PONDERING THE FUTURE OF FOOD
By Eva Perroni
I spent the first five months of this year in the grand ol’ US of A interning at a food think tank and writing about the global food system. The most interesting observations about food that I made, however, were right around the corner at the local Safeway supermarket. Needing to pick up a single spice for lunch that day, I found myself stumbling through a manufactured maze of processed products, alien in character and downright baffling in concept. When did the world decide that an aerosol can would be the best delivery vehicle for liquefied cheese? Or that sausages should be stuffed on a stick and wrapped in a chocolate-chip pancake?
Amazed by the colossal amount of mass-produced goods (the modern American supermarket has on average 47,000 products), I came across what was for me previously uncharted supermarket terrain, an aisle entitled Dinner/Entree. Located deep in the interior of the supermarket, a double aisle of freezer cases housed an array of ‘dinner’ options – of the frozen, heat-and-eat variety.
Frozen meals have long held a sentimental spot in the American diet. Starting with the iconic TV-Dinners of the fifties and sixties, the frozen dinner has progressed through a number of makeovers, taking on more ‘airline-type’ features during the seventies, a diet- or health-orientation during the nineties, and now many ethnic or regionally flavoured ‘crossovers’. Sophisticated manufacturing technologies have offered packaging innovations, with companies developing designs that allow microwave meals to ‘brown and develop tasty crusts’ or heat the meal through evenly without the need to stir mid-way through microwaving.
Despite their cultural connotation, sales of frozen dinners have actually declined over recent years, it seems that ‘nuking’ has lost its popularity as a preparation method. Mirroring the re-design of box cake mixes to include a single egg, frozen ‘skillet meals’ and bagged products for in-the-oven preparation have been designed to allow consumers to partake in some of the meal making. In a similar vein, shelf-stable meals, either complete in themselves, or simply augmented by the addition of a protein and/or vegetables, are gaining popularity as meal ‘solutions’.
What are they solutions to? A rapid decline in cooking skills. Food marketers and researchers say that despite the desire to cook, the cooking skills of Americans have declined expeditiously. What was just a generation ago a part of daily life is now in danger of becoming a lost art. As more and more homemade meals are being replaced with their highly processed convenient counterparts, supermarkets are fostering a cooking-illiterate culture.
Whilst different patterns of food consumption and preparation are in a large part due to changing consumer demographics and lifestyles, supermarket culture has had a phenomenal effect on cooking competence. The rapid rise of food retailers has had parallel effects across the food supply chain. As more people leave the kitchen, so too are small business owners like butchers and bakers forced to close up shop whilst independent family farmers leave their land in droves. And these trends are not limited to the US, they are occurring worldwide.
As less and less people are tangibly involved in food and agriculture and fewer firms increasingly control the marketplace, what might happen to the future of food? I used to imagine a dystopian food-future in which meals would be replaced by powdered concoctions of chemically engineered combinations of vitamins of minerals, until I realised that such a product already exists. It’s called Soylent.
Already our food choices are becoming increasingly narrow, even if the illusion of choice is there. Large retailers will argue that thanks to supermarkets our food choices have expanded since our grandparents’ day, and they have; the chances now of sitting down to a meal of boiled mutton and turnips is fairly unlikely. The choice, however, between Dorito’s 3D ‘Ranch Dipped Hot Wings’ or ‘Bacon Cheddar Ranch’ flavoured tortilla snacks is not a real choice when it comes to ingredients, quality, or nutrition.
Many food forms being developed for the future don’t even exist yet. Personalised 3D printed food with custom-designed flavours, colours and shapes are already being trialled. Meat grown in test tubes and an increasing portion of our protein requirements coming from insects are a (likely) possibility. Already a commercial version of an app-controlled robotic kitchen equipped with an expanded repertoire of meals is set to debut in 2018. As food has transformed so radically over the last two generations, so much so that our great-grandparents wouldn’t recognise most of the products in a modern supermarket, will food continue down a path of technological transformation so that we won’t be able to recognise it in 20 or 30 years time? Will the skills imbued in the growing, preparing and sharing of food that have been cultivated over generations become irrelevant, or worse, lost? What may seem unimaginable now – meat from a petri dish or robots cooking us dinner – could very well be genuine possibilities in the future.
Eva Perroni is an activist-researcher and writer focused on creating a more just and sustainable food system.