WHAT FOR having dinner? The answer counts, at all levels. Food connects people to the planetary. Agriculture uses half of the world’s habitable land and accounts for over 30% of global emissions. Food production links the great biogeochemical cycles of carbon and nitrogen, both globally and also in specific factories that combine natural gas with nitrogen and oxygen from the air to produce agricultural fertilizers. on the one hand, and carbon dioxide for use in food processing on the other. When one of those factories in Teesside, northern England, recently threatened to shut down due to high natural gas prices, the government had to step in to prevent food supply chains from collapsing.
Globally, food prices have risen in 13 of the past 15 months and are nearing their 2011 highs, due to inclement weather, pandemic disruptions and fallout from an influenza epidemic. pigs in China in 2018. Longer term, the food system is facing pressure from climate change, population growth and a shift towards more westernized, meat-rich diets.
Fortunately, technologies are emerging that promise to produce food in new ways, in large quantities with less inhumane industrial agriculture and a smaller environmental footprint. These range from bioreactors that produce meat to “vertical” indoor farms and new ways of producing fish. Such techniques could make a huge difference. Three-quarters of farmland is used for livestock, for example, so it’s easy to see how steaks made from plant protein, or grown in vats from cells, could dramatically reduce industrial agriculture and l use of land and water, and produce less emissions.
Just because food can be prepared in new ways doesn’t mean people will be ready to eat it. Considering the cultural importance of food and the fact that it is ingested by the body, conservatism and skepticism are common reactions to new foods and production processes. In 17th century Europe, many people were reluctant to eat a new vegetable called potato because it was not mentioned in the Bible, or because they feared that it would cause leprosy. Today, many European countries prohibit the cultivation and sale of genetically modified plants, even though they are widely cultivated and consumed elsewhere. And while much of the world considers insects a mouthwatering treat (and eating grasshoppers is approved in the Bible), the very idea revolts many Western consumers.
At the same time as novel foods are rejected, traditional foods and agricultural traditions are revered. In California, the fanciest restaurants aspire to recreate the humble diet of the Tuscan peasant. Many Western consumers are willing to pay extra for food produced by organic farming, in fact a historical recreation of pre-20th century agriculture, because it avoids “chemicals”. (Everything is made of chemicals.)
Yet supposedly timeless food traditions are often less profound than they appear. During the “Colombian exchange” in the 16th century, the food crops of the Americas quickly spread around the world. Tomatoes and polenta, staples of the Italian diet, are of American origin and were unknown to the Romans or Dante. Potatoes were eventually adopted widely in Europe (the invention of French fries helped). It’s hard to imagine many Asian cuisines without chili peppers, but they too are American. Arabian coffee and Chinese tea were unknown in Europe before the 17th century.
New foods and processes offered today provide opportunities to create new, delicious and lasting traditions. Western consumers should set aside their reserves to eat crickets and give plant-based burgers, 3D-printed steaks and artificial tank-grown tuna to try. Regulators, especially in Europe and America, should streamline their cultured meat approval processes, be more open to gene-editing crops (as Britain announced this week), and speed up the process. approval of edible insects for animal feed and human consumption. A complete overhaul of the food system is needed. But that will only be possible if consumers and regulators are prepared to be bolder on what to eat for dinner. ■
This article first appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “Opening the Appetite”