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Blessed are the hungry? Not yet

December 18, 2020
Ian Allen

Lab-grown meat, artificial human breast milk, genetically modified pigs, a cauliflower field farmed by robots—if that’s the kind of science-fiction-y stuff you expect to read about in a special issue on technology and food, you won’t be disappointed. (And if you like actual science fiction, take a look at this short story by Anjali Sachdeva.) 

What makes these technologies so fascinating? Sure, it’s claimed that they’ll make food production better—more humane, more reliable, more efficient. But beyond that, I think we’re at once intrigued and repulsed by the idea that something as familiar, essential, and “natural” as food can be deconstructed and rebuilt from its component cells, tweaked like a piece of software, or grown without ever being touched by a human hand. 

This reflects an evolution in Western food culture. If mid-20th-century advertisements extolled synthetic foods in garish colors, and television shows told us we’d soon have all our nutritional needs met by three pills a day, today we fantasize about ancient grains and heirloom tomatoes in limitless abundance. But that also means we prefer not to acknowledge the truth: there’s already precious little that’s “natural” about how we get most of our food.

Today’s food system bears little resemblance to the one of just a couple of generations ago. It is far more industrial and globalized, and in much of the world it yields many times more crops per acre of land, thanks to new fertilizers, pesticides, and seed varieties. The most mundane processes, from walnut picking to potato breeding, are technologically mediated from top to bottom and are only becoming more so. We can make a piece of food take on any color in the spectrum, where once we were restricted to naturally occurring pigments. Industrial-scale fermentation, long-distance transportation, packaging, and refrigeration completely changed what foods are available when and where; newer advances like e-commerce, CRISPR, and precision agriculture are expected to have similarly far-reaching effects in the coming years. In our kitchens, yesterday’s gadgets for gourmets are becoming today’s essential appliances, raising the bar for home cooking ever higher.

And yet, for all its abundance and reach, the food system fails to feed hundreds of millions of people each year—and this figure, shockingly, is rising. Why? 

The obvious answer is that the food system is not actually designed to feed people. It’s designed to turn a profit, and typically it achieves that by maximizing yields and efficiencies. This might lead to the production of a lot of food, but often in the wrong places, at the wrong times.

So what would happen if we made adequate nourishment a basic human right and rewrote the usual rules of capitalism to achieve? What if, instead of making maximal productivity the ultimate goal and using technology to boost it, we aimed for universal balanced nutrition and sustainable agriculture, and sought out both new technological solutions and traditional farming practices as a way to get there? We’ve already added minerals and vitamins to various foods to combat nutrient deficiencies that sicken billions of people every year; what if we kept on going?

The message in all this is one that MIT Technology Review delivers time after time: technology can yield great benefits to humanity, but only if we choose to deploy it in pursuit of those benefits. It may be a tired old nostrum, but it’s never more self-evidently true than with food—a technological product that every human being relies on almost every single day.

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