Envision browsing your local supermarket shelves and adding to your basket vitamin-enhanced potatoes, allergen-free nuts and cancer-fighting bananas. Sounds pretty cool, right? Now, what if I told you that organic produce is a trend of the past and that the new wave of health and wellness food is genetically engineered?
Evolving from conventional breeding and crossbreeding, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), also known as genetically modified food or genetic engineering, means that we now have the ability to insert a specific desired gene from one organism into another, giving a whole new meaning to the term ‘superfoods’. But what does genetic engineering really mean, and how could it alter the future of our planet?
The potential for genetically engineered food is huge, especially as modern climate is becoming increasingly unpredictable. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 70 per cent more food will be required by 2050 in order to keep up with the demands of a growing population, but at the same time, climate change is putting increasing pressure on the agriculture industry, making much of the world’s arable land difficult to farm efficiently. This is where genetic technologies can step up to help reduce the negative impact the agriculture industry has on our planet, thereby making our food figuratively greener.
The CRISPR strategy has revolutionised genome engineering, allowing scientists to change any chosen letter in an organism’s DNA code—basically cutting-and-pasting it to enhance the genetic code of crops or livestock. While the possibilities for this technology are endless, the most realistic and useful benefit is the use of CRISPR to advance the efficiency of crops that are consequently able to produce more food per acre, while simultaneously packing in more nutrients and sequestering more carbon.
Another exciting technology created by the company Apeel keeps produce fresh through plant-derived coatings that create an optimal microclimate inside the treated produce. The benefits of this include extended shelf-life, transportability and reduced reliance on refrigeration and controlled atmosphere. By developing the ability to retain moisture and keep oxygen out, Apeel slows the rate the product spoils thus tackling the issue of food wastage and delighting millennials everywhere with avocados that maintain double the normal ripeness window, from two to four days.
The US-based company Calyxt also looks at the positives of genetically modified foods, but focuses on functional foods that are edited at a molecular level to remove unhealthy parts and boost existing nutritional benefits with no added chemicals or foreign substances. In 2019, Calyxt debuted its first gene-edited soybean oil, which has fewer saturated fats than your typical vegetable oil and zero trans fats, and in 2022, it hopes to launch a high fibre wheat flour with three times more dietary fibre than standard white flour.
The exponential possibilities of these innovative and exciting technologies are driving through a new way of looking at food production and consumption that confronts both environmental and health issues; two key conversations in modern society. Yet, despite the clear scientific backing, the idea of genetically modified food, or ‘Frankenfoods’ as they are sometimes referred to, still provokes considerable backlash.
New diet trends and the growing popularity of veganism, health food stores and wellness bloggers have created a general consensus that raw, natural and organic is best, with plenty of scaremongering around the concept of genetically modified foods. While this fear is neither unwarranted nor irrational, with the impending need to feed a growing population in a sustainable way, these two opposing approaches may need to find common ground for the sake of the planet. By reducing pesticide use and producing disease-resistant, healthier crops, organic agriculture and genetic engineering can surprisingly agree on shared goals that aim to benefit both people and the planet.
To date, not a single case of compromised health can be attributed to genetically modified foods and as recently as 2016, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) issued a report stating that they pose no health risk to humans, reaffirming reports from multiple leading scientific institutions.
In order to advance sustainable agriculture, the debates that dominate this field need to be based on facts over fears, and rather than sweeping generalisations over all aspects of genetic engineering, an open mind is needed to envisage the potential solutions to environmental issues and the future of the food industry. Are you ready to add ‘Frankenfoods’ onto your plate?
The food industry has been undergoing monumental changes in the past few decades—new technologies were implemented, even into the way we cook, produce and buy food. Climate change pushed more and more people to watch out for how much meat they consume, which then made becoming a vegetarian or vegan extremely trendy. This created a growing need for plant-based ‘meats’ and non-dairy products.
Along with these shifts, a new term appeared in the culinary world: ‘digital food’. It’s here, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to vanish anytime soon, so you better get used to it. But what exactly is digital food, and what changes will it inspire in the ever-changing industry that is the food sector?
First of all, let’s start by clarifying something: digital food and new technologies being used in the daily operations of food companies are two different things. New technologies meant that manufacturing processes were upgraded and started producing more food at a faster pace. But digital food is something else entirely. With social media came the recent boom in online food-based media, which completely changed the way we look at food online and seek out new recipes, restaurants and reviews.
We began craving new flavours from different countries, but it went even further than that. From sharing images of food on Instagram to augmented reality (AR) filters that shape our faces into a peach or a tomato or any food you can think of, it seems that the term ‘digital food’ still has many meanings and, therefore, that there is no general consensus on its definition. Why is it not clearer? Because digital food is so recent that it is still in constant change. In other words, digital food is the future but no one can tell what the future holds.
Forget about the Instagram face, the new trend involves face filters that either allow you to look like your favourite food or make photo-realistic 3D food models appear on your camera. Not only can you look like your favourite kind of bubble tea, but you can also help reduce food waste by playing with food digitally. Because, let’s be honest, who hasn’t tried the Greggs face filter that lets you know which Greggs product you are?
Screen Shot spoke to Clay Weishaar, also known as @wrld.space on Instagram, the AR artist specialising in food filters, about our new obsession with food, especially on social media, and why his designs mainly focus on digital food, “Food culture has always been a big subject on Instagram. So has fashion. This has really inspired me to explore the idea of food as fashion. I loved the idea of people wearing their favourite food. With augmented reality technology we have the ability to do this.”
This can explain the kind of feedback that his Instagram filters received: “I am a huge foodie myself. Combining food, fashion and technology was a sweet spot for me. I think the reason my filters have almost 2 billion impressions is that food is something people identify with. It’s a universal subject, and it is what brings people and cultures together.”
Some big food chains have already seen the potential in digital food. For example, Domino’s created a Snapchat filter that would let users see an AR pizza and offer them the possibility of ordering the pizza online, straight from their Snapchat app. Using AR, brands could show us exactly what a specific meal would look like, making it easier for potential customers to make up their minds on what they’d like to order.
Five years ago, people were writing about food online to complain about the trend of people sharing pictures of their meals on Instagram. Now, people are looking, liking and sharing pictures of fake food—digital food.
Among the few who can already see the potential of digital food is Jessica Herrington, who created the Instagram account Fresh Hot Delicious, a completely digital restaurant specialising in digital desserts. She described the concept in OneZero, saying, “Each dessert exists as a freely available AR filter on Instagram. To simulate a real-world restaurant, the desserts ‘sell out’ when the AR filters reach a specific number of views. Users can play with the desserts for free until they are ‘sold out’ and become deactivated. In this way, the digital restaurant gives a life span to previously permanent digital objects.”
Experiencing digital food through AR is an accessible and innovative alternative to engage with an audience. Food brands are trying to sell more than a product—they need to sell an experience, and digital food could help them build a connection with potential customers. The future of the food sector is digital, and we’ve only witnessed a few of the many ways we will consume digital food. As unusual it may seem to many for now, digital food will offer us a new approach to traditional eating experiences, and I don’t know about you, but all this made me hungry.