From knitted meat to obsolete supermarket. Rethinking our food system

I’ve just spent the past few days in Eindhoven to participate to the Age of Wonderland, a social innovation program set up by Dutch organization for development Hivos, platform for future thinking Baltan Laboratories and the Dutch Design Week. The programme of the Age of Wonderland looked at ‘Balancing Green and Fair Food’ through workshops, exhibition, tours, meals, discussions, artists presentations and seminars. I’ll come back to the artists’ participation in a later post. Today, i’ll just type down my notes from the Future Food Seminar which took place on Monday evening and gathered people with radically different backgrounds and insights to reflect on the re-invention of global strategies for the design of our future food system.


Mounira Al Solh, Now Eat My Script, 2014

Independent critic and curator Nat Muller curated Stirring the Pot of Story: Food, History, Memory, a show which was part of the The politics of Food programme at Delfina Foundation in London. The exhibition explored the relationships between power and the control of food. More precisely how issues of conflict (war, colonialism and other man-made tensions) affect food and cuisine and how they continue to influence the way we experience food.

We immediately associate war with food scarcity. In fact, many revolutions started because of food shortage. But war also drives innovation and technology. In war time, the military, the academia and the industry work at full force because food is a key tactic. Think of the grain silos bombed in Syria. Or at the opposite side of the spectrum, the Women Institute which was the largest voluntary women’s organization in Great Britain that was non-military during WWI. The institute was born out of the war effort and helped women share useful skills such as conserving food by jamming and canning.

One of the works Muller and the Delfina commissioned for the Politics of Food show looked at the iconography of Italian food cans of WWI. The invention of cans was credited to Napoleon who needed them to feed his troupes during his campaigns. Cans went through a production boost during WWII and Italian artist Leone Contini collected cans produced during that period to study their iconography. They show bucolic scenes, evoke Italian colonial endeavours and communicate patriotic slogans. They speak of comfort from home while sending nationalistic messages to the soldiers. These cans are historical objects that tell the story of lived experiences. For civilians and soldiers alike, it is often memories of loved food that keep people going. Food provides a sense of security in dire situation.


Leone Contini, can of anchovies from World War II

The next speaker was Marcel Beukeboom . As the Head Food & Nutrition Security, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Beukeboom is responsible for the development and implementation of Dutch policies for food and nutrition security.

He quoted Martín Caparrós who has said the hunger is the single most preventable problem of humankind. Yet, we still haven’t solved it.

The problem with food is not its quantity anymore. It’s its quality and distribution.

The 3 pillars to reduce hunger identified by the Dutch parliament are People, Planet and Profit. People because it is a collective effort. Planet because we need to keep the ecological footprint in mind. Profit because we need to raise the production of food. The problem is that we will deplete the Earth of its resources if we keep on consuming the way we do. In fact, that deadline will probably come sooner. In August, it was revealed that we had already used up 2015’s supply of Earth’s resources.

The Netherlands has to face 3 dilemmas:

1. The Meat dilemma. We know that the meat industry is a huge consumer of soil, water and resources that could be used for human consumption. But The Netherlands is also a very successful producer and exporter of meat. If the country were to stop producing meat altogether, this would have huge economical consequences for the industry and the citizens.

2. Urbanization. The number of small scale farmers is too high. The country needs to scale them up. The problem is that the farming community is getting older and older. Young people don’t want to follow in the footsteps of their parents and they leave the family farm to look for better jobs in cities.

3. Need for new forms of investments. 20 or 30 years ago, the government would just distribute money to countries facing food shortages. Nowadays, the scenario has changed. The government has less money to give away and needs to find partners and devise new ways to reach food objectives.


Slides from Koert van Mensvoort’s presentation

The third speaker to take the floor was Koert van Mensvoort. He is an artist, a philosopher, the founder of the Next Nature concept and the head of the Next Nature Lab at the Industrial Design Department of the Eindhoven University of Technology. He also happens to love meat but is also investigating new ways of producing and consuming meat. He is particularly interested in in vitro meat grown inside a petri dish.


Willem van Eelen. Photo via Next Nature

First lab-grown burger tried and tested in London

The first patent for the “industrial production of meat using cell culture methods” was actually filled by Dutch researcher and entrepreneur Willem van Eelen in 1999. And the first lab-grown burger was presented to the world in 2013 by another Dutch scientist, Prof Mark Post. The cost of the burger is however prohibitive. At the time it was estimated that it would cost 250.000 euros to make a burger with this method. As often with technology, you have to wait a number of years to get a return on investment.

In the meantime, van Mensvoort set out to explore the creative potential of in vitro meat in a cookbook. The In Vitro Meat Cookbook explores the new “food cultures” that lab-grown meat might give rise to. This book approaches lab-grown meat not just from a design and engineering perspective, but also from a societal and ethical one.

The cookbook envisions a future in which we could eat Dodo Nuggets, meat ice (“finally! An ice cream for the grown-up!” said van Mensvoort), meat fruit (fake meat products want to look like meat so why couldn’t meat look like something vegetal?), celebrity cubes made using cell samples from your favourite stars, meat oysters, See-through sashimi (without blood vessels, nerves or organs, in vitro meat could be manufactured to be nearly transparent), etc. And why not In Vitro Me! Imagine eating meat grown from cells harvested from your own body.

Unsurprisingly, van Mensvoort and his imagination won’t stop there. He is already inviting people to an invitro restaurant.


Dodo Nuggets from the In Vitro Meat Cookbook


Knitted Meat, from the In Vitro Meat Cookbook


See through sashimi, from the In Vitro Meat Cookbook


In Vitro Meat Cookbook

The next speaker was Mr Asaba Ruyonga, Mayor of Fort Portal, Uganda who talked about how his city is transforming to become a important destination for eco-tourism.

The final words of the events were those of Prof. dr. ir. Gerard de Vries who is the Former Head of project group WRR report “Towards a Food Policy” , he is also an Advisory member of the WRR.

de Vries reminded us that when it comes to food, we need to leave aside the simple divisions we use to look at the world. Food is complex. It’s nature and culture, it’s agriculture and industry, etc.

Food is intrinsically linked to health. One billion people in the world go hungry while over 2 billion people suffer from obesity (and obesity is also a poverty problem.) Which means that 3 billion out of the 7 billion people who inhabit this planet are not adequately fed.

So here’s the first problem with food: we are producing food that makes us sick.
The second problem is sustainability. By 2050, there will be 9 billion people who need feeding and we are already running out of our resources.
The third problem is that the world food system is so complex that no one can claim to have control over it.

If you want a robust food system, you need to enhance its resilience. And for that, we need an interdisciplinary team because innovation is not only and not necessarily techno-driven. We need to come up with new business models. Take the supermarket for example. That’s an old model and it is certainly one that has proved to be adequate when it comes to distributing healthy food.

What we need now are ‘the heroes of the retreat’, the issue with the food system is not ‘growth’. In fact, we need to reduce both our meat production and our food consumption. So what we desperately need right now is to find a way to retreat in an orderly way and that’s probably less easy than to come up with innovation.

The Age of Wonderland programme continues until Sunday 25 October. Check out what’s happening in the coming days.