01/03/2013 05:28 pm ET Updated Mar 05, 2013

To Save the Earth, We Must Change What We Eat

What will we be eating in the future? If the past is any guide, we won't be eating the same foods that we are eating today. The history of food has been one long, changeable feast, as we humans have introduced new foods into our diet and learned how to modify plants and animals to fill our bellies and delight our taste buds. 

The 20th century saw not just the explosion of crop yields through the spread of modern irrigation and chemical-intensive industrial agriculture, but it also witnessed the ubiquity of that strange new hybrid, the processed food, which has increasingly replaced the whole-food staples that nourished previous generations. Will the 21st century see a trend toward new super-foods like algae, or the development of synthetic foodstuffs in the laboratory? And how will global warming change what we can grow and where we can grow it? Will we need to go back to some old crop varieties and traditional planting techniques, which are friendlier on the soil and don't require huge inputs of fossil-fuel produced fertilizers and agro-chemicals?

These are a few of the questions addressed in Our Global Kitchen, a new exhibit at the Museum of Natural History in New York City which will tour nationwide next year. I was guided through the show by its co-curator Eleanor Sterling, the director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation. 

If you want to know what Olympic swimmer Mark Phelps eats to prepare for his six hours of daily training, the 18 gold medal winner's breakfast is on display (a mega-calorie power meal which includes three fried egg sandwiches, a heaping bowl of grits, syrup laden pancakes, a 5 egg omelette, plus a stack of french toast.) 

You can also peer into an Aztec market replete with mouthwatering goodies like bicolor corn, chiles of all shapes and sizes, fresh iguana, nopales cactus pads, maguey worms, a rainbow array of pumpkins and squashes, and baskets heaped with green tomatoes (they are a lot tastier than our store-bought red varieties, we learn.) And while there is not too much to actually eat, there is lots to smell -- lemongrass from Asia, fresh fennel, cocoa and lavender -- in aerosol displays.

Where Our Global Kitchen really shines, however, is in its exploration of the future of food through the lens of its past. After showing us how human cultures have molded food species over the millennia to suit their diverse appetites and tastes through selective breeding techniques as radical as anything today's bioengineers have in store (a single species of wild cabbage was bred to produce kale, bok choi, cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli and kohlrabi) the exhibition asks: Where do we go from here? How do we feed the nine billion hungry humans who are expected by the year 2050 without exhausting the soil, water and other resources that agriculture depends on.

This question is critical in light of the projected impacts of global warming, which is already altering climate zones and rain patterns worldwide. The answer of the museum scientists is that we need to build more flexibility into the agricultural system by, for example, planting hardier and more varied crop varieties, growing deep-rooting perennial grains like wheat grass, which are drought and heat resistant and do not need to be replanted on a yearly basis, and expanding urban agriculture (in futuristic glass-walled geodesic domes like the one modeled in the show) and home-based systems like the water-based hydroponics "window-farm" on display, which allow food to be produced where it is consumed.

Our Global Kitchen also serves up alternatives to environmentally disastrous meat production, which uses 75 percent of the land dedicated to agriculture for grazing and growing feed for livestock, whose belching produces 18 to 50 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gases. There are display cases which illustrate high-tech alternatives like culturing animal cells to create "test tube beef," something even a vegetarian could partake of with a clear conscience. There are also models of closed tank systems for breeding fish, which would be non-polluting and relieve the pressure on wild stocks of current fish farms.

An eye opener is how much food we waste. Museum visitors see a towering plexiglass obelisk containing a jumble of cans, cartons and fruits representing the three quarters of a ton of food that the average American family throws away each year. A lot of perfectly good food gets trashed because it is cosmetically flawed, or the expiration date has passed, or it is served but not eaten. Discarded food, we read in an information tag, is the largest component of waste in US landfills, and a major source of methane in its own right. Poor countries lose more to insect pests, in transport, or due to poor refrigeration. All told, an astonishing third of the food that humans grow goes to waste.

This loss underscores one of the shows main themes -- that despite the bounty of modern agriculture, hundreds of millions of people (fully one in eight worldwide) do not get enough to eat. This is not because we don't grow food in sufficient quantities, Stirling told me, but due to a witches brew of social problems: poverty, volatile food prices, poor distribution, armed conflict and lack of access to land. 

Yet in the face of world hunger, portions in the United States have metastasized. Restaurant meals contain four times more calories today than in the 1950s, as we see in a graphic display, creating epidemics of obesity and food related illnesses like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Eleanor Sterling told me that around 40 percent of the calories we eat come from three crops -- corn, wheat and soy. But the huge chemical and irrigation-dependent monocultures that produce these staples are exhausting soils and underground aquifers faster than they can be replenished. 

The good news is that there are alternatives. This is my takeaway from Our Global Kitchen. We may indeed be able to feed the hungry mouths of the future -- if we continue to change what we eat and how we grow it, as humans have done throughout history.