Futuring a Synthesized Food Revolution

There have been many different fictional depictions of synthesized foods. In a world where environmental conditions seem to be pressuring society to rethink the way we live, food has often been a discussion when it comes to alternative ways to satiate our appetites with non-tradition methods of preparing food. From television and movies to children’s books, there have been many examples of synthesized food thinking.

In the television series “Star Trek”, the show portrayed a technology called the replicator, a machine, or more specifically described as a molecular synthesizer and protein sequencer, capable of creating (and recycling) objects. Replicators were originally seen used to synthesize meals on demand, creating any type of food or beverage on command, but in later series they took on many other uses.

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Roald Daul introduced the idea of a three-course meal all packed into a single piece of gum in his book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, 1964. Soup, roast beef, a baked potato and blueberry pie and crème have all been synthesized into a single bit.

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“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” took alternative food sources to a whole new level. An American children’s book written by Judi Barrett and illustrated by Ron Barrett, the book details a bedtime story narrated by a grandfather to his grandchildren, describing the daily lives of citizens who live in a town that is characterized by its strange daily meteorological pattern. This provides the townsfolk with all of their required daily meals by raining food. Although the residents of the town enjoy a lifestyle devoid of any grocery shopping or cookery, the weather unexpectedly takes a turn for the worse, devastating the local community with destructive storms of either unpleasant or dangerously oversized foods. What was once a idealistic vision of food consumption soon becomes a nightmarish circumstance of taking what the citizens had for granted.

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Soylent Green is definitely the most “dystopic” and pessimistic view of where alternative food production could go. The film portrays the future, ironically the year 2000, as a dystopian future suffering from pollution, over-pollution, depleted resources, poverty, dying oceans, and year-round humidity due to the greenhouse effect. Much of the population survives on processed food rations, including “soylent green”. In the end of the film, the main character discovers that soylent green, the ubiquitous and ambiguous patty replacing all other food sources, is in fact people. I would like you, the reader, to imagine what sorts of food technologies could exist to replace “eating people” if we were living in a world similar to the movie’s conditions in the year 2100?

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In the design field, it’s well known that engaging the consumer in a ritual can enhance a product experience. The designer can add indulgence through ritual rather than adding more sugar, salt, and fat. Former FDA Commissioner Dr. David Kessler says that many of the foods created by large food companies today are designed to be irresistible, to provide ideal sensory pleasure through visual appeal, aroma, taste and flavor, texture, and mouth feel to entice consumers to keep coming back for more.”

It has been documented that if a snack contains a variety of contrasting but complementary ingredients, we are likely to consume more of that food. In the case of junk foods, this is a bad thing. However, by combining different healthy foods that Americans don’t get enough of, like fruits and vegetables, into one snack, there is an opportunity to increase their intake. Visualizing taste and nutrition matters the most.

Another opportunity for designers to influence people’s eating habits are through nudges. A “Nudge” is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic options. Nudging can attract our attention and alter our decisions. People have the ability to respond to nudging, whether that is to respond to the nudge or choose to ignore it.For most of us, self-control issues arise because we underestimate the effect of arousal. How can we promote investment goods (eating healthy, exercising, etc.) and discourage sinful goods (junk food, smoking, drinking alcohol, etc.)?

How can these sociological and design approaches be used to make food technology approachable, nutritious and promote investment goods? In the next upcoming slides, I will pose a series of images and questions of where design and technology could go to address many of the societal issues we currently have with the way we consume and manufacture/farm food, and how they could be altered in a synthesized food revolution.

 

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What if 3D printing became so advanced that we could print fruits and vegetables? Organic, healthy, nutritional food could be printed for the same cost as a donut or cookie. Designers could use the advance in technology to make healthy options as desirable as possible, mix and matching textures, colors, etc. How would our landscape look if a big mac cost the same as a delicious, seasonal cob salad?

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What if farms, slaughterhouses and excessive agriculture was replaced by food printing labs?

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What if 3D printing technology was so advanced that we could print food architecture the same way current companies in China 3D print concrete houses? You could live in a home made completely of cheese, which would provide meals and over time disintegrate and be completely removed from its space, leaving the land to be rebuilt upon instead of demolishing brick and steel structures.

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It may seem really foreign and uncomfortable to eat genome sequenced, artificially printed foods that is societally accepted, but is it any stranger than the artificial and synthesized foods we already seemingly consume without fear? A Twinkie will take centuries to decompose, a famous example of food that isn’t actually “real food”.

 

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There is a lack of transparency and trust when consuming food. Often times, it seems that when eating processed foods, ignorance is bliss. Could food technology take advantage and change this approach to eating, or would it become even more heightened?

 

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If we could print all of our meat, then there would be no need to farm livestock, which in turn would reduce CO2 emissions substantially. “Soylent Green is people!” isn’t so farfetched when humans are already consuming bio-augmented, penicillin injected fattened, featherless chickens and are being fed cows that were fed remnants of other cows during the mad cow disease outbreak.

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Printing food that looks desirable and delicious, but is actually nutritious and healthy could help rid the world, particularly the United States, of the obesity epidemic. Instead of going to a fast food chain because that is the only affordable option for a lower class family, you could now print an kind of vegetable for the same price.

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Printers could come into the average household, replacing the kitchen and ushering a new movement away from the stereotypical, stay at home mother.

These may seem like farfetched, unapproachable questions and situations, but with the amount of ambiguous food already out there in people’s daily lives, this may be the solution to combat a lack of transparency in the food market. If the world’s over consumption and production rate continue to balloon, leading to devastating environmental impact, bioengineered animals raised to be slaughtered, and larger cost disparity between junk food and “organic” food, then perhaps considering a synthesized, artificial food future may not seem like such a horrendous idea.

 

Bibliography

“How Design Can Help Kids Eat Their Broccoli”, Joey Zeledon, Smart Design, February 17, 2015 : http://smartdesignworldwide.com/news/food-product-design-how-design-can-help-kids-eat-their-broccoli/

“The Dystopian Future of Food: How Close will Reality be to Science Fiction?”, Alice Barsky,  https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2015/10/the-dystopian-future-of-food-how-close-will-realit.html

“Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness”, Thaler, Richard H.,(Introduction + chapters 1-5), February 24, 2009.

“Star Trek Replicator”,  Youtube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jyMYKWIAR5s

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