How will we live in 2041? We outline the Netherlands of the future in a series of six articles. How rich will we be? How do we live? How will we work? How societal will we still be? And how will we spend our leisure time? In this second episode we wonder: How will we consume?
Prior to us marveling at the delicacies in the supermarket of the year 2041 with food designer Chloé Rutzerveld, an exciting moment first awaits us behind the one-way gates: the food pharmacy. We deliver a sample of our poop to obtain an update on our health. And we have the chip in our hand, containing our DNA food profile, read to assess the nutritional needs of our body. In exchange we will get the status of our intestinal flora and a shopping list. We pull some shots of personalized powders from the vending machine containing all the vitamins and minerals we need and then we head to the vegetable department. But... where are the vegetables? And where can I find the meat or the bakery? Everything seems to be mixed up here. The supermarket has become one huge, healthy candy shop. Fruit croquettes made of the trimmings of pineapple and melon, snacks containing unsold red beets and oyster mushrooms, freshly baked waffles made of scrapes of turnips - the warm carrot syrup dripping out. Well, at least food waste no longer is an issue. It has appeared to be a no-brainer. Although the population on earth has increased with one and a half billion people since 2021, it doesn't mean we are producing more food. Thanks to free thinkers, such as Rutzerveld, we started to use our imagination.
The supermarket once was a place where remnants were disposed of in containers at the end of the day and where the issue of plastic wasn't addressed very energetically. But in the course of the twenties and thirties, we started to take on our responsibilities in terms of food supply. We are now wandering festival sites with private initiatives and labs in which we grow our own vegetables and produce our own meat. We exchange recipes and taste each other’s dishes at hangouts established for this purpose. ”We, consumers, have started to produce”, says Rutzerveld.
Biological or industrial
We go back for a while before we start shopping in Rutzerveld's magic world. The future of food doesn't look promising in 2021. When we look at the reports of the UN climate panel IPCC and the World Wildlife Fund that are widely recognized by science, there are no more doubts that we are eating our planet and endanger our lives with our agriculture, livestock farming and fishing industry. Will we still light-heartedly eat a meatball in 2041?
“It is not difficult to imagine our future as heaven or hell", says philosopher Koert van Mensvoort of design agency Nature Next Network. “It's all about imagining a world in which you would like to live.” He wonders what our traditions are and how we can transform those traditions with technology into an attractive world. “That could mean we will not start doing things differently, but just smarter. In a mishmash of nostalgia and innovation. In twenty years, we will live better in an old-fashioned way.”
Just take local, chemically untreated food. It has been available for a very long time, but we often overlook it. We do have the convenience box that's delivered at our home address containing fresh local products and recipes that generate more income for farmers in the region. There are self-sufficient communities with community gardens, having a farmer in the role of steward. Still, sceptics such as food scientist Louise Fresco, do not consider biological agriculture as a serious alternative for industrial agriculture, plant-based produce not as a replacement for animal use and costly transport across the globe. We would be unable to feed the entire world. “But why”, Van Mensvoort says, “would a synthesis not be possible? What if we transform chemically untreated into an efficient process? Not by means of our own removal of weed, but by having us assisted by robots? That way, grandmother's quality will also become affordable to James or Mary. By the way, Fresco may not say it out loud, to me she once said that she had it calculated that no less than fifty billion people can be fed this way. Although it helps should we all become vegetarians.”
We have to look at the situation more in the light of history, according to Van Mensvoort. “Every time we believed the earth was full, it appeared that our planet was able to hold even more people. If the hunter-collector needed some acres of land for his family; the agricultural industry scaled up its food supply and industrialization eliminated our fear of ever being hungry again. Unhealthy food is now available round the clock. Time for the next phase: the quality of the past but in a truly efficient way.”
In his book The Wizard and the Prophet (2018) Charles Mann saw two other opposing viewpoints. The ‘prophets’ who respect the boundaries of the earth versus the ‘wizards’ who want to push those boundaries using technology. Van Mensvoort can imagine these two groups working together as a team. What does that look like in 2041?
Our food production in 2041
In the year 2041, we consume locally as much as possible, but we still import coffee, cocoa, avocados, quinoa, citrus fruit and bananas from far away countries. We just don't import these produce any longer, as already determined by the World Food Organization FAO, by getting soy and palm oil from South America and Asia. We turned it around. We help Africa to produce inexpensive food for millions, so a lot more people are able to carry on with the Western way of consuming.
First of all, we abandon our position as second food export country. We cease the export of agricultural dump, of shipping pigs’ ears to China. “At the same time, we climb up the ladder to end up first place in knowledge export”, says Van Mensvoort. “We ask the farmer: what is your product? Pork chops? Or is the product your knowledge, the way you transform soy into a meaty, tasty structure? Knowledge is much easier to disseminate and it earns you more money.”
We are not so much disseminating our expertise in monotonous land cultivation, agricultural chemicals, pigsties. We are disseminating our upscaling which we used to fight our own hunger. We are disseminating our drones in order to work the fields in Africa with precision agriculture. We are disseminating our water management, making our crops more resistant against weather variations and real circular agriculture where smart toilets help to separate urine and feces so the nutrients can return to the fields as fertilizer. Something we are unable to achieve in the Netherlands, we can now realize in Africa.
Meanwhile in the supermarket of 2041
We don't grab a bag of chemical orange carrots from what could be the vegetables department. We cross-pollinate forgotten carrot and turnip species ourselves, back into the original colors. Assisted by farmers, we download a growth recipe of our liking, plant seeds indoors, play with the amount of water, CO2 and light, and influence the taste, shape and nutrients of vegetables and fruit this way. We grow the crops ourselves against walls. The handymen among us take it a step further and play with shapes. They come up with cylindrical eggplants, cubical broccoli and a sandwich tomato with the perfect size and shape for a slice of bread. “No science fiction. Technically, it's already possible”, says Chloé Rutzerveld.
In her book Food Futures, How Design and Technology can Reshape our Food System, Rutzerveld shows how we can bridge the gap between nostalgia and science. “We are already happy to pay for basil plants in jars and squeezing our own juice. That's the way we will also bridge the conflict within ourselves, the gap between the civilian and the consumer that we are both. The civilian who says that he or she wants to eat sustainable and plant-based and is happy to pay a fair price, and the consumer who in practice indifferently grabs the discounted produce.”
To tempt us, for example, to no longer extract proteins from animals but from plants, we tap grass milk at the not-dairy department from a bioreactor in the shape of a cow. Technology can offer us a lot, said the futurologist Kevin Kelly, apart from two things. Trust and stories. The need for this is rooted deeply within us. Trust cannot be downloaded, it's something we have to earn. This can be supported by stories about what we are used to.
So, at the not-meat department, hamburgers made of in vitro meat are growing behind the windows of a snack bar vending machine. We feed meat machines with dough mixtures of algae and slices of belly pork, beef and foie gras made of seaweed are ejected by 3D printers. Do we insist on having a piece of meat for which an animal has been killed? The cultivation box still holds a few containers filled with grasshoppers. The bodies have been blown up to the size of cut-price insects. Legs, wings and antennas have been removed. A bombshell of protein, but it doesn't sell. Human meat is doing a lot better. If there's is a product that has no shortage of supply, it is definitely human meat. We don't eat it on our daily portion of bread yet, it still is something special. We cultivate our own body cells that are growing like a medallion on our body.
At the not-bread department of Rutzerveld we continue to play with the nostalgia of eating and the functionality thereof. “We unravel our daily bread and divide it into elements of joy and feeding. After which we build it into something new again without the disadvantages of old-fashioned production. So, no shiploads of wheat from abroad. We grow cell cultures from waste flows. We mix yeast or sourdough with the personalized powders containing the nutrients we received earlier from the pharmacy into a paste. Then we head to the ovens to turn the mixture into a fresh bread roll. With the crispy crust of a sprout, the cloudy texture of a cake and the juiciness of the inside of a tomato. Finally, the odors and colors of a pair of AR glasses take us back to that one fresh bakery on a little square in Naples.
We don't even pay too much for the modernisms at the checkout. “If we want consumers to act like the committed civilians they are insufficiently”, says Van Mensvoort, “we should not only tempt them, but also reward them.” Why do we earn money felling a tree, but do we have to pay for planting a tree? He came up with the eco-coin. “We add the aspect of the pension fund to consumers. Deposit now, the value later. No animal meat bought today? One coin. Didn't use the car? One coin. Once you saved fifty coins, you gathered enough stamps to get a discount. Just like in the olden days.”