In 2069, your food will shop for you

Industry experts place their bets on the supermarket of the future.

The trouble with predictions about the future of food is that they usually wind up being wrong. Where, for instance, is the dog-sized cow engineered to graze in my backyard? Meals today don’t come in pill form, and despite decades of anticipation, insects haven’t replaced farm animals as a meaningful source of protein. You’ll understand why I’ve approached the question of how we’ll shop for food in the year 2069 with some amount of hesitancy.

To find my footing, I called Max Elder at the Institute for the Future, a think tank based in Palo Alto, California. Elder works as a researcher in the Food Futures Lab, which companies and governments hire to do exactly the type of blue-sky thinking that conjures up an idea like that backyard cow—or, in this particular case, blenders and refrigerators that can conspire to manipulate commodity markets. Whether or not these concepts bear out, Elder tells me, he believes that engaging in such speculation is critical to shaping our world. Fail to dream about the future, and you forfeit your role in its creation.

Today, the grocery store is in a period of particularly rapid change, as more and more companies vie for their share of America’s $650 billion food retail sector. Legacy supermarket chains like Kroger and Albertsons are now up against discount rivals like Walmart and Costco, European transplants Aldi and Lidl, plus drugstores, dollar stores, and, of course Amazon, which has been steadily encroaching on food retail since its 2017 acquisition of Whole Foods. All that competition has produced a climate of innovation, as retailers try to best each other on exclusive products and services, value, technology, and convenience. The choices they make matter: Everybody eats, after all, and what we consume is determined to a large extent by what our grocery stores decide to offer.

In forecasting where the industry will go over the next few decades, Elder told me, “The idea is to push people beyond notions of what’s plausible to what’s possible. What are the values implicit in the question? What will the food system look like if we optimize for different values?” He encouraged me to think of it all not so much as predictions but imaginings. So, I decided to suspend disbelief, loosen my grip on reality, and imagine a world where T-bone steaks grow on trees (or at least in bioreactors), snacks are tailored to my microbiome, and my morning coffee arrives by drone. Saddle up, everyone! Don’t forget your decoder rings.

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