What’s the Destiny of Our Food Supply? We Asked a Food Futurist

The Institute For the Future in Palo Alto, California is home to a few invaluable human beings who have to come up with feasible solutions to combat any crises that the future may bring. We spoke to their "food futurist."
October 6, 2016, 1:00pm

The uncertain future of our food supply can be one of the scariest things to ponder. When it comes to trying to figure out how the hell we are going to feed all 9.7 billion of our estimated selves by 2050, it can be hard to not get overwhelmed.

Nevertheless, someone has to address this dire topic, among many other troubling ones that come to mind when thinking about the global food system. More importantly, someone has to come up with feasible solutions to combat any crises that may arise, as well as imagine the worst possible scenarios and devise their solutions. Enter, then, the thriving career of a "food futurist," a real career that you, too, can someday have if you have a knack for forecasting situations by using a balanced formula that draws elements from the domains of social sciences, public policy, and technology.

READ MORE: Future of Food on MUNCHIES

The Institute For the Future in Palo Alto, California is home to a few of these invaluable human beings who can stay cool, calm, and collected while considering debacles like the utterly destructive effects of farming our seafood or the rainforest-depleting properties of Nutella. MUNCHIES reached out to Sarah Smith, a bonafide food futurist who specialises in research and design at The Institute For the Future, to see what aspects of our food destiny freak her out, what she chooses every day (all things considered), and how you can be an amateur food futurist yourself.

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Sarah Smith. Photo courtesy of Sarah Smith

MUNCHIES: Hi, Sarah. So, what exactly does a food futurist do? Sarah Smith: We help people imagine and think systematically about the future of food. It's not necessarily about getting it right or wrong; our goal is just to explore a wide range of possible food futures. The first and most basic element of future thinking is what we call "signal scanning," which is looking for new things in the world and understanding that if they were to grow or scale, or be distributed geographically differently, how that would impact the future. There is this quote by William Gibson that is applicable here: "The future is already here—it's just not evenly distributed."

There are lots of little bits and pieces of the future all around you, and anything that's going to be really impactful and successful in ten, 20, or 30 years—there's probably already some of it happening today. These will most likely be building blocks for telling a new story for the future. They call this "combinatorial future," where you just combine little pieces of the future that you see today, and it can turn into a new story about what's possible.

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What does it take to be a food futurist? Embracing uncertainty. It's about trying to understand what all these new technologies and innovations mean for real people's lives in the future. It requires a lot of expert interviews, a lot of anthropology-based ethnography, a lot of observations of humans and trying to understand what their values are, especially for people who are doing strange and new things.

At our current rate of fucking things up, how does the future of food look? There are three different approaches to the future. There's the pragmatic, there's utopian, and there's speculative. Each one is good for different things. People will naturally identify more with one of them, but acknowledging this range of approaches that people use to make food decisions [is important].

The pragmatic future is the one heading towards a convenience-driven approach, and that might be for some people who are really busy and might not have a lot of money. I actually think we take for granted how convenient most of our foods are now. Even a loaf of bread—if we had to make that ourselves, nobody would have time to do anything else besides making food. I think some things will get more convenient, and we'll appreciate that.

There's a lot of new science around the microbiome, and the role of bacteria living on and around us. Are we feeding our bodies, or are we feeding our microbial companions?

Utopian futures might look more like a community garden, growing organic food, having shared mealtimes every night. Even if you look at science fiction, utopia is described as total abundance and greenery and lush things everywhere. Speculative ones are a little more out there, speculating about the mystery or the wonder, or on indulgence and creativity.

Why should people start caring about the future of food? People are now reaching an "oh shit" moment, and there are a lot of futures we need to address. We've reached an urgency and a tipping point in the environmental impacts of our current way of producing food. There are so many factors that are connected to our food system, and I think people are realising that food movements are a lever for so many kinds of change. The justice movement is related to equity, and the environmental movement is connected to our planet and climate change.

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When thinking about this future, are there any subjects that freak you out? I don't really focus on the bad, because it would be kind of overwhelming, but sure. Some recent ones are food waste—that's just a huge contradiction. It's such an obvious problem we have to fix. There's so much food going straight to the landfill, and at the same time, there are so many people who don't have access to food.

There's a set of factors—chronic stress, genetics, and access to food—that come together in a trifecta of interpersonally affecting groups of people.

The conversation is also bubbling up now around sugar, as we're seeing the impact of sugary beverages and processed foods. And the impacts it's having on diabetes and obesity rates, especially in low-income communities, is so disproportionate—it's a structural problem of an unequal food environment, and sugar itself is emerging as a culprit.

Then of course, there are greenhouse gas emissions from food production, and animal husbandry and agriculture. There's a lot of new science around the microbiome, and the role of bacteria living on and around us. It impacts how we're able to process nutrients. A lot of the science is early and exploratory, but there seems to be a lot of promise for a paradigm shift in understanding—are we feeding our bodies, or are we feeding our microbial companions?

There's also emerging science about how factors in your genetics, like chronic stress, can impact the way genes express themselves. There's a set of factors—chronic stress, genetics, and access to food—that come together in a trifecta of interpersonally affecting groups of people. We're just now understanding the way our biology and genetics are programmed to react to the food we eat and the environment we're in, and how that connects to how we experience health or disease.

I'm optimistic that a movement toward more awareness can engage a lot of people in helping to create the futures they want to live and eat in.

How can more people get involved and help to create a better future? If you're the CEO of a food company or if you're a local activist, those people need these tools and that framework to imagine future possibilities. I'd encourage anyone reading this to start creating artefacts from the future, and share them on social media, and make that a more common practice.

We're all eaters; we're all the end of the food chain. It all comes back to humans. Seeing more eaters get engaged and interested in this—beyond the stereotypical "California foodie who only eats organic and local"—I'm optimistic that a movement toward more awareness can engage a lot of people in helping to create the futures they want to live and eat in.

Thanks for speaking with us.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Every day this week, MUNCHIES is exploring the future of food on planet Earth, from lab-grown meat and biohacking to GMOs and the precarious state of our oceans. Follow along with us here.