How Will We Buy Groceries in 2050?

Mike Lee sees a future where supermarkets will start to produce more food at the site where it is purchased. Image courtesy of The Future Market.

Walmart entering your home to stock your fridge with groceries, Amazon dropping Whole Foods hauls at your doorstep via drone, plant-based meat that “bleeds”—if this is increasingly how we’re eating in 2017, what can we expect in 2020? 2050? And given a growing world population and climate change concerns, which of these innovations do we actually need?

These are the big questions we’re exploring on November 3-4 at Food Loves Tech (FLT): our all you can eat and drink Industry City expo where you can test drive food technologies from field and sea to next gen frontiers. We’ll also have expert panels answering some of the most important questions facing our food supply including one entitled “how will we buy groceries in 2050?”

Mike Lee is a food product designer and the founder of The Future Market, a futurist food project that “explores how we will produce and shop for food over the next 25 years.” By imagining a future where “concept food” has become mainstream, the Future Market aims to inspire the food industry toward more ambitious innovation. We talked to Mike about his vision for the future of the supermarket, and for a food system that is both biodiverse and highly individualized.

Edible Brooklyn: Tell me about the idea behind The Future Market.
Mike Lee: I was originally inspired to create the Future Market by my childhood looking at what the auto industry did with concept cars. Creating these fictitious but very tangible things that suggested a different future for the industry and some really aggressive innovation. The food industry wasn’t doing that, so I wanted to create a space where you could set aside what is possible today and start dreaming and prototyping in the context of what could happen tomorrow. We start by taking early stage technologies or trends—things like cellular agriculture that are bubbling up but still too unwieldly to be mainstream—and we imagine what those things are when they become mainstream 10-20 years in the future.

EB: What is your vision for the supermarket of the future?
ML: The market is going to be highly distributed. The idea of grocery stores built around these centralized locations is shattering into pieces. You are already seeing this pan out with things like Fresh Direct, with online ordering starting to build around people’s lives in a better way. The future of the supermarket is also going to be very productive, where we can start to produce more food at the site where it is purchased. Look at Gotham Greens at the Whole Foods in Gowanus where they have a big lettuce and herb garden on the rooftop.

I think the biggest trend that I’m starting to see is with the products themselves. I have a vision in my head of a supermarket that is like a lizard shedding its skin. All of these legacy brands are going away, and being replaced by more sustainable, healthy and customized products. The diversity and depth of the products you are seeing is so much better than what we’ve seen in the past.

EB: A lot of The Future Market vision seems to focus on an individualized experience for consumers. But I also think about challenges on the supply side, for example consumer demand for products that are not available seasonally. Can you talk about that tension?
ML: On the one hand, there is a move in industry to deliver more personalized nutrition in food. Kind of like what Blue Apron does, but designing meals that are catered to your personal health and individual needs.

On the other hand, we don’t talk enough about the idea of us following natural biodiversity, and eating according to those rhythms. Instead, most of the food industry is basically saying, people want this, so let’s figure out how to bend nature to our will to make that happen. So we do a lot of concept products at The Future Market that ask, what if it was flipped around? Where we say to the farmers, you know the soil and the local environment, so tell us what you want to grow and let that dictate what gets sold to people. We shouldn’t be eating avocados on everything and making avocados go bonkers. Instead, we should be eating much less of a lot more things.

EB: In your vision for the future of food, you describe a food system that has “managed to employ a harmonious balance of high tech and traditional methods.” What might that balance look like?
ML: Biodiversity causes complexity. It’s harder at scale to manage growing ten crops versus one crop, and technology on the farm can help. For example, with precision agriculture where you’ve got soil sensors, water sensors and inventory and feed management. From a retail point of view, technology helps people whittle down the huge diversity of products to what is most relevant to them. Biodiversity produces complexity, and technology helps reduce or manage that complexity.