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What does the future of food look like? Chef Gaggan Anand and Dr Jon Cybulski weigh in

What does the future of food look like?

If that question has ever crossed your mind, here’s where you’ll find your answer. National Geographic Asia has come together with regional National Geographic Explorers, change makers, and performers to launch its first-ever live virtual event, Planet Possible Day.

While the programme covers topics such as excessive shopping, plastic consumption, and how the arts play a role in shaping our society toward a sustainable future, it also aims to debunk misinformation around food sustainability.

Fronting the food conversation is National Geographic Explorer and marine and historical ecologist Jon Cybulski and chef Gaggan Anand. Ahead of the show’s premiere, we discussed what the future of food means to them, as well as their thoughts on the sustainability of plant-based proteins.

future of food Dr Jon Cybulski
Dr Jon Cybulski

Technology has always been shaping the future of food sustainability. In recent years, there’s been a startling growth in the plant-based protein industry. Previously it was the tinkering of meat, and now seafood. Now, I’d love to hear from the both of you, do you think the switch to alternative proteins is actually a viable and sustainable solution in the long run? 

JC: My general feeling on alternative meats is, and  it’s like you put it in the perspective of technology — so I’m gonna run with that. It’s a start, right? And like all technology, you have to start and usually the first creation or iPhone is not the best one, and then you over time you adapt to the market, you adapt to the needs.

And I think that’s starting to happen with this alternative meat movement. Now, is it a viable complete alternative for all meat in the future? I have no idea. Personally, I don’t think it is. And I think one of the reasons for that is, it is still a highly produced food, right? So to be able to make this, it’s a lot of production to then create this fake meats. And we’re phrasing it as a fake meat.

So what I see is maybe this is great because it’s getting people interested, it’s getting people to consider these alternative, more sustainable food products and to start thinking about maybe what they were eating before isn’t the answer. But in and of itself, it’s still highly produced and I think we need to focus on more ways of lowering the production of food, and eating things that are local and truly more sustainable.

future of food gaggan Anand
Chef Gaggan Anand

GA: Most importantly, I’m very against the whole idea. Why do we make fake or mock duck or a fake fish or a fake something? If you don’t like it, just stop eating it. If you think it’s not sustainable, stop eating it. Your greed — sustainability is only answered by greed. At the end of the day, who can prove that a beyond meat burger is better than an actual burger?

I believe that everything has an ecological effect. A lion cannot live without meat. Can you make a lion vegetarian? We are born to be carnivores and herbivores. There are two worlds, and they are like Yin and Yang; it’s a balance of nature. We should not destroy the balance of nature.

If you are one of the world’s most famous sushi chefs, and you start using only sustainable fish, and non-endangered fishes, that is the first step. Why would you recreate protein in a way that was never created? Why can we eat natural source of vegetarian protein like lentils and beans, and edamame; there are so many other proteins that are available.

I think it’s a good start to, you know, actually help people to make a switch towards a better, less meat focused-diet.

JC: I think it’s a start. I live in these two weird worlds where I’m a scientist, but also a competitive weightlifter and I was an athlete when I was younger. One of the reasons so many people I know eat these alternative meats is because they’re a dense protein source that’s easy. Because people are like, “well, I’m trying, and I need to get all my macros in to make my gains, and I’m trying to eat less meat.” And so they immediately turn to these products, because it’s a simple way to slide protein into their meals.

But what I hope that doesn’t do is to make people blind to the fact that they should be thinking about the food that they’re eating, and not just being like, “oh, let me just turn to this easy solution.” And this is why I struggle because finding high protein alternative sources that are also sustainable is tough.

It all boils down to doing your own work and planning out your meals so you can think about what you need, so we’re not just blindly following trends and running with it, before finding out that they may not be the best source for our food after all. 

(Image credit: @jon_sci_bulski)

Well Jon, there must be another way to protect the ocean’s biodiversity than by everyone turning into vegans or vegetarians. On a governmental level, are there any policy measures or shifts that like you’d like to see put in place to help?

JC: Yes, I agree. And I agree with you that telling everyone to be vegan or vegetarian is not the way forward, although some popular media is trying to do that. And I think I’ll be quite honest with you, it’s just wrong. And it’s inequitable, full stop.

There are people in the world — probably myself included — from affluent areas that could theoretically make that choice if it was right for them. You know, going vegan could be a health choice as well. But it’s not healthy for everybody; there are many parts of the world that can’t just say, “right I’m just going to cut all my main protein source off.” No, that’s not how it is.

If you think top down from an affluent or privileged perspective — just remove the government for a second — the people who can make these more sustainable choices, who can plan their meals, who can eat more sustainable foods should be doing that, myself included.

You ask about policy and you’re 100 percent right. I mean, what we’re talking about as humans is more of a grassroots movement. When we talk about top down, the big changes that governments are making has to happen in tandem. Part of that is going to be a trickle up because when the masses speak, things tend to happen.

But particularly what I’d like to see is a little bit more government understanding and involvement in sustainable fisheries. Really thinking about the fishing populations that we fish from. From a biological perspective, if this is a population that grows rapidly, then it’s okay to harvest and we should be catching more of this and less of the other ones that are maybe being fished out. And we should take into account seasonality, because different fish breed and reproduce at different times. We need to understand when the best time should be to harvest them to not tip the balance.

Oceans are turning into — just like land — areas for farming. And I think that governments and their policies have the opportunity to step in early to at least fund and do some of the research and support people who are trying to do this in a sustainable way, as opposed to waiting for it all to happen.

gaggan anand
Chef Gaggan Anand will be hosting a two-month pop-up in Singapore later this year.

Chef Gaggan, waste in restaurants is inevitable. How do you balance that line between sustainability without compromising on your dishes?

GA: Sustainability is directly connected to ethicality — how ethical you are to your ingredients and to cooking.

As a chef, I have always tried my best to not give the prime, best-looking, photogenic ingredient the spotlight, but to instead showcase an ingredient that is also part of the same animal that died for you. So, for example, if the best part of a duck is the breast and it’s being already used in my restaurant for the menu, I will also use the leg for a confit. I can also use the bones to make a soup. It’s exactly like when you order a Peking duck. So you eat the best part of the duck, which is the skin, and then you integrate the other parts of the duck into other dishes. You’re using the whole animal.

Sustainability should not be an agenda. It should not be a trend, it should be a responsibility…Sustainability comes with ethics. It’s how ethical you are in your cooking. And that will truly prove how sustainable you are.

Chef Gaggan Anand

As Jon mentioned, water flows from the highest mountains to the oceans, and not the other way around. So it collects our garbage and sends it down all the way. What we put into our water system is what is being fed into the ocean. What we’re eating is the fish that are eating that, and it is not a poison that kills you when you eat it. Will the effects show in the next 100, or maybe 200 years? We don’t know yet. And that’s why it’s very important for us to think about how much we are treating the waste back in our restaurant to put it in the garbage.

future of food

We have to round up here but, what does the future of food mean to the both of you? 

GA: No McDonald’s. No KFC. Squid Game.

JC: Alright, I’ll try and give you a real answer. The future of food for me having a holistic understanding of what I’m consuming. And it like what Gaggan was talking about with the duck, right? Use the duck breast, but then also use the entire duck. That’s a holistic approach to being sustainable, which I would support. So I think the future of food for me is really is knowledge and data. Because I’m a scientist, it’s the understanding of where my food came from. What am I ingesting? How good is this for me? How good is this for the planet? So it’s that kind of holistic knowledge. That’s the future of food for me.

GA: I’ll just give you a proper answer. The future of food is five days of cooking at home, and two days of eating out — not eating out every day. Because once you start cooking at home, you’ll understand the relationship between your waste and your kitchen, and then you will understand the chef better when he tries to send you the message. And that’s very important.

Planet Possible Day airs live on October 24 at 6PM (SGT) on National Geographic Asia’s Facebook page.

Jocelyn Tan
Senior Writer
Jocelyn Tan is a travel and design writer who's probably indulging in serial killer podcasts or reading one too many books on East Asian history. When she actually gets to travel, you can find her attempting to stuff her entire wardrobe into her luggage. Yes, she's a chronic over-packer.