The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World

 

WARNING! The challenges world leaders are facing today with COVID-19 may be dwarfed by those we will face from global climate change. Last week, I presented the vision of Food 5.0 proposing the use of data collection and associated technology to meet the challenge. This week Amanda Little presents a vision of adapting life to overcome the effects of climate change though a mix of technology and conservation in The Fate of Food. This professor of Journalism and Science Writing at Vanderbilt University with ideals honed by the new food movement travels across the country and around the world. Her travels lead to possible solutions to problems that we will face before most of us are ready. Her goal is ambitious and engaging. The book is a refreshing change from the polemics that grace our bookshelves these days.

“As many as two billion people might not exist if it hadn’t been for the advent of agribusiness. Farms globally now produce 17 percent more calories than they did in 1990. And while 800 million people still suffer from chronic hunger, that is almost 200 million fewer than there were thirty years ago.” (p. 5) World hunger still exists, but the number of hungry people worldwide is declining both in relative and absolute terms. This change is cause for celebration, but 800 million people are still way too many on the planet to be chronically hungry. Unfortunately, health organizations are now diverting resources from alleviating hunger to battling obesity. One of the reasons I chose Food Science as my major in college was to help feed the world. It didn’t exactly turn out that way, but it is still a topic near and dear to my heart as it is to the author of the book.

“By ‘food system’ I mean the vast network of local and international growers, processors, and distributors who feed seven and a half billion people worldwide.” (p. 6) The fight over the food system between natural and social scientists was highlighted in Food Fights and has been reframed by Rachel Laudan. Little reveals herself as a counter-culture person realizing that just being against the “food system” won’t solve all of our problems with hunger and climate change. She is looking for a third way between wizard technology and prophet minimalism. She confesses that she wanted to grow her own food but lacked the “time, vigilance and good judgement.” It takes more than growing food to get it to the people who need it, and it will take many more skilled growers, processors, and distributors than we have now if we want our food to be local, organic and slow. The same goes for food preparation taking so much more than cooking.

On the surface it seems easy to just go out and grow our own food. In almost 50 years of marriage to the same woman I have been down that road at least three times. Each time it was fun at first and quickly turned into drudgery. Even my wife, the librarian who loves to grow stuff, abandoned the effort after the first or second growing season due to time, expense and effort. One of the most difficult aspects of home gardening is timing of harvest. Unless one is extremely diligent in planning, the plants produce a large number of fruits or vegetables of the same type over a very short time resulting in distributing the bounty to friends, neighbors, the pool guy, and strangers. The other alternative is canning or freezing which includes much extra effort. Our freezer is full of frozen mango from our neighbor’s yard collected two years ago.  

“Sustainable food advocates have scrupulously examined the flaws in our food system, but the large-scale solutions they’ve explored, if they’ve explored them at all, are relevant mostly to the people who have the time, income, and creativity to cook from a CSA, and the cultural reference to know what one is.” (p. 23) Once again, a cultural elitism that fails to sufficiently consider the price squeeze between rich and poor may be affecting demands to re-invent the American food system. The growth of farm size has come in a decrease in farm owners. Can we reverse these trends in time to make agriculture sustainable before the effects of global climate change get worse?

We have seen some potential for smaller farms gaining market share in Europe, but the farm-to-table connection in the United States, which took so long to establish, may be irreparably broken. The author writes about the decrease in nutrients in fresh fruits and vegetables over the years. This concern is a popular meme that appears in many of recent complaints about the corruption of the American food supply. I question how real the “problem” is and if these losses are enough to make a difference in nutritional health? The problem is more likely the lack of consuming enough fruits and vegetables than the apparent loss of nutrients in them.

“I would come to realize during my travels how narrow the American perspective on industrialized agriculture has become. I’d learn that outside the United States, and especially in emerging economies, the debate around technology and agriculture—including GMOs—is not about better labeling for corn chips or even corporate control of the food system, it’s about progress and, ultimately, survival.” (p. 60) The limit to providing enough food in many nations, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, is the lack of infrastructure. Lack of proper cooling facilities, insects, plant diseases, rough handling, inadequate packaging and lack of even minimal postharvest technologies contribute to crop losses between growing location and market (1). Unnavigable roads and inadequate transportation limit access to a wide variety of foods for people living in remote areas.

As noted in Starved for Science, organizations in Europe have discouraged African nations from adopting GMOs. Thus, GMOs are mostly banned in Africa as only 7 of 54 nations permit them, mostly for cotton.  Kenya banned GMOs in 2012, but, facing climate change, Little states that Kenya needs them to survive. She went to Africa as a skeptic of GMOs and realizes that allowing GMOs could lead to bigger farms, but adopting this and other technologies available to wealthier nations will be necessary for the survival of many families living on the margins.

“feeding humanity sustainably in the coming decades will require not just major advances in technology, but also the discipline of applying those technologies wisely and equitably.” (p. 191) Little moves from a new-food-movement perspective to one of balance. Sustainability is a major emphasis of the book, and a key to sustainable food production is a decrease in meat, particularly beef. She spends many pages in surveying the world of cultured meat and plant-based meat alternatives. Concerns about such items not being natural or being ultra-processed do not surface in The Fate of Food. The author points out the advantages of these alternatives include animal welfare and reduced waste. These products are still susceptible to contamination, but not that associated with slaughter. From them we can derive both nutritional and culinary benefits. The key is to democratize food distribution with collaboration across disciplinary lines.

“The foods most often dumped in the trash or poured down the drain included brewed coffee and coffee grounds, bananas, chicken, apples, bread, oranges, potatoes, and milk.” (p. 198) Note that most of these foods are whole not processed. Only the bread is ultra-processed, and it would not be as susceptible to being thrown away if it had a mold inhibitor present. One of the major reasons for processing, including the use of additives, is to extend shelf life and prevent waste. This chapter on food waste is my favorite chapter in the book. The author has good things to say about fresh-prepared foods. Note, however, that anyone who has ever taken a food micro course is likely to cringe at some of her recommendations like sharing leftovers with others.

“I understood then what I’d previously known only in abstract terms—that when a food system collapses under the stress of drought or any other pressure, so do the communities that depend on it. India today is still feeling the worst water crisis in its history,” (p. 234) As we have learned during the pandemic, supply chains can be vulnerable. They are designed to perform well under normal circumstances, but are not as durable when conditions change drastically. Companies that plan for contingencies and build safeguards into their chains are more likely to survive in hard times, but they may not be as efficient as their competitors under normal circumstances.

India’s water problems are due in part to the rapid growth of food crops during the Green Revolution without adequate attention paid to conservation and population growth. Expect more collapses of food chains particularly in areas around the world where population continues to expand and infrastructure for food distribution is lacking. Climate change will only exacerbate the situation.

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The final chapter on food processing was the most disappointing one. Since this is the area of my expertise, Little’s lack of sophistication here makes me wonder some about the credibility of other chapters and concepts. The chapter was largely devoted to 3-D printing and producing Soylent! Is that all food processing can bring to the table to make our food supply more nutritious and sustainable? Will a 3-D printer become the next microwave oven or the next bread-making machine? Can it be a major workhorse in preparing family meals or just a more clever toy to make cool-looking foods packed with sugar? And do we need super foods that supply all of our nutritional needs? Or do we need access to a wide range of foods that when combined provide us with an enjoyable, nutritious diet?

So many new technologies are now available that can reduce the nutritional damage wrought by heat, preserve delicate flavor, ensure food safety, and reduce food waste. She needs to take a trip through Future Foods by Julian McClements and Molecules, Microbes, and Meals by Alan Kelly.

Bottom line. The Fate of Food is a refreshing change from most of the books I have read on the coming climate apocalypse. The authors of too many of these books line up on one side of the fence, either pro or anti-technology, where discrediting the enemy is more important than developing a cohesive plan. Amanda Little has apparently wandered outside the new-food-movement camp to seek out technological solutions that can be applied “wisely and equitably.” Can those of us entrenched in the technological camp venture out to meet her half-way?

ICYMI: You can access my recent chocolate talk on Zoom.

Next week: What is the American food system?  Why are supply chains so important?

Reference:

  • Sparks, S.A., 2013. Postharvest handling systems for fresh fruits and vegetables in sub-Saharan Africa and potential enhancement by the Aid for Fair Trade Initiative. MS thesis. University of Georgia.

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