The food system is broken. Environmental and economic drivers necessitate that we transform our standards of production and habits of consumption; find new ways to meet the demands of global nourishment. There are solutions – old, new, and emerging – but cultural barriers stall our acceptance of them. To change the way we eat, we need to change the way we think. Open our palates. Tell new stories. Catch adoption up to invention. Consider what new sources of sustenance could mean to our customs and conventions, how they change our relationship with the natural world, and what they mean to us spiritually and ethically. To enact the necessary behavioral shifts, we’ll have to re-evaluate how we interface with our food. Develop a new humanism. Build a future food culture to complement future food products.
Here is how the global food system is broken:
/ Inadequate access to nutritious foods leads to food insecurity, starvation, and malnutrition.
/ Population growth and the rise of the global middle class generates increased demand for meat.
/ Industrial land-based agriculture affects devastating environmental consequences.
Here is how we fix the food system:
/ Create a system to more equitably distribute affordable and nutritious food.
/ Significantly reduce land and energy usage, harmful emissions, and resource wastage from the bi-products of industry to the leftovers on our plates.
/ Find new and diverse sources of nutrition.
It’s hard to argue with the critical nature of these challenges. It’s easy to sense their wicked complexity. Many smart, powerful, compassionate, and moneyed people are working on these issues, and there has been progress – but we’re far from where we need to be. Here, I’ll focus on the third point: new and diverse sources of nutrition, because I believe that within it there is the potential to knock out the other two issues as well. Many alternative (non-meat) protein sources leave a significantly smaller environmental footprint than beef and pork. Some may even have a net positive environmental impact – restoring natural ecosystems, rather than the opposite. Many emerging alternative protein sources also involve cheaper production than today’s industrial farming processes. And, as they’re not reliant on fertile farmland, production facilities can be set up anywhere – abbreviating the supply chain – and thus reducing costs while generating jobs locally.
Means of production this flexible could alleviate the strain on food-insecure regions, including those whose food systems are disrupted by poverty, conflict, or unfavorable climate conditions.
Let’s look at some of the emerging alternative protein sources being suggested as substitutes for animal meat:
/ Crickets and other insects are already eaten in over 70% of the world, and are manifesting in various new product forms.
/ Cultured (or lab grown) meat is showing potential to provide a product just like the real thing, only without the animal and with a fraction of the energy and environ- mental costs.
/ Spirulina and other micro-algae are the most efficient way to produce protein per square meter.
/ Invasive species, such as zebra mussels, are unfortunately abundant, but as some argue: if you can’t beat them, eat them.
/ Fungi varieties are proving not only to be rich in protein, but also to deliver a myriad other health benefits.
/ Seaweed is a nutritious source of protein with a negative footprint; it absorbs dissolved nitrogen, phosphorous, and carbon dioxide from the sea.
With continued investment, the technology to develop and produce these products will scale; the problem is not going to be supply. We already produce a gross overabundance of food that is so egregiously mismanaged that hundreds of millions of people are left under- nourished. Sure, chalk that up to logistical shortcomings or the worst excesses of capitalism. Even a minor reform to food distribution could make the world a fairer, healthier, and less wasteful place. But sadly, a shift to equitable food distribution sits a few notches below mass adoption of lab-grown meat on the index of unlikely food futures. And, while there may be potential to eliminate hunger in the nearer term (the UN aims to eliminate hunger by 2030), that may not hold up as the population grows to over 9.7 billion by 2050. The point is that, while there are potential solutions to the anticipated protein crisis that could satisfy our nutritional, demographic, and environmental requirements, what about the desirability requirement? Before these solutions can scale, we need to first create an appetite for them.
The Problem is Not Supply. The Problem is Demand.
The emerging global middle class wants to eat meat. The biggest barrier to sustainably providing enough nutrition for the world without destroying the environment is that all of those protein alternatives listed sound – for lack of a better word – gross. Who wants to eat seaweed? Does it even qualify as food?
Napoleon once said, “A man’s palate can, in time, become accustomed to anything.” Admittedly, that may have been in the context of war: wounded soldiers in the battlefield scooping spoonfuls of dull grey rice broth, struggling to fend off dysentery. However, that’s sort of how we need to think about the onsetting protein crisis (along with the related energy and climate crises). As in a war scenario, it comes down to survival. In times of conflict, standards are adjusted. The fight for global sustenance will be no different. Will governments implement food rations and institute an alt-protein mandate? Unlikely. War or no war, they’re not taking away our red meat any more than they’re taking away our guns. Like bearing arms, farming and eating cows will be seen by many as a basic right. As has been the case with gun control, a legislative solution restricting diets will not be accepted until the consequences of industrial agriculture are so conspicuous and so tragic that it’s too late. It comes down to communications. Despite what is known about issues at play, changing my eating habits in any significant way is going to take some very persuasive rhetoric. If you want me to eat kelp for breakfast, you better convince me that it’s delicious, or cool, or a superfood, or part of my new holistic lifestyle, or all of the Silicon Valley guys do it.
Sustainably feeding our future will be about branding – setting up the cultural associations, value systems, and sensorial expectations that influence what we eat and how it tastes; positioning strange new meals for public acceptance; making them normal.
Look at farm-to-table, local, slow-food, organic, paleo, and vegan. Each of these movements carries a set of political beliefs, a sense of identity, a feeling of community or tribal belonging, and an aesthetic – things that people can relate to. They’re not diets; they’re lifestyle brands. A matrix of cultural and functional considerations shape our standards of what is edible and enjoyable. These associations are arguably as important as the sensorial experience of eating. Between traditions and trends, abundance and scarcity, status and affordability, health benefits and environmental concerns, every bite is both a trade off and a statement of sociopolitical identity. Part of getting people to change their diets will be about getting them to buy into a lifestyle.
Diners have been won over before. As new protein alternatives are introduced, we’ll need to establish how they exist in the world. Potential protein alternatives may need prettier frames because, right now, they sound less than appetizing. It’s not easy to break old habits, especially when it comes to the foods we’ve grown accustomed to. It takes compelling stories to win over hearts and minds – never mind palates and bellies.
Reason and Rhetoric: Convincing Diners to Change Their Eating Habits
In Harvard Design Magazine, Chef Bun Lai argues that “approaching food without judgment, prejudice, or expectation is essential.” A fine idea, but who among us is really able to suppress our biases around something so visceral? Bun Lai wants to see more chefs making use of invasive species, like Russian zebra mussels, Asian carp, and African killer bees. But surely, they can’t taste great.
“They are gifts to humankind,” he says. “Our palate is simply underdeveloped.”
My palate is underdeveloped, is it? Well. Now that my general sophistication is being challenged, maybe these killer bees aren’t such a bad idea. They aren’t disgusting pests; they’re exotic delicacies. Bun Lai shows how cultural context shapes the way we taste and respond to food with the example of the sea squirt. From Maine to New Jersey along the coast, the sea squirt is known as the scourge of the blue mussel habitat. In the Philippines, it’s a fouling organism and a pest to the shellfishing industry. But in Korea, it’s a delicacy and an aphrodisiac. How does this happen?
Another example: a Mexican delicacy called huitlacoche is actually a pathogenic fungus that infects corn crops; its other name is corn smut. Farmers hate it. But thanks to deliberate efforts from the James Beard Foundation, it has become known as the Mexican truffle. This is what we call turning a defect into a feature.
Story is everything. Just look at superfoods. Sure, there are some berries with unique health benefits, but the idea of a food being considered “super” was invented by marketers. Do they make us actually feel super? Yes, they do, in exactly the same way my Nikes make me a dominant force on the basketball court. Placebos work.
Branding is a way of influencing experience. In the food space, it can make the difference between yuck and yum. I spoke about this idea with Vlad Dascalu, a brand strategist focused on emerging categories. Dascalu helped an insect-based sustainable protein company, Six Foods, express their identity and position their first product. Six Foods makes tortilla chips from a mix of crickets, beans, corn, peas, chia seeds, and flour. The product, called Chirps, contains three times the protein and 40% less fat than potato chips.
Dascalu says, “Six Foods is attempting to introduce insects into western diets by normalizing consumption through a form factor Westerners are already used to.” His brand strategy identifies the biggest hurdle as “the gross factor” and sets its sights on making the brand approachable, educating the markets, and appealing to adventurous foodies. The strategy includes a section called “Lifestyle,” with sections dedicated to Beliefs, Aspirations, and Culture. Dascalu and his clients at Six Foods are helping consumers overcome their reservations about eating insects by associating the brand with a cluster of identifiable cultural ideas and a visual identity that naturalizes what might have been a repulsive product for some diners.
Among the most promising future nutrition solutions are varieties of seaweed. Many predict seaweed to be the next trending miracle food, the kind of thing you add to your smoothie, the biggest product since wheatgrass. GreenWave, a non-profit organization invested in what is being called 3-D ocean farming, is playing with strategies to make kelp desirable. In a New Yorker profile, founder Bren Smith discusses these marketing challenges while wearing a shirt that reads: “Kelp is the New Kale.” Once again, form familiarity plays a role: Superiority Burger in New York City’s East Village makes noodles from Smith’s kelp.
Almost anything we eat has at least some undesirable environmental repercussion. Seaweed, however, absorbs carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and phosphorous from the ocean. It requires no fertilizer, has no freshwater footprint (compared with the 1,800+ gallons needed to produce a pound of beef), and cultivating kelp helps restore ocean ecosystems. To summarize the benefits: rich in minerals and fibers, low in fat, 0% eco-culpability – “part of a healthy and eco-friendly lifestyle.”
The new breed of entrepreneurs and activists at the forefront of food innovation share in common a nuanced understanding of branding. We’re seeing the scientists and engineers behind new food technologies like lab-grown meat and 3D seaweed farming take a preemptive approach, deliberately situating their products within cultural contexts. Before they worry about scaling up production, they’re developing strategies to determine how their products come to life in the world – comparing them to familiar foods, showing people how to cook and eat them, articulating the benefits, and associating them with particular lifestyles. Their technical expertise may be better suited to figuring out supply, but they’re at least as focused on the demand problem, exploring the many ways their products might be perceived.
Ushering new things and ideas into the world should never be taken lightly. Just as intentionally imagining the possible uses and misuses of an emerging technology is a productive and responsible exercise, so is exploring the meanings and social pillars associated with something that doesn’t quite exist yet (or just barely exists). What for now, we’ll call proto-branding should be considered an integral part of the innovation process, and should not be limited to marketers but practiced by all kinds of citizens. The more participatory, the better. Because ultimately, it is about the art of exploring and determining how things exist.