Felicity Lawrence absorbs three books on the illogical route from farm to fork.
Food Routes: Growing Bananas in Iceland and Other Tales from the Logistics of Eating Robyn S. Metcalfe MIT Press (2019)
The Grand Food Bargain: and the Mindless Drive for More Kevin D. Walker Island (2019)
Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food Timothy A. Wise The New Press (2019)
Every year, roughly one-third of food produced for human consumption goes to waste. The booming global livestock population accounts for 15% of human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions. Its more than 20 billion chickens, 770 million pigs and 1.5 billion cattle eat around one-third of all cereals produced. More than 390,000 tonnes of asparagus are flown to rich countries from regions of Peru experiencing acute water shortages and extreme poverty. Some 820 million people go hungry. More than 650 million adults are obese.
That our current food system is not fit for purpose is now a widely accepted diagnosis. The symptoms are severe. In addition to its implications in climate change and water scarcity, Big Food is a factor in crises of soil depletion, biodiversity loss and pollution. The aetiology of the disease remains disputed, however; so, as three new books demonstrate, the proposed remedies differ wildly.
Robyn Metcalfe’s Food Routes argues for total reinvention through technology: with big data’s marriage to Big Food, technology companies and engineers will soon take over from farmers to produce what we eat. In The Grand Food Bargain, Kevin Walker counters that view, warning of our tendency to overestimate short-term benefits of new technology, and to underestimate any damaging consequences. And in Eating Tomorrow, Timothy Wise writes a powerful polemic against agricultural technology that is sold to developing countries as progress towards the common good, but that ends up as a tool of agribusiness oligopoly and profit.
Metcalfe, a food futurist, declares herself a technology optimist. Food Routes is a fascinating catalogue of ‘miracle’ solutions in development. Some — 3D printed pizzas, say — are from the wilder shores of business-school horizon scanning. Others, such as gene editing of seeds, are about to be embedded in our lives, yet we’re mostly oblivious to their unforeseen consequences.