Forget local & slow, a hotter more crowded world means technology will have giant role in your food

In “The Fate of Food," Amanda Little investigates where and how the food of the future will be made

Published June 23, 2019 5:30PM (EDT)

 (AP/John Flesher)
(AP/John Flesher)

Amanda Little’s new book “The Fate of Food: How We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World,” picks up a thread that her first book, "Power Trip: The Story of America's Love Affair With Energy," began. Feeling virtuous in front of her organic salad one day, Little began to think about where the ingredients on her plate came from and was struck by how enormous the carbon footprint that a salad trucked from hundreds of miles away must be. This realization lead her to explore the impact of self-proclaimed virtuous grocery sources like Whole Foods (this was way before Amazon’s acquisition) on the environment and our over-reliance fossil fuel in even the spaces we consider safe from the effect of our dependence on oil and gas. A salad set her on an investigation of all the ways our lives are entwined with and reliant on Big Carbon, and she would return to that salad.

Long before Little, the former “Muckraker” columnist at Salon and now a professor at Vanderbilt University, started writing “The Fate of Food,” she had followed her children’s enthusiasm for gardening picked up at school into their own back yard and started what she calls “A 21st Century Victory Garden,” one that they hoped would supplement the family’s weekly grocery run and teach them all about the labor involved in producing food.

It was hard work and by Little’s own assessment she was not very good at it. As with most all of her journalism, “The Fate of Food” sprang from the personal realization that she’d be lost without somebody else producing her family’s food. So Little set out to meet those people; especially the ones who were already tackling the hard questions about how to make food on an increasingly crowded and hotter planet with the tools that the digital revolution provided and promised (and in some cases despite those tools). Little Joined me in the Salon studio to talk about what she discovered while investigating the future of food.

For more food-centric episodes, visit our “Salon Talks” Food playlist.

You open this book with an amazing scene about being in a survival food factory, and it seems to me like it dawns on you that the question of food security and where food is going is suddenly presented to you in stark relief: "This is really happening. People are really preparing for there to be no food."

Well, yeah. I actually ended up at this Salt Lake City facility for Wise Foods, which is a leading brand in survival food, in part because a number of people in my life are beginning to stockpile food. One of them is my brother, who is a climate scientist at the Nature Conservancy, so he's very well-versed in climate data and the models and the predicting where we're going to be in 20, 30 years.

Then I also had some other folks. My cousin-in-law, who's a former cop in Indiana, was putting long storage food in his basement for six months to a year. My brother, my stepbrother, who is an executive in downtown Washington D.C, was stockpiling food in his urban basement, and I'm thinking, what's going on here? I am certainly not someone who is as concerned about our food future, and I need to.

That dawning realization: ‘Am I missing something?’ right?

Am I missing something? Exactly.

You also how hard it was to make food because you had a backyard garden that was a great challenge to you.

It still is. As it is to many. Yes. I am an avid eater. I'm not a very virtuous eater, and I have little kids, and I'm sort of aware. I live in Nashville, Tennessee, which is not exactly Berkeley, California, but we have lots of backyard gardeners and people with chicken coops and paleolithic diets and this kind of thing. I had gotten wind of the fact that there was sort of DIY sustainable food movement going on, and just wasn't really pulling it off. We tried and still tried to raise vegetables and fruits in our backyard and haven't had very good results with it. I mean, we invest far more than we actually save in growing our own fruits and vegetables.

It's not cheaper.

No, it's not cheaper. It is for some people who are good at it. I just don't happen to be one of them. I also work full-time and cook last-minute. I've tried to give up meats, and I've tried to do only organic and GMO-free and all these things. I just have found that it's so time intensive, that I didn't . . . I can't pull it off. The guiding question for this book came to be, how are we going to fix a failing food system if we can't necessarily rely on a critical mass of backyard farming vegetarians to fix it from the ground up? I had dinner with Michael Pollan five years ago when he came through town. I said, "Hey, I love this notion of 'eat food not too much, mostly plants.' I'm not great at it. How do you make a 100% sustainable food system that can work for everyone and not just this group of wealthy virtuous eaters?"

Because that's happening for that market. Right?

That's right. I mean, they're plenty people who are getting on board with the farm to table sustainable food movement. It's certainly growing very quickly, but it's still a small fraction of people, and it's largely wealthy people with the time and resources to invest in that kind of lifestyle.

I was also worried about and wondering as these environmental pressures kick up and climate change begins to put more and more pressure on food systems around the world, how do we do sustainability on a grand scale? He kind of said, "That's a really interesting question. Someone should write that book." Or, that's what I heard him say. Five years later, I am here talking about “The Fate of Food” with you.

That's the story. There were so many different catalysts for me with this book as a sort of food world imposter. I'm not-

Well, you're hardly an imposter.

I wasn't.

It's a valiant effort. Right?

Thank you. Well, now having been steeped in this for five years I feel like I've gotten some chops, but I'm not . . .  I didn't come at it as food activist or as a chef or as someone who has . . .  lives inside the food world.

I've been writing. I've been an environmental reporter for 20 years, and I've been writing about energy and water and all kinds of ways into the story of climate change. It occurred to me that the main way we're all going to experience climate change, I mean that means all of us 7.5 billion people currently alive, and in 2050, the 9.5 billion people who we're expecting will be alive. That the main way all of us are going to experience climate change is through its impact on food. There will be certainly populations displaced by flooding and megadrought and heat and forest fires, but those will be very region specific. The entire world is going to feel some way or another these impacts on food systems.

Effected populations are going to move toward the food. Right?

They're going to move toward the food. Given that, given this double whammy kind of challenge. One is we're addressing the problems of our industrial food system and the existing system today, which is so flawed as we know. Then also beginning to prepare for these pressures that are intensifying from climate change. How are we going to feed ourselves in the next 30 years? That became a really interesting challenge and question. It got me deeper and deeper into the food systems and into specific issues like, how are we going to do meat? Are we going to have to move to an animal-free meat future? Are we going to build a drought-proof water supply to actually sustain farms? Are we going to have to do GMOs, and can we do GMOs well?

Growing fish and other animal protein, rather than catching or raising it.

Yeah. How do we get chemicals out of the food stuff? How do we do aquaculture sustainably? Is that possible? I thought this one question would be sort of an interesting one to explore, and then it got me deeper and deeper into the these other more specific questions. The book has a big range. It's sort of, how do we feed the world? It also gets very specific, and I get scientists and farmers and innovators all approaching this from different perspectives.

You went to meat because meat, livestock production has more impact on climate than all transportation issues. Right?

That's right. Well, food broadly. What we eat generally has a greater impact on climate change and the environment than what we drive or how we get ourselves from Point A to Point B by flying or driving. Yes. Agriculture has a greater impact than transportation, all forms of transportation combined when we think about climate change. Meat, in particular, is really intensive. The statistic that amazes me the most I think, and there are so many, but more than 30% of all the grains we grow, corn, soy, in particular, go to meat production. Less than 5% I believe of what we grow on our farms is actually fruits and vegetables. The vast majority of what we grow is grains, and so many of those grains go to livestock production and of course ethanol. Meanwhile, all these new middle-income populations that coming online in emerging economies are demanding more meat. In the last 50 years I believe, the global population has doubled, but demand for meat has tripled. It's not even just that populations are growing. It's that diets are changing and they're shifting toward more and more meat consumption.

Because, around the world, there are more people who can afford meat now, and they prefer it. Vegetarianism is a choice, but if you asked 10 people, seven of them will choose meat.

That's right. Yeah, I think something like 90% of the global population consumes meat.

I was going to go crazy and say eight out of 10, but nine.

Yeah. No, nine out of 10. Right. As I said, I'm a New Yorker, but I live in Nashville, Tennessee, and it's been humbling to me to sort of begin to think about this in an environment where meat is very much a part of the culture and tradition. I'm surrounded. Every other corner, there's an amazing barbecue joint or hot chicken joint.

Yeah, Nashville’s the right town to be examining and reflecting upon meat consumption.

Yeah. My effort to become vegetarian and even vegan have been thwarted in part because, yeah, I'm with a lot of people who really not only enjoy meat but see it as very much a part of their cultural identity. That's true for cultures all over the world. It's important when we think about this because if you have this conversation in San Francisco or even New York, it's sort like, yeah, we can all eat sweet greens and Tofu burgers and impossible burgers.

ou're a meat eater as I understand it, so you can relate. It's important to think about three things. What is ecologically optimal? What is affordable, and what is achievable? For me, what we think about in terms of our sustainable food future, is it achievable that we're going to get everybody to go vegetarian? Probably not. Is it feasible that we can come of with better and better meat alternatives and come up with better substitutes for really environmentally intensive foods? I think so.

That was also one of the driving questions for me. That's why I went and ate duck meat that had been grown in a bioreactor. This kind of lab meat thing.

Let's stop and talk about that for a second, because one of the statistics that is available widely now is that 1,800 gallons of water goes into every pound of cow, but you don’t actually eat every pound of a cow, you only eat half of every cow.

That's right.

There's all this water going in hoofs and horns and eyeballs-

And brains.

These guys at Memphis Meat said, "What if we just take all of that out of the equation, and try to make the meat growing process more efficient?" What did you find?

Right. What if you can grow the meat without the animal? That's actually a question that Winston Churchill of all people introduced decades and decades ago. Right? It was there's so much inefficiency in meat, right? Because what we consume is less than half of the animal. Right? So much energy, so much water and corn feed and fossil fuel inputs go into growing all these parts of the animal that we don't eat, that are not nutrients.

I mean, they definitely get used for other products, but they're much lower value products. It just doesn't make sense. Right? I actually came into this story through Tyson Foods, because I read that Tyson Foods was investing in this startup company, Memphis Meats, so had Cargill Meats.

I'm thinking, how is it that these very big traditional meat companies that produce billions of dollars of meat products a year are investing in a disruptive product? Not only that, this Frankensteinian product that is lab grown meat. I mean, it just seemed so absurd to me.

That got me further and further, eventually inside the laboratories of Memphis Meats and eating this lab-grown duck breast that had been initially biopsied from a duck presumably still waddling around a farm in Petaluma, California. They had taken those live cells and enabled them to do what cells naturally do, which is replicate, self-replicate. The more I research it, the more I realize it's not that weird.

There weren't stem cells. They were just-

Well, they're cells that self-replicate, and they are able to get those from within a muscle tissue. They can get it from fat tissues and they can get it from connective tissues, which is all basically-

What you eat when you eat a duck.

What you eat when you eat any kind of meat. Right? It's those three components. They can make those cells grow. The cost has come down from hundreds of thousands of dollars a pound to several hundred dollars a pound in about three years or so. It's not available not, but it is certainly going to be available in the coming years. Meanwhile, we have plant-based meats and all these different approaches from Beyond Meat, which had this massive IPO recently, which is totally plant-based.

Impossible Foods, which produces that meat with the synthetic blood that is now going to be offered in or already being offered in White Castle and Burger King and so on.

Shake Shack.

Shake Shack. It's delicious and hard to distinguish that from other ground beef. What do you do? How do we do alternatives to flank steak? It's easier to come up with an alternative to a beef patty because it's not an actual recognizable piece of meat.

The duck breast was recognizable.

The duck breast was recognizable. Yeah, I mean. I went to cut into it and take my first bite of this lab-grown synthetic duck breast. Having signed by the way a contract that said, "This is experimental and we're not responsible for loss of your life." I'm thinking, okay.

You may turn into a duck.

That's right. Exactly. I trusted Uma Valeti who's the CEO who had eaten it many times himself, and he looked pretty good.

I went ahead and signed it and ate it. As I was about the saw into this thing, Uma said, "No, no. Pick it up with your hands and pull it apart and play with it. See how it feels, and see how it holds together."

I started prying it apart and it has all those, that muscle tissue that you recognize, the striations, and these different sorts of structures. You can see the actual cells have grown as the meet grows. What he says is, "this is — at a molecular level — identical to meat." This is not plant-based meats or . . . It is meats. They're live cells that . . . Even the craziest part of the whole thing was when they were showing me the cells growing in the Petri dishes at different stages. They said, "These cells, here's some cells that are actually contracting or spasming or flexing as a cell, as muscle cells do.

They'll do it spontaneously, but if stimulated with electricity or caffeine. Put some caffeine in these dishes, and the cells, and the meat muscle start contracting. I'm thinking, who's going to go for this? This is just too weird. In fact, the more I learned about it having tasted it, I realized that it makes so much environmental sense, and it makes actually so much sense from the safety standpoint. Because this food is produced in very sanitary conditions instead of a slaughterhouse where their meat mixing in fecal matter, and there's all this contamination in the meats. This is so safe-

100%. Right?

... and there's so much less bacteria.

Here's another grim statistic about the present state of meat production, right? In the slaughterhouse environment in 100% of food tested, there was fecal matter in the sample.

That's right. In other words, exactly. Consumer Reports showed that there's contamination. There's some amount, a teaspoon or something of fecal matter in every pound of-

Lab meat is suddenly compelling.

Right. Exactly. If you're a parent, trying to feed your kid, and you're thinking, "what's safest for my child?" and "what's safest for the environment?" Eventually was going to be probably more affordable because it requires so much, so many fewer inputs, this makes a lot of sense. It's just hard to get over. Then just the lab meat is weird, but then you think about well our current meat production system is so weird and so wrong and so ethically compromised, that what's weirder? In other words, when you think about food origins-

Can only get better.

It can only get better. That's it. I'm going to borrow that one.

You can have it. Yeah.

It can only get better.

Fish is also a challenge because people are going to eat more fish. 20% of the world eats fish. Many more people than that should eat it. Right?

Well, actually seafood is the dominant protein source globally.

Oh, it's only here where it lags behind terra firma-based animals?

Yeah. In the U.S., it's much lower than meat, but it's really interesting and this is one of the arguments of the proponents of aquaculture is that globally meat, I mean fish is a much greater part of people's diets, particularly in Asia than meat.

The problem is that we're shifting away from fish and towards meats. We need to avoid that. Fish as you know as an aquaculture buff, require much less calorie per unit of food because . . . to produce because they're cold-blooded, and they don't . . . so they require less heat and caloric energy to keep the heat for a four-legged land animal. They don't have to resist gravity because they're in water. They're basically just so much more efficient to produce that protein. It's so much more efficient to do.

If you can get the feed right-

If you can get the feed right.

It converts to muscle almost directly. Right?

Right. Some of the concerns about aquaculture have been that you have to use so much feed from seafood from smaller fish to produce these bigger fish like salmon that you're basically . . . It's just not a good cost/benefit analysis. I met people in the aquaculture industry who are working on vegetarian feeds where the feeds for the fish not from actual fish populations. Like herring and all these very valuable fish that are being fed to the big one. Instead, they're getting it from algae, which is what those littler fish actually eat. They're going to the very beginning of the food chain, creating nutrients for the bigger fish without harvesting the little fish.

There's a great line in the book, a protest about that is, "You can't feed lentils to lions." Salmon are this apex predator and you're trying to get him on the kale.

Yes, I know. I love that line too. Because I said, "Well, why can't we just give these carnivorous fish, the salmon in particular vegetarian fish feed. The guy's like, "You can't feed lentils to lions." Which was interesting, but then I actually talked to the scientist who said you can give lentils to lions in fact.

Just can't tell the lions.

Yeah. Well, the key thing is that if you feed them vegetables you have to get the Omega-3 fat, the Omega-3 fatty acids to give as part of the fish feed. If they get the fish feed without that then it's not expressed in the fish meat. As someone said you can feed fish pretty much anything. They're not going to be this very high nutrient valuable protein if it doesn't have the Omega-3s. That's why people like to eat for example salmon. It would be like eating pink chicken.

Right. When they were developing the farmed salmon market, what they were trying to do is produce salmon cheap enough so that they could sell it at the exact same price of chicken so that the salmon was competitively priced.

That's right.

The incentive was to find an alternative as a business proposition to chicken.

This is important because I would love to be the consumer who always gets this wild salmon, but I have benefited from the lower cost of salmon because I like to put it on the table in my household once a week or twice a week. If it's very, very high-cost salmon, I'm not going to be able to do that. Right? For a middle income consumer, the lower cost of salmon as a result of aquaculture has been a benefit.

I think it's easy for us to say again, why can't we all just eat the sustainably harvest wild salmon? Then it makes it a very elitist argument. It just is only available to consumers in a certain income bracket. There are problems with salmon farming for sure, but a lot of those problems have really come down and been addressed in recent years.

There's so much to say about aquaculture, but essentially it's one area of many where there have been serious environmental costs and risks where a lot of those have been addressed. There are a lot of misconceptions about those risks, and we do really have to look at this pragmatically and bring a new kind of honesty and pragmatism to the discussion around sustainable food.

Right. A lot of these people that you were talking to in this area in GMOs are all very cutting edge technology. A lot of the stuff is focused on very Big Think nuanced subjects. Is there something that I can do to start addressing the tremendous cost of food? Waste is an area that people often look to for solutions.

Yeah. The most humbling . . . the area of research that was most discouraging to me, but also I think most motivating is food waste. We hear the statistic that more than a third, nearly 40% of all the food produced globally is wasted. It either rots in transit or it's thrown out, never makes it off the farm.

Not good looking enough.

It's not good looking enough. Yeah

That's a real problem. I mean, our aesthetic standards for food are very unrealistic. There's been this ugly food movement that's had some progress, but certainly not enough. I mean, we don't see much of it in our grocery stores. Beginning to think about it and become of aware of how much we fetishize beautiful food, and thinking beyond that a little bit more is one thing. Another thing is in my own household for me, really looking at how much we waste. It's quite a lot.

How much comes into the house.

How much comes into the house.

Yeah, it's my problem too.

How much we throw out. Actually, a lot of the healthiest diets, plant-based diets, are the most wasteful. The research that's come out of NRDC, the Natural Resources Defense Council, for example, has looked at the amount of waste that's in households. For example, it's not happening to people who are eating Twinkies and Spam. That stuff doesn't decay. It gets eaten. The stuff that gets thrown out is the huge head of kale and the extra, you know.

In my refrigerator right now is the kale that we thought we would get to this week.

That's right. We all can come to terms with that, but it's also important to just consider that some of the changes that are really important, and were for me the most exciting, were changes that are invisible, that you're not going to see really affecting our food future, but will. The one that really impressed me the most was from this guy, Jorge Heraud who's at Blue River Technology. He produced a weeding robot with artificial intelligence that can essentially eliminate 90% of the herbicides that go on farms, because this intelligent robot can distinguish between plants and can deliver this sniper-like jet of herbicides instead of broadcast spraying, dumping huge amounts of chemicals on farms.

Just whack them one at a time.

Right. Whacks them one at a time when they're baby weeds. Then also, this can be eventually translated to fungicides and insecticides and fertilizers. That kind of shift, really improving the way industrial agriculture works, making is more sustainable, more diverse. Bringing principles of sustainable farming into large scale farming is some of the most encouraging research that I came up, that if found.

By Manny Howard

Manny Howard is the author of "My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into A Farm." @mannyhoward

MORE FROM Manny Howard