Future Food

24. February 2021, MAXFIVE

Our habits in general – and our eating habits in particular – have changed a lot recently, thanks in no small measure to Covid-19. Although our tastes in food are often a matter of, ahem, personal taste, it is also a social and cultural phenomenon. After all, food is something that we all have in common. But whatever it is that we eat, or do not eat, every day we make numerous food-related decisions. So it’s hardly surprising that our cooking and eating habits have changed, given the restrictions imposed upon us by the coronavirus pandemic, the amount of time we now spend working from home and the absence of trips to our favourite restaurants.


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And then there are other factors – such as huge population growth – that will force us to think more carefully about our food and nutrition choices in future. Here too, the coronavirus pandemic has left its mark and clearly shown us the need for European food supply chains to become more sustainable and resilient. While supermarket shelves are full here in Austria, elsewhere there is more hunger than ever and far too many people are suffering from malnutrition. What we need is a paradigm shift.

Heightened consumer awareness is already being reflected in various developments in the food industry. But what do the next few years have in store for us? There are a number of new challenges that we are going to have to tackle as a society, but how will they affect what ends up on our plates?

1. Lockdown Food

For starters, the coronavirus pandemic has changed our eating habits and our relationship to food quite a lot. In many cases, eating is a shared social experience and not just simply about feeding ourselves. But restrictions curbing social interaction have caused us to reassess the value we place on food. Sitting down to eat with friends and family pre-pandemic at home or in a restaurant always had an important social dimension, as it gave us an opportunity to share concerns, worries and moments of joy with one another. But for the most part, this aspect of eating has fallen by the wayside. But in the age of Covid-19 another trend is emerging: as a study conducted by Kulinaria Deutschland e.V. and the rheingold Institute shows, we are buying more convenience products.

A distinct preference for “online food” is also emerging, i.e. people are increasingly turning to the internet to do their food shopping. According to the study, we will be doing 80% of our shopping online within 10 years. And this trend could also extend to the restaurant trade in future. Due to the pandemic, health and wellbeing has taken on a whole new meaning in society and our everyday lives, and this change of mindset will filter through to our attitudes to food.  In future, what we eat will be even more closely tailored to the individual and their specific dietary requirements. Soon, we will be in a position to use apps to send nutrition plans to restaurants, who, upon receiving them, will conjure up personalised meals for us. So food will increasingly come to define us, in a brand new take on the old adage “you are what you eat”.

2. Fake Food: lab-grown alternatives

It’s not just ways out of the pandemic that labs have firmly in their sights: they could soon become key producers of the food we eat. Above all, it’s meat that has been stirring up the food industry in recent years due to a combination of factors: there are more vegetarians, meat has a reputation of being harmful to the environment and sustainability concerns are exposing the issues associated with eating meat. According to a recent study by the Forsa Institute, 52% of Germans go without meat altogether on three or more days a week, putting them firmly in the flexitarian bracket. Meat is increasingly becoming a thorn in the side of the food industry. But help is at hand thanks to a rather unconventional alternative.

For a long time now, it has been plain to see that something has to be done about the amount of meat we produce and eat. And it seems as though Singapore may well have just struck upon part of the solution. The city state became the first nation to approve the sale of laboratory-grown meat for human consumption. The idea behind it all is the brainchild of American start-up Eat Just, Inc., which now has the green light to serve its cultured meat in Singaporean restaurants, where diners can sit down to the world’s first commercially available lab-grown chicken. No cages. No slaughterhouses.

Although the idea might sound strange at first, it actually makes a lot of sense, as changing over to cultured chicken has the potential to cut harmful greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 45%. It also takes pressure off agriculture, given that this production method uses up to 98% less water and takes up 99% less land mass than conventional industrial farming practices. Although this technology is still in its infancy, it will become an increasingly prominent part of our lives in the near future if all the legal wrangling over the frameworks needed to regulate this kind of food production is anything to go by. One thing is certain though: this emerging technology is set to have a greater bearing on the food industry of tomorrow, while serving up interesting new options.

3. Quality trumps quantity

At present, we know only relatively little about the quality of cultured meat. But it is quality that is becoming a more and more important factor when it comes to natural foodstuffs. Regional, seasonal, locally-sourced, fair trade, traceable, organic, sustainable… what we buy has to meet the lofty demands placed on it by consumers. And that is before ethics and any of the moral aspects of food production enter the picture. So it stands to reason that these new quality criteria for food such as regional and seasonal produce are progressively driving sales.  According to the researchers at the rheingold Institute, consumers are showing a very clear preference for regional and seasonal goods, while paying increased attention to sustainability – a shift that the coronavirus pandemic is only accelerating.

You could say that food and nutrition is increasingly becoming a status symbol. This is borne out by the fact that consumers are prepared to spend more on healthier food choices and want to make sure that what goes into their mouths stems from sustainable sources. Until now, this selectiveness has been largely confined to products like coffee and chocolate.

4. The fruits of your own labour

Since it can sometimes be tricky to establish where our food really comes from, as well as the kind of production methods used and how environmentally friendly they were, lots of people – particularly in big cities – are jumping on the urban agriculture and urban gardening bandwagon. On this journey towards self-sufficiency, you always know what you are planting and details of its provenance. From (your own) garden to the dining table, the dream of an urban environment that is in tune with the planet is within reach . The idea is for innovative agricultural concepts to do their bit in terms of climate change, sustainability and sourcing produce locally. From shared rooftop plots, vertical gardens on the facades of buildings, or a mini greenhouse set up in the spare room, there’s no shortage of ways to make our lives a little greener. Here in Vienna, urban agriculture has also started to gain traction: tried-and-tested schemes such as public allotments give city dwellers an easy way to live the dream of having their own garden, while promoting a culture of urban gardening.

Companies are also getting in on the act. IKEA has already identified the potential of indoor home agriculture, developing its own planter series for the home in response. And the experts at IKEA’s innovation lab Space10 are hard at work, too. One of their concepts is the Growroom, which they describe as a hydroculture farm for your own four walls. Or, to put it another way: a free-standing plywood structure for budding self-sufficient indoor gardeners. In-keeping with the IKEA philosophy, anyone can assemble it in just 17 steps, and with all of the open source construction and material plans available online, there are few barriers to making your own Growroom! That said, cutting all the pieces at home does require some sophisticated equipment that obviously not everyone has. But the wider point is that Space10’s concept draws attention to the potential of the kinds of new technologies and ideas that will become a common sight in our homes at some point in the future.

Vertical farming outfit Aero Farms has picked up the local and sustainable production baton and run with it, creating the world’s largest indoor farm in a former steelworks in Newark in the USA. According to Aero Farms, it can produce just shy of a million kilos of food (primarily lettuces) each year, far from the fields, all behind closed doors. The idea behind it is to give children and people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds better access to healthy – and locally sourced – produce. And it’s also good for the environment as farming concepts like this cut water consumption by as much as 95%.

Meanwhile in Belgium, some of the shelves of supermarket chain Delhaize are laden with produce from the stores’ own roofs. The new approach, which is currently being piloted in a handful of locations in Brussels, makes use of the space on top of the stores to grow vegetables which are harvested fresh and ready to sell to shoppers. At the time of writing, around 360 square metres of roof space has been given over to about 5,200 plants. It’s certainly a development that checks all the boxes: local, organic, fresh and healthy, and sustainable on top since there are no longer any transport logistics involved. A trend with a bright future ahead of it?

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