Lab-Grown Shrimp Is Silicon Valley’s Latest, and Most Ambitious, Frankenfood

Article Original Link

Written byKaleigh RogersNovember 12, 2015 // 12:45 PM EST

The latest Silicon Valley frankenfood endeavor might be the most ambitious yet: lab-grown shrimp. That’s right, a biotech start-up called New Wave Foods is currently trying to create a plant protein-based, lab-grown, faux shrimp to bring to the market.

The US eats more shrimp than any other type of seafood, with the average American consuming about 4 pounds of the little crustaceans each year, according to the National Fisheries Institute. But as with anything delicious, there’s a catch. New evidence continues to reveal the already pretty well-known dark side of commercial shrimp fishing and farming, including slave labor and environmental destruction. And while this is true for many kinds of seafood, the shrimp industry is particularly bad.

Although the button-pressing word “frankenfood” is used, it is here deployed in a light humourous tone rather than a critical one. The lab project is brightly ambitious, in direct opposition to the “dark side” of the shrimp industry, touching on the complex issues of human rights and the environment. As is a common theme in any discussion of contemporary food, the question of what is natural and normal in this instance is complex.

“If you look at seafood, you have to look at the food miles, how it’s being caught, and there’s a lot of mislabeling,” said Jennifer Kaehms, CEO of New Wave. “We’re really focusing on sustainable seafood, that’s our core motivation.”

It’s unclear which brand of sustainability is taking precedence here: ethically justifiable, environmentally sound, economically dependable, or a combination of the above. In any case, there is a clear statement that the current model is not sustainable and an alternative is called for: a modern system to be supplanted by another. Evidently, technology can be applied in multiple ways to food systems, and despair at one application does not necessarily prompt a look backward in time for an earlier model.

Kaehms recently graduated with a bioengineering degree from the University of California San Diego. She came up with the idea for her lab-grown seafood startup after co-founder Dominique Barnes, an oceanography grad at her alma mater, told Kaehms about the perils of shark finning.

“I thought, ‘we can do something about this,’” Kaehms said. “If we can print ears and noses, why can’t we print shark fins?”

This is perhaps not the question to be asking, but rather would the printing of shark fins provide a viable solution to shark finning. For a locally illegal food product prized for its rarity rather than any inherent qualities alone, is a printed replacement enough to change the industry for the better, or maybe collapse it entirely? It is of course impossible to tell, but worth investigating and speculating.

The pair, along with the company’s lead engineer, Michelle Wolf, applied to participate in IndieBio, a science-focused startup incubator that gives successful applicants $250,000 and lab space to launch their business. The team was accepted into the most recent class of startups and began work in early October.

The New Wave Foods team, from left to right: Michelle Wolf, Jennifer Kaehms, and Dominique Barnes. Image: Jennifer Kaehms

While lab-grown shark fins are on their list of proposed products, right now the team is focusing on shrimp due to its unrivaled popularity in the US. New Wave is experimenting with different ways of extracting protein from algae and mashing it together to get the same texture and nutritional value as real shrimp, Kaehms explained. Because they’re using the same algaes that shrimp eat, the nutritional component is fairly straightforward—shrimp bioaccumulate a lot of their nutritional value by eating algae. But nailing the texture is tricky.

“I like to use the analogy of kneading bread,” Kaehms said. “If you knead bread too long it becomes really firm and if you don’t knead it long enough, it can be too soft. So the way we mix it and align the protein gels gives it its texture.”

The team says it has managed to replicate the flavor of shrimp, but Kaehms wouldn’t reveal any specifics about how they’ve achieved that feat. “That’s our secret sauce,” she said.

Secret, unknown ingredients are the pinnacle of today’s pattern of food’s opacity. This here takes on an innocent quality due to the earlier moral alignment based on the corrupt seafood industry, but leaves plenty open to debate for many people uncomfortable with the concept of lab-synthesized food. The salient qualities to replicate appear to be nutritional value, flavour, and texture. The hypothetical question of what defines a food item comes into play: if, in theory, it looks, tastes, feels and functions exactly like shrimp, is it close enough to shrimp for all purposes, or is there still another important factor distinguishing it from the original product?

In fact, Kaehms was a little hesitant to go into too much detail about any steps in the process, because they actually haven’t nailed it all down. Each of the IndieBio teams will have a demo day in early February where they can reveal their first product, and New Wave will debut their lab-engineered, plant-based shrimp then, complete with taste tests and a more detailed explanation of the process.

The team also needs to keep a few cards close to their chests, as New Wave is far from the only startup seeking to replace less-sustainable food options with lab-grown offerings. In this IndieBio round alone, New Wave is sharing space with Clara Foods, a company looking to create lab-grown egg whites without a chicken, and Gelzen Inc, which is trying to create an animal-free, bacteria-produced gelatin. Outside of IndieBio, Silicon Valley businesses are cooking up vegan egg substitutes, lab-grown burgers, and powdered food replacements like Soylent.

(Have those people ever seen Soylent Green, because I wouldn’t name a food item after that…)

Venture capitalists are lining up to back these endeavors, and it’s pretty clear we need some alternatives to our current food production system. The public is becoming more aware of the problems with how their food is produced, but nobody really wants to give up their favorite dishes. Lab manufactured meat—and seafood—could bridge that gap. But so far, no one has truly been able to create a convincing, tasty, nutritious, lab-grown meat that satisfies the masses, so the race is on the be the first company to break through.

This establishes the climate of the current food system: rising public awareness creating demand for alternative solutions. Here scientific and technological development move with a sense of forward progress and constant improvement. Significant weight is given to cultural inertia, and the unwillingness to change eating habits, presenting the easier solution as scientific revolution. Not much hope is reserved for social change in the same way as technological.

Lab-grown seafood may be an even tougher sell, considering how delicate and perishable seafood is, compared to heartier meats like ground beef. If real shrimp is even a little bit old, for example, it’s inedible—and really gross—so creating a perfect substitute seems like an especially difficult challenge.

For now, the New Wave team is just trying to focus on getting this first product out the door. But the team is excited to see where the idea of sustainable, non-sea seafood could go.

“We’ve been looking at shark fin, scallops, and tuna,” Kaehms said. “But we’re open to suggestions.”

This openness to the future marks a significant sign of hope for their project as an ongoing, ever-improving and adapting idea. There is a sense of Scott Lash’s theory of activity over agency, allowing for situational adaptation rather than relentlessly pursuing a more specific goal.


10 Problems Genetically Modified Foods Are Already Causing

Original Article Link

This article is from the website Listverse, hence the ‘top ten’ format, clearly appealing to the short attention span of the general public and intended as a concise, entertaining information source. As such, it (like most other sources, including other ones I’ve included) employs media tactics of exaggeration in the service of making ‘a better story’ as opposed to telling the whole story. This presents the complex system of the food industry as an issue more so than most other sources.

S. GRANT JUNE 22, 2013

The difficulty of debating the subject of genetically modified (GM) foods is they are so new that we don’t really know how they affect the human body–they just haven’t existed long enough to draw conclusive facts. However, we don’t need to wait around for decades to see how scientifically engineered foods will impact our nutritional health, since they’re already causing enough trouble in other ways to prove they’re not worth our while.

Consider the following.

The initial admission of unknown data sets up a fresh alternative to the usual binary debate on health impacts, and the promise of investigating the complexity of interconnected systems. The position’s strong assertion of proof somewhat undermines this, in favour of presenting a strong united (simplified) argument.

10 Create Superbugs and Superweeds


The good thing about designing a plant with an insecticide gene is it eliminates a lot of unwanted bugs. The downside is that only the strongest insects survive, resulting in a new class of superbugs resistant to both the crops’ implanted toxins and spray-on chemicals.

In 2011, scientists examined 13 major pests and found that five were immune to the poisons genetically bred into GM plants like Bt corn and Bt cotton. Similarly, farmers are battling ultra-hardy weeds which aren’t responding to glyphosate–the herbicide marketed as Roundup. As a result farmers are forced to use even more chemicals to combat these superweeds. According to the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Sciences Europe, GM crops cause herbicide use to increase 25 percent per year.

What sometimes confuses people and the data, however, is that farmers may actually experience a lower need for chemicals in the first few years of growing a GM crop. Yet, once the pests and weeds develop immunity, farmers have little choice except to spray ever-increasing amounts of herbicides and pesticides–effectively raising their own operating costs and pollution levels.

This argument firstly employs the term ‘superbug’ to sensationalize the issue, as well as equating genetic modification with adding poison. The scientific term ‘glyphosate’, and the casual dropping in of ‘peer-reviewed’ show an appeal to scientific credibility. It isn’t clear whether the described effect of pest immunity is specific to pesticide in GMOs or whether that process would occur with regular pesticide use as well.

A consideration of long-term effects reveals the generally flawed thinking behind genetic modification as it exists today: like Mariah Wright’s speculative scenarios, modifications are delivered as finished products rather than ongoing projects. Eventual failure is inevitable in a rapidly shifting world, and yet these failures are not built into the design of genetic modification projects.

Here, genetic modification would benefit from Celia Lury’s notion of designing unfinished objects, as described in an interview with Guy Julier:

It’s interesting to think about the relationship of the unfinished object to an environment or ecology in which the individual human user is not the only or even necessarily the most important element of the environment. The “user” might thus be understood variously: as some kind of collective, mass, assemblage or ecology (including other objects and the natural environment). And of course the notion of unfinished-ness directly introduces the notion of temporality – thinking the future of the object as something to be considered as implicated in the present of the object.

Allowing for the existence of unknown future factors outside human control, and considering future implications in designs for the present is no easy task, but it is one that could revolutionize the industry toward an ongoing engagement with sustainability.

9 Kill Bees and Butterflies


One of the advertised benefits of GM foods is they are pest and weedkiller resistant, which supposedly leads to greater crop yields. Unfortunately, the methods GMO companies use to pest-proof their crops is also suspected to kill vital beneficial bugs, like bees and butterflies. At first consideration it might seem like more food for the world should trump the lives of a few annoying bugs, but that’s shortsighted thinking since the elimination of pollinating insects could eventually lead to a collapse in the food supply. This is because insect pollination supports one-third of food crops (with honeybees responsible for 80 percent of that number). Thus, instead of solving food shortage problems, GM foods may actually make things much, much worse.

The article sets up a catastrophic scenario, but one that is eventual and possible as well as unspecific. What constitutes a collapse in the food supply? There is a nod to the larger ecosystem surrounding industrial agriculture and the need for long-sighted thinking, but no detail as to the steps in between ecosystem damage and food supply disaster.

There is also the assumption that because bees and butterflies are what pollinate crops now, there are what we must rely upon in the future because ‘that’s the way it is done,’ when in fact alternatives would certainly come before crop destruction and starvation. For example, a reduction of bees in China has forced apple farmers to hand-pollinate their crops: a laborious process but far from supply collapse.

Why are GMO producers allowed to grow their butterfly and bee-killing crops? Unfortunately, with the slurry of insecticides, fungicides, genetically modified crops, and high-powered weedkillers present in modern farming, it’s hard to prove if GMOs are truly the variable to blame. Just as one study proves GM crops are the problem another study is released claiming they are totally safe. Meanwhile, honeybees continue to decline at a rate of 30 percent per year and butterfly populations have reached an all-time low.

This is some spectacularly weaselly wording: scientific studies are reported as inconclusive, unable to positively blame GMOs and yet the author continues to assert an absolute belief in GMOS as bee-killers. Apparently one study “proves” the author’s view while the other “claims” an opposing one, despite no evidence given as to which findings are more credible. The twisted logic seems to say “Scientific findings report that many things could be contributing to bees and butterflies dying, but it must be GMOs because bees and butterflies are dying and GMOs exist.” There is a stubborn unwillingness to account for a complex system of layered factors, preferring to point the finger at enemy number one and leave it at that.

Although it’s unclear whether GM crops are inherently bad for beneficial insects, they’re at the very least perpetuating the widespread use of chemicals, which undoubtedly harms insects and the “weeds” they depend on (such as butterflies which lay their eggs on milkweed).

Now apparently it’s unclear again whether GMOs are bad, but chemical use definitely is and that’s directly caused by GMOs. Chemicals is used autonomously as a trigger word to connote toxicity when in fact its scientific definition can be applied to any number of harmless compounds made through a chemical process. “Weeds” is given fresh quotation marks, despite item number 10 outlining the farmer’s need to remove weeds.

8 Farmers Can’t Harvest Seeds


Fundamentally, farming is a simple process: plant seeds, grow crops, harvest crops, and gather seeds from the plants for the next season. Sadly, GMO companies like Monsanto take this last step away from farmers and raise expenses even further by forcing the farmers to continually buy the premium-priced GM seeds every growing season. In fact, as was shown in the Bowman v. Monsanto court case, it is illegal in the US for someone growing a Monsanto crop to harvest the seeds and use them later. The Bowman case went all the way to the Supreme Court and, despite public outcry, the 70-year-old farmer was unanimously found guilty of patent infringement after he purchased and used second generation Monsanto seeds.

Sympathy is generated for the somewhat mythical figure of the old, traditional, simple farmer aligned with the outcrying public, pitted against the large evil GMO corporation. This does demonstrate the implications of capitalist ownership, nicely complementing and filling in Wright’s coffee scenario from her speculative design work. This brings the high-minded abstract ethical debate on the theory of GMOs into the real world, grounded in legal bureaucratic practicalities and raising questions as to whether GMOs should rightly follow the patent laws they do now.

Preventing farmers from harvesting seeds means big businesses could eventually have total control over the world’s seed supply and prices. Currently, just three mega companies control over half of the global seed market, which has caused prices to skyrocket. For example, the average price of planting an acre of soybeans has gone up 325 percent since 1995. Things get even scarier when you consider Monsanto has developed and owns a patent on a “terminator gene” which can make a plant produce sterile seeds–but don’t worry, they’ve promised not to use the technology.

If they truly wanted us not to worry, they would not have brought up the sensationally named terminator gene. This perspective overlaps the issue of the food industry with the capitalist unequal distribution of wealth and the increasing power of the mega corporation. It is a scary prospect for an industry so vital to bare survival. This positions the primary problems with the food industry with corporate corruption, the economics of the issue at least equally as pressing as the biological.

7 Cross-Pollination Contaminates Regular Crops


One of the major problems with GM crops is they are difficult to contain, which means they could be extremely hard to get rid of if we later decide they are a bad idea. Scientists have yet to figure out a way to control cross-pollination, so no matter how diligent a small, organic farmer is in using natural growing methods, he can’t stop pollen from a GM farm from blowing in, fertilizing, and turning his crops into hybrids. While it’s fairly easy to reduce contamination in some plants, with others–like canola and corn–it’s nearly impossible.

A powerful narrative of the heroic, natural, individual farmer powerless to protect his property against vampire-like invasion and corruption. This is essentially a magnification of the other issues associated with GMOs- like the challenges described in “Living in the World Risk Society,” this raises the status of the GM food risk to the level of Non-compensatibility, in addition to De-localization and Incalculableness (page 334). The risk is impossible to locally contain, it’s impossible to find out what we do not know or make any statistically measured estimation, and the consequences of accidents cannot be undone.

Early on, Monsanto and others claimed cross-pollination wouldn’t be an issue if farms were sufficiently spread apart, yet this proved inaccurate when they found pollen could travel much farther than expected (several kilometers or more). As GM crops grow in popularity, we may not be able to choose between consuming or avoiding them as all plants will be “infected.” Even buying food with an organic label doesn’t put you totally in the clear as some governing agencies, like the USDA, don’t revoke a farm’s organic status if a few plants were cross-pollinated with a GM crop.

This directly opposes the idea presented in the article “Should we Accept GM Food as the Future Fare” that organic is not necessarily exclusively non-genetically modified, applying instead a sweeping definition of organic that contains everything ‘natural’ and ‘wholesome’.

6 It’s Illegal to Accidentally Grow a GM Plant

Cherry Belle Radish seedlings

It seems there’s a basic flaw in how GM crops are governed. For one, they’re illegal to own unless you buy them directly from an approved distributor every season, but on the other hand the seeds and pollen from these plants are flying around everywhere. What happens to a farmer who, from cross-pollination, unintentionally grows a Monsanto plant? While Monsanto has never sued anyone for having trace amounts of non-purchased GMOs in their fields, they have sued farmers who claimed to be growing large amounts of patented crops by accident.

For instance, Percy Schmeiser, a 74-year-old Canadian canola farmer, was sued by Monsanto when it was discovered a majority of his crop contained the patented Roundup Ready gene. Schmeiser said he didn’t know how his fields became contaminated, yet he suspected it was from a neighboring farm that grew GM crops. His best guess was the plants closest to the neighbor’s farm were most likely to survive his own herbicide treatments and those were the plants and seeds his hired hands unwittingly harvested. In the end, the courts sided with Monsanto, saying Schmeiser “knew or ought to have known” his seeds were resistant to Roundup.

Complicating matters further, farmers often buy “commodity” bags of seeds that come from a mishmash of sources–including GMO farms. So, if a farmer plants a Monsanto seed that was randomly mixed in with the rest of the bag and later harvests more seeds from the plant, he can be sued for not paying royalties to the GMO giant. This is exactly what happened to Vernon Bowman in the Bowman v. Monsanto case.

This mainly expands upon the questions of capitalist corruption and legal difficulty raised in item number 8.

5 Increased Suicide Rates


Farming is always a gamble, especially in places like India, where farmers depend on a strong monsoon season to provide enough water for their crops. If the monsoon fails, so does their livelihood. For this reason and a myriad of other socio-economic challenges, suicide numbers among Indian farmers are staggeringly high (about 1,000 per month). GM crops are making matters worse as desperate farmers borrow money at extortionate rates to pay for “magic” GM seeds that, unfortunately, require twice the amount of water and don’t live up to their pest-free claims. When bollworms continue to decimate their plants or the monsoon doesn’t deliver, hopeless farmers crushed with insurmountable debt see no way out except to drink a deadly glass of insecticide.

The briefly mentioned ‘myriad of other socio-economic challenges’ is quickly sacrificed for the sake of a falsely simple cause/effect narrative. The implication is that genetic modification holds both the primary cause and the primary potential for solutions to increased suicide rates. The author appears to have remarkable insight into the inner thought processes of the homogenous group of ‘hopeless farmers.’ Additionally, there is the absurd phrasing that bollyworms “continue to” decimate plants and yet this constitutes a new problem caused by GMOs.

Despite there being over 125,000 suicides since the introduction of GM crops in India, and, as reported in a New York Times article, the ridiculously high prices of seeds and pesticides are causing farmers to make less money than ever. Additionally, as pests and weeds become increasingly immune to insecticides, farmers have to spend more and more money on chemicals. And let’s not forget, they are also legally required to buy new seeds every season unless they want to be sued or forced to burn all their plants.

Here we have statistics that support an increase in suicides coinciding with GM crops, but no actual evidence detailing the supposed direct link between the two. One cannot discount the strong possibility of a correlation, but causation is groundlessly suggested. The theorization delves a little into the ripple effects of GMOs on farmers, including an often overlooked psychological view, but all toward a single reductive narrative that prohibits thoughtful exploration.

While Monsanto sticks to its story of creating higher crop yields, there are many who disagree, including India’s Agricultural Ministry. The ministry says Monsanto’s Bt cotton was successful for five years, yet now produces no better than any other crop. It blames GMOs for the current rash of suicides among cotton farmers. In 2012, a panel of scientists commissioned by India’s Supreme Court recommended a10-year moratorium on field trials for all GM crops until further testing was done and stricter regulations created. It’s uncertain when or if the government will put the advice into effect.

Success followed by equality is described like an ultimate failure. The credibility of the Agricultural Ministry is used to back up the GMO/suicide link, but with little detail. A conflict of interest seems more than likely- blame an external threat for political reasons within a country: a path of speculation hardly less defensible than the article’s argumentation.

4 Little Government Oversight


The sad thing is, the “superbugs” created by Roundup Ready plants may have been avoided if farmers were required to adhere to safe farming practices. For example, farmers who follow GM guidelines and plant “refuges” (areas of non-Bt crops) adjacent to their GM fields, have extremely lower rates of pest resistance. However, a lack of training, resources, and enforcement means many farmers don’t follow the refuge technique and superbugs continue to proliferate. This is likely what has led to the resurgence of the bollworm in India as the bug has become unaffected by Bt cotton, which was supposed to be bollworm-proof.

Additionally, while 64 countries–including China and the European Union–require labeling of genetically engineered foods, the United States (the largest producer of GM crops) still has no such laws. This makes it incredibly difficult for people to choose whether or not they want to consume GM foods, as many folks aren’t even aware when they’re eating a GM product. For instance, the USDA says 94% of soy and 75% of all corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. When you consider some type of corn, corn syrup, or soy is in just about every pre-packaged food, there’s a good chance Americans are eating a lot more GMOs than they realized. On top of that, many farm animals are consuming these engineered foods and passing them along in their meat.

The government regulation doesn’t appear to be a problem caused by GMOs: GMOs here are posed as the problem, and government as the tool allowing them to slip under the radar. The lack of consumer awareness is pinpointed as a government labeling issue even as the complex inescapability of GMOs is addressed.When GMOs are considered as posing a risk, it logically follows that the public has a right to know when they are eating them. Here individual freedom is prioritized in the form of informed consumer choice.

3Revolving Door between Government and Biotech Workers

Revolving door (base)

As often as GMO protestors shout out the dangers of “frankenfoods,” biotech companies respond, scientific studies in hand, that GM foods are perfectly safe. It’s admittedly hard to make sense of the endless contradictory information, but there’s at least one fact that should raise the eyebrow of even the most neutral party: the former attorney and vice president of Monsanto, Michael Taylor, is now theDeputy Commissioner at the United States Food and Drug Administration. Taylor has also held positions at the USDA and is often criticized for being in the “revolving door” of the public and private sector.

Even those who don’t gravitate towards conspiracy theories can’t help but wonder if Taylor genuinely took the position with the FDA for his love of food safety and civil service or if he has ulterior motives to protect his agribusiness buddies. This makes it hard to trust the FDA when they say GM foods pose no other risks than their natural counterparts. Trust diminishes even further when you consider that, back in the ’90s, FDA scientists warned that gene-sliced foods were significantly different and could lead to “different risks” as compared to conventional foods. For some reason, those findings didn’t match official policy.

The phrase ‘one can’t help but wonder’ is somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy, but does raise important concerns over how to allocate trust in the expert system of chosen information sources. Corruption is sadly a very real idea to consider not only in grounding ethics debates but in filtering information sources.

2Harm Biodiversity


Biological diversity, or biodiversity, refers to the variety of lifeforms in a particular region or on the earth as a whole. Maintaining biodiversity is important since every living thing plays a pivotal role in the circle of life we currently enjoy.

Industrial farming reduces biodiversity as agribusinesses clear the land of all native plants and focus on producing only one type of crop. This large-scale monoculture crop production has resulted in a 75 percent reduction in plant diversity since the 1900s. GM farms make things worse because not only do they produce a single plant species (e.g. corn, soybeans, rice), but all the plants within the species come from one modified source plant and are genetically identical. Having such unvaried crops is troublesome as it makes our food supply particularly susceptible to climate change, disease, and pests. And it’s not just the biodiversity of plants that are affected. As mentioned, insects like bees and butterflies are already suffering, and herbicides are known to result in birth defects and population decline in amphibians, birds, soil organisms, and marine ecosystems.

This mirrors Fennelly’s argument about the need to preserve biodiversity but with a very different tone, relying on concise ‘objective’ facts.

Businesses like Monsanto are further hampering biodiversity by systematically buying up seed firms and replacing tried and true conventional varieties with their higher-priced, genetically engineered versions. While some argue Monsanto’s ultimate goal is to control the world’s food supply, it’s more likely their motivation is simply higher profits. After all, they make much more money by selling their patented, expensive, must-buy-every-season seeds than by offering quality traditional seeds.

This demonstrates how impacts of economics and biology, for example, are intertwined systems that complicate and exacerbate issues with the food industry. Social realities like capitalism and its ideals are always present beneath the surface of an issue, and occasionally become very plain.

1Distract from Healthy, Environmentally Friendly Technologies


One of the main strategies GM companies have used to push their way to the agriculture forefront is the promise of preventing a world food crisis and being the solution for hungry people in Africa and elsewhere. However, that assurance hasn’t exactly panned out since GM crop yields are highly variable and many countries simply don’t want to eat food designed in a laboratory.

In fact, in 1998, 24 delegates from 18 African countries told the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, “We strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly nor economically beneficial to us. We do not believe that such companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia, and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves.

The translation from theoretical promise to socially real application incurs the complication of multiplicity and resistance. In the context of this article, this passage conveniently provides an external voice to summarize its own premise.

Genetic modification is presented as unsafe, environmentally damaging and economically costly, a sign that the modern industrialized food industry needs to step back from its pursuit of forward progress and reflect on whether improvement is being achieved.

So, if GMOs aren’t the answer, how are we to feed the world’s rapidly growing population? Fortunately, there are many viable solutions being advocated by farmers and scientists alike. For example, as reported by the 1996 National Research Council in the U.S., there are currently many crops such as pearl millet, fonio, and African rice that are nutritious, tasty, and produce well in harsh climates. Additionally, environmentally friendly, low-water farming methods, such as the System of Rice Intensification (which improves rice production by 50-100 percent) is being used as a model for growing other crops in a sustainable manner. Other ideas include the decentralization of farming, urban farming, greenhouses on top of grocery stores, aquaponics, and more. Diverting funds and resources away from GMOs could allow one or more of these natural, wholesome practices to flourish.

This finishes on an unambiguous note of pitting natural and wholesome against sinister and chemical GMOs. Whether the aforementioned methods are indeed superior, however, requires further investigation: introducing foreign species from other climates, for example, always has unintended consequences. With that said, the mere mention of alternatives differentiates this from a common and flawed argumentation that defends the need for GMOs by virtue of being the only solution to food scarcity. If indeed GMOs are potentially dangerous, then a larger problem alone does not necessitate their usage. Unlike the panic-inducing tone through the rest of the article, the conclusion soars with hopefulness, leaving readers with an open invitation to change.

Should we accept GM food as the future fare?

Original article link

March 28, 2016

Dr Lee Hickey, from the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation at the University of Queensland, inspects the wheat crops in one of the speed breeding facilities.

Dr Lee Hickey, from the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation at the University of Queensland, inspects the wheat crops in one of the speed breeding facilities.Photo: Michelle Smith

Andrew Masterson

One of the longest running, loudest and bitterest debates about food in modern times centres on the relative virtues of genetically modified and organic crops. Advocates of each decry the other, while simultaneously boosting their choice as the only sensible solution for meeting the world’s future food needs.

This positions the article’s author as existing outside the debate, as the objective voice of reason watching debate unfold.

A report published earlier this month, however, might be the catalyst to end the division and, just perhaps, bring the two camps together to focus on a common goal.

The study, conducted by US plant geneticists Johannes Kromdijk and Stephen Long of the University of Illinois, strongly suggests that all types of crop breeding – including genetic engineering and organic – need to be pressed urgently into service if we are to escape famine caused by rising population and climate change.

This links food with population and climate, but in a very simple fashion that suggests issue on one hand and food as solution on the other. The optimistic promise of an end to debate suggests perfectly objective facts and obliterate the notion of subjectivity.

Home-grown organic strawberries.

Home-grown organic strawberries.

Home-grown organic is presented as wholesome and aesthetically pleasing, an agreeable image that goes with the promise of pleasing opposing sides in the GM food debate.

Published in the Royal Society’s journal Proceedings B, the authors estimate that the world has perhaps until the mid-2040s to dramatically improve cereal crop yields in order to offset severe shortages.

“With the short time-scale at which food demand is expected to outpace supplies, all available technologies to improve crop varieties, from classical crop breeding to crop genetic engineering, should be employed,” they wrote. They called for “vastly increased” private and public investment in the process.

The main game, the researchers suggest, lies in employing every available horticultural strategy to breed better cereal crops. The goal is not to plant more wheat, for instance, but to make the wheat that is planted better at changing sunlight into edible grain.

A single source of research is paraded as an ultimate solution and imbued with name-dropping credibility. “All available technologies” is a phrase very open to interpretation, particularly when one accounts for the unknown future. This is taking the very complex problem of food shortages and prescribing an easy solution: using technology to maximize food output. The conclusions are also based on the assumed continuation of the present average diet, not considering that people could change what they eat, or how food waste is dealt with. Food shortage is pinpointed falsely to agricultural production only, presenting GM food as a necessary solution rather than a probable approach. Even within this narrow sphere the logic is oversimplified, not remotely touching the questions of biological diversity and sustainability raised by Beth Ann Fennelly.

A healthy kale crop.

A healthy kale crop.Photo: Simone De Peak

Again, the photography emphasizes health, beauty, and earthy nature, minimizing visual indicators of industrialization or technology.

It is a quest already under way in Australia, through the world-leading research of plant geneticist Dr Lee Hickey and his team at the University of Queensland.

“Historically we’ve seen dramatic improvements in wheat yield since the 1940s, but the rate of genetic progress has slowed, and this has got the world quite worried because of the booming population, and meeting the demand by 2050,” he said.

“We haven’t yet seen any dramatic increase in improving the efficiency with which sunlight is converted to biomass in plants. This could be done through genetic engineering processes and could be a key component of us meeting the future demand.”

Harvesting fresh near organic vegetables and fruit from the vegetable garden.

Harvesting fresh near organic vegetables and fruit from the vegetable garden.Photo: Jennifer Soo

While certainly open to GM as a way of increasing crop yields, Hickey primarily  uses conventional cross-breeding methods, helped by sophisticated genome tinkering and high-intensity laboratory techniques.

A distinction is drawn between cross-breeding and laboratory techniques of genetic modification, two methods that GM criticizers and defenders alike tend to consider as essentially the same. The increased level of nuance here blurs the line between traditional and novel, raising questions about the naturalization process of technology in society. Although a line is drawn, there is little contrast in connotation, presenting modernization of food as a sophisticated technical process. Consequences beyond the bounds of the lab experiment are largely invisible.

He and his team are developing strains, mainly wheat and barley, that are ever more heat, drought and disease-resistant.

One of the most effective research techniques they use is called speed-breeding – a lab-based method of producing up to six wheat crops a year, compared with the single one farmers are able to grow in fields. The rapid growth cycles permit equally rapid research, using both conventional techniques and DNA modification.

A basket of fresh organic purple and white kohlrabi on display at a local farmer's market.

A basket of fresh organic purple and white kohlrabi on display at a local farmer’s market.Photo: Shelley L. Dennis

“We’re using DNA markers to inform our decisions about which plants carry desirable genes. That’s pretty close to genetic engineering. Essentially we need to clone the genes before we can create DNA markers that are perfectly linked to the trait we’re after,” Hickey said.

It’s an approach that is unlikely to please Australia’s organic food advocates, who stress the need for crops to be “natural” and grown without expensive inputs such as factory-made fertilisers and pesticides. From that perspective, organic farming has a strong role to play in meeting future global food needs, especially in energy-challenged developing economies.

The call by Kromdijk and Long for all hands on deck, however, might go some way towards breaking down the differences between the organic and GM camps, a division that many observers regard as unjustified – on both rational and biological grounds.

In a very real sense, they point out, every fruit, vegetable and cereal grown today is genetically modified, the result of millennia of cross-breeding aimed at developing desirable qualities. Kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, for instance, have never existed in the wild, and are all purposely developed variants of a species of weedy cabbage.

This is a common argument brought up in defense of genetic modification- for example in this internet exchange– that what is considered natural in the present moment is actually naturalized technology at work. By this logic, the fear culture surrounding genetic modification is hypocritical if it fails to ascribe the same panic to ‘normal’ foods as to explicitly modified ones. It is a reclaiming of the term genetic modification, attempting to remove its alien, science-fiction associations and place it instead as a common phenomenon in the modern world.

But there is also another form of genetic modification that has been used for decades, and that has been largely overlooked by organic advocates. This is strange, because it has some genuinely scary aspects to it. It’s called mutagenesis, and involves blasting plants with radiation.

The mere mention of multiple types of genetic modification is a breath of fresh air in a discourse largely defined by binary, pro/con debate. That this article characterizes different types of genetic modification as benevolent and scary speaks to its more detailed and inconsistency-embracing take on the same old debate.

Today, at farmers’ markets and in grocery stores around the country, people are happily filling hessian shopping bags with organic ruby red grapefruit and organic Nijisseiki pears.  And soon, many organic farmers are preparing to plant a popular Australian oat variety known as Echidna.

The pears, the citrus and the cereals are all excellent, nutritious and lovely, but their existence raises a curious question. Is it possible for a food crop to be simultaneously organic and genetically modified?

Evidently so. All three plants were created, several decades ago, by radiation-induced mutagenesis. Their radioactive provenance is recorded on a global permanent record called the Mutant Variety Database (MVD), operated jointly by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The article asks what is seemingly a thought-provoking question, and then immediately closes it off, shutting readers out of active engagement. Dealing with the simultaneous terms of organic and genetically modified hints at the many specificities in food processes not covered by the current language.

The MVD currently lists 3233 edible or ornamental mutagenic plant varieties. The most recent addition was a type of cherry developed in Turkey in 2014, but, in general, these days mutagenesis is rather less popular as a method of genetic modification than it used to be. And for good reason.

“There are two main ways that plant breeders can use this tool to create variation,” explained Hickey. “One is through gamma radiation and the other is through a chemical called ethyl methanesulfonate or EMS. Basically both of these things induce a higher rate of mutation in the genome. And both, when we are exposed to them, cause us to get cancer.”

‘Basically’ is an understatement, and to say that chemicals cause cancer is a fraught claim. It is not entirely clear whether the amount and type of exposure to these chemicals, through eating products of mutagenesis, would noticeably increase chances of cancer or directly cause it. It’s impossible to tell exactly what exaggeration and sensationalism is at work here, but the fact that only improper use is associated with health risks in labs is telling.

The technique is still in use, particularly in rice development, but its decline in popularity among plant geneticists is only partly because of the health risks to lab workers associated with improper use.Mostly it’s because it’s just not that efficient.

Plants are blasted with radiation as a means of accelerating the genome’s natural mutation rate. Scientists then have to trawl through the resulting changes to DNA in individual plant sex cells – or check which plants grow better from irradiated seeds – and then single them out for further breeding.

“Basically, you have no control whatsoever, unlike a technology like genetic engineering, where you are specifically targeting a known gene,” said Hickey.

While DNA changes in fruit, vegetables and cereals resulting from gene-editing have come under ferocious and sustained attack by organisations that represent organic farmers, those arising from mutagenesis have largely avoided scrutiny.

“The organic industry has no formal position on mutant varieties,” said Jan Denham, chairwoman of the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA). She said she is seeking input from the organic industry to formulate a policy on the matter.

This further reveals the underlying hypocrisy and uncertainty involved in the fear-based climate surrounding genetic modification. As with any complex issue, the thresholds seem clear at a distance, but closer inspection reveals delicate boundaries of definitions that undermine the sense in drawing a definitive ideological line.

A spokesperson for Australian Certified Organic (ACO) – an organisation that labels over 16,000 products as organic – said guidelines ruled out the use of seeds or seedlings that were “irradiated”. However, at least two Australian ruby red grapefruit growers operate under ACO approval, which suggests that ancestral exposure to gamma rays is not a barrier to organic authenticity.

Thus, if genetic modification by breeding is acceptable, and food crops created by gamma radiation cause no uproar, what is so special about varieties made by gene editing?

This question invites reader thought and reflection, although only based on prior information given in the article. It’s the culmination of a pointed argument, limiting possible answers. The question does, however, point to a need to question underlying assumptions about the character of the modern food industry, to interrogate why certain attitudes arise.

This is a call to accept gene editing as a part of the food industry, alongside the ranks of selective breeding and radiation. It positions genetic modification as another in a long string of gradually accepted scientific advancements.

“Most of the time we’re talking about fixing or inserting a gene into a species that currently exists,” said Hickey.

“The problem is that to do it by traditional means takes a long time. It takes up to 20 years to develop a new variety – by the time we cross it with another variety and identify an elite version that can be commercialised. It’s basically just speeding up this process.”

It’s an approach greatly favoured by the Grains Research and Development Corporation, which funds Hickey’s research, but it also raises what might turn out to be a critical question.

Can a crop variety engineered in five years, as opposed to a very similar variety cross-bred in 20, ever be considered suitable for organic cultivation? Millions of lives might depend on the answer.

This conclusion answers itself- to say the genetic modification is ‘very similar’ to cross-breeding suggests that its acceptance into organic agricultural practices is logically inevitable.

The very last sentence is a grandiose simplified guilt trip for opposers of genetic modification: millions of lives are supposedly tied to GM’s fate, obscuring the hugely numerous other related issues and partial solutions that can and will impact those lives.

This article delves deeply into genetic modification using specific terminology to tease out illogical assumptions in public perception, defending genetic modification without really addressing any of the causes for concern or any of the myriad of global contributing factors. It constructs contemporary food production as being in a middle stage of history, not something radically new but a reasonable extrapolation of the past. The view of the future, similarly, envisions no endpoint, no unavoidable brink of collapse- there is hope not that the industry is problem-free, but that people will be equipped with technology and rational scientific thought to deal with problems that arise. The title is somewhat disheartening, calling for passive acceptance of an inevitable future, but the main body helps to suggest that acceptance of genetic modification makes sense as an active choice.

Fruits we’ll never taste, languages we’ll never hear: the need for needless complexity

Original article link (accessed through Emily Carr). citation¹

  BETH ANN FENNELLY teaches English at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. She has published poems in TriQuarterly, The Kenyon Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review. Her poetry won a Pushcart Prize and has been anthologized in Best American Poetry 1996 and The Penguin Book of the Sonnet.

From the outset, this article lingers in the space between art and media. It is aimed at a more specialized audience and seeks an alternative appeal, making use of pathos and ethos over logos.

Imagine cupping an Ansault pear in your palm, polishing its golden-green belly on your shirtsleeve. Imagine raising it to your lips and biting, the crisp snap as a wafer of buttery flesh falls on your tongue. Imagine the juice shooting out–you bend at the waist and scoot your feet back to prevent the drops from falling on your sneakers….
    Imagine it all you can, for it’s all you can do. You’ll never eat an Ansault pear. They are extinct, and have been for decades: dead as dodo birds. How could this happen to a pear variety which agriculturist U. P. Hetrick described, in a 1921 report called “The Pears of New York,” as “better than any other pear,” with a “rich sweet flavor, and distinct but delicate perfume”? The dismaying truth is that you can apply that question to thousands of fruits and vegetables. In the last few decades we’ve lost varieties of almost every crop species. Where American farmers once chose from among 7,000 apple varieties, they now choose from 1,000. Beans, beets, millet, peanuts, peas, sweet potatoes, and rice all have suffered a large reduction in varieties. In fact, over 90 percent of crops that were grown in 1900 are gone.

Fennelly very clearly paints a nostalgic image of an irretrievable past lost due to industrialized food production technology. She highlights the desirable qualities of the missing pear variety, playing on the powerful human emotion of loss.

   Of course, next to “Save the Whales,” a bumper sticker reading “Save the White Wonder Cucumbers” sounds a bit silly. And as long as we haven’t lost pears altogether, the loss of a particular variety, no matter how good, isn’t cataclysmic. We have a lot of other worries. How many years of sunlight do we have left? Of clean air? Water? But when we lose a variety of pear or cucumber, even one we’re not likely to taste, or, in an analogous situation, when we lose a language, even one we’re not likely to hear, we’re losing a lot more than we think. We’re losing millions of bits of genetic information that could help us solve our big questions, like who we are and what we’re doing here on earth.

A parallel is drawn between endangered animal and plant species, suggesting a less hierarchal system for mentally classifying living organisms. The looming shadow of other issues like water scarcity also provide a point of comparison for the despairing message about the state of food. They’re interrelated nature with the food system, however, doesn’t come across, placing food as a small separate issue with confined causes and consequences.

A reversal occurs where food is considered as a potential resource for scientific and philosophical discovery, rather than science augmenting food. The prior state of nature’s plants is endowed with ultimate value, and each step away from that as a potentially critical loss of knowledge.

   Farming has always been subject to the manipulations of human desires, but up until the last several decades these manipulations increased crop diversity. Long before Mendel came along, our farmer ancestors were practicing a kind of backyard Darwinism. Early Peruvian farmers, for example, noticed mutations among the colors of their cotton fibers, and by breeding the cotton selectively, they were able to grow different colors to weave vibrant cloth. When farmers moved, they took their seeds with them, and various growing conditions increased crop diversity even further as the varieties reacted to new environments or evolved new defenses for pests or blights. And in this way farmers farmed for about 10,000 years. Even at the beginning of this century, small farms were varied; each grew many crops and sometimes several varieties of a particular crop. If a blight attacked one species of a farmer’s corn, it was likely that the farmer, or another farmer nearby, would also have grown a variety of corn that turned out to be resistant.

Importantly, it is not the act of human intervention into agriculture that is condemned but the resultant dangers of genetic homogeny.

    But as the century wore on, agribusiness was born. Now, giant agricultural agencies develop fruits and vegetables specifically for giant farms, which concentrate on a single variety of a single crop sanctioned for high-yield growth. These new crops aren’t self-reliant–many hybrids can’t even produce offspring, putting an end to the age-old tradition of gathering seeds from the current harvest for next year’s crop. They are dependent upon intensive fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides. They are grown only if they can withstand mechanical harvesting and the rigors of shipping to distant markets, and these packing considerations shape our diet in startling ways, as anyone who’s followed the quest for the square tomato can tell you. Some biotech companies have taken the human manipulations of crops to a profitable–if seemingly unnatural–extreme. Biotech giant Monsanto, maker (and dumper) of hazardous chemicals like PCB, filed for a patent in 1997 for a seed whose germination depends not on being exposed to a rise in temperature or an inch of rainfall, but being exposed to a certain chemical.

Industrialization and business in agriculture take on a sinister, science run mad character which profit solely motivates. “New crops” are those with chemical dependencies, pitted against the old, traditional, natural, self-reliant plant. The middle ground of traditional natural pesticides and fertilizers in agriculture does not appear.

The impacts of harvesting and shipping realities on the growing process and people’s diets help to illuminate the complex connections within the evolution of the food industry, defying a compartmentalized linear model of farm to plate.

So now, according to the International Food Information Council, we have scientists crossing two potatoes to make a new hybrid which will be higher in starch and need less oil for frying, resulting in lower-fat fries. But genetic engineers don’t stop with crossing two kinds of potatoes. Genes from a potato could be crossed with a carrot, or a banana, or a daschund, if genetic engineers thought such a crossing would improve the potato’s shelf-life. Recently, genetic engineers have crossed the strawberry with a gene from the flounder to make a strawberry resistant to cold. In this way, millions of years of nature’s “decisions”–which crops should fail, which thrive, which qualities parents should pass to their offspring–are reversed almost overnight. The Union of Concerned Scientists is–well–concerned. Poet W. S. Merwin likens our position in history now to the start of the nuclear agewe are rushing to embrace technology that will change us in unalterable, unforeseeable ways.

Genetic engineers are depicted as somewhat desperate and single-minded, doing whatever they can without stopping to consider if they should. The call is to slow down and think before technology develops too fast for humans to track the risks and consequences. Genetic food modification is directly compared to nuclear technology, connoting cataclysmic danger. The atmosphere of unforseeable, unalterable change fits the description of contemporary risk in “Living in the World Risk Society.” Fear avoids straying into hysteria with the credibility factor of mentioning scientific organizations.

    A problem with miracles is that sometimes they don’t last. A miracle yield hybrid’s defenses are often based on a single gene, an easy thing for continuously evolving pests to overcome. And meanwhile, back at the ranch, there is no more ranch–the small farms that grew the original parent varieties that crossed to make the super vegetable have failed. The parents are extinct. Unless genetic raw material resistant to the pest can be found in some other variety, the hybrid will be lost as well.

This acknowledgement of needing to design for a changing world emphasizes the importance of epistemic things to a rapidly evolving society, where a concrete product with a presumed ‘finished’ state is woefully inadequate. Fennelly follows this up by recounting the events of the Potato Famine, bringing the risk of the current situation to earth with a historically grounded comparison. This is a clever way to bring potential consequences out of the realm of the abstract and into a space where people can begin to imagine the branching effects based on their own historical knowledge.

    The first crop to be nearly wiped out due to lack of genetic diversity is the humble spud, which the Europeans brought home with them after “discovering” the New World. King Louis XVI of France saw the potato’s potential for feeding the poor and was determined to spread the crop. He knew that publicly endorsing the potato, however, would earn it the commoner’s enmity. So Louis grew a bumper crop and had the field guarded all day, but he removed the guards at night so the locals could raid the field. Potatoes were soon growing throughout France and beyond. In Ireland, the potato became the staple crop–by the 1840s a third of the Irish were dependent on it for nourishment. But since all the potatoes grown in Europe were the descendants of that original handful of potatoes brought over from the Andes, the crop had a narrow gene pool. When Phytophtora infestans struck in 1845, the potato lacked the resistance to combat it. The Freeman’s Journal reported on Sept. 11 of that year that a “cholera” had rotted the fields; one farmer announced that he “had been digging potatoes–the finest he had ever seen” on Monday, but when he returned Tuesday he found “the tubers all blasted, and unfit for the use of man or beast.” A five-year famine followed that slashed the population of Ireland by 20 percent, killing between one to two million people and forcing one to two million others to emigrate to the U.S. The potato was saved only when resistance to the blight was found in more diversified varieties of the potato still growing in the Andes and Mexico. Had it not been, it’s unlikely the potato would be around today as a major crop.
    While the potato famine might seem like dusty history, the U.S. corn blight proves we’re not doing much to stop history from repeating itself. In Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity, environmentalists Cary Fowler and Pat Mooney describe the 1970s hybrid corn plants as “sitting ducks.” As a result of a cost-cutting measure, each of the several hundred varieties of hybrid corn seed had the same type of cytoplasm. That made the entire crop susceptible to any disease that could come along and exploit that uniformity–and, of course, one did. Even today we have several dangerously unstable crops including–gulp–coffee and chocolate. The dangers of genetic uniformity are currently being cited in an altogether new arena–the Genome Project. Now that scientists have engineered vegetable hybrids, what’s stopping scientists from creating human hybrids? Could cloning so narrow our gene pool that a single epidemic could destroy us like the potato blight nearly destroyed the potato?

Fear-based language tactics, like the cliche of ‘history repeating itself,’ the ‘gulp’ and the slippery-slope fallacy suggesting the near future of human hybrids emphasize the gravity of the situation. The questions invite the reader to fill in fearful answers, where in fact the truth is entirely ambiguous. The invitation is to imagine the future, but only in a very prescribed way and without any space for reader reflection or action.

The next section of the article draws an interesting parallel between food systems and languages, based on their similar paths toward extinction and unsustainability. The pressure exerted by social forces is foregrounded to make the point that changes are not necessarily steps forward, and the unknown value of what is lost cannot be dismissed.

    Imagine hiking high into the Sierra Nevadas and coming across the Northern Pomos. Imagine being able to converse with them in their language. Imagine clicking your tongue against the back of your teeth to say “sunset,” aspirating in your throat to say “waterfall.” Imagine learning the idiomatic expression for “hungover” and using it to great effect, comparing it with others you know–how the Japanese expression for “hungover” translates as “suffer the two-day dizzies,” how Italians say “I’m out of tune,” how the Czechs say “there’s a monkey swinging in my head,” how Arabs don’t have any word at all for “hungover.” Imagine trading recipes with an elderly Northern Pomo, then walking with his wife through a stand of ponderosa pine, their trunks so thin, because of the high atmosphere, that you could fit your hand around them. You tell her you need to stop talking, for you’ve developed a sore throat. She questions you about it, then bends down to a small plant and yanks it out of the ground. This yerba del manza will soothe your throat, she tells you, and she gives hints on how to recognize the plant again should your soreness return. Imagine going to bed that night, your throat calmed, your mind blossoming with Northern Pomo words that will fill the cartoon bubbles of your dreams….
    Imagine it all you want, but Northern Pomo, spoken for millennia in Northern California, has perished like the Ansault pear; its last speaker, a woman in her eighties, died a few years ago.
    Today we have the impression that there’s a rough 1:1 correlation between countries and languages; each nation is monolingual. But this has never been the case. In the sixteenth century, for instance, five major languages were spoken in the English King’s domain. Our country was especially language rich because each Native American tribe clung fiercely to its tongue as a signifier of cultural difference; Edward G. Gray in New World Babel estimates that, when European contact occurred, there were between 1,000 and 2,000 distinct tongues in the Americas, nearly half of which are now extinct. A graphic way to understand this is to peruse the maps in The Atlas of World Languages edited by C. Moseley and R. E. Asher. The maps showing pockets of language before the colonizers arrived in America are many-colored, many-patterned quilts; each subsequent map is increasingly bleached, increasingly pattern-free.
    Languages don’t die because they are in any way inferior or deficient, as has been sometimes supposed in the past. They die because of pressures on minority communities to speak the majority language. Sometimes this pressure is economic, as seen, for example, with the Waimiri-Atroari of Brazil, a tribe of 500 people in the Brazilian Amazon, whose tongue is listed in the UNESCO Red Book of Endangered Languages. The Waimiri-Atroari are mostly monolingual, but they have experienced increasing contact with the Portuguese-speaking majority. The tribe is growing in bilingual members because learning Portuguese widens the Waimiri-Atroari’s potential market from 500 members to 160 million. As the proportion of bilingual members of the tribe rises, members of the tribe might begin using Portuguese when speaking to each other; it follows that the motivation for children to learn their native tongue will erode. The language’s death will surely follow.
    Sometimes the pressure for a minority community to speak the majority language is not economic but political, as has been the case with Native American languages in the U.S. since European settlement began. Early U.S. settlers had a romantic notion of language difference as a cause of personality difference. Since some Native American languages were found to lack abstract concepts like salvation, Lord, and redemption, the settlers presumed the speakers of these languages to be unable to grasp these higher concepts. It seemed to follow that Native Americans’ salvation could only be achieved by “liberating” them from their restrictive native tongues. “In the present state of affairs,” Albert Gallatin wrote of Native Americans in Archaeologia Americana in 1836, “no greater demand need be made on their intellectual faculties, than to teach them the English language; but this so thoroughly, that they may forget their own.” In his report on Indian affairs, Reverend Jedediah Morse recommended the suppression of any texts in Native American tongues. There were supporters of America’s original languages–Thomas Jefferson, for one, compiled vocabulary lists of Native American words throughout his lifetime. But even today we haven’t a national policy of language preservation. In fact, between 1981 and 1990, fifteen states enacted “Official English” laws to guarantee English as the language of the U.S. government. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in his 1839 Democracy in America, “the majority lays down the law about language as about all else.”
    Languages are termed “moribund” if they are spoken only by a small group of older people and not being learned by children. These languages stand in contrast to “safe” languages, as defined by criteria set out in Robins and Uhlenbeck’s Endangered Languages. A safe language has, at a minimum, “a community of 100,000 speakers” and the “official support of a nation-state.” These numbers don’t necessarily represent a swelling, robust population–Gaelic, for example, is among the safe languages–but 80 percent of the languages spoken in North America fail to meet even those standards. In Australia, 90 percent of the languages are moribund. As I write this, sixty-seven languages in Africa are being spoken for what may be the last time. The more fortunate of them are being documented by linguists, who spend much of their professional lives rushing to record a language before it dies. When it does, they find themselves in the rather lonely position of linguist Bill Shipley, the last human being on earth who can speak Maidu.
    In my girlhood I thought that languages were codes that corresponded; each word in English had its exact equivalent in every other language, and language study was the memorization of these codes. Later when I studied my first languages I learned that such codes do not exist; each language is a unique repository of the accumulated thoughts and experiences of a community. What do we learn about a culture by examining its language? The Inuit people live in the northernmost regions of the world, in small, roadless communities on the ice, and lack our modern electronic conveniences. They have no word for boredom. Poet Anne Carson writes of the Yamana of Argentina, a tribe extinct by the beginning of the twentieth century, who had fifteen names for clouds, fifty for different kinds of kin. Among the Yamana variations of the verb “to bite” was one that meant “to come surprisingly on a hard substance when eating something soft, e.g., a pearl in a mussel.” The Zuni speak reverently of “pena tashana,” a “long talk prayer” so potent it can only be recited once every four years. The Delaware Indians have a term of affection, “wulamalessohalian,” or “thou who makest me happy.” The Papago of the Sonoran Desert say “S-banow” as the superlative of “one whose breath stinks like a coyote.”
    During this century, eighty-seven languages spoken in the Amazon basin have become extinct because their native speakers were scattered or killed. Some of these forest dwellers were both nonviolent (their languages lacked vocabulary words for war and bloodshed) and democratic (they included terms for collective decision making). When these languages died, they took with them not only the specialized knowledge that the tribes had gained from thousands of years of natural healing and conservation, but ways of living we might have done well to study. In the absence of these examples, as John Adams wrote, “we are left to grope in the dark and puzzle ourselves to explain a thousand things which would have appeared very simple if we had … the pure light of antiquity.”

Here regret is evoked for known unknowns, before moving into the exploration of how expansive and complex the consequences of a seemingly contained loss can be:

    But even beyond this rather romantic notion of the need for language preservation, there are concrete and empirical losses to science when languages become extinct. There’s a wealth of information that can be extracted from languages by the use of statistical techniques, and this information can be used not only by linguists, but by anthropologists, cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists, geneticists, and population biologists, among others. Hypotheses about human migration patterns can be tested by seeing whether words have been assimilated into a language from the languages of nearby populations. Hypotheses about neural structures and processes can be tested by analyzing the phonology and syntax of a language. Hypotheses about the hardware of our brains capable of generating sentences can be tested against the different sentences. What must all infant brains have in common that any child can acquire any language? The more data we have, the closer we can come to answering questions such as this. Furthermore, recent studies indicate that language learning causes cognitive and neural changes in an individual. At a recent conference at the Center for Theories of Language and Learning, Dr. Mark Pagel argued that when a child acquires a disposition to categorize objects through word-learning, some neural connections in the brain are strengthened, while others are weakened or eliminated. Previous learning affects a system’s way of categorizing new stimuli, and so Pagel concluded that, although it may be true that all humans “think in the same way,” one’s native language influences one’s perceptions. When we lose linguistic diversity we suffer a consequent loss in the range of ways of experiencing the world.
    Yet we needn’t constrain ourselves to discussions of hard science, for the issues involved in diversity are more far-reaching. If the language ability, as many theorists hold, is what separates us from animals, it is the central event of human evolution. Each language that dies takes with it everything it might have taught us about this unique aspect of our constitution. If language is a well-engineered biological instinct, as Steven Pinker argues in The Language Instinct, each language that dies takes from us another clue to the mystery of what keeps the spider spinning her web or the hen warming the eggs in her nest. The cognitive organization which shapes our language facilities also shapes other mental activities related to language, such as music and mathematics. Each language that dies not only weakens linguistics but all of these related fields–all fields, in fact, that seek to understand the human brain. Each language that dies takes from us a few crucial parts of nature’s tale, so much of which (even how and when the universe was created) still eludes us. In fact, each language that dies weakens our most vital challenge–to engage the world in all its complexity and to find meaning there. This is the definition of both art and religion. To lessen the complexity of the world is to lessen our moral struggle.
    I’ve written “personal essays” before, and this isn’t one of them. I haven’t told you very much about myself. I haven’t told you if I’m a scientist (I’m not) or a linguist (I’m not). I’m a poet. So the argument could be made (perhaps some of you are making it right now) that I’m not qualified to write this essay. But I’m qualified to make metaphors, and that’s what I’ve tried to do. I read books on crops and languages and I begin to hear them speaking to each other, and soon the desire is born in me to speak of them to you.

Here she speaks directly to the expert media system of supposed qualification and challenges the definition of what constitutes ‘well-informed’ or skillful writing of nonfiction articles.

    I’ve argued for empirical reasons we need diversity on our table and in our ears. But I think one of the most important reasons we need diversity isn’t based on grubby need, isn’t based on a what-can-nature-do-for-me mentality. I don’t want the argument to rest solely on that because plenty of people will think they have all that they need. And in a way they’re right. After all, we live in an era of hysterical data. It’s exhausting. Let’s have enough faith in our own self-interest, if in nothing else, to assume we will never lose the pear or the potato. Let’s have enough faith in our own torpidity, if in nothing else, to assume we will never have a unilingual world. So okay, we lose a few varieties of Ethiopian sorghum–varieties once so beloved they were named “Why Bother with Wheat?” and “Milk in my Cheeks.” Do we really need forty kinds? Isn’t four enough? It’s not like only having four friends, or even four varieties of dogs. A seed company streamlining its offerings isn’t like a museum streamlining its Van Gogh collection. And if we lose a few obscure languages, maybe that’s the price one pays for having fewer translators and English as a “universal business language,” saving time, frustration, and money. Why should we be overly concerned if what’s lost wasn’t useful to us in the first place?
    Of course, there’s an old rejoinder but a good one–our responsibility to the future. In poem No. 1748, Emily Dickinson writes, “If nature will not tell the tale / Jehovah told to her / Can human nature not survive / without a listener?” But nature ceaselessly tries to tell her tale to the patient and attentive, and her tale is still unfolding. Each seemingly interchangeable variety of sorghum contains a distinct link of DNA that reveals part of nature’s story. Similarly, each language is a biological phenomenon that reveals millions of bits of genetic information and contains within itself clues that help us understand how our brains are organized. What clues our progeny will need is beyond our power to know. We can’t imagine what will be useful, necessary, what will provide a link, prove or disprove a hypothesis. Losing plants, losing languages: it’s like losing pieces to a puzzle we’ll have to put together in a thousand years, but by then puzzles may look entirely different. We might put them together in the dark, with our toes.

The importance of unknown unknowns in technology is situated in the past as well as the future. Essentially, the development of the food industry has created biological casualties that we can never truly know the full extent of. Below, the concept of the unknowable complex system is further engaged, with a tone of poetic fascination with existence:

    Yet beyond the idea of what will be useful to future generations, we, right here, right now, have a need for needless diversity. A world with fewer fruits and vegetables isn’t only a world with an endangered food supply. It’s also a world with less flavor, less aroma, less color. We suffer a diminution of choice. As Gregory McNamee writes in “Wendell Berry and the Politics of Agriculture,” we’re experiencing “an impoverishment of forms, a loss of the necessary complexity that informs an art rightly practiced.”(FN1) And a world with fewer languages isn’t only a world with more limited means of communication. It’s also a world with fewer stories and folk tales, fewer hagiographies, fewer poems, myths, and recipes, fewer remedies, fewer memories. We possess the accumulated vision and wisdom of fewer cultures. We become like hybrid corn: less diverse, with less accumulated defenses, susceptible to dangers that our “parents” might have battled and overcome, dangers they could have helped us with, were they not in their graves.
    What I want to say is this: for twenty-eight years I’ve been carrying on a love affair with words and the world and I’ve come to believe that the sheer magnitude of creation blesses us. The gross numbers, the uncountability of it; as if the world were a grand, grand room full of books and though we might read all we can we will never, ever outstrip its riches. A thought both unsettling and comforting. If we are stewards of the world, we are stewards of a charge beyond our comprehension; even now science can tell us less about the number of species we have on earth than about the number of stars in our galaxy. There is something important in the idea of this fecundity, this abundance, this escape hatch for our imaginations. I have read Robert Frost’s poem “Design,” and I have read Gordon Grice’s essay on how the black widow spider kills her prey with ten times the amount of posion she needs, and I’m not one for making teleological arguments, but I can tell you that somehow, despite our savagery, we have been over-provided for, and I believe it is a sign of love.
    Poet Wendell Berry urges us to care for “the unseeable animal,” even if it means we never see it. So, I would argue, must we care for the untastable vegetable, the unhearable language, which add their link, as we add ours, to nature’s still-unfolding tale. They deepen nature’s mystery even as they provide clues to help us comprehend that mystery. They enrich us not only because they can serve us, not only because they are useful, but because they are. Their existence contributes to the complexity of the world in which we are, a world we still strive–thankfully, nobly–to understand.

To sum up, this article does engage with the topic of the global food system in a complex way, balanced in a sense by its concession of the unknown, despite its heavily biased emotional leanings. The tie-in with language follows the system-oriented idea of synthesis² when looking at complex problems, finding meaning in bringing things together. The contemporary image of a world on the brink of collapse persists, with modern agriculture pictured as yet another fast track to extinction.

¹Fennelly, Beth Ann, 1971-. “Fruits We’ll Never Taste, Languages We’ll Never Hear: The Need For Needless Complexity.” Michigan Quarterly Review 39.4 (2000): 691-701. Art Source. Web. 5 Apr. 2016.

²As outlined in “Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary”, in the context of approaching impossibly complex issues in new ways to prevent tradition to create repeated flawed solutions.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Google books link (my source: VPL ebook)

To preface this source, it does not declare itself within the art or design field, but rather as a book that includes a recounting of a first-person experiment. Author Michael Pollan challenged himself to create a meal using only ingredients he gathered himself, investigating whether such a thing was conceivable in the modern world, and wrote about his experiences. To my eyes, this is the documentation of an experimental art project akin to Thomas Thwaite’s toaster project, attempting to reconstruct an item now made impossibly complex by modern systems. Also, the first-person diary perspective certainly sheds new light on the food system, navigating through the eyes of an untrained individual and his personal journey rather than the usual detached set of facts or findings. As a result of the book format, however, I am unable to replicate the source in full and have therefore selected some of the more relevant passages to looking at this work through an experimental, socially engaged art lens, taking some liberties in rearranging information by necessity.

So for an introduction on the context that has been removed, Pollan’s personal experiment constitutes the final chapter of his book. Previous chapters explore the prevalence of corn in the modern market and how that came to be, the life of a cow in the meat industry, and similar pursuits. Throughout is woven a combination of research and personal experience, with a storyteller’s attention to the expressive written word. Narrative also provides the structure for how the information is presented, which I have scrambled here, condensing together passages originally pages apart. With this in mind…

There was one more meal I wanted to make, and that was the meal at the end of the shortest food chain of all. What I had in mind was a dinner prepared entirely from ingredients I had hunted, gathered, and grown myself.

A “shortest food chain of all” provides an interesting framework for looking at eating in industrialized society as being positioned at the end of an enormous food chain- chain suggesting the larger overarching system of food if not its overlapping and intersecting nonlinear qualities , and containing eating within a purely biological sphere.

  1. Everything on the menu must have been hunted, gathered, or grown by me.
  2. The menu should feature at least one representative of each edible kingdom: animal, vegetable, and fungus, as well as an edible mineral (the salt).
  3. Everything served must be in season and fresh. The meal would reflect not only the places that supplied its ingredients, but a particular moment in time.
  4. No money may be spent on the meal, though already purchased items in the pantry could be deployed as needed.
  5. The guest list is limited to those people who helped me in my foraging and their significant others. There would be ten of us in all.
  6. I would cook the meal myself.

This list sets out clear priorities as to what is required in order to break free from the industrialized process and also what is logically feasible- the importance of gathering ingredients first hand balanced with the concession to use existing pantry items.Similarly, Pollan prioritizes his own individual efforts, strictly limiting the scope to a one-man job, but concedes he will need help from experienced others.

The second item of the list particularly subscribes to a devoutly omnivorous model of human eating, as well as a built-in assurance of not cutting corners by simply eating a garden salad or something common.

The third item is important in that it indicates Pollan is trying to capture a contemporary moment and not a historical one: an older style of food gathering but fully situated in today’s world. (This is unlike many similar works such as by Raul Ortega Ayala, who staged a reenactment of The Last Supper) This allows Pollan a degree of accuracy with engaging in the complex system of food today, embracing modern world factors despite the hunter/gatherer connotation of a return to an earlier evolutionary moment.

Foraging for wild plants and animals is, after all, the way the human species has fed itself for 99 percent of its time on earth; this is precisely the food chain natural selection designed us for.

There is a prioritization here of natural selection that implies the superiority of traditional eating methods by virtue of their having worked for a long time. One could add that human development greatly outpaces natural selection, and that evolution is too slow to best equip us for a technologically advanced environment. In Mariah Wright’s rice scenario for example, relying on natural selection alone does not equip humans to deal with their rapidly changing surroundings. Natural selection may have designed us for one thing, but that does not imply its design should reign supreme.

Agriculture brought humans a great many blessings, but it also brought infectious disease (from living in close quarters with one another and our animals) and malnutrition (from eating too much of the same thing when crops were good, and not enough of anything when they weren’t). Anthropologists estimate that typical hunter-gatherers worked at feeding themselves no more than seventeen hours a week, and we were far more robust and long-lived than agriculturists, who have only in the last century or two regained the physical stature and longevity of their Paleolithic ancestors.

From this passage, the contemporary revolution of the food industry can be traced as far back as the original ancient practice of farming, disrupting the common and falsely stable concept of a recent ‘then vs now’- considering very recent technology only as unnatural, and locating the ‘natural’ state just before the industrial revolution.

Why go to all this trouble? It’s not as though the forager food chain represents a viable way for us to eat at this point in history; it doesn’t. For one thing, there is not enough game left to feed us all, and probably not enough wild plants and mushrooms either.

So even if we wanted to go back to hunting and gathering wild species, it’s not an option: There are far too many of us and not nearly enough of them. Fishing is the last economically important hunter-gatherer food chain, though even this foraging economy is rapidly giving way to aquaculture, for the same reasons hunting wild game succumbed to raising livestock. It is depressing though not at all difficult to imagine our grandchildren living in a world in which fishing for a living is history.

This passage marks the current moment with melancholy nostalgia for a disappearing way of life, drawing on emotional resonance even as it lays out pragmatic facts of a food system tied to overpopulation and scarcity of resources. In this view the contemporary moment exists through an irretrievable sacrifice, an obscured sacrifice this art project seeks to bring back into the spot light.

My wager in undertaking this experiment is that hunting and gathering (and growing) a meal would perforce teach me things about the ecology and ethics of eating that I could not get in a supermarket or fast-food chain or even on a farm. Some very basic things: about the ties between us and the species (and natural systems) we depend upon; about how we decide what in nature is good to eat and what is not; and about how the human body fits into the food chain, not only as an eater but as a hunter and, yes, a killer of other creatures. For one of the things I was hoping to accomplish by rejoining, however briefly, this shortest and oldest of food chains was to take some more direct, conscious responsibility for the killing of the animals I eat. Otherwise, I felt, I really shouldn’t be eating them.

Michael Pollan here demonstrates an interest in first-hand experimental knowledge-gathering that recognizes the mediating effects of locations such as stores and farms and strives instead for a more direct encounter with the natural world. The goal appears to be a closer connection to and responsibility for a consumed product, mirroring Marxist concerns of modernism as the alienation of labour.¹ To rejoin an old food chain is an entry point into re-evaluating the present moment, tinged with but not overwhelmed by nostalgia.

The use of the term “basic” offers in one sense simplification, but on the other hand the proposal that such basic things require a lengthy project to investigate suggests that in the modern food society, even the smallest of concepts have countless threads and implications to follow up.

The hunter, at least as I imagined him, is alone in the woods with his conscience. And this, I suppose, points to what I was really after in taking up hunting and gathering: to see what it’d be like to prepare and eat a meal in full consciousness of what was involved… and recover the fundamental biological realities that the complexities of modern industrialized eating keep from our view.

Again, reversion to older practices constitutes a recovery of a natural essence lost to modernism- in this case fundamental biological realities. In this passage, the complexity and opacity of the system is made plain.The hunter appears as a romanticized loner figure much like a classic Western hero, granted self-awareness in contrast to the thoughtless modern citizen so far removed from the sources of their meals.

The meat industry understands that the more people know about what happens on the kill floor, the less meat they’re likely to eat. That’s not because slaughter is necessarily inhumane, but because most of us would simply rather not be reminded of exactly what meat is or what it takes to bring it to our plates.

Eating meat has become morally problematic, at least for people who take the trouble to think about it. Vegetarianism is more popular than it has ever been, and animal rights, the fringiest of fringe movements until just a few years ago, is rapidly finding its way into the cultural mainstream… For the most part our culture has been telling us for millenia that animals were both good to eat and good to think².

The modern state of the meat industry relies on ignorance, willful or not, which is here not entirely a moral question of inhumanity but also of simply avoiding distaste in people unused to engaging with the animal aspects of their meat. Vegetarianism is a choice accessed through increased knowledge and awareness, prime capital in today’s knowledge society. This new information must overcome a culture based on a now outdated relationship to meat production.This paints a picture where food culture lags behind food technology, and discomfort arises from the realization of this gap.

Meat comes from the grocery store, where it is cut and packages to look as little like parts of animals as possible. (When was the last time you saw a butcher at work?) The disappearance of animals from our lives has opened a space in which there’s no reality check on the sentiment or the brutality.

This truly invites people to question how they eat and what facts they ignore during their decision-making processes. It is not a direct call to action but rather the presentation of ideas that would naturally prompt one, maintaining an informational and not preachy tone.The modern detachment of people from meat animals is cited as industrialized farming’s saving grace, resting blame with an event rather than a specific group, allowing for a suitably complex interpretation of cause and effect.

To visit a modern Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) is to enter a world that for all its technological sophistication is still designed on seventeenth-century Cartesian principles: Animals are treated as machines- “production units”- incapable of feeling pain. Since no thinking person can possibly believe this anymore, industrial animal agriculture depends on a suspension of disbelief on the part of the people who operate it and a willingness to avert one’s eyes on the part of everyone else.

The perils of the modern industrial food industry can perhaps then be linked to outdated processes rather than innovative ones, with a highlight on how social attitudes and beliefs shape economic processes but adaptation is not instantaneous.

In a short section recounting the events of his hunting trip, Michael Pollan lapses into visceral, philosophical descriptions before the book abruptly switches tone with the implied passage of time and self-reflection:

Wait a minute. Did I really write that last paragraph? Without irony? That’s embarrassing. I’m actually writing about the hunter’s “instinct,” suggesting that the hunt represents some sort of primordial union between two kinds of animals, one of which is me? This seems a bit much. I recognize this kind of prose: hunter porn. And whenever I’ve read it in the past, in Ortega y Gasset and Hemingway and all those hard-bitten, big-bearded American wilderness writers who still pine for the Pleistocene, it never failed to roll my eyes. I could never stomach the straight-faced revelling in primitivism, the barely concealed bloodlust, the whole macho conceit that the most authentic encounter with nature is the one that comes through the sight of a gun and ends with a large mammal dead on the ground– a killing that we are given to believe constitutes a gesture of respect… In general, experiences that banish irony are much better for living than for writing. But there it is: I enjoyed shooting a pig a whole lot more than I ever thought I should have.

The inclusion of Pollan’s previous, disavowed writing showcases this artwork’s commitment to portraying an unfolding and imperfect sequence of events, allowing failure and change instead of editing towards a simplified and non-contradictory voice. This highlights how this work can be considered in the framework of strategic design- following the scientific experimental model to some degree but with a willingness to fail, adapt, and refuse a neat ending³. Set against his discussion of the inhumanity of the meat industry, the reveal that he enjoyed his hunting trip helps to tease out the complexity of this issue, and the massive impact that contextualized points of view can have. To see the before and after, one cannot help but consider that judging an experience from outside it is an inadequate measure, and that ethical stances are highly subject to environment factors. The honest, self-aware acknowledgement of his changing thoughts connect with attitudes the reader likely holds, directly challenging them to consider the stability of their beliefs.

As the rules suggest, the meal was a conceit- an ambitious, possibly foolhardy, and, I hoped, edible conceit. My aim in attempting it, as should be obvious, was not to propose hunting and gathering and growing one’s own food as an answer to any question larger than the modest ones I started with: Would it be possible to prepare such a meal, and would I learn anything of value- about the nature or culture of human eating- by doing so? I certainly don’t mean to suggest that anyone else should try this at home, or that a return to finding and producing our own food is a practical solution to any of our culture’s dilemmas surrounding eating and agriculture. No, little if anything about this meal was what anyone would call “realistic.” And yet no meal I’ve ever prepared or eaten has been more real.

By clearly marking the questions his experiment was engaging with, Pollan resists a reading of his results using broad generalizations, hinting that he has only dealt with one small piece of an enormously complex system. Possibility and learning are the only two concerns, and the questions are open-ended. Pollan in a sense works with a notion of activity rather than agency as described by Scott Lash°, surrendering some traditional authorial control with a willingness to negotiate his experiment’s terms in the longer run. This also relates to the passage below detailing Pollan’s failure to achieve each point on his numbered list, making it less a set contract and more of an open starting point to be haggled as circumstances revealed themselves.

To call his bizarre meal ‘real’ indicates yet again the prevailing notion that realness and naturalness and a reversion to older practices constitutes something more than the diminished modern technologically advanced state.

Unfortunately this salt, which was a bit greasy to the touch, tasted so metallic and so much like chemicals that it actually made me gag, and required a chaser of mouthwash to clear from my tongue. I expect this was a case where the human disgust reflex probably saved lives. No doubt professional salt gatherers have sophisticated purification techniques, but I had no clue what these might be. So I abandoned plans to cook with and serve my own salt, and counted myself lucky not to have contracted hepatitis.

The admission of amateur inadequacy here enhances the notion of food gathering as more complex than first appearances might suggest.

I prized, too, the almost perfect transparency of this meal, the brevity and simplicity of the food chain that linked it to the wider world. Scarcely an ingredient in it had ever worn a label or bar code or price tag, and yet I knew almost everything there was to know about its provenance and its price. I knew and could picture the very oaks and pines that had nourished the pigs and the mushrooms that were nourishing us. And I knew the true cost of this food, the precise sacrifice of time and energy and life it had entailed. Some of that sacrifice had proven expensive to me, emotionally speaking, yet it was cheering to realize just how little this preindustrial and mostly preagricultural meal had diminished the world.

Except he’s not accounting for manufacturing the gun to hunt, the evolution of the cherry tree, the gas consumed in driving, the energy consumed powering house, the changed habitat of his prey, or any number of complex systems outside the simple interaction between him and his ingredients. To say ‘preindustrial’ is misleading, because social realities are always present, exerting influence on one’s actions. On one level there is the suggested inclusion of the climate change system, but to break food into the binary of industrial or not is an enormous simplification.

It’s impossible to prepare and eat a meal quite so physically, intellectually, and emotionally costly without thinking about the incalculably large debts we incur when we eat industrially- which is to say, when we eat without a thought to what we’re doing. To compare my transcendently slow meal to the fast-food meal I “served” my family at that McDonald’s in Marin, the one that set me back fourteen bucks for the three of us and was consumed in ten minutes at sixty-five miles per hour, is to marvel at the multiplicity of a world that could produce two such different methods of accomplishing the same thing: feeding ourselves, I mean.

As he begins to conclude his thoughts, Pollan summarizes his view on the contemporary state of food society- on that is incalculably complex and that we no longer face responsibility for.

He acknowledges the vast worlds of difference between fast and slow food, realizing the degrees of thought present in the consumer for each situation, but does not oversimplify in terms of one’s superiority.

The two meals stand at the far extreme ends of the spectrum of human eating- of the different ways we have to engage the world that sustains us. The pleasures of one are based on a nearly perfect knowledge; the pleasures of the other on an equally perfect ignorance. The diversity of the one mirrors the diversity of nature, especially the forest; the variety of the other more accurately reflects the ingenuity of industry, especially its ability to tease a passing resemblance of diversity from a single species growing in a single landscape: a monoculture of corn. The cost of the first meal is steep, yet it is acknowledged and paid for; by comparison the price of the second seems a bargain but fails to cover its true cost, charging it instead to nature, to the public health and purse, and to the future.

In essence, the modernization of the food industry can be described as incurring hidden costs, as the complexity of the system spirals out of possible coherent comprehension. Ingenuity and the increasing range of available products coincide with the inability to deeply connect with or understand food. The individual scope of this experimental endeavor refocuses the issue on a personal level, at its core calling readers to resist the ease of industry and really think about what they eat every day with a critical eye.

¹Marxist alienation of labour: the process of modernism by which people are increasingly unaware of their own world, for example a factory worker’s relation to a product versus a craftsman. In this case it is the consumer rather than the worker who is alienated, but the same principles apply: physical, emotional, and mental distance from the object.
² elsewhere in his book, Pollan describes this with good to eat meaning good for biological health, and good to think as a mentally justifiable decision in terms of ethics, taste, social culture, etc.
³from Dan Hill’s “Dark Matter Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary”, which describes a type of good failure that allows a system to learn.
°from “Agency and Architecure: How to be Critical”, where Lash undermines the concept of individualistic, goal-driven agency as the only way to approach actions addressing a problem. His definition of activity revolves around Eastern thought, and the model of “you analyse the situation, and see what arises from it (8) “

Food + Science = Victory

Freakonomics Podcast episode on applying modern science to cooking methods, food and nutrition. This is an interesting public media source because it is mainly intended as entertainment, and manifests itself in a seemingly spontaneous conversational style while in fact being the result of careful editing in order to tell a story. Stephen Dubner organizes and guides the conversation while letting the credible ‘experts’ relay the bulk of the information.

Full podcast:

Highlighted sections:


LÓPEZ-ALT: My name is Kenji López-Alt. I’m the managing culinary director at and I write about the science of food.

Uh-oh. “The science of food.” Doesn’t that sound kind of … unnatural?

LÓPEZ-ALT: I think a lot of people think of science as sort of the opposite of tradition or the opposite of natural. And really it’s not. Science is just a method, right? It’s a method of thinking about the world and it can be used for many different ends.

This brief exchange kicks off the conversation by tackling one of the main perceptions about the modernized food industry- namely fear of the unnatural- and uses a reassuring tone to set up the rest of the content as non-threatening.

Categorizing science as simply a method to be applied suggests that the modernization of the food industry isn’t really changing the inner character of food, but rather involves applying new processes to an original, edible product. There is also an unusual openness to the phrase “a method” that invites other lenses of interpretation, opening up a conversation.

The argument that science can be  used for different ends mirrors a common argument that comes up with fear-based issues such as gun control- ultimately, it’s not the gun, or the scientific method that defines the character of an action, but rather how the people use these detached, emotionless objects.


ROBINSON: My job is to go into the scientific journals, find what I think is important for human health, and repackage it in a way that people can  first of all understand its importance, and then find, “what am I gonna pick in this grocery store? What am I going to pick in this farmer’s market?” So really it takes someone like myself to translate science into action steps.

Robinson assumes an authoritative role as public intellectual within the expert system, acknowledging the impossibly huge data set available to the public and the number of people like herself required to make the system run. Terms like ‘translating’ and ‘repackaging’ (interestingly in the same breath as ‘what I think’) minimize her interpretive role, and the ‘scientific journals’ add credibility.

Additionally, the phrase ‘important for human human health’ suggests a universality that erases the diversity in human beings from a health perspective, and equates health with food rather than with a mix of factors.

She is clear about her intended purpose as a media maker, which is the conventional method to guide people’s actions, delivering top-down information that removes the decision making process from untrained hands.


ROBINSON: Well, we humans are programmed, and have always been programmed, to prefer food that is high in carbohydrates, starches and sugar, and oil, because those kinds of nutrients were very poor in the wilderness. And we had to be motivated with these feel-good brain chemicals to go out and get them. And so, over time we just kept picking sweeter, fatter, richer, softer, less fibrous food, never knowing what we’re doing. And only now do we have the technology and the slowly accumulating wisdom to know how we should transform our food supply to make it optimum for human health.

Programmed is a word meant in the neutral evolutionary context but takes on a sinister tone of mind control, which positions modern sweet, fatty rich food as addictive and irresistible. Unusually, Robin’s position situates mindless natural selection as the root of contemporary food issues, and technology as a potentially transformative tool for good. This suggests that the modern state of industrialized food production is an inevitable result of instinct that can now be rationally overridden towards a healthier model.


In Robinson’s view, America has been guiltier than others.

ROBINSON: I don’t think Americans are stupid when it comes to food, nutrition and health. But what happened is all of these great food cultures of the countries that we came from got lost when we came here. And everything became homogenized. And then we became leaders in industrial agriculture, which has nothing to do with nutrition; it has to do with volume and with flavor.  So  the vast majority of food crops in this country, we’re growing them because they’re highly productive or disease-resistant. Those are the two criteria that farmers use, and agricultural schools use, to determine what varieties we’re going to eat. They’re not looking at food value.  So, other countries throughout the world tend to have more nutritious diets than we do. And then, we started breeding out all signs of bitterness because food manufacturers knew that about 25 percent of the population does not like bitter foods, in even low amounts. So, they’re not going to create something that 25 percent of their potential sellers are going to avoid. Just this taking away the bitterness took away a lot of the antioxidants.  All of those trends continued. So, we have a very bland, low-antioxidant, soft diet.


ROBINSON: I began to compare the food that we’re eating today with the wild diet that sustained us for about 98 percent of our evolution.  And it was so very clear that over time we have greatly diminished the nutrient content of our animal products and everything that we grow. For example, the antioxidant content of wild plants varies to 2-400x greater than the domesticated counterparts that we eat today.

Robinson believes, powerfully, in the value of antioxidants.

ROBINSON: Well the word “antioxidant” can tell a lot of the story. It’s against oxidation. And oxidation is just this chemical process where a molecule grabs an electron from another molecule , which sets up this chain reaction which can cause all kinds of destruction in every cell in our body.


As Robinson writes, “Plants can’t fight their enemies or hide from them so they protect themselves by producing an arsenal of chemical compounds that protect them” — from insects, disease, harsh weather, and sunlight. And many of those compounds function — for us, when we eat them — as antioxidants. The problem is that, as a result of many years of breeding food for taste and productivity, we’ve created a menu of modern fruits and vegetables that aren’t necessarily good for us.


ROBINSON: We need to find out what science is now telling us about the best varieties of fruits and vegetables to eat. And this is complicated science and it’s not widely adopted at this time. You’re not going to find the USDA saying, “Eat more of the cabbage family because it has glucosinolates in it” — which are cancer-fighting organisms. So, we really need to go outside of mainstream nutrition and agriculture to find what’s best for our health.

Robinson talks about the inadequacy of health information in current media, underlining the importance of going outside the mainstream. Science is held up as the ultimate standard as decision-making factor, addressing health from a food biology perspective.


ROBINSON: But with tomatoes, canned tomatoes are actually better for us than a fresh, organic, locally harvested, heirloom tomato. Because the nutrient in tomatoes, which is proving to be supportive of heart-health, is called lycopene. And when lycopene is heated, it is transformed into a form that we find easier to absorb. And the best source of lycopene in the entire store is tomato paste. And you know people don’t like to hear that. How could that be? But in fact, science supports it.

ROBINSON:  Many people are surprised to hear that steaming vegetables in the microwave is probably the best way to preserve nutrients. You want to destroy some of those enzymes that are getting rid of antioxidants as quickly as you can. And you want to cook the food for as short amount a time as possible. So, the microwave will do that for you. You just put it in a microwave steamer and cook it for just a couple of minutes and it’s done