Farming on the moon and meat grown in a lab. Six thoughts on the future of food.
As a technologist turned restaurateur, Kimbal Musk thinks daily about the future of food.
His own collection of restaurants, named The Kitchen and Next Door, aim to shake up food distribution by sourcing ingredients locally and providing fresh, natural food at sensible prices. His company, also called The Kitchen, builds hundreds of school gardens to teach children in low-income communities about healthy eating.
“No one wins in the industrial food system,” Musk said. “It’s awful at the individual level, and at the economic and community level.”
Musk’s last name should sound familiar. His older brother, Elon Musk, is the founder and chief executive behind technology firms Tesla and SpaceX. Musk sits on the boards of both of his brother’s companies, as well as the board of Mexican fast-casual chain, Chipotle. His career, in many ways, straddles the line between food and technology. (He and Elon originally made their fortune founding Zip2, a company that Compaq acquired in 1999.)
Musk spoke about his business ventures and restoring trust in the food industry last month at the World Future Society’s annual summit. Innovations caught up with him after the conference to pick his brain further. Here are six of Musk’s bold thoughts on the future of our food.
1. Vertical farming is poised for prime time — and outer space.
There is no question that Musk is a strong proponent of vertical farming, by which crops are grown in tall stacks under LED lights inside massive indoor facilities. The practice is being driven in large part by a desire to grow produce locally and thereby eliminate the need to ship items long distances. It would allow major urban centers, such as New York City or Chicago, to eat local fruits and vegetables during all four seasons. Musk said that 2015 marked the first year when vertical farming companies could sell produce at a profit, meaning the declining cost of the technology makes the practice feasible for the mass market. And when future generations eventually inhabit the moon, vertical farming may be how people eat fruits and veggies there. At least that’s what Musk told the audience of futurists late last month.
Lettuce farming in a modern hydroponic vertical farm, which uses only 1 percent of water a normal soil based farm would require.
2. Farming could soon be cool again.
Young Americans have not been bullish on careers in farming since roughly the Great Depression. Family farms have declined precipitously and corporate farms have been on the rise in the last 80 years, as The Washington Post previously reported. Musk sees an opportunity for that to change. The U.S. Department of Agriculture will offer $20 million each year in grants for new farmers until at least 2018. And thanks to aforementioned vertical farming, budding green thumbs need not move to rural communities to break into the agriculture business. For those who do desire the great outdoors, however, there may soon be ample land up for grabs. The average age of farm owners continues to increase, and more farmland will become available as those individuals lay down their shovels. “There will be an avalanche of supply of farmland over the next 5 to 10 years, or maybe at the latest 15 years,” Musk said. “It’s going to be a very exciting time in farming.”
3. The next million-dollar ideas will come from disrupting the food industry.
Of course, farming is just one end of the global food supply chain. Musk believes the industry is ripe for disruption all along the pipeline, from those who process ingredients into products to those who distribute them to restaurants that serve them. He compared it to the Internet in the 1990s. “You don’t know exactly what opportunity is in front of you, but you want to be in that industry. You want to be at the start of that wave,” Musk said. “My advice for any entrepreneur or innovator is to get into the food industry in some form so you have a front-row seat to what’s going on.” Successful entrepreneurs in the food business are also more likely to hail from Minneapolis or Memphis than Silicon Valley or New York, Musk added. America’s heartland and its food consumption habits more accurately reflect the country at large. “If you’re a vegan fast food joint in LA, you just don’t speak the same language as the heartland,” Musk said.
4. Trust in the food system requires greater transparency.
Musk focused much of his World Future Summit speech on trust and the idea that we no longer have much in our food. Whether it’s genetically modified produce or hard-to-pronounce chemical ingredients, Musk said that people often aren’t aware of what they’re eating or how it was made. In a world where vegetables are grown in warehouses and meat is made of plants (more on this in a minute), Musk said that building trust through transparency is absolutely crucial. “The problem with industrial food is zero transparency. The system thrives on the fact that there is no transparency,” Musk said. He hopes the next generation of food growers and manufacturers take a different approach. “If I were these guys, I would be thinking very much about transparency. What is the true impact of their product? What is the true nutrition of their product? Even if they have to use some futuristic ingredient, for lack of a better word, they’re very clear about what it is rather than hiding it from the consumer.”
5. Community impact requires entrepreneurs to go deep, not broad.
You don’t often meet entrepreneurs who think local. Take Musk’s older brother, who is trying to send people into space and eliminate their need to drive cars here on Earth. Musk said he, too, had a mind for global domination as a tech entrepreneur, but the same broad approach does not work in food. Shopping for groceries and dining at restaurants are still inherently local, and having an impact on the food people choose to consume has to be local as well. That’s why when Musk builds school gardens in a city, he constructs dozens of them at a time. He’s slated to open 50 in Pittsburgh and 100 in Indianapolis, for example. “When I look at a community and think about how we can bring this community to a real-food culture and get them thriving again, you have to go deep,” he said.
6. Our taste for meat will force us to look beyond animals.
Can a burger made from pea protein replace meat?
The beyond burger from Beyond Meat aims to replicate the texture, color and taste of a beef burger. (Jayne Orenstein, Joe Yonan/The Washington Post)
Successful efforts have been made to engineer meat in a laboratory or replicate it using plant-based ingredients. These aren’t frozen veggie burgers; we’re talking about an innovation beyond that. “Meat” that doesn’t come from cows, pigs and chickens could one day be more widely eaten, a shift that both animal welfare advocates and environmentalists would likely celebrate. After all, the increasing number of livestock that is necessary to sate the world population’s meat consumption has had a well-documented, negative impact on the environment. For his part, Musk is much more enthusiastic about plant-based meat products, questioning whether the lab-grown variety is something consumers will ever trust. He also says simply eating less meat is one path forward. “I am a fan of less and better meat rather than replacing meat,” he said. “That’s just me personally.”
By Steven Overly