Food is much more than any one dish or drink.
Indeed, if we go deeper into food, we find it's comprised of many different ingredients, like the ground beef in meatballs. Deeper still are the cells making up those ingredients in their whole form, such as those in muscle and fat tissue, which themselves contain numerous different types of molecules, including proteins, fats, sugars, vitamins and minerals. When consumed, these molecules or nutrients take part in the billions upon billions of reactions occurring in the human body at any given second; for example, oxidation, in which the oxygen we breathe mixes with the foods we eat to produce energy. These reactions are ultimately what give rise to vitality--a quality distinguishing the living from the non-living.1 From this perspective, one possible definition of food is packages of nutrients formed of biochemical molecules contributing to vitality.
But food is also greater than this. One layer up, food is the experience of eating itself; one that is often social in nature, in which we infuse sensations with emotions, linking smells, tastes and textures with people, places and times.
Above and beyond this momentary experience, there is also a meta experience. It is the stories we share about food, with our family and friends, generation after generation. It is how food becomes culture. It is how food becomes legendary. It is how food lives on.
All together, the many layers of food give rise to its essence. A sum a greater than its parts. Just like a set of Russian Dolls, if we were to take any one of those layers away, the nature of food would begin to hollow. By including all eight of them, we therefore arrive at more complete definition of food:
Packages of nutrients formed of biochemical molecules contributing to vitality, wrapped in the sensory experience of eating, shared in stories codified into culture.
But does this capture everything or is something still missing?
Food refers to packages of nutrients formed of biochemical molecules contributing to vitality, wrapped in the sensory experience of eating, shared in stories codified into culture
One dimension not explicitly included in the definition above is food in relation to time and place. Starting with time, food isn’t a static entity, but rather is what dynamically links organisms, enabling the transfer of vitality. Using the analogy of an on/off switch or 1s and 0s, food originates in vital organisms, which are alive or on with reactions unfolding within. These organisms either produce food, like milk, or become food, like meat, at which point they enter their inert form or off mode as packages of nutrients, before entering another organism and revitalising once again.
Food forms part of a dynamic network of relationships amongst organisms, enabling the transfer of vitality
Whether or not organisms can transfer vitality to one another in this way depends on how our bio-compatibility has evolved over time. This also determines whether our relationships are collaborative, competitive or somewhere in between.
Food relationships amongst organisms fall along a spectrum of competitive to collaborative, typically combining aspects of both
In addition to time, food is also intertwined with the places it can be found--places at the macroscopic level where animals, plants, fungus and algae live, as well as at the microscopic level, where we find the yeast in beer and bread, chlorella in green smoothies, Lactobacillus in cheese and halophiles in sea salts.
Places also span the many different ecosystems of the Earth’s biosphere, some of which are still wild, such as woodland, ocean, lakes and caves, and others of which are artificial ones of our creation, such as factory farms, fields and fermentation tanks. In relation to food, these ecosystems are often referred to ‘terroir’ when it comes to land and ‘merroir’ in the case of water.
Comprising the Kingdom of Life
These terms convey the inextricable nature of organisms and their environments, particularly as the conditions characterising those environments, the climate, geology and hydrology, influence the expression of an organism's genetic capabilities. As a result, heirloom lettuce grown in organic, regenerative ecosystems exhibits meaningful differences to lettuce genetically selected for mass production on chemicalised, monocultured fields or indeed lettuce genetically modified for growth in autonomous facilities, just as cows or even cow cells do across a similar range of scenarios. What exactly these differences are and whether they matter when it comes to food, we’ll explore in more detail to come, but for now the key is to recognise the fundamental role of time and place in defining food. Adding these elements to our definition: food is also a dynamic network of relationships amongst organisms existing in the many ecosystems of the biosphere.
Do we identify food by species type or by the interaction effect of an organism’s genetic capabilities and surrounding conditions?
We now have a snapshot of food, as well as its relationship to time and place, but what the relationship between food and people, specifically? After all, humans are not just active participants in this biosphere, but are currently the most influential players. We would therefore be remiss not to include in our definition what differentiates the human experience with food.
This comes down to our edge, based on our differentiated ability to plan and prepare, which has enabled us to establish strategic systems for maximising the value we extract from food based on the conditions and capabilities of any given time and place.
We organise these systems along value chains that form part of the economy as a whole. In the case of food, the value chain begins with the design of the strategy itself or targeting certain foods to maximise their value for any given set of conditions and capabilities. From there, sourcing involves controlling the life cycle of the organisms required to produce those foods. At a certain stage of maturity, organisms and their by-products are transformed into ingredients, which are then distributed via existing transport and communication systems to end destinations, where they are finally prepared into dishes to be eaten and shared according to social hierarchy and norms.
A strategic system for maximising value from food based on the conditions and capabilities of any given time and place organised across a value chain
Design Targeting certain foods for any given set of conditions and capabilities to maximise value
SourceControlling life cycle of organisms required to produce those foods
Produce Transforming organisms or their by-products to various ingredients
Distribute Distributing ingredients via transport & communications systems
ExperiencePreparing dishes and eating according to social hierarchy and norms
Our first food system centred on nomadically hunting and gathering wild organisms through the use of fire, language and wood and stone tools. This system was in place for around 90% of our existence, until disruptive changes in conditions and capabilities enabled a new system to arise: subsistence agriculture. Agriculture in this form centred on domesticating a select number of organisms with basic tools and techniques, such as enclosures and ploughs. The agricultural system prevailed over the course of 10,000-years or 9.999% of our existence until another great change in conditions and capabilities gave rise to the industrial system based on producing commoditised food products through the use of combustion machinery and chemicals in centralised locations.
This has been the dominant system over the past 150-years or 0.001% of our existence. In this short period of time, it has enabled us to break free of the Malthusian trap, in which constraints on the supply of food limited population growth.3 Increased access and availability of food, combined with other systemic changes, such as improved sanitation, have subsequently led to an eight-fold increase in human population from 1B in 1870 to almost 8B today.4
But our story doesn’t stop here. It’s just beginning. We are once again experiencing disruptive changes in conditions and capabilities, giving rise to a modern food system in a moment of transformation unprecedented in its speed, scale and scope.
Disruptive progress from the hunter-gatherer to agricultural to industrial to modern food system
Breaking free of the Malthusian Trap
Arising in response to disruptive changes in conditions and capabilities
While key features of the modern food system and value chain are still taking shape, it begins with designing foods from the molecule up through software optimising across multiple variables, and then sourcing ingredients from cells and organisms genetically identified through Big Data software from across the biosphere based on their design compatibility. Next, these ingredients are transformed into foods and packaged for delivery in local, autonomous facilities equipped with Cloud software and modular hardware. From there, they are distributed via decentralised networks serviced with autonomous, electric vehicles, 3D printers and other connected devices. Finally, modern foods are experienced in conjunction with digital interfaces enabling personalisation, interactivity and full transparency.
While this system may sound futuristic, chances are you already eating modern foods in this way without even realising it. We'll explore the details in the third section, but for now, let's return to our definition of food. Adding in this dimension: food is a strategic system organised across a value chain, evolving in response to changing conditions and capabilities.
Key features are beginning to take shape
And with that our definition grows longer. Are we at risk of overcomplicating food? Or is food itself complex? I would argue the later--that food has the complexity of life itself.
When defining complex concepts, quantum physicist Murray Gell-Mann advocates describing the patterns or so-called regularities of an entity as fully as possible, but also as concisely as possible, arriving at a definition that is not too short, not too long, but just right5. Similarly, Albert Einstein reminds us,6
Honouring the complexity of food while drawing from their perspectives, I’ll propose one final dimension: food is energy, matter and information that once internalised connects us to the wonderous complexity of life.
Based on my experiences, food is no more and food is no less. But what about you and your experiences,
I welcome you to continue to explore this question with me in the next sections, which provide a 100,000-year view on the evolution of food as well as a deeper dive into the modern food system.
A multi-dimensional definition
Packages of nutrients formed of biochemical molecules contributing to vitality, wrapped in the sensory experience of eating, shared in stories codified into culture
A dynamic network of relationships amongst organisms spanning the many ecosystems of the biosphere
A strategic system organised across a value chain, evolving in response to changing conditions and capabilities
Energy, matter and information that once internalised connects us to the wonderous complexity of life
No more, no less
Our exploration of modern food and the disruption decade continues with the next presentation in this series. Be the first to hear about it when it launches on the site.
 Definition of vitality draws upon those included in the Cambridge and Merriam-Webster dictionaries
 Senczuk, G., Mastrangelo, S., Ciani, E. et al. 2020. The genetic heritage of Alpine local cattle breeds using genomic SNP data. Genet Sel Evol 52, 40.
 Marshall CL. 1974. Health, nutrition, and the roots of world population growth. Int J Health Serv.:677-90; Gibson, Mark. 2020. Food and Society. Elsevier Inc. London.
 Roser, M., Ritchie, H. and Ortiz-Ospina, E. 2019. Global Population. Our World in Data. Available here
 Gell-Mann refers to ‘concise definitions’ as ‘the description of an entity’s regularities’; Gell-Mann, M. 1994. The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex.
 Robinson, A. 2018. Did Einstein really say that? Nature. Available here