As so often these serendipitous things happen, last week I watched the 1973 film “Soylent Green” and this week finished the 2012 book by Josh Schonwald, “The Taste of Tomorrow“, both views of our impending food future.
For those who haven’t seen Soylent Green (and even if you have, I highly recommend a re-watch). Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it:
“In 2022, the population has grown to forty million people in New York City alone. Housing is dilapidated and overcrowded; homeless people fill the streets and line fire escapes and stairways. Food is scarce; most of the population survives on rations produced by the Soylent Corporation, whose newest product is Soylent Green, a small green wafer advertised to contain “high-energy plankton”. It is more nutritious and palatable than the other varieties, Red and Yellow, but is in short supply, which leads to food riots.”
In a nutshell, we’ve destroyed the planet to the extent that only the very very wealthy can afford small amounts of actual produce and on the rare occasion, meat. Everyone else eats wafers of soy-based food wafers created by a single corporate entity. Sound familiar?
The protagonist of Soylent Green, Robert Thorn (played by Charlton Heston) is a cop who becomes caught up in trying to solve a murder of a wealthy Soylent executive, which gets him involved in a conspiracy/coverup by the corporation, which eventually reveals the following ….”Soylent Green is made of…..SPOILER ALERT!!“.
So how does this 40 year old, science fiction film relate to a current day book about our food future? Far too well.
Eat Your Greens
The premise of The Taste of Tomorrow is the author’s search for the foods that we’ll be eating in 2035. His journey takes him all over the world and he speaks with a number of farmers (animal and vegetable), scientists and food futurists along the way. Much of the book’s storytelling was interesting and indeed there was some time devoted to the benefits of eating local and organic (ubiquitous nod to Alice Waters). However great these benefits are, this was usually followed with a line like “…this is great for foodies but you can’t feed the world this way.” Argh.
Schonwald spends many chapters looking for the next revolution/revelation in salad. The history of bagged lettuce and spring mix was interesting. Cruising around the Salinas valley (not that far from my home of San Jose), he talks with some of the people behind the giant monoculture lettuce farms that bring the iceberg, romaine and raddichio to a hermetically sealed bag at a Safeway near you. Finding the next breakthrough salad green is certainly big business. Let’s just say I appreciate the farmers at my local farmers market a bit more after reading this and will be on the lookout for Treviso Radicchio to grill. Wink wink.
GMOs are Good?
This led into a section devoted to GMOs and why they are going to help end worldwide starvation and save the environment. The author reasons that GMOs create higher yields, reduce pesticide use which should clean up rivers and other “dead zones”. He continues to say that because products like “golden rice”, a GMO version of rice that contains high levels of Vitamin A, could possibly cure blindness in third world countries, and GMO papayas saved farmers in Hawaii, clearly GMO foods are amazing innovations and we are “reckless, irresponsible and inhumane” to reject them categorically. Is that so?
The author does not spend one iota of time actually verifying that the aforementioned “promises” of GMOs are actually true. You might recall some of the stories this year regarding our friends at Monsanto. Let’s recap shall we?
- Monsanto Crop Failures and Superbugs
- Mass suicides in India due to BT Cotton Crop failures
- Bee colony collapse possibly related to pesticide usage and GMO pollen
- Use of Monsanto’s Round Up is creating zresistant super weeds
Superbugs, superweeds, colony collapse and farmer suicides? And that’s just after 5 minutes of googling. Clearly GMOs are not all rainbows and unicorns.
In addition, not once does the author even mention the nutrition or health risks associated with actually EATING the GMO crops. Read the book “The Unhealthy Truth” and check this out for more on these health risks. His lack of investigation on these fronts is frankly disturbing.
Schonwald does more globetrotting to hunt for the future of meat production. His basis for this section comes from the notion that methane from raising cattle contributes to global warming (based on a 2006 United Nations report), cattle consume 10% of the world’s fresh water and 80% of the world’s farmland is devoted to meat production. Interesting that there are NO footnotes or citations in this book. None. So I guess we’re supposed to take these statistics at face value. Sorry, but I call bullshit. These statistics are usually based on CAFO farming practices, not grassfed farming. Rather than recapitulate these arguments here, please read this fine article by Joel Salatin on raising cattle sustainably. Its a rebuttal to James McWilliams’ NY Times piece on “The Myth of Sustainable Meat.” I also highly recommend reading Mr. Salatin’s book “Folks, this ain’t normal.” It is one of the best books I’ve read on permaculture and where we’ve gone wrong as a nation.
So rather than solve the problem by changing the way we raise cattle from CAFO-centric to pasture-centric, what if we address the symptom and get rid of the cow completely? Meat alternatives made from various and sundry processed foodstuffs like wheat and soy may be fine for vegetarians and vegans who want a simulacrum of meat, but aren’t that interested in the nutritional profile of what they’re putting into their bodies.
For those who still want some sort of meat product, there’s ”in vitro” meat. Meat grown in a lab using some DNA from a cow, some cell growth nutrient formula and exercised to develop some sort of texture? Blech! Why would ANYONE think this is a good idea? Nature has evolved a perfect way of turning sunshine, water and plant matter into a nutrient dense (and delicious) food for humans. Its called herbivores! Amazing! The audacity that scientists could produce a more nutritious food in a test tube than what humanely raised animals can provide is ludicrous. We don’t need scientists to solve this problem for us, Mother Nature already did it, we just fucked it up like we always do.
Take a moment to look at the “New Harvest” site by Jason Matheny, one of the proponents of in vitro meat and someone interviewed extensively for the book. If it doesn’t make you spitting mad, I’m not sure what will. The whole premise is based on the same CAFO-centric logic as above as well as the misguided “meat is unhealthy” line of crap. If it hurts when you do that, don’t do that. If CAFO is the problem then maybe we should STOP doing that!
Here Fishy, Fishy Fish.
The last section of the book was devoted to fish farming. While there may be great potential here, the same issues apply as with other factory farming. The potential for rampant disease, abuse, stress on the animals, inappropriate diet, enormous amounts of waste and tremendous amounts of energy required to run the farms. Unfortunately the state of our oceans may necessitate a move like this until we can repair the damage that’s been done and allow the fish to repopulate to adequate levels to support fishing.
Our Future is Made of….?!
The author of Taste of Tomorrow recommends that we “Go to Farmer’s Markets. Eat GMO Papayas. Buy Fish from Indoor Recirculating Systems.” Hmmmmm.
I’m with him on the Farmer’s Markets. The GMO papayas and the fish farms? Not so much.
He DOES, mention on the last page of the book, that we should “…keep a wary eye on new technologies, especially those with panacea-like claims from multinational corporations with monopolistic aims and a history of DDT and Agent Orange production.” I wonder who he’s talking about?! To slide this in at the end of the book after spending so much time on the virtues of GMOs is a bit disingenuous.
I’m sure there are some really smart people who are working on the future of food, but IMHO the closer they get to a “solution”, the closer we are to a Soylent Green future. The idea that you can mass produce nutrition is what got us into this mess in the first place.
First we went from hunter gatherers who only took from nature what they needed and wasted nothing. Then the advent of agriculture and the mass growth of grains brought substandard nutrition to masses of people. It may have helped to fuel giant civilizations, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing. The resulting people were less healthy than their ancestors. More recently (during the World Wars) the focus on stock piling cheap food (wheat, corn, soybeans, etc) has led us to our current state of affairs. An overabundance of cheap, garbage food that is processed and combined with sugar to make thousands of different food like substances that are making us fat, sick and stupid.
Not to mention right before our eyes our food rights are being stripped away from us every day.
- Want to drink raw milk? Tough, its 2% for you.
- Want to raise a heritage breed of pigs? Too bad, kill ‘em all.
- Want to have backyard chickens? Sorry, call the chicken police!
If we continue on in this direction of mass consumption, over population and blatant disregard for the planet, our food and each other we are all done. We don’t need more technology, we need less. We need to stop trying to fix things that were fine until we broke them. Its time to undo the damage we’ve done, not go deeper down the rabbit hole. If you want to eat Soylent Green people-enriched food product, help yourself. Its what you deserve.