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MIT Technology Review

How technology rewrites your diet

We asked experts which technologies are most changing the ways we produce and prepare food. Here's what they said.
December 18, 2020
rewrite foodrewrite food

Wherever you live, the last meal you had probably looked and tasted different from meals served in the same place 50 years ago. Advances in the way we grow, process, and transport food have given more people more options for what to eat than ever before.

Some foods sold today didn’t exist a decade ago. Other dietary staples look more or less the same as they always have, but are packaged and distributed in totally new ways. The next meal you make at home will, of course, be shaped by the tools and techniques you use to prepare it.

Your diet is determined in large part by your tastes and by the climate and culture where you live. But technology also plays a big role. Whether we look forward or back in time, we can see how new technologies change what and how we eat.

Such changes can come from many places: from engineers who develop a new kitchen appliance like the microwave or the multi-cooker, from food scientists who pioneer novel techniques to produce more plant-based foods, or from entrepreneurs who raise millions in venture capital funding to sell meal kits online.

The following experts describe some advances that have had a large impact on our food system, and others that will transform it again in the years ahead.


New ways to get around

Million Belay

Million Belay
COURTESY PHOTO

General coordinator, Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (Ethiopia)

Horses are still the main mode of transport for many people in rural Ethiopia. Lately, though, new transportation options have prompted people I know to try different foods and abandon others their ancestors had eaten for centuries. About four years ago, for example, the only road that runs to and from a rural community called Telecho was improved. Soon, buses started to come. The village’s market grew bigger, and residents began drinking beer made at commercial breweries instead of from the barley they grew. Today, farmers there plant more eucalyptus to sell the timber to other communities. That has brought more money to Telecho, but also reduced the total number of crops produced there.


Personalized nutrition

Christine Gould

Christine Gould
COURTESY PHOTO

Founder and CEO, Thought for Food (Switzerland)

Per capita global food production has increased for decades. But having more food doesn’t mean people are better nourished. Diseases caused by unhealthy diets—such as obesity, diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease—are the primary cause of mortality in much of the world. 

One problem is that our scientific understanding of food is still rudimentary. At most, 150 biochemicals are listed in conventional nutrition databases. That’s a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands of compounds found in food. Some describe the many that remain unknown as “nutritional dark matter.” 

I see potential in the emerging field of personalized nutrition, which aims to combine new knowledge about such compounds with insights from an individual’s own genetics and microbiome to deliver customized dietary guidelines and plans. The goal is a world in which people are not just fed, but nourished.


Fine-tuning the farm

Marta Antonelli

Marta Antonelli
COURTESY PHOTO

Head of research, Barilla Foundation (Italy)

The challenge ahead of us is clear: Build a sustainable food system that can nourish a growing and increasingly urban world. I think precision agriculture will be a big part of the solution. With this approach, conventional farming practices such as watering and fertilizing crops are performed at the right place and time, and with the appropriate intensity. For example, irrigation systems that deliver water through slow drips cut water use by up to 60% compared with sprinklers. Finding more improvements like this will require a new technology “stack” for agriculture.


Buying and selling food online

Catherine L. Mah

Catherine Mah
GW SCHNITZLER

Canada Research Chair in Promoting Healthy Populations, Dalhousie University (Canada)

E-commerce has transformed the way people eat; covid-19 accelerated this trend. Apps and online payment services like Shopify helped many restaurants and retail food businesses stay open and gave customers a way to enjoy their favorite meals even while isolated at home. But the growth of e-commerce has revealed how governments struggle to ensure that the benefits of technological development fall to everyone. Our institutions have not created policies regulating online commerce in a way that protects the public interest. E-commerce has widened divides between smaller and larger companies, and between rural and urban consumers.


Fermenting at scale

Jaime Romero

Jaime Romero
COURTESY PHOTO

Associate professor in the Food Biotechnology Lab, University of Chile (Chile)

Fermentation is a powerful, natural process, and one of the oldest food preservation methods. However, it’s only in the past 50 years that scientists have come to understand fermentation well enough to sustain it at scale. Fermentation can take many forms, but they all involve enlisting some kind of bacteria, yeast, or other microbes to chemically alter another ingredient (typically sugar). The acids produced during this process naturally preserve the resulting food. Fermentation can create thousands of different foods and drinks, including sake, kombucha, beer, wine, cheese, yogurt, pickles, sauerkraut, and sourdough bread. I think industrial-scale fermentation has expanded our options at the grocery store more than most of us likely realize.



CRISPR crops

John Ruff

John Ruff
COURTESY PHOTO

Chief science and technology officer, Institute of Food Technologists (US)

People throw out 1.3 billion tons of edible food each year, yet 821 million people went hungry in 2018. CRISPR, a gene-­editing tool, can help us increase food production, decrease food waste, and enhance the nutritional value of the foods we eat. Already, scientists have used it to increase omega-3 levels in plants and reduce gluten levels in wheat. They’ve also developed non-browning apples, potatoes, and mushrooms that are less susceptible to damage during shipping and will keep longer on shelves and in refrigerators. Some are even creating drought-resistant rice and corn to protect our food supply against the adverse impacts of climate changea need that will become more urgent with time.


Packaging with less plastic

Jocelyn Eason

Jocelyn Eason
COURTESY PHOTO

General manager of science and food innovation, Plant & Food Research (New Zealand)

New packaging materials will allow many food producers to gradually move away from plastics, for good. During my lifetime, I’ve watched plastic become one of the biggest environmental hazards that we face as a society. Consumers want less of it in their lives, and regulators are beginning to ban or impose taxes on plastics used to package or serve food. Sooner or later, most producers will need to switch to more sustainable materials. Some alternatives are already available: Earthpac, a New Zealand company I’ve worked with, is using starch recovered from the wastewater of potato processing factories to make biodegradable trays, plates, and punnets (the small green baskets in which berries are often sold). Another client, Meadow Mushrooms, is making packaging from the stalks removed from mushrooms during processing.