I recently had the opportunity to attend Future Food Tech, a virtual conference that brought together food scientists, brand executives, investors, and entrepreneurs from around the world to radically rethink our food system in a post-Covid 19 world.
After spending a great deal of time contemplating my experience at Future of Food Tech, I am brought to the realization that with all of the innovation circulating around food, we are in less control of the words and their respective definitions used to express and explain these great innovations.
Finding the Meaning
Defining the language we speak ought not be reminiscent of a game of musical chairs. We are all sputtering words but not meaning the same thing. If we always consulted a dictionary when we decided to use a word and the next person sitting on their proverbial chair looked at the word and then consulted the same dictionary, we might have a reasonable understanding of meaning. Meaning being the thing here, not really words. How do you explain something almost entirely new, especially if this word is supposed to explain something that you potentially eat and digest?
Let’s take the comparison of a scientist and a butcher. For many, the prospect of someone wearing a lab coat (the cliché of the day) and handing you food that they were involved in creating is more unappealing than a butcher handing you a piece of meat still full of blood and warm. But they are both giving you food. The person wearing a lab coat is just as valid as a butcher in the back of a supermarket. It is just the oddity of this newfangled protein business (growing animal cells and formats of fermentation) that makes the newness of this industry scary. The vulnerability of its message to those who would like things to stay the same is real.
Think about a word for a moment, a great word that requires a reexamination of its definition every once in a while:
Science - (and lets just go with the general definition because it is right on the money here): the state of knowing; Knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding.
After hearing people talk about the problems with the science of emulating certain formats of protein, I couldn’t but help to follow this line of thought: Food is structure; it is architecture. When space transforms into structure, it in turn becomes architecture. To design and construct requires planning and methodology, regardless of whether it comes to the transformation of ingredients into a beautiful dish or the now sought-after emulation of a cut of meat (now the holy grail of food tech). We are talking about food, and as much as it is easy to take a bite of something, let’s remember our stomachs are in sync with our vocabulary. It is important that we get the terminology right. The message needs to be as well thought out as possible, and public relations is also a huge asset to this industry.
Language has the ultimate key to the doorway to our stomachs. How we choose our words, how honest and transparent we are about our newfound culinary creations, inventions, and innovations, determines the acceptance of them. You could innovate the most nutritious, delicious, beautiful food, but without people wanting it, innovation will starve and die. Think of the debate over the term GMO. To the extent that the use of this term is poisonous, the industry had to capitalize on certification that says non-GMO. Yet much of our insulin is created utilizing genetic modification. Almost all of our cheese is created using GMO as well. The context of language is set by those who speak it. If packaging and front-facing aspects of a new tech food company are to survive the strain of being new, first their products must taste amazing and secondly people must be compelled to try them. Proper design and messaging are the only way to bridge the gap.
Crafting the Message
There is a ton of work to be done here. It’s all about Words in the time of Food Tech. Architecture in the case of buildings can be grand actualizations of concepts, liberating to those that live in them, or they can be tenements that are badly conceived and depressing. In much the same way, the words we use can help or hurt. These brains of ours are like hoops, our words a circus of cats. Cellular Agriculture in particular, the lions.
We have gotten to the point where specialization not only allows for amazing discovery, but amazing disconnect too. Our distance to the realities of how food comes to our plates illustrates how we haven’t been paying attention. The very last thing we want to do is perpetuate a disconnect by not finding the right words to explain something. Instead, we need to dispel our fickle tendency to not trust innovation, particularly when it comes to food.
We will have roughly 10 billion people to feed in the coming years and we have to produce more food in the next 45 years than we have in the last 10,000 of human history. Our need to eat and our need to innovate out of a problem must be met with good allies, with heart, soul and purpose. And it starts with the right message. It’s time to get to work.