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Features / Response and Responsibility

Feeding the 10 billion: How can design play a part?

This article is part of Response and Responsibility, a new series of stories about the ongoing climate crisis and what the creative industries can do about it.

The reality of the situation is this: By the year 2050, Earth’s population will have risen to around 10 billion.

This massive surge in population has numerous serious and far-reaching implications, many of which will only exacerbate the ongoing climate breakdown. One of the biggest and most immediate of these is the question of how we go about feeding all those new mouths without simultaneously actively expediting the early end of the Anthropocene era.

“According to the UN, we need a lot more food – and in a very short period of time,” says Katrina Brindle, who works at Space10, the ever-innovative research lab run by Ikea, and who has recently been researching the future of food. “We’ll need up to 70 per cent more food, in fact.”

Getting the balance right – between avoiding the humanitarian crisis of global hunger and trying, where possible, to minimise the environmental damage caused by the production, transportation, consumption and disposal of all that newly-necessary food – is a multifaceted problem that requires urgent solutions. It’s a problem, in short, that needs designers.

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Koen Vanmechelen: Planetary Community Chicken (Via The V&A)

“There is power in food,” says May Rosenthal Sloan, co-curator of Food: Bigger than the Plate, an expansive exhibition that’s recently opened at London’s V&A museum. “This thing we do every day contains great potential for us to enact change. Food’s ubiquity means that if we think internationally and collectively, food allows us to shape the world, bite by bite.”

Before anything ends up on our plate, it’s been grown, reared or somehow (and increasingly often) conjured into being by a team of scientists. With that in mind, let’s think about one of the biggest food factors that shapes the current environmental landscape. Let’s think about meat.

We’ve all been told about the impact meat-eating has on the environment. If we continue on the path we’re on, a combination of rising global temperatures, a population-growth-necessitated increase in mass farming, and a transcontinental reliance on meat for sustenance will, says the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, result in Earth no longer being a "safe operating space for humanity” by 2050.

Rather than hectoring or lecturing the ticket-buying audience of the show about the ethical dilemmas and climate implications of meat-eating, May’s V&A show uses a variety of experimental exhibits to explore what she describes as “the collaborative spirit of artists, designers, chefs, farmers, scientists, activists and local communities exploring what the world could be, through food”.

She points out two exhibits that – in a twist of curatorial brilliance – sit opposite one another in the gallery as prime examples of how design processes can be used to make consumers consider the impact of industrial animal farming.

“Planetary Community Chicken is a project by the Belgian conceptualist artist Koen Vanmechelen May tells us. Reversing what she describes as “the logic of industrial poultry farming”, the piece sees Vanmechelen cross-breeding chickens sourced from across the world in order to “enhance the levels of genetic diversity in small-scale poultry production”, emphasising the importance of diversity and local, small-scale community farming for long-term sustainability in the meat industry.

“The project is one that demonstrates the amazing ability of creative experimentation to yield practical outcomes,” May tells It’s Nice That.

The other work she highlights is Nienke Hoogvliet’s tender, strange and sad Bare Bones. “It simply and starkly shows how the bones from industrially farmed chicken produces a substandard bone china, which crumbles and breaks,” the curator says. It is a disquieting reminder of the horrors of the industrial-farming complex, the system which means most of us can – just about – afford our meat habit.

As May puts it: “There is a real beauty in seeing these projects together, one showing the reality of our current system, and the other in direct relation, setting out a practical means of addressing a problem.”

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Johanna Seelemann and Bjorn Steinar: Banana Story

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Johanna Seelemann and Bjorn Steinar: Banana Story

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Johanna Seelemann and Bjorn Steinar: Banana Story

Another major point of consideration in the fight to feed the planet in the most sustainable way possible is how we go about getting the food we’ve grown to the table. To understand this a little better, let’s hop aboard an Ecuadorian container ship bound for Iceland. Accompanying us on this journey are designers Johanna Seelemann and Bjorn Steinar. Oh, and some bananas. A lot of bananas, in fact.

A while back now the pair started spotting “endless heaps of immaculate fruit” languishing in the food dumpsters behind supermarkets. What intrigued them wasn’t so much what to do with the waste – they wanted to know how it got there in the first place. “We got interested in the logistics of the import and export of fruits and vegetables to Iceland, wanting to get a grip on the system that made these circumstances possible,” Johanna says.

The result is Banana Story, “a collection of alternative made-in labels for the world’s most popular fruit”, tracking a banana on an epic 12,000km journey across the globe, passing through 33 pairs of hands along the way.

Currently on display as part of the V&A show, Banana Story uses elements of graphic design – in addition to the traditional sticker affixed to its natural jacket, the banana in question is also given a passport, providing it with both a “sense of identity” and a “tangible reality”, as Johanna puts it. And there’s a film, too, to tell an important story – the story about shipping, global warming and the end of the seasons as we know them.

The banana you had with your yoghurt this morning wasn’t dropped into the Sainsbury’s produce aisle by a green-winged stork. Instead, it was hand harvested in Central or South America, bunched, packaged and packed onto gigantic container ships, disembarking on British soil around 25 days later. Ships of this kind move about 90 per cent of all the world’s goods around, the result being a transcontinental trading system which provides us with bananas, batteries and baseball caps – while producing enough pollution to ensure that, as British newspaper The I reported back in 2018, “if the shipping industry were a country, it would be ranked between Germany and Japan as the sixth-largest contributor to global CO2 emissions.”

Which, it goes without saying, is a very bad thing indeed. Suddenly that mid-afternoon energy-booster seems less appealing, right?

The (semi-understandable if inherently unsustainable) reliance on a globalised system of food import and export has meant, in the words of an Icelandic importer who acted as a consultant on Banana Story, “When it comes to fruit, there are no seasons anymore. Whatever stops growing in one country will be imported from another. A constant supply is found, whatever it takes.”

While this news isn’t new – and nor is It’s Nice That going to make the unfeasible demand that everyone reading this immediately adopt a zero-food-miles diet, living purely off the foraged finds of their immediate vicinity – projects like Banana Story hammer home the ludicrous and increasingly hostile amount of travel that even the simplest of ingredients makes to keep us fed.

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Space10: Future Food Today

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Space10: Future Food Today

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Space10: Future Food Today

Cooking, whether we’re more meal-deal-for-tea than Michelin-contender, is where we bring food to life. The kitchen is, therefore, also where we can take a modicum of individual responsibility for what we chose to consume.

For the past three or so years, Katrina Brindle and her team of designers, researchers and culinary custodians at Space10’s Copenhagen-based lab have been peering into the future of eating, identifying the alternative ingredients and technological innovations that are necessary, when it comes to envisaging a more sustainable diet for all.

Katrina is forthright when it comes to acknowledging that the current models and systems we use to provide ourselves and others with sustenance simply don’t work. “We can’t hope to solve this issue by continuing with what we are already doing,” she says. “When facing this issue, we need to accept the fact that the way we eat and produce food today is becoming a problem for everyone on the planet.”

Like many other green-fingered foodies, Katrina is convinced that the adoption of a plant-based diet is “likely the single largest way an individual person can reduce their own environmental impact”. The result of this line of thinking is Future Food Today, a plant-based cookbook that collates a series of recipes exploring an environmentally minded approach to food. It aims to be both a handy source of tasty recipes and a way of asking the user to consider their relationship to food in light of the climate crisis.

“It really is a book for everyone, as long as you have a curious mind and an interest in exploring a more sustainable future,” says Space10’s food designer Simon Perez. A curious tongue is a boon, too, when it comes to grabbing a cookbook featuring such delights as “dogless hotdogs”, “algae chips”, “bug burgers” and “microgreen popsicles”.

With its striking use of sparsity, Future Food Today might be more at home on the coffee table of a graphic designer staring middle age in the face than nestled next to Delia on your mum’s kitchen shelf, but it represents a bold step forward in one of the most oversaturated markets in all of publishing.

Addressing the population issue, Katrina asserts that we have to abandon hope that a sudden solution will be found. After all, this would require a level of cooperation between international governments and big business on a hitherto unseen degree. She believes that a “combination of multiple technological solutions and new dietary norms, complemented by a reduction in food loss and waste” is the ultimate foodie path to salvation.

Fundamentally, as May Rosenthal Sloan puts it: “What design can do is delight and provide new, curious ways to rethink how we do something as everyday as eating.” Both her exhibition at the V&A and this beautifully designed and meticulously researched book by Space10 are examples of this. It might not be quite the same as entirely solving the impossibly thorny issue of how we feed the 10 billion – but it is an amazing and inspiring start.