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The Future of Food Is Food

Not Soylent or Schmoylent or Schmilk.


I’ve seen the future of food, and with all due respect to my visionary colleagues in Silicon Valley, it is not Soylent.

It is not Schmoylent or Schmilk, either.

The future of food is not a powder mixed with water to create an engineered superfood. It is not a race to consume calories as quickly as possible so as not to disrupt the disrupting. It is not alleviating the “pain point” of having to “waste time” eating food with friends and family, in order to maximize time building the next app.

If you are unfamiliar with Soylent and its various competitors, it is powdered drink that, when mixed with water, enables you to “never worry about food again,” according to its marketing materials.

Soylent is a cleverly engineered product marketed as an “alternative to traditional food,” ostensibly enabling people to “live life and focus on what is important to them instead of worrying about the time, expense and complexity of maintaining a balanced diet.”

When I first saw the promotional video for Soylent, I thought it was an advertisement for a Hooli project led by Gavin Belson, the fictional CEO of the fictional corporation in the HBO show “Silicon Valley.”

My skepticism is not rooted in a belief that the food industry isn’t ripe for disruption — to the contrary, it’s a $5 trillion sector in need of innovative startups to challenge the way food is produced, distributed and consumed. The “Big Food” industry has put profits over health, pushing processed food over real food for the past half century.

We also need to make sure our kids eat better meals in schools, with healthier choices that are still tasty and filling. The idea of our children sitting in lunch rooms drinking powdered shakes is about as dystopian as continuing to feed them overly processed junk foods. Full disclosure: I’ve put my money where my mouth is and invested heavily in companies like Revolution Foods and Sweetgreen aiming to do just that.

But rather, it reflects a Babylonian belief of some in Silicon Valley that even the most basic, fundamental aspect of human life is a mere earthly constraint to be left behind.

Do we need healthier food and a cheaper way of sourcing and distributing that food? Absolutely. But that’s not a powder. It’s authentic, natural foods, locally sourced, sustainably grown, brought fresh to our tables.

Put another way: The future of food is food.

As an investor, I am always looking for large, addressable markets ripe for disruption. And it always struck me that while many products and services are widely used, some even used by most people, there was probably only one industry on Planet Earth that touched everyone: Food.

There are “foodpreneurs” who are attacking the fast-food industry by creating their fast casual concepts that emphasize healthy options. There are online ordering and delivery companies making access to food simpler. There are companies working to bring healthy, tasty meals to schools. The food sector has gotten hot, with venture funding pouring in to back these and other innovative startups.

It’s worth remembering that food isn’t just a source of energy, or a business opportunity. It’s much more than that.

Food is social, and the social element of breaking bread with family and friends remains fundamental. Our lives are busy, but are we so arrogant to think that our obsession with building the latest app justifies ignoring our loved ones? We should be putting our digital devices down more — not our forks. Some traditions are timeless and will prove themselves justifiably resistant to change. That’s why I don’t think Soylent is our food future, at least not for more than a handful of self-absorbed Valleyites.

When we were busy building AOL, yes, we skipped a few meals and ate too much take-out. But we always found time to eat. And we thrived.

Or let’s take Google. Google’s culture thrives on collaboration, which includes a buzzing and healthy in-house dining experience for everyone to mingle and relax. I doubt Google would dream of firing their chefs and replacing their buffet with powdered drinks.

In fact, some of the best ideas I have ever been part of have come over a shared meal. I remember having sushi with Steve Jobs when he was outlining his vision for the iPod, and being moved by a conversation I had with Nelson Mandela in his home after lunch about the rise of Africa. And not a week goes by when I’m not inspired by an up-and-coming entrepreneur, sharing his or her vision for a better world as we break bread.

Sure, there will be some that prefer powder over real food, and more time in front of a computer over more time with loved ones. Indeed, one advocate of powder over food recently told the New York Times, “I think engineers are ready to throw in the towel on the illusion that we’re having this family dinner … Let’s do away with all the marketing facade and get the calories as quickly as we can.”

That is sad. That is not what Silicon Valley disruption is about. What are we innovating for, who are we building the future for, if we don’t value human connection?

In my opinion, Michael Pollan had it right when he urged us all to eat “real food,” avoid “edible food-like substances” — and “don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”

Sometimes revolutions take us forward by taking us back.

Steve Case is chairman and CEO of Revolution, a Washington, D.C.-based venture capital firm, co-founder of AOL, chairman of Up Global, a member of the President’s Ambassadors for Global Entrepreneurship and chairman of the Case Foundation. Reach him @SteveCase.

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