The Future of Food

It’s Thanksgiving season again, and the double shadow on our great American food holiday is feast and famine, both. A bounteous industrial food system is wasting the land and leaving a billion of us humans hungry, and another billion both overfed and undernourished.  As climate change kicks in, the food agenda’s changing too. Farm-to-table greens, slow food, local food don’t sound like answers anymore to the vast scale of modern food’s maldistribution; not to mention the depletion of farm soil, the desertification of the land, and the deluge of run-off pollution.

In our search for solutions, we began looking around our own digital backyard. Over at the Media Lab, the Open Agriculture Initiative (OpenAg) has begun growing basil in “personal food computers.” Their big picture mission is building new tech tools to be used by a billion new farmers.

Our guest Caleb Harper presides over the OpenAg project. The child of a farming family in Kansas, Harper now sees “open source” tech as the solution to the crisis in modern food production. He’s joined at our table by Dr. Walter Willett, the most cited nutritionist in the world, who’s waged a 30-year war on trans fats.

For Raj Patel, co-author of the new book A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, tech solutions are only effective when we examine the broader economic system embedded in our meals. To understand the big picture challenge, he says, all we have to do is consider the Chicken McNugget.

Julie Guthman writes and teaches the whole food story, farm-to-table, past to present, at the University of California. Now in residence at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, she studies modern strawberry farming as one the new frontiers for food justice and activism. 

Legendary French chef Jacques Pépin—who’s cooked for Charles de Gaulle and Jackie Kennedy, among others—offers us his own Proustian memories of past holiday meals, as well as a taste of what’s to come.


Guest List
Caleb Harper
director of the Open Agriculture (OpenAG) initiative at the MIT Media Lab
Dr. Walter Willett
professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Raj Patel
research professor in the Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin
Julie Guthman
professor of Social Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz and fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University
Jacques Pépin
French restauranteur-chef, television personality, and author of A Grandfather's Lessons: In the Kitchen with Shorey


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  • sidewalker

    There were lots of threads in this show that could be woven into discussions of their own. So I hope this will be the first in a series on the future–and present–of food. Several points mentioned too briefly in passing by Dr. Walter Willett need greater consideration. In doing so, at least for the moment, please, can we put aside the pervasive techno-fix answer, which oddly enough is most amicable to the MIT and BIG Agra approach to sustenance and doesn’t challenge the American innovative spirit and progress ideology central to the amassing of wealth and power. One show should explore the food as energy and food through energy entanglement. If we think about our average caloric requirements and the calculation that now in the global food industry 1 food calorie requires 10 fossil fuel calories, to grow, process, transport, retail, consume and/or dispose of, energy intensive indoor farming producing stylish high-tech lettuce makes cents not sense. 

    Looking at the fossil fuel/food connection would also throw light on the elephant in the room that ROS keeps avoiding: human population, especially a highly consumptive population. It would also raise the question just how we will feed 7 billion plus people without fossil fuels when this ancient stock of energy is the reason for our numbers and for over-shoot. Why we even think we have some algorithm that will outsmart the laws of nature could make for a lively discussion. Do we not speak of the obvious food energy availability—population size (and body size) link because we fear, despite some degree of foresight and reasoning, we are simply like any other living entity that will keep reproducing and expanding to the ultimate limits of its environment?

    Another show could look in more detail at sustainable farming practices, such as permaculture and natural farming and bring in the voices of actual practitioners. The ideas and farming practices of Masanobu Fukuoka, who wrote The One Straw Revolution, are very thought-provoking and timely as we search for sustainable methods. With the need to feed and the way scarcity and demand nourish greed, some might dismiss these methods, opting for a techno-fix. But perhaps sustainable methods that don’t take us beyond earth’s carrying capacity, that can’t offer up an overabundance of soil depleting calories can be the natural break on population we need. Shouldn’t we at least be up for this discussion?

  • I’ve been micro-lending money to third–world women since KIVA’s beginning.
    Most of the loans are for farm enterprises and a large portion of those loans are used to increase herd size. The herd is fed by foraging and I would guess the meat is eaten fresh, so there is a minimum of processing – maybe none. I wonder how Dr. Willett feels about that type of meat as a source of protein.

    Over the years I’ve been wondering whether helping these women, who have no access to capital, is more than a feel-good proposition. Not that there is anything wrong with feeling good about what you do – I’m all for it. But, it’s like my grampy said: I helped someone once and they never forgave me.

    The problem is long term. Not only will a healthier diet lead to population growth but a greater percentage of that population will be accustomed to, and demand, meat in their diet. Agribusiness practices cannot be very far behind that increase in demand.

    Then there is the issue of global climate change and whether, if they are closely integrated in our system, they will suffer less from global climate change versus sticking to their subsistence farming methods.

    You can see the global hegemony at work even in the mciro-loan environment. The people lose their attachment to their land and culture and sign on to a foreign ideology.

    Not sure whether to continue with KIVA. But like my grampy said: once the genie is out of the bottle, it can’t be put back in.

    • kautilya_in

      I also lend via Rangde and Kiva. As Hans Rosling showed in his TED talk, population growth reduces with prosperity and education. After having read what you wrote, I would continue with Kiva.

      I was never under the illusion that my lending is a big contribution to the world—indeed I also feel it is more of a “feel good” thing for a different reason, namely, ideally the government should be lending them money and the real reform would be if government did the lending not me. Anyway, as I said, I would continue lending.

      • Good point.
        Beside the fact that the third world isn’t plaguing the world with consumerism – why shouldn’t they enjoy a better life for as many generations as possible before this circus tent folds.