According to this scenario, by harnessing technological invention to proﬁt-seeking free enterprise, humanity has already beaten the odds and proved Thomas Malthus wrong. Viewing population growth and environmental constraints in 1798, Malthus predicted that food supplies would soon run short of demand, leading to famine and misery for the mass of humanity, and to a rather skimpy “Asiatic” (low-meat) diet for the fortunate few. The Malthusian warning has been recycled numerous times in the past 200 years – most recently by earnest environmentalists Paul Ehrlich, Lester
t h e f u t u r e o f f o o d 115 Brown, and David Pimentel (Belasco 2006a). But so far at least human ingenuity has produced more grain, and thus more meat, milk, and eggs, than we can consume, even as the world’s population has increased six-fold since Malthus’s day. For this the Malthusians might actually be thanked, for their scary scenarios inspired the agricultural research that has held oﬀ the widespread shortages that Malthus feared.
The technological ﬁx10 has several key assumptions: First, human wants are limitless and should not be curtailed – nor should social structures be reformed to encourage personal restraint or to redistribute resources. In food terms, this means that if everyone wants to move up the food chain to a convenience-based diet rich in animal protein, “fresh” produce, prepared meals (whether restaurant or carryout), and other luxuries such as beer, soft drinks, and chocolate, then so be it. The more the merrier. We do not need government (“the national nanny”), nutritionists (“the food police”), or environmentalists (“tree huggers”) to tell us to lighten up. Instead we should be free to pursue our individual tastes and cravings, wherever they lead.
Inﬁnite needs can be met by humanity’s inﬁnite creativity, especially if we let markets work. Given the right economic incentives, there will always be someone who will ﬁgure out a way to produce more food. Just before Malthus expressed his worries about overpopulation, the philosopher Condorcet predicted that the demand for more food would encourage scientists to investigate “the feasibility of manufacturing animal and vegetable substances artiﬁcially, [and] the utilization of substances which were wasted” (Manuel 1965: 93). And a hundred years later, in 1894, French chemist Marcelin Berthelot suggested that “the long evolution” of human innovation would by the year 2000 lead to a “tablet of factory-made beefsteak” synthesized from coal (Dam 1894).
According to this technological paradigm, anything man-made, including food, is “artiﬁcial” by deﬁnition. Just as the dictionary oﬀers “art” as the antonym of
“nature,” food technologists have long insisted that “nature” is not our ally in this ﬁght to produce more, so it must be fought and dominated at every turn. In fact, natural foods can be deadly – e.g., aﬂatoxin in peanuts, tuberculosis in raw milk, nitrates in celery – and “natural” methods of farming are insuﬃcient to ﬁght oﬀ the weeds, bugs, and other pests that want a hefty bite of our crops. Nor is the past much of a guide, for in this modernist worldview, human “tradition” means plagues, pestilence, and pellagra.
Over the course of agricultural evolution there have been numerous techno-logical ﬁxes for our demographic and ecotechno-logical dilemmas: for example, better seeds, plows, barns, harvesters, pumps, fertilizers, pesticides, refrigerators, bigger and faster tractors, trucks, trains and planes, and so on. While some of these inven-tions were developed by small-scale farmers, the new technologies required to feed the future are not cheap or simple. Paying for their research, development, and
maintenance requires large investments at every stage of the food chain. Despite agrarian sentiments, bigger has been better for almost a century. For example, in an inﬂuential 1929 book, Too Many Farmers, farm journalist Wheeler McMillen proclaimed, “Enormous possibilities for improving the economic and social status of people engaged in agriculture lie in the application of the corporation to farming . . . Corporations, by supplying capital and all the tools of production, and requiring of each employee only that he use the gifts nature has bestowed upon him, bring out the best of man’s competence” (McMillen 1929: 303, 318). If food production is dominated by giant corporations such as Archer Daniels Midland, Monsanto, and Cargill, that’s inevitable. Or as US Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson told farmers in the 1950s, the decade of agriculture’s greatest technological leaps, “Get big or get out” (Fite 1981: 102–117). To this, Nixon-era agriculture secretary Earl Butz added, “Adapt or die.” This applied to the Third World as well. Even though the famous “Green Revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s was designed to help poor countries feed themselves, these high-yield seeds worked best when cultivated with the costly chemicals and tractors that only the richest farmers could aﬀord.
And now perhaps our most ambitious – and most expensive – technological hopes focus on breakthroughs in genetic engineering, microtechnology, and nanotechnology. Through what historian Joseph Amato calls “the control of miniature things” – genes, microbes, molecules, and other forms of “dust” – humans can direct evolution (Amato 2000: 108). And they can do so more eﬃciently, for the new biotechnologies are quicker and more precise than older forms of genetic selection, which required a laborious, multi-generational process of cross-breeding and growing-out.
Armed with their new “smart” tools, scientists will overcome, and perhaps undo the environmental damage wrought by earlier generations. For example, plants can be redesigned to resist the new diseases fostered by industrial monoculture and even to ﬂourish in salinized soils, overgrazed deserts, deforested jungles, polluted air, or eroded plains. If Global Warming proceeds as anticipated, vast new frontiers of Arctic grain land will be opened up for exploitation, while low-lying areas may be ﬂooded. In response, biotechnology may create plants best suited for the special growing conditions of northern tundra and southern wetlands. Corn, wheat, rice, and soy can also be engineered to grow faster with fewer dangerous pesticides, or in Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready version, to grow well only when doused in particular pesticides sold by the same company that makes the seed. Such advances will, of course, cost farmers a substantial premium. Animals, too, can be reprogrammed to withstand the toxic bacteria of factory farms and to require less corn and soy per pound of usable protein. Faced with the near-collapse of world ﬁsheries, scientists can develop new varieties of salmon, shrimp, and tilapia that grow 50 percent faster
t h e f u t u r e o f f o o d 117 and bigger in highly capitalized ﬁsh farms. And, jumping ahead a bit, through nanotechnology proteins can be synthesized from the molecular level up, using whatever organic source is cheapest and most available – corn, rice, brewery yeast, even sawdust – producing tasty, healthy, meat-like foods far more eﬃciently than even the most up-to-date CAFO, which must still depend on live animals for meat.
As an added side beneﬁt for conservationists, the “bio-reﬁneries” of the future will require less space than conventional dirt farming, thus releasing land back to wilderness. For example, the title of a 1994 report ﬁnanced by pro-agribusiness interests asked, How Much Land Can Ten Billion People Spare for Nature? The answer was quite a lot, with high-tech “smart farming” (Waggoner 1994). That same year, a similar link was suggested in the title of agricultural scientist Derek Tribe’s brief for biotechnology, Feeding and Greening the World (Tribe 1994).11 This “back to nature”
beneﬁt of chemistry was also voiced exactly a hundred years earlier by Marcelin Berthelot, who predicted that synthetic chemistry – which he termed “spiritual chemistry”—would return humanity to pre-Fall Eden, where still-innocent Adam and Eve did not have to scratch the earth for a meager living. “If the surface of the earth ceases to be divided and I must say disﬁgured by the geometrical devices of agriculture, it will regain its natural verdure of woods and ﬂowers” (Dam 1894:
312). And halfway between Berthelot and Tribe, chemist Jacob Rosin argued that industrial synthesis of food would free the landscape “from its dedication to food production. A new way of life will emerge. Crowded cities will disappear, and the earth will be transformed into a Garden of Eden” (Rosin and Eastman 1953: 57).
Technological ingenuity may also transform the rest of the food chain. Auto-mated factories and “just-in-time” supply chains will be both more productive and also more “responsive” to shifting consumer demands. In the global supermarket
“fresh,” tasty, and interesting foods will speed almost anywhere in the world thanks to
“green” ships, planes, and trucks that will use less energy and produce less pollution.
New types of packaging will require much less paper or plastic, will automatically monitor freshness, and will biodegrade completely when empty. Supermarkets will be redesigned around themes that will enable shoppers to build complete meals eﬀortlessly; thus an “Italian” section might link pastas with appropriate sauce, cheese, sausage, bread, salad, and gelato. Computerized terminals will oﬀer shoppers information on nutrition, recipes, and perhaps even the geographic sources of products. Shoppers with “smart cards” will not have to ﬁnd a terminal, as their encoded cards will automatically match past purchases, medical history, and personal needs with particular goods that will be loaded into “smart carts” designed to monitor sales and make “helpful” suggestions along the way. Needless to say, since lower labor costs translate into lower food prices and higher proﬁts, grocers will also “robotize” warehouses, service kiosks, shelf restocking, and checkout, thereby
furthering the deskilling and de-unionization of blue-collar work – and providing more low-waged jobs for displaced peasants. Consumers may not even have to leave their homes to shop or to take out the garbage, as other “smart kitchen” technologies will link supermarket delivery services directly to fridge, package, microwave, waste disposal, and sewer.
Through the precise engineering of “functional” foods, the bodies of consumers can be manipulated to absorb needed medicines and nutrients without aﬀecting basic tastes, habits, and needs. Snack foods will ﬁnally “taste good” and be “good for you,” as a host of new sweeteners, fats, and spices will allow us to indulge ourselves without guilt. No pain, and no weight gain either. Some foods will be designed to control metabolism so that consumers will actually lose pounds by downing them.
For the ultimate in no-sweat convenience, we will down our scientiﬁcally fortiﬁed
“smart drinks” designed to improve memory, alertness, and analytical sharpness, all without any eﬀort or thought (Belasco 2006a).
In this pure, engineer’s fantasy of the Gee Whiz, there is no real conﬂict within the identity–convenience–responsibility triangle (see page 7), for the demand for convenience is the essence of human identity, and it is through corporate research and development that this need is met most responsibly. But, as we have seen in earlier chapters, engineers do not run food companies. Rather, marketers have long known that technological ﬁxes alone are not accepted unless they are guised in fantasies that are less high-tech than historic – the sixth of the Eight Fs of Fast Food Marketing (see page 69). The wholly artiﬁcial meal pills, ethers, and tubed food of earlier science ﬁction will not appeal, however eﬃcient, for modern consumers are nostalgic for the premodern. Therefore, all of these new engineered foods will have to look and taste like the foods that someone’s grandma made, if not in reality then at least in Golden Age sitcoms, the glossy pages of Saveur, or on the Food Channel.
This longing for “authentic tradition” also forms the core of a very diﬀerent scenario for the future of food, the anthropological ﬁx.