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Food, glorious, food: from robot farmers to 3D prints

Image credit: Better Origin

Which of these has the greatest carbon footprint: bananas, asparagus or cheese? Eating right isn't so easy.

Ah, food glorious food. Lionel Bart’s catchy opening number to his 1960s musical that you now won’t be able to get out of your head. Sorry about that.

Oliver Twist dreamed of having more to eat than the workhouse’s thin gruel every day, an onion twice a week and half a bread roll on Sundays. He asked for more gruel but he sang for hot sausage and mustard, cold jelly and custard, peaches and cream, pease pudding and saveloys. It sounds stomach-churning by today’s tastes but he was only nine – and it was the 1960s.

One hundred and eighty years after Oliver Twist, we don’t think of food much less – it’s a basic need after all – but our thinking has changed. Childhood hunger re-emerged during the pandemic, with stories of food banks, footballers and free school meals. But our concerns had already widened to other issues: where food comes from, its carbon footprint, its affordability, how good or bad it is for us and whether we eat too much of it.

Worldwide crises and politics are reshaping the food industry in 2021. Many of us have found more time to cook under lockdown, instead of just watching people do it on TV. The question ‘what’s for dinner?’ has become ‘what’s for dinner tomorrow?’. Lockdown has stopped us eating out and it has changed the future of fast food forever, 100 years after the first outlet opened its doors.

The industry is under growing pressure to be more environmentally sustainable from consumers and governments. But it has to balance many factors: nutrition, cost, location, transport, season, preservation, shelf-life, packaging, cultivation – and the list goes on. Making more sustainable choices is not easy for consumers either. At a global scale, vegan is good for example, but it becomes more complex closer to home. Caroline Hayes has the answer to our opening question above in her article about how a varied diet need not cost the earth.

Widening public taste in food would help: fish beyond cod, vegetables beyond broccoli, meat beyond sausages, perhaps rediscover some forgotten British delicacies. But how about insects? Most of the world eat them but in the northern hemisphere we associate them with decay. Chickens aren’t so fussy and feed from insects may be a great new way of using food waste.

Engineering and technology have long been taste-makers in food. We take a look at the journeys of some common food groups to our tables and how that food could one day come from space farms. With a shortage of labour, robots will pick the fruit. And if presentation is everything, then 3D printers are the chefs of the future.

A decade ago modern nutritionists investigated the typical Victorian workhouse diet and concluded it was in fact adequate to sustain a growing boy, albeit short on the five-a-day, but usually much better than Dickens had popularised. It was high in roughage too. In fact, it may have been healthier, if a lot less fun, than Dickens’ own diet featuring alcohol with most meals.

UK food exports and imports bar chart

Image credit: Graphic News / E&T

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