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The future of food: Barbara J King

Categories: Reflections and opinions

From new technology to the next big trends: in an exclusive series of interviews for Borough Market Daniel Tapper asks some of the world’s most respected experts to foresee the future of food

Barbara J King is professor emerita of anthropology at the College of William and Mary, Virginia, as well as the author of How Animals Grieve and Personalities on the Plate: The Lives & Minds of Animals We Eat.

In your opinion, what is the number one food issue facing humanity?
How to support and energise scientists and food activists who are working to create innovative sources of non-meat protein. I try to stay up with developments in ‘clean’ or lab-grown meat which, as The Good Food Institute says, “removes the animal from the equation” and which will soon come into its own in terms of taste. Plant-based foods share the spotlight here, too. Recently I read that we haven’t explored around 90 per cent of the world’s plants for cooking and eating. I love the yin and yang here; jazzy new technology and a straightforward exploration of the natural world coming together.

What scares you most about the future of food?
The knowledge that factory farming is expanding in China and the developing world.

And what are you most excited about?
The ever-expanding range of vegan ice creams, cheeses, and most definitely chocolates, that are on the market. Like other mammals, most of us as adults can’t really digest milk products very well anyway (with exceptions for people whose ancestry comes from dairying populations) so this leads to a double win: for us and for animals. My husband and I are having a vegan ice cream summer, with a series of comparative taste tests, involving as much chocolate as humanly possible week by week. It’s hard work, but someone has to do it. 

Are there any foods that might soon disappear?
Octopuses. Sometimes these ultra-smart cephalopods, some of whom use tools and flash their moods on their skin, are ingredients in a dish. In some restaurants ranging from Korea to LA, they’re served live as a test of a diner’s adventuresome spirit. The octopus’s brain is distributed through his or her body and I can just imagine the pain. People are catching on and in large swathes of the world, this poster animal for thinking-and-feeling invertebrates will vanish from our dining tables.

And what new ingredients do you think we’ll embrace?
Insects, I think. Entomophagy is poised to catch on in a big way—even outside the cultures where it is still popular and even beyond a specialty niche in the West. I’m in two minds about this. The cricket cookies and grasshopper tacos I’ve eaten were good, and let’s face it, we do need to consider all sources of protein for the world’s population now. My hesitation? We’re right back to animal suffering. I still haven’t gotten over watching Andreas Johnsen’s 2016 documentary film BUGS and seeing a termite queen get tossed casually on an outdoor fire. The person who did this commented, “she’s in pain, she’s being cooked alive”—then continued on. That isn’t okay.

What scenario is more likely: Britain goes meat-free or gives-up alcohol?
Neither is likely. Meat-eating and alcohol-drinking are bound up with social rituals that really matter to people. I don’t eat meat and I don’t drink alcohol much, so my further anthropological insights are limited.

Which of the two scenarios would be most beneficial and why?
Any significant downturn in meat-eating would be beneficial for the planet, for our bodies, and for the wellbeing of the other animals who, like us, want to live. I’m often told, well look, animals eat other animals, so we humans are just following our evolutionary trajectory, right? I don’t buy this at all. It’s true that meat-eating played a role in the evolution of our large brains, so good, let’s use those brains intelligently. We have more powers of aware reflection than lions hunting antelopes or chimpanzees hunting monkeys. No need for us to be trapped in past patterns.

Are there any technological innovations that will soon revolutionise the way we eat, cook or produce food?
Circling back to my first answer, I’m incredibly excited by the lab technologies in progress to make delicious plant-based burgers or ‘meat’ products of various types that don’t involve animal slaughter.

Will the average western diet be more or less healthy in 10 years’ time?
May I refocus the issue? It’s crucially important to ask not so much about averages but more so about people who are excluded from getting an average amount—or really almost any amount—of healthy fruits and vegetables. I recently heard the farmer and activist Karen Washington speak about the immense need for better-distributed access to healthy food of course, but also community cooking classes so that people know how to prepare that food. That’s a need across the board, including but not limited to low-income neighbourhoods. If we make serious inroads on this issue in the next 10 years, that’d be a fantastic thing.

Picture yourself in a restaurant 100 years’ from now—how has eating out changed?
Here’s my hopeful vision: almost all kinds of cancer, and many other diseases that challenge us so terribly now, will by then be manageable as chronic illnesses. Restaurant-goers—anyone on the spectrum from healthy to recovering to medically struggling—will be able to input their current nutritional needs and food preferences at a tableside computer. Need to get potassium levels up or bad cholesterol down? Out will come a customised menu with a range of flavourful choices.