Dining on Dinosaurs?

Published: June 14, 2012

An exploration of the future of food: T-Rex burgers with a side of bugs are on the frontier.

They say there’s no accounting for taste. I would say that, quite to the contrary, if we’re to feed a growing population without destroying the planet, we’ll need to do a fairly stark accounting.

The future of the dinner plate and the future of the Earth are inextricably linked. If we intend to optimize nutrition, maximize production, and minimize environmental damage, we’ll have to overcome some deep-rooted biases against certain foods and the methods used to produce them.

Historical precedents tell us that prejudices of the palate can indeed be conquered. For instance, in the 19th century, there was a tremendous aversion to lobster in some of the American colonies. There was actually a rule that you couldn’t serve lobster to prisoners more than twice a week, as it was considered cruel. Over time, though, lobster rose up the culinary ranks to become a gastronomical delicacy. The same will no doubt happen with food sources and processes that are currently considered unpalatable.

Related: Join the Food Revolution

Many protein sources that will prove to be both abundant and environmentally friendly are not currently considered tempting to the taste buds. In vitro meat, hamburgers made out of mealworms, grasshopper tacos, genetically engineered foods, sea vegetables – all of these hold incredible promise, if we can get over the palate problem.

Insects, specifically, are the way of the future. They’re high in protein, low in fat, require very little water and land, and don’t produce much in the way of greenhouse-gas emissions. Unfortunately, while they’re climate friendly, they aren’t currently palate friendly. That has to change. More than 80 percent of the world’s countries eat insects already, and the rest of the world (Europe, the United States, and Canada) is going to have to get on board.

Similarly, if we’re going to be a part of the food revolution, we’re going to have to overcome our indiscriminate bias against genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is not inherently good or bad. Like any technology, it’s capable of doing both good and evil. The costs and benefits are determined by the details.

Related: The Great Food Labelling Debate

Not all Frankenfoods are monsters. A team of Israelis, for example, took genes from a lemon basil plant and put them into a cherry tomato to create a tasty, nutritious fruit. Another good example is golden rice. A genetically engineered grain that contains genes from the daffodil, it’s both hardy and vitamin-A rich, making it a powerful weapon in the war against malnutrition.

Another potent weapon in that war is aquaculture. The oceans are vastly underutilized as a food source – they cover 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, yet yield only two percent of our food. And they have the potential to yield so much more. In fact, there’s such diversity in the seaweed world that I predict seaweed will soon be rebranded “sea vegetables,” and that the salads of the future will be harvested from the oceans. Kelp, for instance, is a great protein source, absorbs carbon, and is the fastest-growing plant on Earth.

There are many other types of sea life, too, that will change the way we eat. Cobia, a type of fish that looks like a shark and tastes like halibut, could soon rival salmon as the dinner-party darling. Cobia boasts an incredible growth rate and adapts well to captivity, making it ideally suited to aquaculture.

Related: Recalibrating the Food Supply Chain

If the near future holds promise of seaweed salads and cobia with a side of crispy cockroach, what’s the next frontier of food? There’s a chance that we’ll one day be ordering up a woolly-mammoth burger or a T-Rex steak. Theoretically, it’s possible. Scientists are already using DNA samples from animal remains to culture cells that will ultimately end up on our dinner plates. In fact, the first in vitro hamburger – valued at around $300,000 – is expected to be consumed sometime in the fall.

While there’s still an aversion to these sorts of things among the general populace, we need to remember that unnatural things can sometimes protect the natural. The food movement, which has been so skewed towards natural methods, should also save some space to enthuse over smart uses of technology, which could ultimately help feed the world and protect the planet.

Josh Schonwald is a Chicago journalist and the author of The Taste of Tomorrow: Dispatches from the Future of Food. He lives in Evanston, Illinois, with his wife, children, and indoor aquaponic system.

Cover image courtesy of Josh Schonwald; photo courtesy of Flickr.

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