Golden Rice and Glow-In-The-Dark Jello: Imagining the Future of Food Design

Posted by Nicola Twilley


Food—the substance itself, as well as its methods of production and consumption—has always been the subject of tinkering and design. The color of carrots, the shape of silverware, and the layout of supermarkets are all products of human ingenuity applied to the business of nourishment.

Today, food is being redesigned more fundamentally and at a faster pace than ever before. This process is taking place in a wide variety of different contexts, with very different goals in mind, from corporate food technologists re-shaping salt crystals to maintain palatability while combating heart disease, to synaesthetic experiences designed by artist-entrepreneurs such as Marije Vogelzang. On the one hand, the Gates Foundation is backing genetically modified "golden rice," engineered to contain higher levels of the essential micronutrient, beta-carotene, while, on the other, design provocateurs Dunne & Raby recently proposed expanding the amount of food available for human consumption through a range of DIY digestive system hacks.

As these examples begin to show, the design of food has the potential to reshape the world, let alone what we eat for dinner. So when the nonprofit The Glass House Conversations asked me to come up with a question that would kickstart a public debate, I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn more about who is redesigning our food, how, for whom, and to what end. What are the opportunities and gaps in food R&D today, who is setting the priorities, and what should we be investing in, in order to use food as a tool to design a better future?

Here's the way I tried to sum all of that up on the Glass House Conversations site:

In an era when food justice, food security, climate change, and obesity are such pressing issues, should there be public funding for food design R&D, and, if so, who should be receiving it?

Excitingly, several people have already jumped in with really interesting responses. Foodprint Project co-founder Sarah Rich argues that "food design" needs to be better defined, and perhaps even broken out into different categories, before good decisions about funding priorities can be made. Several commenters point out the risks of public funding—that government's inevitable rigidity and risk aversion will mean that it fails to find and fund the most innovative ideas, for example.

From the UK, Fire & Knives editor-in-chief and Guardian journalist Tim Hayward comes down in favor of public funding for food design R&D as a necessary alternative the "appalling results" of leaving it to market forces, while entrepreneurial synaesthete and jellymonger Sam Bompas argues that food design also requires arts funding, to escape the inevitable pressures of use-value and encourage more radical invention and exploration. Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, industrial designer Carly Hagins thinks money would be better spent on consumer education initiatives; Design Observer blogger Alexandra Lange makes a convincing case for a R&D focus on food delivery systems; and Alphabet City founder John Knechtel blends public and private, advocating a network of "food entrepreneur incubators."

What do you think? From nanotechnology and genetic modification to fruit vending machines and smaller packaging sizes, we have a range of tools at our disposal to rethink food, from agriculture to distribution. Which directions offer the most potential, and how should we make sure that our food is being redesigned for good, rather than just for profit?

You have four more days to add your voice to the conversation here. Jump in!

Images: (1) cake, reformatted by Danklhampel; (2) Save Food From Fridge, by designer Jihyun Ryou; (3) baby carrots, repackaged by Crispin Porter + Bogusky.