Can human ingenuity save us?
Open the bag of beige powder. Heat it up, add water, stir, and you’ve got pot pie—or at least what’s supposed to taste like one. A Utah-based company is producing these freeze-dried meals in case we ever find ourselves in a survival situation. Sales are brisk, writes Amanda Little, in the introduction to her book, Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter, World. It isn’t hard to see why given the many end-of-the-world scenarios posed by climate scientists. But in this particular book about climate change, Little focuses on human ingenuity instead.
An award-winning environmental journalist, Little asks what food production will look like as we try to adapt to a warming world. She visits farmers and scientists around the world in search of solutions, traveling from apple orchards in Wisconsin to fish farms in Norway to sewage plants in California. She eats vertically-grown baby greens, lab-cultured meat, and vegetarian fish feed, which she describes tasting like a “moldy sneaker.” (Then again, it’s for fish not humans.) She details the sweeping potential of new technologies along with their high costs and inaccessibility. The arrival of 3-D printed food, for instance, could optimize nutrition, but it overlooks the importance of preparing food as a social ritual.
Little makes a case for reassessing how we view our food system, noting the tension between what she calls food de-invention and re-invention. “One side views technology as corrosive, the other sees it as a panacea,” she writes. “One side covets the past, the other the future.” Organic and preindustrial farming practices may produce better quality food, but not in enough quantity to feed everyone. High-yield industrial farming may scale, but leads to massive environmental overuse.
Little proposes combining the two sides: by using the right technology, we can improve the quality and quantity of our food harvests all while restoring nature. She favors tech solutions that complement, rather than replace, what already exists in nature, and points to what Blue River Technologies is doing. The startup is developing a robot weed zapper so precise it sprays herbicide only on what it identifies as a weed. This improves crop growth, cuts down on herbicide use, and allows farms to cut back on plowing and tilling. No-till farming is a fundamental part of regenerative agriculture. It improves the soil’s ability to conserve moisture, keep carbon in the ground, and preserve soil health. “Robots don’t have to remove us from nature—they can help us restore it,” says Blue River Technologies founder Jorge Heraud.
Technology can also be a tool in the push for a more equitable food system. The vertical farms being developed in New Jersey require no arable land, and can raise food security for both urban and vulnerable populations. Pilots fight drought in Ethiopia by pushing chemical vapors into clouds and prompting rain. Drought-resistant genetically modified seeds are allowing farmers in Kenyan to survive. One farmer saw her yield increase more than 400 percent in a year.
The Kenyan success story is a chance for Little to scold the knee jerk position many environmentalists have taken against GMOs. She points to studies concluding there’s little, if any, health risk associated with them, and suggests these crops may well be a realistic and safe solution to food insecurity. Little quotes a Wall Street Journal op-ed, in which Zimbabwean technology student Nyasha Mudukuti describes the anti-GMO stance as an “ideological luxury.”
Tech hasn’t saved the day—yet
Little tries to answer how to make our food sustainable and affordable. Owners of a small permaculture farm in Virginia sell their produce at a higher price, mainly to high-end markets and restaurants, and frequently question the ethics of doing so. Little describes this as “food that realistically can feed only the rich.” The Silicon Valley meat-culture labs could revolutionize the production of meat, if it succeeds in scaling up.
A weakness of the book is that it doesn’t quite answer this question. New tech practices take time and money before becoming widely available, and many of the ones Little writes about are only in early or middle stages of development. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. End-of-the-world projections are powerful motivators!
Little is such a good storyteller, she had me invested in topics I never thought I’d care about. Pages into an explanation of desalination, I realized I wanted to keep reading, and maybe the point is that I should. This book encourages us to question and dig deeper because we’re all participants in the food system.
I never felt sidelined by scientific jargon because Little uses plain English. Her enthusiasm for the people she’s meeting, and their ideas is contagious, as is her self-deprecation. She tells us she isn’t a “perfect environmentalist.” She wastes food and gave up gardening. She swore off meat for only two months before devouring a plate of beef tacos. But, she says, she keeps on trying, which makes me want to as well.
The future of food is a balance of old and new, scalability and quality. Little urges us to view them in combination rather than in opposition. She shows that open-mindedness isn’t just about being comfortable with the idea of 3-D printed food. It’s also recognizing that different communities require different solutions.
These solutions extend from individual actions each of us can take, like going meat-free, to re-imagining industrial farming practices. “Innovation and ignorance got us into the mess we’ve made of our food system,” she writes, “and innovation combined with good judgment can get us out of it.”