Advanced technology is a wonderful thing — how else would I be able to communicate with you all? — but there are some problems that just aren’t amenable to technical fixes. Also, history will decide.
Here’s a little fun, in a limited and parochial kind of way. Stacker has compiled a list of Food History from the Year You Were Born. Naturally it assumes that the US is the only country in the world that has a food history and, equally naturally, as we come closer to the present day it seems that the choices really are only a first draft of history. As it happens, I don’t much care for the dish associated with the year I was born, which prompts me to ask:
Being a biologist at heart and by training does, I think, give me a slightly different perspective on some things. The base of all of it is a deep mistrust of technical solutions to biological problems, which is why I was deeply pleased to read an article on cell-based meat by Joe Fassler in The Counter. I’m not even going to attempt to summarise, but the thrust of it is that the kinds of technical advances needed to bring about a 4000-fold reduction in the cost of cultured meat by 2030 are, if not impossible, extremely unlikely.
People have been growing animal cells in giant fermentation vats for a long time, and have plenty of experience of the difficulties, but they have been doing so to produce valuable pharmaceuticals, not cheap meat. Experienced (bio)chemical engineers know what they’re up against, and they’re not buying the hype and hopes.
“It’s a fractal no,” one of them told Fassler. “You see the big no, but every big no is made up of a hundred little nos.”
The article is a long, long read, and it lays out the case against cultured meat with commendable thoroughness. Two parts really resonated with me. First, while a cell culture is certainly more efficient than a chicken, it would probably still ultimately be fed on commodity grains, which will always be bad for the planet if grown to produce the cheapest possible product. Secondly, any contamination – pathogenic or chemical – is going to zip through an entire batch, because a cell culture has no immune system or liver. How often will whole batches have to be discarded?
I’d be shorting lab-meat companies, if I knew how.
Another long, US-centric read is this report from the USDA’s Economic Research Service: The Market for Chicken Raised Without Antibiotics, 2012-17. I did not read the whole thing, because there is a hand-dandy summary. Antibiotic-free chicken has grown rapidly, despite being anywhere from 87–48 percent more expensive. That said, it is still only 10–20 percent part of the overall market,
The big remaining concern, for me, is how do you know that the chicken product you are about to buy was raised without antibiotics. There are labelling schemes, of course, but Consumer Reports, at least, is not fully convinced.
This report did not examine organic chicken, which prohibits the use of antibiotics with a whole lot of other constraints too, but it does point out that “there is significant consumer interest and market opportunities for production practices between conventional and organic”.
Although, of course, organic brings its own labelling concerns.
A lovely piece from the blessed Bee Wilson compares and contrasts food in London during the Victorian era with how things were on the eve of the Brexit vote. I’m not sure now who linked to it, but I am glad they did. Bee Wilson reminds us that some things are different now, some things are the same, and change is constant.
“Nearly four whole eels for every man, woman and child in the city,” not to mention “20 red herrings per person.” Were these ordinary kippers, I wonder, in the days before they were dyed?
“In 2016, it’s possible for a London teenager to spend 70p on a portion of chips that contains 1950 calories, close to the total energy needed in a day.”
“In 1958, the average British person ate around 400 grams a week of fresh vegetables, compared with a paltry 189 grams in 2011. The Victorian working-class London diet included a lot of greenery.”
There’s lots more in similar vein. The benefit of hindsight probably makes it easier to see that even then, pre-Brexit, pre-Covid, Bee Wilson was worried about what we’ve come to call logistics and supply chains and foresaw the rise of food banks and the dangers of unfettered free enterprise.
Bee Wilson’s essay is one of a good handful on Food that all repay reading. It seems a shame that London Essays is no more, although the Centre for London is still doing its thing.
Diana Garvin mentioned some of Brazil’s efforts to deal with booms in the coffee cycle when we talked about Italy, Brazil and Ethiopia. Now comes an article from Jonas Ferraresso, a Brazilian coffee expert, on Brazil’s big coffee burns in the 1930s. It’s full of intriguing little gems. Like, when there was too much coffee to burn, workers dumped it in the sea. Other people then recovered it, dried it and sold it. Officially a crime, that nevertheless suggests to me that even really poor coffee had a market, at least if you didn’t have to pay to grow the stuff.
The article suggests that Brazil could have ridden out the crisis as, perhaps, it might ride out current price volatility. History will decide.
The Past – “a brand new website that brings together the most exciting stories and the very best writing from the worlds of history, archaeology, ancient art and heritage” – offers an insight into the diet of the Levant and, of possibly greater interest, how archaeologists know what they know. It’s a once-over-lightly summary, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, I did find it odd that there is absolutely no mention of the record stored on the teeth of the people eating the diet.
That’ll do for now.