Looking Back to Look Forward: Milestones in Food Technology

June 2, 2022 – Right this minute, scientists are developing new tools that will improve the availability, safety, nutrition, and environmental impact of the food we’ll be eating 50 years from now. They’re mining a vein that reaches back to prehistoric times, when the first hunter-gatherers began farming. The discoveries have come fast and heavy since the Industrial Revolution:

1784: Flour made easy(er). In Philadelphia, Oliver Evans invented the first fully automated flour mill, powered by water. Across the Atlantic Ocean around the same time, Scottish inventor Andrew Meikle devised the first mechanical thresher for harvesting wheat.

1810: Efficient, effective food preservation. The “tin canister” was invented in England. In 1812, the first commercial cannery in the U.S. opened. Canned food fed the military in the 19th century’s large-scale wars, and then expanded to the public. 

1863: A huge advance in food safety. Louis Pasteur invented the germ-killing process that would be named for him.

1924: Clarence Birdseye invented you-know-what. Quick-frozen vegetables, that’s what.

1927: This fridge made it easy to chill at home. Although electric refrigeration had been invented a decade before and some home models existed, it took a while for a mass-produced refrigerator to catch on. Once it did, refrigeration revolutionized the way we shop for, store, and cook food.

1928: Better than … The first mechanically sliced bread was sold by Missouri’s Chillicothe Baking Company. But it didn’t become a thing until Wonder hit the market in 1930, the first nationally distributed sliced bread.

1950: The Green Revolution. The end of World War II ushered in a new era of farming, in which technological innovations led to enormous leaps in production. Factories that had been producing ammonia for explosives were converted to produce nitrogen for chemical fertilizers. Between 1950 and 1998, the use of those fertilizers grew by more than 10 times worldwide. In that period in the U.S., insecticide use went up by a similar amount. And while mules and horses outnumbered tractors on farms by almost 5:1 in 1945, by 1960, more tractors were working than animals. Thanks to these advances and others, today, America has one-third as many farms as we did before World War II, but they produce three times as much food.

1967: Enter the microwave. Amana introduced the Radarange, the first microwave oven small enough and affordable enough for home use. It was another way to make home cooking easier, and it also created a whole new market for frozen dinners. (Microwave popcorn didn’t hit the market until 1981.)

1992: A burgeoning practice: precision agriculture. This relatively new farming practice uses cutting-edge technology to make farming decisions specific to each farm, and even each field. By focusing on the five Rs — the right source of nutrients, at the right rate, in the right place, at the right time, in the right way – it produces higher yields using less land, water, and fertilizer, along with fewer herbicides and pesticides.

1994: GMOs hit stores. A tomato became the first produce termed a genetically modified organism (GMO) to come to market. It was engineered to stay firm after harvest, which meant it could ripen on the vine for longer without being damaged in shipping. Within the next few years, GMO summer squash, soybeans, corn, papayas, potatoes, and canola follow.

1999: Farming upward for sustainability. Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier, PhD, conceptualized vertical farming. The practice, which grows crops indoors in vertically stacked, climate-controlled tiers, is expected to reach almost $10 billion in sales by 2025.  

2002: The protein of the future? The first lab-grown meat is successfully cultivated from a goldfish. Although it was a major technological breakthrough, it wasn’t sold for public consumption – would you want to eat a goldfish?

2009: Innovations’ unintended result. As food manufacturers continued to refine their methods, the products they created received a new term: “ultra-processed foods.” They’ve been linked to the obesity epidemic and the growth of type 2 diabetes, among other public health problems. By 2018, these foods provided 57% of the calories Americans ate every day.

2019: A vegan burger that bleeds. After 5 years of experimentation, Impossible Foods introduced the Impossible Burger, a plant-based patty that mimics the taste, texture, and appearance of ground beef to an uncanny degree. Yes, it’s ultra-processed.