Stories / Impact

How to Build the Road to a Better Food System

Imagining the food of tomorrow at the MIT Media Lab

Mitchell Davis

January 08, 2019


MIT Media Lab and Beard Foundation meeting photo by Jimmy Day
Photo: Jimmy Day

The James Beard Foundation is guided by our mantra of “good food for good.” For chief strategy officer Mitchell Davis, that means digging into the complex relationships of our current food system through global conversation, finding ways for the Beard Foundation to collaborate with others in envisioning the future, and making sure that chefs have a place at the table when we talk about feeding our planet both sustainably and deliciously. Below, Davis reports back from a recent convening of thought leaders, researchers, media, and more by the Beard Foundation at the MIT Media Lab, where attendees explored the integration of technology and food and the creation of a roadmap to help guide us towards a better food system of tomorrow.


Skyscrapers of sterile laboratories that house microbes and algae farms to produce all the nutrients we need to thrive.

Rooftop farms with rows of heirloom plants harvested by robots.

Multi-story farmers’ markets in urban neighborhoods where produce from the hinterlands is subsidized for local communities.

Any of these scenarios could be part of the future of food. In fact, elements of each are with us today. But how do all the pieces of the food system fit together in the future? Who gets to decide? How will the food taste?

These questions have preoccupied humankind since we enjoyed our first meal. More than a dozen years ago, anthropologist Warren Belasco wrote Meals to Come, a survey of the history of the future of food. He identified three general factions of the eternal debate: the Malthusians, who like Thomas Malthus see the future defined by a lack of food to feed a growing population; the Cornucopians, who believe we will always find a way to have plenty to eat; and the Egalitarians, who believe food isn’t the issue—the unequal distribution of wealth is the real problem. Not much about the debate has changed, though perhaps as climate change, political instability, mass migration, income disparity, and other challenges loom ever larger, there’s a renewed sense of urgency to pick a side and run with it.  

As the James Beard Foundation has increased its chef advocacy work, the importance of who gets to shape the vision of and propose solutions for the future of food has come into focus. We are committed to making sure that chefs and other culinary professionals have a say. Increasingly we are trying to find ways to weave their unique perspective into the global conversation around food taking place at the highest levels.

In December we teamed up with Caleb Harper’s OpenAg Initiative of the MIT Media Lab to convene chefs, academics, global food-system leaders, technologists, large food company representatives, social activists, media, funders, and more in an effort to create a road map and a tool that would help organizations and individuals navigate the landscape of food-system change. The MIT gathering was an outgrowth of a retreat of chefs and food system leaders the Beard Foundation co-hosted last year with the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands.

The MIT Media Lab is an ideal partner for thinking about the future of food, as the labs there have been actively creating our future for decades. Touch screens, electronic paper, mind-controlled bionics, gene drives, and other once-futuristic technologies have all been developed there. The lab is new to food, but with the success of Harper’s open-source, climate-manipulated agricultural experiments to control the phenotypic traits of plants, they have joined the conversation about what we eat.

Facilitated by the global design-thinking firm IDEO, with input from the world-renowned Barabási Lab’s Center for Complex Networks, the JBF and MIT meeting was intended to get a diverse group of people to think collectively about how to understand everything currently at work to improve the food system, from academic research to chef advocacy. The end goal is to create a comprehensive data set and taxonomy of all efforts to create a positive future of food so that people can easily grasp what’s happening, find information, locate collaborators, avoid redundancies, match with funders, and otherwise navigate this complicated and complex space.

Data is key to this type of work. One important realization from the gathering was that we don’t have a lot of good data that’s easily aggregated. Though the global ecosystem created to support and monitor progress toward the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is vast and includes data components that relate to food, the breadth and depth of that data is not always enough to provide meaningful on-the-ground knowledge. One revelation was that the basis of many common statistics—such as the figure that one third of the food produced globally is wasted—is not grounded in any significant amount of reliable data. It’s a hunch, likely true, which is nevertheless hard to prove. What’s more, much of the work done by grassroots communities—such as chefs, community activists, and urban farmers—is not captured by any data recording mechanism at all.

Professor Albert-László Barabási—who presented at the MIT gathering—foreshadowed an eye opening, though preliminary finding about the imperative to focus attention on the food system. His lab is conducting research to correlate vast amounts of data on diet and nutrition with health outcomes, which suggests that the choices individuals make about what they eat have very little overall effect on health. Instead, the data indicates that the quality of the food available to the individual is the most important factor. As many have suspected all along, getting the food system working better is critical.  

Despite a tremendous amount of work to fix the broken food system—whether from the perspective of sustainability, nutrition, equity, equality, or something else—specificity about what the future of food looks like is hard to come by. No doubt there are too many variables for most people or organizations to consider, too many actors to presume coalescence around a singular strategy. But without a clear picture of what we are aiming for, how will we ever get there? How would we know if we had arrived?

Any good coach will tell you the clearer your vision, the more likely you are to achieve it. Although some oppose the intersection of technology and food, much of that fear is based on an idealized memory of the past. Even the most heritage-based farming of today relies on technology unimaginable in the 19th century. Somehow we must conceive of a food system built on a set of collective values that takes into account the future challenges we will face and incorporates the technologies we will have at our disposal. Clarifying what we’re aiming for will allow us to develop technologies we need based on the values we aspire to express. Even if we get the vision wrong, having a road map to get there and tools to help along the way will make progress more measurable and assured. We just have to be open to revising and refining our vision as we go.

Through our programs, strategic partnerships, thought leadership, and other initiatives the James Beard Foundation is committed to engaging diverse voices from the culinary community in the creation of a clear vision of a future of food and building the tools we need to get there. By working collectively with other organizations, we can ensure everyone’s future will not only be sustainable, equitable, wholesome, and bright, but also delicious.   


Mitchell Davis is chief strategy officer at the James Beard Foundation. Find him on Twitter and Instagram.