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The Future of Food Labeling
In my role as a futurist, I spend a lot of time traveling. Every day, I see that the future isn’t an accident – it doesn’t just happen. The future is made daily by the actions of people. Real people, doing real work all over the world. Because of this, I spend a lot of time outside the office, traveling the world, meeting those people. To have a vision for the future, I have to go where people are actually making it.
On a recent international trip, I was having dinner with a colleague who was traveling with me from the U.S. We had finished a long day of futurecasting and wanted a quick bite before heading to bed. Unfortunately, the restaurant menu wasn’t translated into English. Not to worry. The very nice waitress said she would read it to us. As she was making her way through the various dishes, she stopped at the specials.
“There is a fish dish for the special,” she said with concern. “It is served over rice and it is very good but . . .” she paused. “But this fish, the fish that is the special, there is no name for it in English.”
“No name for the fish in English?” one of my fellow diners asked. “Really?”
“Yes,” the waitress seemed embarrassed. “There is no English name for this fish.”
“I’m having that!” my colleague smiled.
“I’ll have the chicken,” I said.
This experience got me thinking about food labeling and where it might be going in the future.
A tomato by any other name
When most consumers think about food labeling, they expect two things. They want the label to tell them what’s in the food and where that food is from. Labeling gives consumers a deeper understanding of the food they feed their families. In the future, technology will play a greater role when it comes to labeling food. In the far future, it might even tell us, with scientific certainty, about the origin and even the DNA of our food.
Every living thing is made up of DNA. It’s the software that runs all biological life. To read that software and to understand it, we sequence the DNA. Think of a DNA sequencer like a translator that takes biological life and turns it into a language we can understand.
In 1976, Walter Fiers at the University of Ghent in Belgium, was the first person to produce a complete DNA sequence. Fiers started small, sequencing a viral RNA-genome.
The 21st century brought about faster and cheaper sequencers. In October 2004, a team led by Richard Gibbs at the Baylor College of Medicine’s Human Genome Sequencing Center in Houston was able to sequence the DNA of a cow. In May 2012, an international team called the Tomato Genomics Consortium sequenced the DNA of a Heinz 1706 tomato.
Moving into the 21st century, DNA sequencing of all our food will become common. In the future, the DNA sequencing process will be cheaper and faster. Andrew Hessel, biologist and distinguished researcher at Autodesk believes that the cost of sequencing any DNA could go down to just $1 a test or even lower.
“It’s feasible to see a vision for the future where all of our food could be sequenced,” Hessel explains. “Very soon, we will have the ability for consumers to know with scientific accuracy the DNA makeup of their meat and vegetables. It will be common and everyday.”
Imagine a food label placed on a food product. That label itself has DNA sequences on it that can test the food and display the contents and makeup of the food. Now add to that all the sensors and contextual information that could be combined with this data. Where was the food grown or produced? What was the soil type? Who was the farmer who grew it? What other products does the farm produce?
"We will have the ability for consumers to know with scientific accuracy the DNA makeup of their meat and vegetables. It will be common and everyday."
The problem in the future becomes information overload. We will have the ability to have more information than the consumer will ever be able to process. The real question, then, becomes what is the story you want your label to tell? If we can deluge the consumer with information, we need to curate information to meet the needs and catch the imagination of the consumer.
Labels are not just about the contents of the food – they are marketing, as well.
What story do you want your label to tell?
In 2001, Frédéric Brochet, a French researcher, tested the effect of labels on consumers. Brochet used wine in his test, presenting the same Bordeaux superior wine to 57 volunteers. He separated the tastings by a week, giving the volunteers the same wine in two different bottles. One label claimed the wine was expensive; the other label said it was a simple table wine.
After tasting the same wine twice, the volunteers reported that the one with the expensive label was full bodied and rich, while the table wine was flat and thin.
The organic and local food movement has been a game-changer for many local farms. These labels and the story about where food comes from have shown this matters to consumers.
In the future, technological advances will allow us to tell consumers everything they might want to know about their food. The real future of food labeling, however, is in the relationship farmers want to have with consumers. The food label will be far more complicated and powerful than ever before.
HM Labels in the future?
Growing crops will not always take place in open fields. There’s a growing number of companies investing in infrastructure and tools that will allow food to be grown in controlled vertical systems, mostly indoors. This sector of agriculture could spawn a new sort of food label: HM.
This stands for habitat modification, something applied to indoor vertical food systems in which environmental factors can be precisely controlled, unlike in conventional systems where Mother Nature is in the driver’s seat. As indoor agriculture becomes more mainstream, genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, will become something of the past, according to the leaders of Plantlab, a Netherlands-based company developing indoor agriculture systems.
“We modify the environment where plants grow but not the plants themselves. We select the characteristics of nature that plants like, while omitting the elements that inhibit plant development,” according to Plantlab business developer Hubert-Jan van Boxel. “You could say that we do the opposite of [genetic modification]; we often refer to it as habitat modification.”
This includes basic factors critical to healthy crop growth. In terms of the labeling of food products, it could all but eliminate the need for the GMO label that has fueled controversy in the ag and food industries.
“You can conclude that most of the advancements made in open-field agriculture have been attempts to interfere with the plant itself,” according to a Plantlab report. “In a controlled environment like our Plant Production Unit, however, it is not necessary to interfere with the plant itself.”