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

Can there be a comprise between industry-led and farm-to-table?

In scientific peer review, the “third reviewer” has become a cliché. It’s that person who aggressively comes for your manuscript, with a desire to eviscerate every wobbly detail, expose every gap in the logic, and point out everything you didn’t include in your text that they demand to see. This is also how I approach book reviews, and I expected to use all my usual third-way tools on The Fate of Food:  What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World.

As it turned out, I didn’t need to.

Author Amanda Little’s self-description sounds like the kind of farmers-market-shopping, Michael-Pollan-devouring, wholesome, concerned mom, environmentalist type of writer that typically has a superficial grasp of the food system, paired with nostalgia for a time before anyone became aware that pesticides were used for food production. The kind of person who thinks that dinner at the high-end, farm-to-table bistro is salvation, and it will make everything right with the world.

Instead, Little actively wrestles with these kinds of previous influences, and mostly confronts them head-on. She explores the realities on the ground, air, and water, in depth, and concludes that there’s a place between the sepia-toned red barns on mom-and-pop farms and the industrial production systems that have been demonized by other food writers.

There’s a place between the sepia-toned red barns on mom-and-pop farms and the industrial production systems.

There is a third way, which incorporates high quality starting materials from productive farms that are aided by many new technologies, and can bring us abundant food with fewer resources and wiser choices of tools. Unlike many food books and documentaries, Fate provides a hopeful outlook, which is refreshing in a time of fear and gloom from many who expound on the food system and the state of our warming planet.

Drought-tolerant maize projects in Africa, food waste reduction tech like the bioengineered, non-browning Arctic Apple, robots for various repetitive farming tasks, precision agriculture methods to use less herbicide and fertilizers, and indoor vertical farming all combine to convince Little that a third way approach to food production is possible.

From a historical look at food processing, such as Inca freeze-drying techniques and Roman Empire greenhouses, right through to today’s military 3D-printed food projects, Little immerses herself in the realities of food production. She visits pot pie production facilities. She watches the robot weeders on farms. She describes a laser-shooting immersible device that zaps sea lice off of farmed salmon. She orders Soylent meal replacement drinks and gives it a try. She explains the “sonic agglomeration” that sounded to me like something you’d do in a Tardis, but is a novel and valuable technology for food preservation.

While acknowledging the challenges that farmers and consumers will face in a changing climate, such as uncharacteristic freezes, heat waves, floods, or droughts, this is not the focus of the book. It’s clear that the strategies and tools Little examines will have utility, just the way any new agricultural tools always have. She quotes environmental geographer Ruth DeFries, one of the many appropriate and quality sources she relies on,

Every new agricultural tool introduced since the first farming settlements has been designed with the same goal: to coax more food from the earth with less human effort.

She’s also cognizant of the limitations of the different strategies. Vertical farming is not the solution for all crops, and indoor varieties need to be genetically optimized. Even the enhancement of traditional and heirloom crops to broaden and spread their utility is considered a viable and desirable path. This is typically heresy among fans of heirlooms, but a scientist she interviews, botanist Mark Olson, who works with a genus of plants called Moringa, notes:

There’s little doubt that ancient plants combined with modern breeding tools could more rapidly close the nutrition gap.

Little tackles a couple of topics that are often ignored by other food commentators — water and waste. A chapter on wise use of water resources was fascinating, and examples of how new technology is nearly eradicating wastage of water was enlightening. Yet much of this is hidden from end users, and they don’t understand why the technology is so effective and efficient.

Little dumpster-dives with with supermarket chain Kroger’s “chief of perishable logistics and donations,” and concedes that large companies must be part of the solution to major issues like food waste, instead of dismissing them out-of-hand, like many foodies do. I laughed out loud at some of the resulting observations in the food waste chapter, such as the fact that composting can backfire,

[Municipal composting program] participants who regularly composted their leftovers tossed out significantly more food than noncomposters, presumably because they felt better about the outcome of the waste.

and,

Hoover noted the conspicuous absence of things like Doritos, Spam, and Twinkies on the list. ‘Food waste is riddled with unexpected contradictions, and one of them is that the healthier diets tend to be the most wasteful diets …’

There are several amusing, unexpected contradictions in Fate of Food, and bringing these to light is very helpful. However, there are also some residual prejudices that cloud some of Little’s descriptions of industrial food production, and clearly there is occasional discomfort with the future directions she explores. Still, she always comes back around to the recognition that farming for future population growth will benefit from new tools that reduce the burden of inputs and resources.

Little accepts that it’s complicated and doesn’t deliver simple platitudes. She gets that there are multiple moving parts, and groks that her Tennessee back yard is nothing like what’s facing women farmers in Africa, and that many of these new tools could help provide nutritious and affordable food for more people, if deployed effectively.

There are some gaps in Fate (okay, I can’t entirely resist being Reviewer 3). I wish Little had explored the barriers to the “third way” more. What’s keeping people from adopting these things on a wider scale? Who or what is in the way of this? This was done well in the food waste section, but not in most of the others. Why did she ask Michael Pollan about Golden Rice, instead of the researchers who are about to release this to farmers in Bangladesh?

Little admits to changing her mind once she had a grasp of how CRISPR-edited foods can reduce food waste.

And in the chapter about laboratory-based meat products, Little decries that 50% of an animal is not food, but she doesn’t explore the fact that the other 50% isn’t wasted. As cattle farmers and ranchers tell me, they use “everything but the moo.” Those non-food cattle parts become plenty of other things that people use.

Little does some impressive physical research and locates qualified and appropriate sources. She has a great phrase for indoor crops software management, “digital terroir,” and for high-tech meal mixtures as “omnifoods.” I learned that duck was a top lab meat product goal because of the Chinese markets. She distinguishes “good intentions” from the actual outcomes, and admits to changing her mind once she had a grasp of how CRISPR-edited foods can reduce food waste. These are all woven nicely together with skilled writing and engaging construction.

I understand the appeal of the “third way,” but part of the problem is that previous food writers have polarized the issues. None of the pro-technology folks I know are trying to actively exclude organic farming techniques from their systems, but if that is the means to bring people like Little into the fold, let’s call it the third way and move to the future with awareness of what’s possible, and with hope.

The Fate of Food:  What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World would be a great PBS series, with each episode based on a chapter. We need it way more than we need Goop.

The Fate of Food:  What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World is available on June 4.

Mary Mangan is a biologist specializing in genomics and bioinformatics. AiPT! Science is co-presented by AiPT! Comics and the New York City Skeptics.

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