The way we eat is changing. And that’s a good thing.
Food systems leave a major mark on the environment—from agriculture utilizing half of the world’s habitable land and the majority of its freshwater, to livestock production generating 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions. With the global population expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050—that’s two billion additional mouths to feed—the world will need to ramp up food production by around 70 percent.
Meeting that demand in ways which are gentle on the environment is one of the most pressing challenges for society today. Scientists, horticulturalists, and chefs who care about feeding the world and doing it sustainably are taking steps to develop environmentally conscientious growing practices and food products. The trails they’re blazing around the globe will shift not only how we cultivate our food, but also what ingredients we’re piling onto our plates.
Today is a day to be especially excited about the innovations and solutions helping us build more sustainable—and hopefully more delicious—food systems for the future. In honor of Earth Day, here are some of the trends shaping what and how we eat.
1. We’ll see agriculture take a (literal) high-low approach
If the food industry learned anything from the Covid-19 pandemic, it is just how fragile the foundations of food production can be. Systems that depend less on manual labor and weather conditions are more likely to be sustainable and resilient. One solution? Raising crops indoors, even in urban spaces, with a little help from high-tech.
Vertical farms around the world are planting onward and upward. These environment-controlled nurseries grow crops in stacked layers, utilizing technology like hydroponics and aeroponics to eliminate the need for soil or sunlight, while artificial intelligence tailors parameters like humidity and temperature to optimize climatic conditions for each crop. Compared to traditional row farming, vertical farms produce a higher crop yield with less space requirement. Willo, a San Jose-based company that delivers vertically farmed produce directly to paying subscribers, will soon release a mobile app in 2022 that enables members to curate and monitor the crops they want Willo to grow on their plot. On the opposite coast, the direct-to-consumer subscription-based Farm.One, which delivers fresh greens from its vertical farms in New York City to customers on a weekly basis, has plans to expand to other cities this year. In Copenhagen, Nordic Harvest employs wind energy to grow carbon-neutral greens and herbs in Europe’s largest vertical farm. Even Iceland (where only a small percentage of the land is considered arable) is sowing skyward: the vertical farm VAXA grows a variety of greens and herbs just 10 minutes from the heart of Reykjavik.
While some cities are planting up, others are planting down. Abandoned subterranean spaces can (surprisingly) be the perfect home for seeds to blossom. In France, Cycloponics is cultivating drought-resistant vegetables and mushrooms hydroponically in unused Parisian parking lots below ground, where temperatures tend to remain steady and energy-efficient LED illumination takes care of crops’ light requirements. Growing Underground in London carries out similar methods in a World War II air raid shelter, situated 33 meters underfoot.
2. We’ll be eating more meat from labs, not lots
Eaters of the future may not have to entirely give up the taste of meat in order to go meatless. Researchers around the world are working to develop lab-grown meat—that doesn’t require any animal pens. Unlike plant-based alternatives such as Beyond Meat, cultured meats are grown from cells taken from live animals, in a process that does not involve slaughtering the animal. Though it will certainly take time for lab-grown meat production to rise to the scale of the livestock industry, Singapore is one country leading the efforts.
In December 2020, the Singapore Food Agency became the world’s first regulatory body to approve the commercial sale of lab-grown meat. Later that month, cell-based chicken from San Francisco-based Eat Just appeared on the dinner menu at the restaurant 1880 in Singapore. Cultured chicken was also served at one of the country’s famous hawker stalls, Loo’s Hainanese Curry Rice, for the first time earlier this year in a partnership with Eat Just’s GOOD Meat.
3. We won’t just be breathing air—we’ll be eating it, too
It’s hard to imagine any food more futuristic than one created from nothing. That’s the mission of Finland-based startup Solar Foods: to produce protein from little more than microbes and air. According to the company’s website, “We feed the microbe like you would feed a plant, but instead of watering and fertilising it, we use mere air and electricity.” Air supplies the hydrogen and carbon that allow the microorganisms to grow and multiply in a bioreactor—producing protein. Once the protein is dried, what remains is a powder that the company calls Solein, and its nutritional profile is similar to that of soy- and animal-based proteins. Commercialization isn’t slated to begin until 2023, but the technology has already caught the attention of a high-profile agency: NASA recently recognized Solar Food in the Deep Space Food Challenge, a competition that challenges innovators to devise minimal-waste food production solutions.
Another startup pulling protein from the atmosphere is Air Protein, a California-based company converting oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide into protein through a fermentation process that deploys probiotic cultures. The resulting protein-rich flour is then combined with other ingredients and flavors to create food products that approximate meats like chicken and beef—though few people outside the company have tasted them so far. If you’re curious, you won’t have to wait long; once approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Air Chicken” could hit a supermarket near you as early as next year.
4. We'll continue to move vegetables to the front burner (and fire pit)
It’s no secret that if we all ate a little less meat, we could collectively make a significant dent in global carbon emissions. Some of the world’s most recognizable tastemakers are leading by example to inspire others to tweak their diets.
In 2022, three-Michelin-starred Copenhagen restaurant Geranium, which currently ranks number two on the World’s 50 Best list, stopped serving meat products. Chef Rasmus Kofoed himself stopped eating meat five years ago and recently decided to shift the focus of his restaurant to vegetable-centered offerings (though some seafood dishes remain on the menu). New York City’s three-Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park also made headlines when it famously reopened as plant-based in June 2021.
Even Francis Mallmann, the famed chef known for utilizing Patagonian fire-cooking methods to scorch and smolder meat, is turning his attention to the world of plants. In his upcoming cookbook Green Fire, Mallmann teaches us how to invigorate vegetables and fruits with spices, garnishes, and his signature live-fire char.
5. We’re refreshing spirits with more sustainable production methods
The cultivation of cereal crops like wheat and barley, which are used to distill spirits, usually leans on synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, which not only undermine water and soil quality but also require extensive energy to produce. Peas, however, grow just fine without these fertilizers. In search of a climate-friendlier way to distill liquor, Arbikie Highland Estate in Scotland figured out how to concoct gin and vodka using the legumes as a starch source. What’s more, the farm turns any residual waste from the pea crops into high-protein animal feed, an upcycling practice that can diminish the amount of carbon emissions originating from feed production.
Also thinking outside the bottle is Endless West, a California startup that aims to reduce the amount of resources and time required to make liquor. Instead of distilling grains into alcohol, the company harnesses technology that pulls molecules from various plants and yeast. The end results are whisky, bourbon, and scotch—minus the barrels and aging time.
In the winemaking process, the pomace—unused parts of the grape, like skins and seeds—typically get tossed. But one maker’s waste is another’s treasure. Discarded Spirits, a beverage company in the U.K., repurposes those leftover bits by turning them into vodka. The company also recovers cascara (the husks of coffee cherries) to make vermouth, and transforms banana peels into rum.
6. We’re regreening the desert—and transforming sand into fertile land
The UN’s Great Green Wall is helping African countries curb desertification. First launched in 2007, this initiative originally aimed to plant a 5,000-mile belt of trees stretching across the continent, to regreen the land and shield it from the winds whipping Saharan sands southward. But the program has also pivoted to focus more on introducing smaller, community-based projects that impede land degradation, revive crop cultivation, and improve food security in vulnerable areas. In Senegal, for example, trees are being grown in strategic circles to maximize water retention and species survival. The initiative is also providing seeds to local farmers in the Sahel and Horn of Africa regions and teaching them how to incorporate the benefits of trees into their farming practices. In Burkina Faso and Niger, farmers have already successfully regenerated vast expanses of arid space as productive farmland. One innovation that’s bolstering the fight against desertification is Liquid Nanoclay, a mixture of water and clay created by Norwegian agri-tech company Desert Control for spraying on sand to improve water retention and soil fertility. The startup has transformed desert areas in Dubai into agricultural land.
7. We’ll be looking at packaging for more than just the ingredients
Labels on packaged foods at the grocery store are nothing new, but going forward, they could announce not only the foods’ nutritional value but also their environmental impact. Last year, the non-profit organization Foundation Earth launched a pilot test in the U.K. introducing color-coded eco-labels that invite shoppers to consider a product’s environmental footprint. Chains like Sainsbury’s, Costa Coffee, and Marks & Spencer participated in the experiment. The foundation plans to unveil an eco-score system in 2022 that can be used across Europe. Similar ratings will likely appear in more restaurants soon, too (Chipotle already lets customers who place digital orders track how sustainable the ingredients are).
And speaking of dining out, you should expect to see fewer and fewer single-use containers in your food deliveries. In New York City, a company called DeliverZero enables eateries to dispatch deliveries in reusable containers that can be returned to any of almost 150 participating restaurant partners. On a smaller scale, Parisian eatery Rose Kitchen in the Marais started offering delivery in stackable metal containers (inspired by lunch tins from the owner's native Thailand) earlier this year, which regulars can now buy and bring in to be refilled—a small gesture that, when adopted by many, can make a significant and meaningful impact.