What’s for dinner?
It’s about as fundamental a question as you’ll find in most people’s day-to-day lives.
Oscar Yuan // WTF FOOD
And while the answer can take many forms in terms of the incredible range of cuisines served, whether dinner is eaten as a family around a table, on couches in front of the TV, or on the run to soccer practice, the conversation about food today is much broader. It encompasses topics such as the way food gets to you, how it is grown or prepared and even how it’s packaged or sold.
We can have a discussion about the role of food in our culture, or the options for home delivery or partially prepared meal kits, or the ingredients we use, or the way scientific advancements are shaping the very foods we eat.
If you are reading this publication on your laptop, tablet or phone, chances are pretty good that procuring enough calories every day to survive is not a challenge for you. And while this is still not the case for millions of people on this planet, we have come incredibly far. Not that long ago, the vast majority of human energy was spent in the search for and the cultivation and preparation of food. The answer to “What’s for dinner?” used to be whatever was grown in your garden or on your farm or hunted on your land, prepared in a way that was relevant to your local culture. Now, thanks to technological advances in everything from agriculture to packaging, genomics to transportation, each item on your plate might come from a different part of the globe, brought to you fresh through the complex array of industries that now make up our food supply chain.
As we break bread around the table, scientists are decoding the genome to make crops drought-resistant, chemists are creating better fertilizers, mechanics are fixing tractors, farmers are growing, pickers are harvesting, airlines are ferrying, manufacturers are packaging, bottlers are capping, stores are stocking, chefs are crafting, restaurants are serving, and couriers are delivering all so we can trust that when we reach into our fridge we’ll find something for dinner.
Beneath all of that are the support industries: fuel, marketing, finance, trade, policy-making, manufacturing, hospitality, logistics, communications, technology, housing, storage, chemicals and energy. It’s hard to think of an industry that isn’t directly or indirectly impacted by food. After all, 7.5 billion customers need to interact with these products several times a day, every single day.
That’s all happening today, but what about tomorrow? For as complex and functional as they are, these economies are in the midst of disruption from a number of directions, and that’s what this issue of What the Future is about. We’ll talk about the variety of new ways our food gets to our table and debunk some myths about that table and who sits around it. We’ll talk about changing definitions of terms like “convenience,” “meat” and “sweet.”
Crucially, as we think about What the Future, we’ll talk about how fragile this food economy is. For most, we’ve reached a point of relative abundance, yes, but it’s not necessarily a permanent one. The struggle and race to keep our food supply going is on. Scientists like Pam Roland and organizations like the Good Food Institute are working to ensure that as our climate changes and our planet tries to support the growing population of humans, we will still have enough food to put on the table. Much work is focused on increasing the yield and reducing the water needed to grow crops, while reducing greenhouse emissions and other pollution related to raising animals for meat consumption, and creating healthier products to sustain us as well. Many of these changes can’t come fast enough, as storms become stronger, droughts become more frequent and severe, and the populations that are closer to subsistence-level farming face continued risk. We have to think about food packaging, which must attract customers, of course, but must also protect our food as well as our environment, by being easily reusable. The communications and infrastructure surrounding that “easily” part are critical to our future. And of course, beyond all of these supply challenges, we need to think about the most fickle of human tastes and preferences, around flavors, ingredients and trends.
It’s not an overstatement to say that the work of the virtual panelists in this issue is vital to creating the sustainable, healthy (and tasty!) future we want, and to getting food to you in a way that works with your busy life. And whether you are a food marketer, a logistics expert, a restaurateur, a busy mom or just someone who loves to eat, when it comes to food, What the Future will be absolutely critical. Because the future we need is not inevitable.