Why We Need More Stories about the Future of Food
As part of a national celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize, California Humanities is convening a series of discussion forums throughout the state through the Pulitzer Prize Centennial Campfires Initiative. The second in the series features a conversation on the future of food at the LA Times Festival of Books. For more info on this forum and the series, please click HERE.
Why We Need More Stories about the Future of Food
Sarah Smith, Research & Design Manager, Institute for the Future’s Food Futures Lab
Stories about food connect us to our histories and our cultures, evoke feelings of community, and spark imagination. Food stories have taken me from the bowels of cod fishing boats to Spanish fields full of acorn-snarfing pigs to a seat at the literary table of the world’s best chefs. But the words we compose about food have mostly been about our past and our present. We need to recognize that the stories we tell about the future of food matter, too—perhaps more now than ever before. New voices are inviting us to join their conversations about the future of our food system. They represent technologists, chefs, scientists, farmers, politicians, and, really, anyone who makes a habit of eating, collectively declaring, “we want to have a say in what kind of future we get.”
As a researcher at Institute for the Future’s (IFTF) Food Futures Lab, a large part of my job is to tell stories about the future of food. I do this by researching and writing forecasts, designing artifacts from the future, and sometimes even immersing people in experiences of what the future might hold. These stories about the future of food can’t predict what will happen, but they can explore a wide range of possibilities. IFTF’s foresight is grounded in the early signals of change that we can observe today. It seeks to understand how emerging science and technology will converge with social and cultural shifts. The language that we use to talk about the future imparts our values, beliefs, and intentions on these visions of tomorrow.
While foresight requires imagination, itis grounded in real-life constraints. Food companies are often bound by the time horizon of the next quarter. Families are concerned with affordability, safety, and health. Farmers are limited by the realities of a rapidly changing climate. It’s within these constraints that good storytelling matters most – to frame visions of the future in ways that resonate with people’s lived realities. My colleague Jamais Cascio, a fantastic futures scenario writer, reminded me, “We shape tomorrow through the choices we make today. Or to flip that around, we can make better decisions now if we consider the different ways in which these decisions may play out.” One way to get better at this is by telling more stories about the future.
At this year’s LA Times Festival of Books, California Humanities is highlighting this connection between stories and food futures, and I am honored to join a panel of inspired and influential food storytellers.
Alice Water’s narratives about the role of food have shaped a generation and led a “delicious revolution” in pursuit of slow food. She reminds us that “every single choice we make about food matters, at every level. The right choice saves the world.” She has created restaurants, school gardens, and social movements in support of that mandate. Stories about food futures communicate vision about how the small efforts at the edges today could lead to a different tomorrow.
Jonathan Gold captures the appetites and imaginations of millions of readers who turn to him as an authority on taste, quality, and authenticity. He asks readers to get out of their comfort zone and acknowledge their worldviews. His stories about food give people new vocabulary and context for understanding their local food culture and generates longing for new possibilities. Stories about food futures lend to ever-evolving shared and personal identities: of Los Angeles, of California, of America, and of the global food system.
Mas Masumoto’s stories are responsible for the very existence of his farm today. When people read that he was going to destroy the Sun Crest peach orchards in favor of a bigger, more sellable sort, they rallied to save those peaches. Stories about food futures can provoke action. And, they can be just as powerful when they reveal worlds that you don’t want to exist. As a result, the final epitaph for the peach is yet to be written. The story is once again in transition, now across generations, as he passes the farm to his daughter.
In our own ways, all four of us employ narratives to communicate aspirations (and fears) for the future of our food system. For the last century, the overarching narratives about food were largely dictated by governments and food companies. But as our food systems evolve, we’re also moving toward a world of more open food narratives. Over the next decade, we can expect people to take advantage of emerging platforms and data to tell new food stories, and challenge existing ones. We can cultivate open, participatory narratives about the future of food, and nurture meaningful conversations that will lead to a future that we want to live (and therefore, eat) in.
Academic futurist Dr. Jim Dator said, “Any useful statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous.” We have an opportunity now to tell bold, creative, and, yes, ridiculous stories about the future of food. So, what’s your story?
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