New Food

December 16, 2012

I looked out the window of my regional jet this morning just before the sun rose above an unbroken sea of clouds. A spray of pink and yellow-red spanned the entire horizon, and at the farthest distance there was a slight break in the clouds—just enough to paint the lower surface with luminescence, afire with phosphorescent orange day-glo. Beyond words, really. As the plane dipped below the cloud layer in its descent to the Minneapolis-St.Paul airport, I found myself below that placid layer becoming sunlit from above but now everything turned to a featureless grey. Below me  was another sea of clouds—this time more troubled and wavy—and that’s where we were headed. I thought of a layer cake and imagined myself flying through the translucent jelly of a middle level, headed for the next zone of denser yellow cake. Life, it seems, goes on.

I found myself hanging out with Joe Kokini this week. Joe is a food scientist at the University of Illinois. He has a vision for the food of tomorrow that involves a new kind of food chemistry for encapsulating what-have-you and incorporating it into ordinary food. Joe thinks of the what-have-you in terms of nutrients. They might be very specific things that your doctor has determined that you need based on the sequence of your personal genome. They might be things that would be good for anyone, but that for one reason or another, we don’t eat enough of right now. Joe’s example was fish oil, which (in case you don’t know) tastes awful and even worse, lingers long after the medicinal moment.

Joe’s vision is entirely well-motivated, but some people push back. This particular form of food chemistry is not well liked by the National Organic Standards Board. They seem to be on the verge of banning it from foods that can be labeled “organic”. But that’s not where I’m heading today. I’m still focused on Joe, who when challenged goes into a rant about needing to feed the world, and how organic methods can’t do it. This is pretty typical for a present-day ag scientist. These guys spend entirely too much time listening to one another, and as a result they don’t really appreciate how crazy they sound when push-back on encapsulated fish-oil incorporated into Wonder Bread or Cheetos is somehow responsible for all those starving people in Africa.

As a food ethicist, I think we need to see that there is a better argument for Joe’s vision. Sure, we could all just learn to like fish oil. And beyond that, we could accomplish all this “nutrient” loading just by being more attentive to our daily diet. From that perspective, it would be better to spend the money that is currently being spent on confabs where I hang out with people like Joe on developing more farmer’s markets, or getting vegetables into the inner city. But there are flies in the ointment. One of them is that there are still plenty of people who are going to choose Wonder Bread or Cheetos even when there is a nice, crisp bunch of kale sitting right next door. So Joe has a point: In order to get those “nutrients’ where we need them, lets go for the Cheeto.

But there is more. It seems that our ideology of “choice” is also part of the problem. Excuse me if I offend, but our (and here I mean you, me and Bob) choices are not really what the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant would have called “autonomous”. More straightforwardly, what you, Bob and I want and what we choose is shaped by a vast social technology. Advertising is a big part, but it’s hardly the only part. More than we like to admit, what we “choose” is a complex mix of solidarity, image posturing, perceptual flaccidity and habit, often (in the case of food) reinforced by an evolutionarily induced propensity for sweet and salty tastes. This social technology is, with great effort, amenable to some limited steering. But who’s going to fund a steering effort?

The answer to that question is, someone who expects to turn a buck when he or she can steer the great mass of food consumers into one zone versus another. And there are people who have made a buck steering us toward Wonder Bread or Cheetos, as well as people who hope to make a buck encapsulating “nutrients” and incorporating them into Wonder Bread and Cheetos. But there is no one who thinks that they will make a buck if people start preferring kale, so no one is investing in the social technology that might (and one can’t be sure anyway) steer our “choices” toward a healthier diet, even without this hot new food chemistry for encapsulating “nutrients.”

Of course as a food scientist Joe is one of those people who benefits from this situation (even if he doesn’t make a buck off of encapsulation) simply because the current social technology is feeding research funding and publication opportunities into the food science program at the University of Illinois. I think we should notice this, but I don’t actually think it counts much against his vision. I benefit in the same way, mind you. There are other social technologies that might be implemented, social technologies that emphasize mutuality and common fate, rather than competition and individual choice. But how likely is that, given what we in Michigan have just heard about “the right to choose”?

Joe is just being realistic, and we should respect that.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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