Canning veg and visiting the farmer’s market feel good. But neither we, nor the planet, can wait. It’s time for food to get futuristicby Stephanie Boland / December 11, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
In 2014, the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award—awarded for the best food writing each year—was won by the journalist John Jeremiah Sullivan for an essay on jam.
Taking its title from the first line of a 1919 Wallace Stevens poem, “I placed a jar in Tennessee” described a process of preservation and transformation through sugars, jellies and canning that Sullivan—and the preserve-obsessed friend whose story he tells—fears is becoming a lost art. His friend’s obsession is kicked off by an urge to conserve, to save a “giant flat of ripe strawberries” from rotting. The pair draw on the memory of grandmothers, who lived life “in sync with the natural world in a way that went beyond daytime/nighttime.” In a line which reminded me of my partner’s love of baking sourdough bread—a process which he cheerfully undertakes via a series of small tasks spread over three days—the friend finds that making jam helps him regain that sense of time: “You were always monitoring some jar in the kitchen, observing its changes. It gave the whole house a clock to go by.”
It is nice to think about a food culture which could develop along these lines. As the evidence for man-made climate change begins to bite, more and more people are realising the value of slow food, and in certain respects some of us are beginning to eat as we did in simpler times. Rather than buying two rumps of cheap supermarket beef, more people are buying one from a local producer; they are eschewing the glossy, unreal vegetables shipped in from South America in the dead of winter and heading instead to the farmers’ market. On an individual level, these choices feel good: the stalls of the local market are more romantic than the strip-lighting of the all-night garage, and visiting them helps us to put nicer things in our bodies, if only by encouraging us to think our choices through.
Research by the Oxford Martin School warns that in three short decades “emissions related to agriculture and food production” will likely account for half the world’s carbon budget. Addressing this would not leave us deprived, either: the research suggests that we could cut food-related omissions by a third simply by adhering to the recommended guidelines on meat consumption.
We might hope, therefore, that the slide towards low-labour, high-carbon-foot print foods could be reversed—that we could turn towards the quinces and sourdoughs. Climate change, Sullivan suggests, will force a “[reinvention] of village life,” with “the Jeffersonian ideal refracted trough the dark prism of contemporary climate change.”
Yet scaling up this sort of careful shopping is a near-impossible challenge. There is no avoiding the fact that the holy trinity of this new old-fashioned eating—simple, slow and local—is too difficult a proposition for most. Even putting aside the fact that reverting to a local way of eating would require a wholesale overhaul of our food infrastructure, the cost incurred by these “slow” choices is one that most will struggle to pay. True, my partner keeps us stocked in sourdough, but we are two childless professionals who, to be frank, choose regular fancy bread over regular vacuuming.
Eating well requires time and money, and many households are already short of both. The average time spent preparing a meal has gone down from 60 minutes in 1980 to 34 minutes today. Work which would have previously fallen on the housewife now has nowhere to fall: although 70 per cent of women in relationships say they are mostly responsible for the cooking and food shopping, two-thirds of UK women are in employment. On a chart, you could track this change closely to the rise of ready meals and what the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs temptingly calls “convenience meat products”: anonymised, mass-produced foods that could come from anywhere, at any time.
We also now expect access to all sorts of foods in all sorts of seasons. It’s not easy to stomach a fall in living standards: how many already busy households would want to eke out a chicken over the course of a week’s meals when a new, corn-fed chicken waits pale, plump and (relatively) cheap on the supermarket shelves? Not that many of us are much good at eking out a chicken, anyway: with a 54 per cent decrease in home cooking over the last 30 years, the Co-op warns of a “millennials’ cooking skills gap.”
Sullivan ends his essay with an optimistic appeal: “what’s old doesn’t need to be old-fashioned. It gets reborn. And with patience and skill you can capture it.” Patience and skill? Our stocks are depleted. A cultural change to the “old ways” would take several generations. If climate change predictions are true, it would take time we do not have.
If we desire a realistically actionable answer, the question cannot be how we turn away from convenient processed foods, but how we make those foods better—for us and for the world. At this stage, our best hope lies in technology that can reproduce the economies of scale offered by mass factory-farming but do so sustainably and safely. Innovations in “vertical farming,” for instance, allow crops to be grown in stacked layers which use up less space, under LEDs calibrated to allow “maximum photosynthesis.” A start-up in South London called Growing Underground will, if successful, grow plants that “will be among the most chemical-free in London and, thanks to the minimal transport, some of the freshest.” If we want to eat locally while still living a modern, urban lifestyle, this could be one solution.
Other parts of the emerging “future food” industry aim to tackle the biggest cause of food-related climate change: animal farming. A trio of start-ups in the San Francisco Bay area are trying to create passable milk, cheese and egg whites from vegan sources. (Cattle, raised for both beef and dairy products, are responsible for 65 per cent of livestock emissions). Other processes, such as using irradiation—legal in the UK since 2009—to kill micro-organisms and improve shelf-life, for example by stopping potatoes sprouting, are being scaled up.
Then we come to meat. Even the 25 per cent of Brits cutting back on meat won’t neuter this most harmful facet of our diets without scientific help. In 2013, Maastricht University in the Netherlands created the first “cultured” burger made from cow stem cells. Earlier this year, I spoke to Shaked Regev of the Israeli Modern Agriculture Foundation (MAF), a charity set up to research cultured meat alternatives. He told me we were at “a critical point for humanity,” with no time for “a hundred-year social progress movement.” MAF likes to refer to its product as “clean meat,” an attempt to assuage consumer fears about eating meat created in a lab.
For slow food advocates, this is problematic. Increased alienation from our food sources—the estrangement Sullivan notes—is a growing problem, with one in five children apparently now unaware that bacon comes from pigs, and four in five unsure as to whether broccoli is a plant. Would new technology not make our food even more abstract—forcing us to put ever more faith in big manufacturers? I expected Gary Comstock, a professor of ethics at North Carolina State University and a vocal opponent of mass factory farming, to be concerned. When we spoke, however, he was clear: “Artificial meat will not alienate us further from the source of our food. We are already as alienated as we can be from the sources of our food.” Most of us, he explained, already have no idea about the brutal specifics of factory farming (and, I’d add, many of us would rather not know).
But there is also a question of taste. Manufacturers put pictures of old-fashioned farms on packets of chicken because we’re attached to the idea that our meat comes from a quaint pasture. The process of growing meat involves taking a small sample of muscle cells and growing them in a suitable substance which can cultivate one cell into one trillion strands of tissue. This provokes especially visceral reactions: a Pew research report says only 20 per cent of Americans would try it. For Comstock, it will come down to cost. Once lab-grown meat is cheaper than “real” meat, he told me, consumers will purchase it, just as they overcame their reticence about GM crops. “Lab-grown meat will eventually be a great thing for animal welfare,” he says. This case is also made in a new book by Paul Shapiro, Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionise Dinner and the World, which claims a single cow cell “could feed an entire village.”
As to whether clean meat could solve our environmental crisis, its advocates are less certain. In a recent Gizmodo article, Ryan F Mandelbaum notes that “this is a small industry making huge promises.” While new food technologies offer our best hope in the short-term—which may be the only term we have—it’s still not clear whether its production and transportation can be efficient enough to make current levels of meat consumption sustainable.
What is clear, however, is that a change needs to come soon. Sullivan’s essay is about care and abundance, but the Stevens poem he takes his title from is also about the fact that man’s encounters with the natural world are always a negotiation. The eponymous jar makes the wilderness “no longer wild”: “It took dominion everywhere. / The jar was grey and bare. / It did not give of bird or bush, / Like nothing else in Tennessee.” Stevens died before climate change became a headline concern, but the bittersweet-ness of his poem suits our modern anxiety to the ground. Any intervention by man necessitates compromise, Stevens warns. We can’t have our planet and eat it too.