According to a new Netflix series based on Michael Pollan’s book "Cooked," we should all head back to the kitchen and relish in the joys of home cooking. It’s not necessarily bad advice. There is an inherent dignity in seeing the fruits of one’s labor immediately enjoyed by friends and family. But good advice for one doesn’t always make good advice for all, particularly when it comes to food policy, which Pollan has attempted to change. That cooking, and in a particular manner and philosophy, should be a pressing issue for most households is presumptive at best.
Amid the lofty goals of the leaders of the so-called food movement runs an undercurrent of food philosophy and politics that undermines our food freedoms and prosperity. While recognizing that our modern foodstuffs, from wheat to corn, are unnatural human creations, there is a sense in which our more modern innovations – from microwaves to biotechnology – are nefarious plots of Big Food that are to blame for current problems as diverse as obesity and soil runoff.
Heirloom varieties. Small farms. Diversified agriculture. No corporate intrusion. Heavy reliance on labor. This was the romanticized state of food and agriculture in the middle of the last century. If, as the story goes, we could get ourselves back to this ideal, there would be less nitrogen runoff, flourishing local economies, and low rates of diabetes. It is wishful thinking. Farmers themselves rapidly embraced technologies like hybrid corn, tractors, man-made fertilizers, mechanical milkers, and in-door animal feeding operations. It saved farmers time and labor and made them more money. And, as less labor was needed, our country moved from an agrarian to a modern industrial and service-based society.
American women today spend half as much time in meal preparation and cleanup than they did in the 1960s. If that change seems deleterious, a chat with one’s grandmother might provide an alternative perspective. Modern innovations in food processing and preparation, in kitchen technologies like microwaves and dishwashers, and the advent of inexpensive restaurants freed would-be domestic servants to pursue their own desires and careers precisely because meal preparation and cooking have become so easy. It is a noble choice to spend more time in the kitchen. The key word is "choice." For many of our forefathers, or more precisely foremothers, there was little choice in the matter.
There are significant food challenges ahead relating to soil erosion, obesity, nitrogen runoff, climate change and food security. More difficult than identifying these problems is determining how to most effectively address them. Is a retrograde return-to-nature approach up to the task?
Often missed in the discussion of food futures is an accurate depiction of what’s actually happening today on the farm. Rural entrepreneurship and technological adoption are having profound impacts on farmers’ fields and on our dinner plates. A closer look reveals a fundamentally different view of the future of food based on the idea that innovation and technological advancement are not opposed to sustainability but rather are the key ingredients. Productivity growth brought about by technology implies producing more and better quality food using fewer resources; it’s hard to imagine a more apt depiction of sustainability.
Most commercial farmers of any size today utilize precision technologies. Yield monitors tell them which portions of the field are most and least productive, and variable-rate fertilizer applicators help them more judiciously apply nitrogen in ways to boost the bottom line while preventing nutrient runoff into waterways. Agronomists are devising ever more precise ways of applying seed, fertilizer and herbicides. In a day and age where local food has become all the rage, precision agriculture technologies have allowed even very large farmers a more intimate and more localized understanding of their land than has ever before been possible.
Crop breeding technologies, conventional and biotech alike, are helping farmers cut back on the use of pesticides and water, but they’re also being used to develop crop traits that have more tangible benefits for the consumer. In the developing world, where people survive by consuming the vast majority of their calories from a few staple crops, malnutrition is rampant. Conventional breeding technologies are making potatoes more nutrient dense in countries like Mozambique and are making beans higher in iron in Rwanda and Guatemala, and biotechnologies may one day, if allowed, help reduce night blindness in southeast Asian through innovations such as golden rice.
Concerns about corporate involvement in agriculture overshadow the efforts of entrepreneurs, university scientists, small start-ups, and even student groups who are coaxing plants, animals and even bacteria into making outcomes more useful for human health and the environment. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology hosts an annual international genetically engineered machine (or iGEM) competition where hundreds of student teams compete to make living organisms better serve humanity. One of last year’s winning teams engineered bacteria to signal when olive oil goes rancid, a major problem given the time it takes the oil to traverse the Atlantic. Another team created a probiotic to help fight obesity.
Technological innovation is heading for the dinner plate as well. We may soon be able to order a tasty burger produced in a lab without the methane-emitting, water guzzling cow. Three-dimensional food printers are enabling the creation of personalized delicacies, and a company out of London has even created a robot cook. By attaching sensors to the arms and hands of celebrity chefs, a robot can be programmed to make a succulent dinner even when we’re too busy to cook.
Change is scary. But what’s the alternative? Eating like our grandparents? We can aspire to something more.
Jayson Lusk is a professor of food economics and author of the forthcoming book "Unnaturally Delicious: How Science and Technology are Serving up Superfoods to Save the World."