Locust powder, robot fridges and test tube beef – is this the future of food?

As BBC reality show Back in Time for Dinner comes to an end, RadioTimes.com talks to historian Polly Russell about what we'll all be eating in ten years time...

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The first series of the BBC’s foodie factual programme Back In Time For Dinner is about to end as the Robshaw family conclude their meal-based time travel experiments by examining how we eat in 2015, and how we might eat in the future. So, RadioTimes.com caught up with food historian Polly Russell to discover what we could be serving up for dinner in ten years time…

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Will our meals really change over the next ten years?

What the show highlights is how much food has changed in the last 50 or 60 years, and how dramatic that change is. From a time where you didn’t have fridges to now… that’s radically transformed.

Why will these changes happen?

The growing population and the planet means a strain on resources, particularly because the western diet is so meat heavy, and that requires a lot of land use, water use, fuel cost. That kind of strain on resources means there are implications on public health and obesity. Thats the landscape we’re going to be living in.

I suspect that there will be increased regulation on the food that we eat, that the public cost of processed food is so enormous you can’t actually sustain it.  That means that it will not be so cheap to eat the variety of food that we’ve been eating, and the costs will start to be borne by the consumer more.

So how will our consumption of food be different?

Technology

These issues will be solved by things like fridges which will tell you what to eat, which will be monitoring what you’ve eaten and suggesting what you should be eating. Similarly, things like packaging alerts will help. If something is going out of date, it will tell you when it’s at its perfect ripeness, so that should have impact on waste and controlling what people are eating. And then at the larger scale of technological changes, there will be things like test tube beef, or instead of farming fish in lochs or in rivers or in seas, there’ll be huge great fish farms, but the fish will be in tanks.

New food 

We have domesticated at least a couple of thousand plant species but actually, half the world’s food calories come from wheat, maize or rice, so although we have a lot of food available to us, we don’t actually exploit the diversity of choice. We might have a more diverse food system which might help with climate change, eating things like algae – which is already popular in Japan – and Giant Swamp Taro, which grows in salty sandy soil in the Pacific and has a very high nutritional content.

Of course, everyone knows about the future of eating insects, and actually insects are eaten by millions of people all over the world but to us they’re abject and weird. It’s a cultural struggle as you can see from the show where we eat them; even though I went into that bit of the experiment thinking, “gosh I understand about food and how it’s all culturally constructed and there’s nothing intrinsically different from a locust to a prawn”, it was bloody hard to crunch down on the head of a locust.

I think probably you’ll see less of people eating locust kebabs or mealworm quiche, but what people are more likely to do is harvest mealworms or locusts which need almost no water use, no land use and have an incredibly low environmental cost. You’d harvest them, dry them, grind them up and powder them and then use them to supplement something like beef. So when you’re making a burger you have some beef mixed with locust powder.

Abandoning food altogether

This idea has its origins in 1950s sci-fi – the meal-in-a-pill idea. We may be drinking Soylent, a drink that replaces all your food. It may be that the fiscal, environmental and health cost of food is so high that perhaps, instead of eating the full variety we eat all the time, we might spend Monday to Friday eating Soylent, which is very cost neutral, but on the weekends we might eat fantastic locally grown food.

Soylent five nights a week? Locust beef burgers? The future doesn’t sound very appetising. Will we enjoy all this?

I don’t think people deriving pleasure from food will go away. We’ve been turned on by the thrill of food for years, and I don’t think that will change. I wouldn’t say food will definitely get worse but I think we will just be forced to make choices about what we eat. Although I have to say, I won’t be dining on Soylent. It tastes like hell, the stuff is vile and I won’t be doing it. I’ll be checking out if it comes to that…

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Back in Time for Dinner’s final episode airs on Tuesday 21st April at 8:00pm on BBC2