The Future of Food

The Future of Food

Robots, mutant fruit and blue beer are all coming to a restaurant near you.

Restaurants exist at a crossroad. Chefs work at the intersection between art and science. The local cafe is where global marketplaces make their way into individual, local mouths. Fine diners are laboratories for bleeding-edge ideas about design, technology and, most importantly, sustainability.

So it’s natural that all the hot-button issues found in your average TED-Talk - artificial intelligence, data mining, renewable energy, climate change mitigation, genetic modification and, of course, robots - all converge in your neighbourhood take-away.

If recent years have taught us anything, it’s that our ability to accurately predict what will happen in six months, let alone sixty years, is not so hot. Nevertheless, we’ve spoken to four experts in their fields about what they think is on the cards for the future of dining.

Two Years

In the short term, Africola chef Duncan Welgemoed believes that we’ll see a boom in owner-operators opening their own operators. “I think the biggest change I’m seeing is a lot more young entrepreneurs taking on their own businesses than ever before,” he says. “The level of dining has gone up a notch.”

But serial entrepreneur turned restaurateur, Cameron Votan, who’s found great success with his Brisbane restaurants Happy Boy and Greenglass, disagrees with Welgemoed. From his perspective, the impact of developers on the industry is having a deleterious effect on the industry, warping the market with incentives like free fit-outs and discounted rents that simply aren’t aligned with creating successful restaurants. “You’ve got tonnes of developments going up, and each one of those high-rises wants to have the hottest restaurant in town, because they sell apartments,” explains Votan. “But it’s outside of the market. It’s not a market-driven increase in the amount of restaurants. And those restaurants aren’t playing on a level playing field. When I set up a restaurant, I pay for rent, I pay for the staff, I pay for the fit-out, and that all has to come out of my costs. These guys are going in and for the first year, they’re pretty-much not paying.”

Votan reckons that these Faustian bargains between restaurateurs and developers distort the industry as a whole. “It’s reducing the airspace in the market for people who want to be sustainable, not just burn brightly and flame out. It’s increasing the rent because you’re getting a lot of people who are artificially getting charged a lot of rent, which means everyone else is getting charged more,” he says. “It’ll mean a lot of bankruptcies. And when they eventually close, that money just withers away. It’s destruction of value.”

Nevertheless, Welgemoed believes that the growing number of smaller, innovative diners is fuelling a newfound confidence in a genuinely Australiasian cuisine. “I think Australian food is really coming into its own style,” says Welgemoed. “It’s a refined, casual dining. Regardless of whether it’s Korean, Native Australian based, whether it’s Italian, that upper middle market will be coming into its own even more-so than it is.”

Kristin Alford, futurist and director of MOD at the University of South Australia, also believes that native Australian foods will become increasingly common in the near future. She points to the work of Jock Zonfrillo’s Orana Foundation in working with Indigenous Australians to cultivate and commercialise native ingredients as being a serious indicator of change. “We’re seeing a resurgence of native Australian foods, and rethinking some of the traditional Aboriginal practices around cultivating the land, using things that are better suited for the climate we’re living in,” she says. “I’m really buoyed by what the Orana foundation is doing. Beyond the immediate benefits from engagement with Aboriginal people around their cultural practices, and allowing them to develop that to sustain their lifestyle, with a greater market around that and an appreciation about what we have here.”

Five Years

Big Data is rapidly making its way from Big Business into small ones. Entrepreneurs like Welgemoed are increasingly able to use the information they collect from their diners to tailor the dining experience to their preferences. “ We look at what our demographic is, and how they book and engage with the restaurant,” he explains. “If you look at Africola, 68 percent are women between the ages of 25 and 40. When you look at it in that respect, you can tailor the menu to that particular demographic. It’s not like we’re going to be serving offal-heavy, large hunks of meat. It’s a cheat-sheet on what your customer base is.”

The same techniques that help restaurateurs harvest actionable information on their customers can also be applied by farmers to better understand their harvest. Alford believes machine learning will speed up science to help optimise the crops of the future. “Anything you can collect data on and then learn faster from is going to be helpful. I’m thinking of the plant accelerator, where you can take constant pictures of plants growing under certain conditions,” she says. “For a human to look through all those pictures to try and pick up trends is going to be a hard task. But having machine intelligence look at those datas and give you insights allows it to be done thousands of times faster. That’s a good application.”

But, others aren’t so sure that the rise of Big Data will make much impact on restaurants and cafes. Votan doesn’t see much use for harvesting data from his customers. “I don’t think data analysis is going to make much of a difference, except for the big boys and the chains,” he says. “I don’t think owner-operators really want to think about their business as something that you can break down scientifically.”

The simple reason the data’s not useful, according to Votan, is that once you open a restaurant in a suburb, it ain’t easy to move it (although last year he did just that) “Sales data’s interesting, for sure. But how do restaurateurs act on demographic data?” he asks. “You are what you are. So when you’re in an area, that’s your demographic. It’s not like you’re going to go move your restaurant because it’s not the right demographic.”

Votan’s even more cool on the so-called sharing economy - and he’s predicting that the big delivery services like UberEats and Deliveroo won’t survive the next few years. “I know this sounds like doomsday, but I think they’ll all suffer badly in the next few years, and one of them will definitely go out of business,” he says.

From his own experience, the economic equation offered by the ride-sharing platforms just isn’t sustainable for restaurateurs. “It’s not just economically feasible,” he says. “The restaurants are getting hit with 30-35 percent charge. All it’s doing is propping up pretty unprofitable businesses with fake volume. It’s a revenue dream with no profit, or really marginal profit.”

With regards to the current model, delivery services just don’t provide a compelling incentive to top-end restaurants, thus diminishing the platform’s offering and undermining their fundamental reason for being. "Most of the great restaurants have pulled out of those platforms, and if you want to get dinner you’re pretty much having burgers or fried chicken,” says Votan. “My guess is that Uber ends up being a McDonald’s delivery service, in the end.”

Ten Years

The biggest change in the next 10 years will be driven by demographics: most notably, a rapidly growing middle class. By 2030, futurist Dr Peter Ellyard predicts there’ll be five billion people joining their ranks - a billion of those in India and another billion in China. He believes that this movement will make the restaurant industry even more central to our culture than it was before. “Dining out is ultimately a middle-class experience. Working poor people couldn’t afford to dine out,” he explains. “Basically, you have to understand what’s happening to the class structures of the world. The middle class is booming through globalisation and mass education. The whole world is changing, and a lot of it is because we’re becoming a lot richer than we think we are.”

He believes this increasingly aspirational group of consumers have a tendency toward cosmopolitan values like tolerance, and are constantly seeking new experiences - such as novel cuisine. “They’re not as hostile to other cultures as their predecessors were 30 or 40 years ago. They love the difference and want to celebrate that difference,” says Ellyard. “One of the main aspects of multiculturalism is that we love trying each other’s food. We constantly eat across cultural boundaries. There’s a whole spread of cuisines around the world, which happens when the middle class gets to a certain stage and they start appreciating difference.”

Votan, on the other hand, that Ellyard’s cosmopolitan vision is under threat. The anti-immigration sentiment of recent years, he believes, has put Australia at a disadvantage on the global food scene. “Over the next few years, I see us going backwards a bit over authenticity and world flavours. The whole thing around the 457 Visa has been hugely destructive. I don’t think the government’s ever had it in its mind to not let really great international chefs in, but it’s happened this way,” he says. “We’ve got chefs who just can’t get into this country who want to come and learn English, and who want to come and contribute to the culture of Australia, but they can’t.”

Votan believes that this is more than simply an inconvenience for restaurateurs - it’ll stunt the growth of 21st century Australian culture. “What’s going to happen to our food culture? We’re going to have 200 Modern Australian restaurants?,” he asks. “Think about the great cuisines in this country, and that’s happened through a great immigrant culture. It’s not through skilled chefs, it’s just through the geopolitical climate. We’re going to miss the boat on Chinese, and we’re going to miss the boat on Indian, and all the rest, because when we as restaurateurs try to create a concept that’s true, we need the talent from those countries.”

To Votan’s mind, this tendency toward insularity is the opposite of what’s happening the food capitals of the world. “It actually runs counter to what’s going to happen globally, where we’re seeing all the big centres embrace super, hyper-authentic experiences,” he says. “What we’ll find is we won’t be able to deliver on them.”

Twenty Years

The thought that first comes to mind when we talk about robots is the post-apocalyptic world dreamed up by James Cameron. But thinkers like Alford reckon the future will be more harmonious. “We’ve already gone through a wave of automation, and we’re at a stage where humans and robots really do work alongside one another,” she says. “I’d expect to see more of that, where robots take on more dangerous or repetitive work.”

Robots could potentially be employed for tasks such as weeding, allowing farms to go organic without having to employ extra staff. “We were looking at robots during the week, as we’re wont to do. One of the ones we were looking at was a robot weeder, which can travel along through organic farms looking for weeds, and it has a high success-rate of doing that,” she says. “You might be able to do that instead of using heavy pesticides. That’s almost an intensive organic process.”

Ellyard believes the wave of automation is already happening, citing a recent holiday he spent in human-free hotel in Japan, run entirely by robots. To his way of thinking, restaurants as we now know them will be a premium experience, providing a human touch - for an additional cost. “When you get a person to serve you, it’ll be a very special event, rather than a normal event,” he says. “It’ll be upmarket to get a smiling face and someone pouring a beer for you, rather than a machine.”

People on the ground floor, however are more skeptical. Welgemoed doesn’t reckon he’ll be employing robots at Africola anytime soon. “I’d use automation if it was going to work out bloody cheaper, because staff’s expensive in Australia. But you can’t replace feel, you can’t replace attitude, time or place. I doubt a robot can taste, or will be able to deal with imperfect ingredients. As long as you get a pumpkin that will always be the same, you can program a robot to treat that pumpkin the same every time,” he says. “But like everything, you’re dealing with nature, and there’ll always be imperfections. That’s where the craft element of what we do for a living comes into play. I think that whole thing of robots being able to cook won’t ever be a thing.”

Thirty Years

For better or worse, people are frightened by genetic modification. Thinkers who argue in its favour are vehemently attacked by folks who’re worried about mutant tomatoes and terminator crops (don’t be that person). But gene manipulation has been going since humans invented farming, with seed-races changing bitter, tough and tiny crops into the wheat, corn and mutant tomatoes we all enjoy today. “The people that I talk to who work in this area, and I’m thinking about wine where you’re constantly cutting varietals. All you’re doing with genetic modification is making that process faster,” Alford explains. “There’s no discernible difference between doing that in a lab with genetic modification, or doing that at the farm with four generations of grafting to alter the genetic makeup of that plant to make it more drought tolerant or whatever you may do.”

With the development of cheap, accessible gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR, it’s likely that the future of food will be tailor-made by geneticists - allowing for larger crops, longer-lasting produce and fruits that don’t require pesticides. “People give genetic modification a bad name. If we’re using genetic modification to make pesticides unnecessary, then it’s good,” says Ellyard. “There’s a grape disease called powdery mildew. But there’s one kind of grape called muscadine, which has a gene in it that’s resistant. They’ve taken the gene out of the muscadine and put it into the wine grape, and now it doesn’t need any spray at all.”

Alford points out that, with the current state of climate change, we might not have much choice as to whether we decide to use GM crops. “For a lot of the GM stuff, I’m not sure that the downsides outweigh the benefits given that other context,” she says. “We won’t have time to worry about whether there are unproven issues with genetic modification if we want to have food that can survive the drought conditions we might be facing. I think we’ll continue to see the use of GM go up in order to cope with a future we’ve created ourselves. Which isn’t to say I’m for or against it, particularly. But I think it’s very hard to seperate the technology from the circumstances.”

Votan agrees that genetic modification will be a hard sell - even if it’s a necessary one. “At an intellectual level, I’m not opposed to these things. I think for us to feed the amount of people we’ve got on the planet now, we’re going to need some pretty massive step changes in how we can produce protein,” he says. “But I’m a little bit skeptical about genetic modification and vat-grown meat, purely because of the customer. I think the trick will be how it’s messaged to the customer, and that’s not for the restaurant to deal with, it’s a much broader policy thing.”

While many of the innovations around genetic modification will be focused on food security, the wide availability of gene-editing techniques could see farmers - or even chefs - engineering food for individual dishes. Alford describes a project - that’s theoretically achievable - to use a bioluminescent glow produced by a jellyfish gene to make a yeast that glows blue when it reaches a certain temperature. In principle, you could make a beer that changed colour when it was nice and chilly. “There’s always backyard biohacking, and it’s something that’s possible now,” says Alford. “That doesn’t require sophisticated labs to do. We’ve seen that with everything: we’ve seen everything move towards being accessible to the citizen, from blogging and citizens journalism, to 3D printing and manufacturing. I see no reason why those biological designs couldn’t be available to the private person.”

Ellyard, however, points out that just because something’s possible doesn’t mean we should do it. “Innovation could occur at the individual farm level, rather than at the corporate level, that’s possible,” he says. “But there has to be a regulatory framework around it.”

Forty Years

One of the most serious issues the restaurant industry has to tackle is our over-reliance on meat. Contemporary research has increasingly shown that plant-based diets are far better for the health of the planet, let alone our bodies. “There are issues around the beef industry that have to be resolved,” says Ellyard. “If we abolished the beef industry, climate change would disappear. The beef industry alone can create the climate change problem because of the amount of methane being belched out by cows, and it’s 20 times more deleterious than carbon dioxide is.”

Even excellent meaty menus like Welgemoed’s at Africola are increasingly tracking protein-free. That said, the chef doesn’t believe the future’s going to be meat-free. “I think it’s overstated,” he says. “While I don’t think it’ll be exclusively vegetarian, chefs are really looking at sourcing in a different kind of way, using regenerative food, better practices, fewer meats on the menu but higher quality.”

Alford, on the other hand, is optimistic about the possibility of lab-grown meat. “I really like the idea of lab-grown meat as the perfect adjunct to a vegan diet,” she says. “If you think about lab-grown meat as becoming a staple, then actually killing something would become a special occasion. Meat is elevated to this very special occasion, five-star food. I always picture that as something I could have in my backyard along with my free-range chickens, as being part of a local supply chain on the way to self-sufficiency.”

Chef Welgemoed is less enthusiastic. “I’d rather eat a fucking cabbage than a steak that’s grown in a lab,” he sniffs. “What’s the serotonin release? How did it make you feel regardless of its nutritional quality? Is it delicious? Is it enjoyable? It’s that same argument with grain fed versus grass fed - the dopamine release in your brain are completely different between one and the other.”

Votan is more philosophical about the technological development of our produce. Instead of focusing on fancy new produce, he thinks we should be rethinking how we use the ones we already have at hand. “There’s a democratisation of food that’s about to happen,” he says. “If you look at places that don’t have a lot, they don’t do that. Go to Vietnam or Thailand, they’ll eat whatever they can get, and make it delicious.”

And that making an ingredient delicious is the key. In Votan’s opinion, chefs should focus more on this than on making ever more complicated ‘produce-driven’ experiences for bourgeois diners. “ I hope you’ll see the inventive chefs not only serving Marion Bay scampi that’s super-rare and you’ve got to fly an air-freight every morning. Rather, they do something with carp, something more progressive,” he says. “We remember those dishes that have been made universal, and legendary, and timeless. Someone created them and they’ve stood the test of time because they use ingredients that aren’t expensive and hard to find and becoming extinct. All the best food is that. We’re not going to remember Vue de Monde’s scampi in Marron broth. We’re going to remember Beef Rendang.”

Fifty Years

The future of food isn’t all robots and blue beer, however. The kind of world we live in is, in a large part, predicated on whether we avoid catastrophic climate change, or whether we have to learn to adapt to it. “I’m pretty pessimistic on that. I’ve been working on communicating climate change since 2005, and what we were saying then is that we’ve only got the next 10 years to make a change, and after that it’ll be too late. I don’t really see that message having changed,” says Alford. “Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t be making those reductions, because we have to transition to a new economy. But I think we’re at the point at which we’ve created change in the system, and we don’t really understand the implications yet.”

Alford is concerned about how increased drought, unpredictable weather events, rising sea levels and the chemical makeup of the atmosphere will affect our food systems. “The thing that concerns me most about some of the projections we’re seeing around reduction in diversity, we’re seeing issues around yields are decreasing as the climate starts to change,” she says. “And we’re also seeing decreases in the nutrients in plant-based products are being affected by the changes in the environment. A plate of spinach in 20 years time versus a plate of spinach now might not give us the same amounts of nutrition or micronutrients. These things give me concerns about how we feed a growing population.”

Other thinkers, however, a more optimistic. For 30 years, Ellyard was a senior advisor to the United Nations, where he helped write early treatise on climate change. “I think I know a bit about climate change, and it’s an eminently solvable issue,” he says. “I think the markets are more agile than the governments at the moment. And we have a single global market for the first time in human history.”

He believes the future of food relies on an as-yet discovered resolution to the conflict between organic and intensive farming. While organic and biodynamic produce is very much in vogue, it’s not necessarily the most environmental option, given its lower yields and larger demands on land and the resources - currently fossil fuels - that it takes to keep produce pesticide and super-phosphate free. “When Justus von Liebig invented artificial invented artificial fertiliser in 1840, and when John Bennett Laws invented superphosphate just two years later, they changed the world. As a result, we had a massive increase in food production. You only have to go back 30 years, and China and India couldn’t feed themselves. Now they’re food exporters,” he explains. “We now recognise that these processes, combined with the pesticides we put on them, most of which came out of chemical weapons factories during the Second World War, most of these things are damaging our planet. The clean and green people understand we can’t just go back to the mediocre productivity of the past. The agenda for the next 30 years is to combine the productivity of a post-Liebig era with the cleanliness of the pre-Liebig era.”

Ellyard reckons we’re well on the way to doing just that - and the answer’s in the dirt. “There is a whole lot of soil science that we need to do, and are doing,” he says. “A lot of it is going to do with carbon sequestration in soils, and that improves productivity. Using biology, and bacteria, and worms, and nematodes, will produce high-quality, clean, green foods. That is going to happen, and it’s happening now. We’re in a bit of a transition between the dilemma and how we solve it.”

But restaurateurs like Welgemoed know that arriving in an ecologically-friendly future only happens one day at a time. Without the support of governments, it’s difficult for a single business to be as sustainable as they hope to be. “You could spend millions trying to make a zero-waste, zero-emissions restaurant. All we can do is be as responsible as we can, and do small things over a period of time that can contribute to being more sustainable and more environmentally friendly. Certainly, everything we can control in regards to working with producers,” he says. “But with single-use plastics, single use containers, straws and napkins, the water you use, all that kind of shit, unless there’s a big government change in trading practices, not everyone can have a regional restaurant where you can build that sort of stuff from the ground up. Look at Brothl in Melbourne trying to put a hot composter in, and the council shut them down because of it. It actually has to come from legislation, rather than what we do as operators.”

Votan agrees that as an individual restaurateur, his ability to tackle ecological problems is linked inextricably to financial ones. “I think climate change is an umbrella term for the entire degradation of our environment. There are so many issues we have to deal with - wastage, inefficiency - all of that stuff is insane,” he says. “It’s shocking to go to the back dock of restaurants and look in their bins, and there’s a tonne of waste. I like to deal with it because it’s a cost thing.”

While Alford admits to being pessimistic about the state of planet come 2068, she is, at least, optimistic about the future of restaurants: “I think there’ll always be a place for somewhere you can have a good conversation.”