One morning a few years ago as I was walking around Brooklyn I stumbled upon a waffle cart that was handing out free waffles with piles of mealworms and crickets on them. The cart was set up by The Economist to hype their issue on the future of food. I had a waffle with both insects on it. It wasn’t bad. The mealworms had an earthy taste, and the crickets, virtually tasteless, left little legs in my teeth. Other than that, they weren’t awful. Insects might actually make up a good portion of human diets in the next fifty years, and we might need to explore the possibility in order to feed the growing population and reduce the effects of food production on the planet.
The future of food is about far more than just what we will eat. The future of food is a bundle of issues that includes climate change, labour practices, sustaining health in a changed climate, and global trade. Food production is so intertwined with the major issues confronting humanity in the next few decades, one cannot talk about just the food.
For example, food production, according the the UN, is going to need to increase 60 percent to keep up with the 9-billion-person population for which we are headed. Livestock already accounts for two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture industry worldwide. Beefing up (pun intended) livestock production is not the answer. Neither is maintaining the architecture of agricultural labour that exists in the U.S., where 78 percent of workers are immigrants, and a shocking 50 percent of them are undocumented.
The culture, therefore, needs to shift in terms of what we allow in our mouths, and that starts with the culture of food that has contributed to both waste and inequality. Food culture is on the rise for sure. Just look at the number of shows devoted to shaming us for not eating well. While it is widely acknowledged that our food sources are one of the largest producers of carbon emissions, little is being done on the cultural front to address this. Foodists are demanding more and more from the industry, but their exaggerated tastes might kill us all eventually.
Methods of eating, cultures of food, and forms of food are always evolving and creating new ideas about what can be shoved into our mouths. Think of bubble gum, soft-serve ice cream, and energy drinks. They were all 20th century inventions and caused us to rethink the possibilities of food. And we need to keep rethinking those possibilities. Great strides are being made to reduce the harm our food sources inflict on the planet by some of the companies that caused the issues in the first place, but also by small farmers and food activists. Scientists are at the front of these efforts, pushing innovations that need to be adopted. One such innovation is the Impossible Burger, a plant-based vegan alternative to beef that reduces the environmental impact of red meat by nearly 90 percent.
Alas, overall, harmful trends in food production seems to be the direction in which the industry is going. In southeastern Spain, there is a large formation that is accurately described as the Sea of Plastic. It is a massive network of plastic greenhouses that stretches as far as the eye can see. Aside from the awful environmental impact of the chemically treated produce there and the toxins distributed into the atmosphere from the plastic coverings, it is also a labour practices nightmare. Because of the terrible working conditions, much of the labour has to be imported, and more than one commentator has mentioned that the workers are basically “Moroccan slaves.”
While there are depressing developments in the food industry—ones that are going to take a lot of political will to correct— the good news is that innovating what and how we eat could help solve many of the issues of inequality. The bad news is that it will take a massive effort to reform our tastes. Trying to give up entire food groups is a tall order even for those of us who care about how food affects the environment. As with most lifestyle changes that are going to be necessary to address climate change, such as complete independence from fossil fuels, creating a sustainable future for food is going to require a fundamental rethinking of everyday life.
One of the biggest revolutions in commercial food production was the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. The information manufacturers are now required to provide helps us not only to regulate our caloric intake but also to realise just how chemically saturated our food is. In addition to nutritional facts on foods or sanitation ratings on restaurants, we need to start having environmental impact and labour condition ratings on products and restaurants. This would be a start to just and sustainable eating.
There needs to be a full cultural shift in our relationship to food. Some of our gut reactions are so destructive. A new study, for instance, about food deliverers sampling customers’ food focused not on the fact that these people were hungry and making awful wages, but that this practice was gross. We clearly have some misplaced priorities. Steven Poole doesn’t hold back when he claims “Western industrial civilization is eating itself stupid”. Poole’s point is that in the tsunami of food programming, books, and reinvigorated restaurant culture, a mark of a social ‘yahoo’ now is someone who cannot talk about food at excruciating length in any gathering.
Food is politically safe. It tends to offend few people in polite conversation. But it should. Our current eating practices are not only killing our environment, but also the people who have few rights in the countries that rely on their labour. We need to shift the conversation and culture around food, so that no chocolate mousse or unpronounceable cheese escapes the same scrutiny we apply to fossil fuels.