Food Futurism

By: John A. Lanier

If I had to guess, there is one category of science fiction technology that will come to fruition in my lifetime, and it’s of a type that might surprise you a bit. I’m talking about food.

Photo Credit: ASDA Good Living - Jabba the Houmous.

I love science fiction. Many of my favorite novels are some of the most popular, like Dune and Ender’s Game. Oldies-but-goodies like the Foundation Series are on the list, as are newer works like The Martian and The Expanse series. Longtime readers also know my great love for all things Star Wars, and I’ve even become a fan of the recent Star Trek films that have come out. And heck, I was born in the years when The Jetsons was rebooted, so I grew up watching science fiction cartoons.

Often, when we think about science fiction stories, our minds go to the amazing technological innovations that are commonplace in the stories. Things like fusion reactors providing near-limitless energy, laser-based weaponry, intragalactic travel that warps the space-time continuum, and artificial intelligence that allows robots to be not only tools, but companions. Many science fiction technological developments are outright impossible, given the laws of physics as we know them. Others may be achieved some day, but clearly on a scale of thousands of years (for instance, I don’t think humans will be building a Dyson sphere anytime soon).

If I had to guess though, there is one category of science fiction technology that will come to fruition in my lifetime, and it’s of a type that might surprise you a bit. I’m talking about food. No, not those freeze-dried strawberries that you can buy from NASA. I’m talking about cellular agriculture.

In most science fiction stories, the future of food is some lab-created substance, seeing as it would be hard to farm in the desolate wasteland of empty space. In nearly every story I’ve read or watched, food is just easy - pop a pill here or suck down some nutrient-rich goop there. I know it sounds less-than-appetizing, but spacefaring people can’t be picky. Here on earth though, we can be picky, but that hasn’t stopped researchers and companies from trying to pioneer lab-created food.

Now let me be clear before going on - this is not an endorsement of this field of research and entrepreneurship. I see the arguments for and against what I’m about to write, so the intent of this blog post is to simply talk about an emerging field that has implications for the environment. Thus, please don’t ascribe any particular opinion to me here, as I honestly don’t yet know what I think about cellular agriculture.

The idea is fairly simple. Folks are trying to figure out if they can create cell cultures in labs that they can grow into functional equivalents of foods that we eat today. While similar to some genetically modified (GM) foods that exist on the market today, the field is still different. For instance, the Impossible Burgers that you can get at many restaurants or grocery stores use GM technology and plants like soybeans to create plant-based foods that just happen to taste like their meat-equivalents. Cellular agriculture companies, on the other hand, are trying to create actual meat, by growing it in a lab instead of raising livestock.

Admittedly, I’m not aware of any companies that are “there” yet, at least commercially speaking. But the economic and environmental allure makes sense. Cellular agriculture, at least in theory, would be much more resource and cost efficient than conventional agriculture (particularly when it comes to animal protein). Basically, it has the potential to get the same output (the food we want to eat) without the same scale of inputs (water, feed, fuel, etc.) that conventional agriculture requires. Environmentally, the benefits are similar - we might be able to get more food with less land use, less water use, less waste, less energy, and fewer carbon emissions.

If nothing else, it’s a field to watch. And we aren’t just talking about alternatives to meat here, as people are working on cellular agriculture for dairy, eggs, and even coffee. Sooner rather than later, we could see this form of science fiction become a reality.