Dining: a new dimension

Edible barcodes, 3D printed food and lab-grown beefburgers. Vision investigates the latest innovations coming to a dinner table near you

When you think of a farm, you imagine rolling hills of green pasture, weathered farmers on tractors harvesting crops, and barns full of bales of hay ready for winter. But take a walk around the Emirates Hydroponics Farm (EHF) – sandwiched between Abu Dhabi and Dubai – and you get a very different picture. Instead of the hills, you have giant greenhouses, and instead of farmers surveying their produce by eye, you have scientists measuring every aspect of the plant and scrupulously assessing the perfect picking time. Welcome to food 2.0.

The way we grow and eat food is changing. For millennia, innovation in food has come in fits and bursts, from basic tools to crop irrigation to selectively breeding species to make better ones with higher yields. But now, thanks to advances in technology, it’s accelerating at dizzying speeds. Fuelled by a need to find more efficient ways of feeding the world’s rapidly growing population, combined with an innate need for humans to tinker with the world around them, we are already seeing the first signs of food in the future.

Walk into any supermarket in the UAE and you’ll see fruit and vegetables from all over the world. But scientists in the region have been looking into ways of growing the region’s favourite imported foods closer to home.

Hydroponics

Hydroponics is the science of growing food without the need for soil. Inside the nine-metre-high walls of EHF, everything from cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce and peppers are being grown vertically in pots not full of soil, but a rich nutrient solution designed to provide everything the plant needs.

Traditional farming relies on a plant’s ability to seek out water and nutrients in the soil around them. But to find the things it needs, plants have to grow long roots, an energy-intensive process that reduces how much that plant would be able to produce. With hydroponics, however, these nutrients are within easy reach, causing the plants to grow up to 50 per cent faster and requiring 70 per cent less water.

Businesses who can develop transparency and empower the consumer to know more about the things they buy are going to see increasing demand in future

Mark Driscoll, Head of Food at Form for the Future

In addition, computerised climate- and humidity-control systems monitor and regulate temperature, and the air is replaced six times every hour, providing the precise amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide each plant needs. “To produce the same yield in traditional field farming, you would need eight times this floor area,” says hydroponics farm manager, Rudi Azzato. The farm also requires far less pesticides to keep bugs from munching through all the produce, making it healthier too.

But what about meat, fish and other foods that can’t so easily be controlled? In a small sushi restaurant in San Diego, however, executive chef Rob Ruiz is paving the way for a future where food will be able to tell customers if it is good to eat or not.

As a sushi chef, Rob has seen his share of fish fraud: everything from a dysentery-causing mackerel species mislabelled as “white tuna” to fish gassed with carbon monoxide to ensure it maintains its bright-red colour long after its sell-by date has expired.

Rob Ruiz
Rob Ruiz of Harney Sushi introduced edible QR codes to give diners confidence in the freshness and source of the food

So he came up with a solution: edible QR codes. These tiny bar codes normally found on advertising and packaging, and first used by the automotive industry in Japan, are being added to the fish at Harney Sushi. When diners order their favourite dish, they can use their smart-phone to scan these barcodes (made of rice paper and water-based ink). The barcodes reveal the state of a species’ global stock, where their fish was hooked, and even the actual faces of the fishermen behind the catch. The result: the restaurant now sells more than 1,000 pounds of sashimi-grade fish each week. “People are ordering more straight fish because we’ve given them more confidence,” Ruiz told local reporters.

“Businesses who can develop transparency and empower the consumer to know more about the things they buy are going to see increasing demand in future,” explains Mark Driscoll, Head of Food at Form for the Future.

But Ruiz isn’t the only one tapping up technology for answers to food problems. The Electrolux Design Lab, an annual competition for household innovation, invites designers the world over to come up with solutions to issues of hygiene, health and wellbeing. It also offers up a tantalising look into the near future of how we will interact with our food.

3D printing

At last year’s final, the Atomium harnessed the power of 3D printing to develop meals of whatever flavour and shape we desire. Children (or adults) simply draw a 2D sketch of an object, and a 3D printer will scan and build a 3D version of that object out of organic matter, factoring in the right nutritional balance for the user’s body.

But Jeon Chang Dae’s Smart Knife seemed to garner the most attention. His concept turns an ordinary kitchen knife into a kitchen detective: it can tell how fresh your fruit and veg is, discover hidden bacteria and coat vegetables in negative ions that hinder the growth of fungus, keeping everything fresh. You’ll still have to cut the vegetables yourself, though.

At a conference in London last year, three food critics were served a beef burger made in a lab

While The Electrolux Design Lab points to how we’ll be interacting with our meals in years to come, there are foods from the future appearing right now. At a conference in London last year, three food critics were served a beef burger lab-grown by scientists at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. The burger was created by growing muscle fibres from stem cells in a gel-like substrate that were then combined to make a patty.

When Austrian food researcher Hanni Ruetzler ate the burger, she described the experience: “I was expecting the texture to be more soft... there is quite some intense taste; it’s close to meat, but it’s not that juicy. The consistency is perfect, but I miss salt and pepper.”

Cultured beef
Dr Mark Post of Maastricht University with the cooked patty

Is this just the work of a few mad scientists or a sign of things to come? With the global population expected to reach just shy of 10 billion by 2050, scientists (and chefs) are being asked to find solutions on how to feed another three billion more mouths. “We’re going to have to look more closely at proteins,” says Driscoll.

“Food is likely to become more expensive, according to the UN, so we’re going to have to look at innovation technology across the whole food chain.”