This year, I plan to answer other people’s questions on this blog. Questions like, “Will we really eat insects in the future?” Check out the questions I have been asked already on this #AskAFuturist thread and add your own if you’re curious.
I am starting with a question that came from yesterday’s adventures in making pizza. Followers on my social media may know that last year, I was asked to design the ‘future pizza’. It was for the launch of the Big Bang Fair, a science, technology and engineering event for kids and young people at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. We came up with some ideas and then we got together at a pizzeria in London and had them make our future pizza for a panel of kids to try.
The PR company behind the launch did a fantastic job in coming up with the story and in promoting it. So good in fact, that as well as being covered by many of the national papers in the UK, the story went international.
Things started to die down a little, and then an email popped into my inbox. It was from a TV production company in Germany, wondering if we could recreate the pizza for their show. And what a show! Galileo is a prime-time science show on every night of the week getting over a million viewers. So, I invited the team over to Manchester and set about finding some places for us to film. The kind people at Huckletree Ancoats let us film some pieces there, and then we headed over to Crazy Pedro’s where executive chef Phil agreed to make up our pizza.
Ingredients for the future
So, what’s so different about the future pizza? It has three main ingredients that make it different to your normal margherita. I chose all of them because they represent a possible solution to future challenges, where pressures like climate change intersect with trends in technology and taste. That’s not to say that these will be the answer for everyone or everything. But they are a great way to highlight some of the challenges we face, and the choices.
The first ingredient to note is vertically-farmed tomatoes. These represent one possible answer to the multiple issues of land use, water consumption, pesticides, climate change, and food miles. Vertical farming means growing food in stacked trays inside a warehouse with a very carefully controlled environment. Rather than being grown in soil, the plants are usually fed nutrients directly through water or vapour. Because it is indoors, there is no risk of changes in the weather damaging the crop. And you’re not reliant on sun or rain to fuel their growth. The light comes instead from special LED panels. There are no pests, so you need no pesticides. And the water can be recycled through the system to minimise use.
Vertical farms can be sited in the middle of cities, right next to where the demand is. The tomatoes could come straight from a building behind the pizzeria. And given the decline of retail on the high street, there might be a lot of spaces to be filled.
What are the downsides of vertical farming? All that light, heat and water movement needs energy. That energy has to come from somewhere. Even if it could be entirely solar powered, the system would have less efficiency than the plants absorbing the sunlight directly. If you’re powering a vertical farm from dirtier sources of energy, then its benefits will be limited.
Then there is the taste. Can we really replicate the great taste of a traditionally-grown tomato in such a sterile environment? Well, the ones I have tasted taste pretty good, but I’m sure not everyone would agree.
The dairy industry seems to be taking a battering from all sides. It is criticised on welfare grounds, on environmental grounds, and on health grounds. I don’t agree with all these criticisms and I’m still very much a dairy consumer. Though even in my household we have cut back and started to experiment with alternatives. These alternatives aren’t always better on ethical, environmental, or health grounds, once you run the numbers. But they are worth exploring. And they definitely justify their place in the future pizza.
For this experiment we used a vegan cheese made from almond milk. And it tastes like…cheese! This was perhaps the biggest surprise for me as I didn’t have high hopes for a fake cheese. But it grated like cheese, cooked like cheese, and tasted pretty good on our pizza.
The most controversial choice in our future pizza was the introduction of insects. Why put ground up crickets into a pizza dough? It is down to the confluence of two issues.
The first is about climate change. Some argue that insects are a much more efficient means of creating protein for human consumption than, for example, cows or even chickens. The jury is out on this right now. Some experiments with crickets have shown that they can require just as many inputs as our current diet. But there is potential there. More critical is the potential threat to our wheat supply. Some of the major wheat growing regions of Europe are at serious risk from climate change that could have dramatic effects on crop yields. In the future we may have to look at alternatives to wheat, replacing at least some of it in our recipes.
The second issue is about health. We are increasingly body conscious, and also better informed about our health. One of the big trends has been for people to cut back on carbohydrates in favour of a higher protein intake. Insect powder is an incredibly rich form of protein, with 8mg of protein for every 10mg of insect powder. What if you could enjoy a pizza that had 20%, 30% or even 40% lower carbs, with most of that replaced with protein?
In the two experiments we’ve done so far, we mixed the cricket powder with normal white pizza flour in first a 20/80 and then a 40/60 ratio. I have to say the 20% worked better. It produced a dough that was easier to work with, and a flavour that was more like normal pizza but with a nice nutty edge. The 40% mix lacked elasticity and had a slightly more grainy texture when chewed. It was still very nice and in our voxpops at Crazy Pedro’s, people still enjoyed it. But I think a 20-30% mix would be an easier sell.
So, will we all be eating insects in the future?
Christoph Karrasch, the reporter for Galileo, naturally wanted to know if I thought we would all be eating insects in the future. After all, the big trend right now is for veganism. Surely this won’t reverse?
Honestly, I doubt insects will become part of everyone’s diet. Let’s remember that there are already large parts of the world where insects are entirely normal part of the diet. This isn’t some issue about whether they are edible or good for us. It’s about choice. And the explosion of choice is arguably a much bigger trend than veganism.
In the future we will know even more about our bodies than we do today. And we will have an even greater range of foods to choose from, and diets to follow. For some of us, insects will offer a source of protein that fits with our particular selection of health needs, body goals, and ethical choices. There will undoubtedly be more foods that use insect protein available. But they won’t be the default option.
So, will we all be eating insects in the future? No. But some of us will be eating a lot more. And I absolutely expect to see them as an ingredient on more pizza menus.