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Ants, Seaweed, Chocolate Beer And (Maybe) Less Meat: The Future Of Food

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Over the millennia, our ancestors continuously developed new techniques and technologies that enabled them to find, eat, and cook meat and plants — and in coastal populations, marine resources, too.

At the same time, archaeologists tell us that our species has had at least a "9,000-year-old love affair with booze," as National Geographic puts it, with ancient prowess in making wine and beer. (Some anthropologists suspect a much longer history of alcohol consumption in our primate ancestors, in the form of readily available fermented fruits.)

In what directions will humans' signature innovation and versatility lead us in the future, regarding eating, drinking, and cooking?

This question is at the heart of British food writer and brewery owner Daniel Tapper's new series of blog posts for the magazine issued by London's Borough Market — a market located near London Bridge with a 1,000-year-old history of its own.

I'm attracted to this mental exercise because — just like it's always been throughout our evolution — it's our ability for innovation that will help us cope with coming challenges in food security, sustainability, and ethics. Tossing around ideas and predictions is a way to jumpstart that process.

So what are people saying to Tapper about the future of food?

Norwegian chef and hygge mentions entomophagy: In 100 years, she says, we'll think nothing of eating ants.

British chef and writer Florence Knight envisions a turn to "wild food," that is, foraging for wild ingredients. And we'll be eating much less fish: "The treatment of our seas is heart-breaking and I'm pretty certain that by the time my children grow up, seafood will be a rare delicacy."

Dan Hunter, a chef from Australia, is optimistic about plant-based diets:

"We are slowly beginning to realize that there are other forms of protein out there that aren't sourced from four-legged animals and that don't require huge amounts of water and feed to grow them. I can definitely foresee growing numbers of people adopting plant-based diets that are healthier and more sustainable."

Hunter's comments mesh well with my own replies to Tapper's queries , because I focused on how we can collectively support the quest by scientists and food activists to create non-meat protein including "clean" or lab-grown meat.

Writer and restaurateur Tim Hayward, however, when asked by Tapper if Britain would ever go meat-free, said it was an "absurd" idea. "You would have to eat a shed load of grass before you got half the nutritional value of meat — and we simply haven't got time for this." (I'd like to talk to Hayward about plant power!)

Fueled by concerns about food and the environment, musings about the future of food are increasingly visible in the media (as well as in academia). In The New York Times, American chef Dan Barber writes about the need to diversify our farming — planting more beans, barley, and cabbage instead of just more and more corn, for example — and move away from monoculture.

As NPR reported earlier this year, artist Allie Wist created a marriage of art and science to create a fictional dinner party menu for "a time when climate change has significantly altered our diets." The dishes feature a lot of seaweed and items like a pudding made with carob and algae.

Pleasing our palates matters too, right alongside addressing serious environmental issues. That brings us back to ants, plant power, and fake meat: All those foods will have to taste good for people to embrace them in large numbers. As I told Tapper in the interview for Borough Market, at my house this has been a summer of experimenting with vegan ice cream — and I'm having a blast finding out that my own sense of ethics and of delicious taste co-exist.

Earlier this month, I turned the tables on Tapper, and interviewed him. He's created some cool-sounding beers in recent years, including — with a nod back to Knight's wild foods — what he calls "a sour beer brewed with raspberries foraged around the Yorkshire countryside." As a chocolate fiend, it's the beer he's currently creating that I'd most like to sample: a "chocolate and coffee imperial porter brewed with hops grown in Borough Market's entrance."

What about the future of beer? Here's Tapper's vision, edited for length:

"Beer is, by definition, a very simple drink comprised of malted grain, water and yeast. Hops are a relatively recent addition. Therefore, I don't expect beer will be unrecognizable in 100 years' time. But I do think there will be a revolution in the way we brew, particularly when it comes to efficiency.

Currently, the energy consumption of a brewery is around 0.2 kilowatts per bottle of beer, equivalent to powering a TV for over three hours. As for water, it can take up to 300 liters to create just one liter of finished beer. Finally, the majority of leftover ingredients — mostly hops and barley — end up in landfill. This obviously isn't sustainable and I believe that consumer pressure will force brewers to change their ways.

In fact, we're already starting to see this with breweries like Sierra Nevada, which diverts almost all of its solid waste away from landfill, and Northern Monk in Leeds, which creates a beer made with surplus food sourced from local restaurants."

I find these future-of-food-and-drink conversations to be as addictive as chocolate.

One thing I do hope we collectively talk more about is unequal access to the innovative food products and trends that chefs, writers, and food activists are excited about.

As Alice Barsky writes in Paste magazine:

"From Soylent delivered via an Amazon subscription to the ubiquity of Whole Foods stores to the farm-to-table movement, much of what is touted as the future of food in America already seems accessible only to the well off."

At the Reducetarian Summit that I attended in New York City this past May, panelists did talk about issues of economic power, inequalities, and community engagement around healthy food and food preparation.

Here is a crucial conversation for our brains to put front and center in our forward evolutionary trajectory around food.

Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about the cognition, emotion and welfare of animals, and about biological anthropology, human evolution and gender issues. Barbara's new book is Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.