As part of its 150th birthday celebrations this year, the British supermarket giant J Sainsbury has released its Future of Food Report, which chews over what our food systems will be like in 2025, then in 2050 — and finally, with an act of somewhat extraordinary ruminating — in 2169.
Some of it reads like a biblical prophecy by 2169, with visions of deserts both on earth and in outer space turning into rich farmland replete with biodiversity and zero food waste. Other glimpses of that distant epoch are a little more jarring, like the matter-of-fact mentions of microchips in the mind, and intravenous drips providing our essential sustenance.
Before exploring those scenarios further and marvelling at how wise those soothsayers at Sainsbury’s are, a brief caveat is needed: the report was predominantly authored externally, leaving the impression that Sainsbury’s cannot quite read its own tea leaves. Four of its co-authors are directors and consultants from a futurology firm called Department 22 — Clare Brass, Dejan Mitrovic, Thomas Leech and Gina Lovett. Another two external contributors are Dr Penny Russell, who dwells mostly on the history rather than the future of food, and James Wong, a TV presenter. The only two Sainsbury’s in-house staffers listed as co-authors are Claire Hughes, Head of Quality and Innovation, who was tapped for that role just last year, and Alexa Masterton-Jones, the Trends and Innovation manager for Sainsbury’s Brand.
Why did Sainsbury’s opt for mostly external crystal ball gazers? Perhaps because near-term headaches are keeping Sainsbury’s very much rooted in the present.
The UK’s third largest supermarket chain is suffering from an anaemic share price and a sense of impasse after its botched merger with ASDA, a rival supermarket chain. To its discredit, Sainsbury’s has also been a relative latecomer to supporting startup innovation, only positioning itself as an incubator of note this time last year. Its Future Brands Initiative is now playing catchup; Milena Lazarevska, who serves as the firm’s relatively new Head of Future Brands Origination and Investing, certainly has her work cut out.
That said, back to the future.
A Foretaste of Food in 2025
A skim through the 2025 section offers no alarms and no surprises to any intermittent peruser of AFN’s newsletter (subscribe to that right here, right now.) Expect hydroponically-grown plants growing in front of you on supermarket shelves. Expect more apps for ordering and delivering food. Expect more ways to access not only its nutritional breakdown, but also its environmental footprint. Expect insects. Expect mushroom-based products. Expect “algae milk.” Expect “seaweed caviar.”
Startups providing good clues to food and farm tech norms in half a decade’s time? The report’s list is limited and shows slapdash homework of global best practices. There’s InFarm, the German hydroponics company; there’s Seed Pantry, which encourages living room-grown vegetables; there’s Algae Food and Fuel, which produces seaweed; there’s the Swiss environmental footprinting calculator app Eaternity; there’s Crops for the Future, the world’s first research centre dedicated to underutilised crops; and the Dutch startup De Krekerij, which makes a signature cricket burger (the bug, not the sport.)
Printing Protein in 2050
It is now 2050 in Cornwall, still presumably part of the UK, but that is not specified. The opening snapshot scenario here is intriguing. For better or worse, here is a vision of a world within 30 years where protein can be printed locally and food production can be tracked in real time globally. All manner of food can be harvested to specific ripeness requirements. A local Cornish printed protein business is described in the scenario as having really taken off “after the decline of abattoirs in the UK in the 2040s. Alongside cultured meat, she offers jellyfish, seaweed and algae, sometimes fresh, but mostly dried and prepared on site and sold as pastas, flakes and powders.”
“At one end of the property is a farm, cultivating plants that will provide the growth serum in which cells are developed. At the other, giant meat-growing vats lead to a small conveyor belt where the meat is “assembled” with 3D printing technology. The artisan factory has a number of its own robots and the only humans involved in the process walk between the belts performing quality control.”
How did that feel to read? Technophobes could be bristling with skepticism. Die hard tech zealots may object that surely this could just as easily be referring to 2040 or even 2030.
There’ll also be invasions of jellyfish. Something to fear? Not at all. Jellyfish can be low on calories; high in vitamin B12, magnesium and iron. Already in the 2010s, a group of Danish researchers under Mathias P. Clausen had managed to turn these jellyfish into french fries.
Then, seaweed again, as though the message was not clear enough in the 2025 chapter. Again, the report cites usual suspects rather than the lesser-known avant-garde in the space. French food business GlobExplore gets a shout out. So does the Chilean company Quelp. which has developed a kelp-based burger. Sainsbury’s, of course, gives its own brand a shout-out. (It’s a product range branded Weed and Wonderful.) But celebrity fisherman and entrepreneur Bren Smith “perhaps shows the most promise” for our diverse 2050 seafood diet, another debatable claim that seems to ignore seaweed farming practices and engineering designs in Asia, Africa and even the Faroe Islands. His company, Thimble Island Ocean Farm, “offers blueprints” for a “sustainable 3D ocean farm.” The aim is to conserve diversity via hyper-local polyculture. This in turn protects coastlines from erosion and storms. True, but the writers of this report need to wade deeper into this sector.
Cultured Meat Culture
Taking their cue from Paul Shapiro’s book — Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World — the report restates what has become a cliched prediction. Namely the global population by 2050 is set to approach 10 billion.
With that, “we could start to see cultured meat shift from an expensive experiment to becoming more of an everyday item. Sainsbury’s could be selling home lab-grown meat kits, which can be picked up from the ‘lab-grown’ aisle.”
The first efforts at lab-grown meats have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in research and development. Yet Israel’s The Future Meat company, the report underlines, claims it could one day put a lab-grown burger “on the table for under £5.”
There are ethical debates raging in this space. The report is right to note this. And these will likely not be resolved by 2050. Will this tech end up in the hands of a few? Or will grassroots-inspired scientists democratise this process? The report applauds collectives like Shojin DIY Meat Community as one possible decentralised model of the future, though that will not be the only cause for concern. “How will plant-based ‘growth serum’ be free from allergens, and how might this be labelled?” the writers of the report astutely ask. “What will the calories and nutritional qualities be of such ‘created’ meat? Will the production process really prove to be as climate-friendly as companies claim?”
If answers here prove unconvincing, this could hinder the uptake of home-cultured meat, fish, eggs or gelatine for decades.
Spicy Surveillance For A Brave New Generation
By 2050, the level of live information about, for example, a carrot, is going to get uncanny. We will be able to pin down the exact moment that particular carrot was planted and when it was plucked. Its individual taste profile will be there to see before you buy or bite. It will be matched to your previous taste preferences, which will be logged and tracked to a similar precision as those carrots. Do you have a high tolerance for sweet or spicy? Your supermarket will know that already. It will accommodate accordingly in the spirit of “ultra-customisation,” where snacks could be 3D printed and made to taste.
This is where that ubiquitous buzzword of today — blockchain — will come into play. It will be deployed to guarantee the quality of that information, both about you and your carrot.
But it won’t just be you shopping — whether that’s perusing the augmented reality shelves, or doing so in person. There’ll also be a bunch of Generation Alphas to watch out for by then. If you think Millennials or today’s Gen Z are social media fanatics, just wait until you encounter Alphas. The chillingly dystopian hierarchical structure of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World may come to mind with the mention of Alpha — perhaps that was the intent for whoever coined the term. But the report gives them the benefit of the doubt as potentially progressive world changers; they will apparently be hooked on wellness and information about their food sources, as well as demanding rich digital usability and transparency for all stages of their shopping process. Gen Alpha “will emerge into a crowded, clever and connected world of superfast digital communication, be better equipped than any other generation to tackle the problems we cannot solve today, with instant access to any information from anywhere across the globe.”
That strikes this reporter as optimistic, as they could just as easily get lost and baffled in a soup of social media polarization, radicalisation, or apathy. An opioid crisis could sweep right through them. Still, let us hope open-source transparency technology could be just as addictive and generationally defining. It is distantly possible that they could be a generation that craves to know farm origination details, batch numbers, factory and processing data, expiration dates, storage temperatures or shipping details. Such an offering is by no means impossible for them technically. In the archaic past of 2016 (from the perspective of 2050) MIT developed concepts for the “Supermarket of the Future” via its Senseable City Laboratory, founded by Carlo Ratti. Equally, The Future Market, a pop-up concept grocery store, shows hints of this technological vision already.
Space Food, 2169
Cut to 2169, 150 years from now. The scenario here is bonkers. But it follows various tropes popular in 20th-century science fiction and various Silicon Valley futurist circles: “She taps her skin twice to switch off the alarm, which notifies her nutrition drip to prepare her breakfast shot, which was dispatched last night from Sainsbury’s in preparation.”
Fanciful? Perhaps the Sainsbury’s part. “Today is the 50-year anniversary of Drawdown,” the scenario continues, “the first mission of robotic farmers to resuscitate the desert, triggering a chain of global rebalancing that reversed climate change.” The shopper then “blinks right to the latest news and closes her eyes to watch the report. The famous scene with the autonomous arm laying the first layer of soil on baking sand, the temperature of the air too hot for humans, fill her with wonder at one of the major feats of humankind.”
The report envisions an agricultural revolution in space. A lucky by-product back on earth is we can rejuvenate barren desert landscapes with the same technologies. These deserts become verdant and bio-diverse ecosystems. These produce enough for everyone. And all by only settling half the earth, on the principle of the biologist E.O. Wilson. The economy is entirely circular. None of the food produced gets wasted.
Present beacons of hope for this distant outcome are Afforest4Future and the Great Green Wall, a line of trees stretching across the Sahara. Other glimmers of hope are seen in today’s saltwater farming techniques. For instance, Charlie Paton’s ‘Sundrop Farms’ which produce tomatoes down under in the Australian outback. There is also Allan Savory’s Holistic Management.
The Full Intravenous Breakfast of 2169
By 2169, personal microchip implants are in our minds. They store and analyse all the genetic, health and situational data recorded from our bodies; we’ll know exactly what we should be eating and drinking at any point. Somewhat creepily, so will retailers. About how or if this would ever be squared with data privacy, the report is silent. Drones will be dispatched automatically on any sign of nutritional need or genetic predispositions. Sustenance could be administered through patches, drips or pills. “Such methods are already being tested today by start-ups such as Get A Drip,” the report notes, “even the US military is developing a Transdermal Nutrient Delivery System (TDNDS).”
Does that sound a little joyless? The report offers a silver lining to a life being plugged into intravenous drips. Micro-tastes and culinary range will widen; since robots are doing most of the work there will be lots of free time to discover these. There will be days where people lay aside their automated implants and simply explore the ancient delights of cooking once more. Celebrations like birthdays “could be bigger and better than ever before.” Clues of this development are, the report’s writers claim, the Slow Food Movement, “which promotes a better way to eat, celebrates rich food traditions and supports biodiversity.” Let’s hope our microchips have a similar degree of patience and reverence for those ancient rituals of AD 2019.