. They pick through traditional items, such as a few seasonings only available from India, grab milk and eggs shipped from a traditional dairy and chicken farm. They then take the elevator up to "Produce," and navigate the mist-filled room picking out carrots, lettuce, spinach and a few potatoes grown over the past week. Bill likes the younger potatoes, and so picks his out of a generation younger than Juanita's choices.
They return to the main grocer and stop by the meat counter. They pick out meat that, like the produce, was made over the weekend. Bill had commissioned steaks the week before of a very particular age and cut and paid a small processing fee. Juanita grabs flatsteak for stirfry later in the week and hamburger meat for the weekend's cookout. It's easy to order rare meats because meat-type samples are kept in stasis for special requests and easily grown on-demand.
Everything costs significantly less due to a removal of shipping, packaging, preservation, manpower, chemicals and restocking, and the quality is generally higher and made-to-order is more available to lower income families.
Before they leave, Juanita stops by the herb station to pick out herbs that were grown by a specialized aeroponics farm only two blocks away that requires more space to grow and then dry out their herbs for long-term storage. They recently started carrying her favorite spice after enough requests were made by users living in the local area by the grocer's app.
They could have just sent their order by the app and had it delivered to their apartment, but Juanita is old fashioned and wants to pick the produce, herself, from the vertical stacks and talk with the growers, themselves, who work on-site.
As strange as this all might feel, imagine how someone from the 1600's might feel if they watched an aircraft land and people climb out of the big metal bird. Or someone from the eight century watching a robot performing surgery in Chicago, controlled by a doctor in Japan. Or, better yet, our early terrors about the advent of the automobile, radio waves or even the crossbow (once banned by the Roman Catholic Church).
There are always growing pains with new technology which, unfortunately, mean some people will die. I don't consider deaths and acceptable cost, but people dying rarely prevents the progress of powerful inventions that change everyone else's life for the better.
You can either succumb to fear that growing meat will lead to that impending zombie apocalypse, or realize that while you may never feel comfortable eating meat grown in a lab, your grandkids might think it was weird you killed an animal just to eat meat.
Neither point of view is inherently immoral -- perspective frames everything. We drive 80 mph down the highway without a second thought, crossing the U.S. in less than 5 days -- a trip which, at times, took our ancestors half a year or more.
Let's look at the positive elements of innovation, knowing issues will rise that will have to be overcome to ensure it's as safe as possible for the general populace, but embrace that ultimately it can produce great things for everyone!