Food Futures: A Panel Discussion at LA Times Festival of Books

“We used to tell him what to plant, now he tells us what to cook,” remarked restaurateur and food activist Alice Waters at the 2016 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books about the evolving relationship between chef and farmer. This is an apt commentary on the farm-to-table cuisine that has become one of the strongest trends of our food culture in the 21st century. But what is in store for us down the road — what is the future of our food going to be? That is the question that Waters, restaurant critic Jonathan Gold and food technology researcher Sarah Smith discussed with moderator and celebrated peach farmer, Mas Masumoto at the Food Futures panel discussion, which was sponsored by the nonprofit organization California Humanities. If there was one takeaway from the discussion, it was that this is a complex issue — there are thousands of opinions on everything food related — and that it should be considered carefully. Some of the topics that generated the most fervor were: considering traditional practices in farming and cooking; the importance of education in all aspects of our relationship to food; and the role of new technology in our food culture.

Waters was probably the loudest voice at the table and she espoused simplicity in food production, placing value in the farmers who maintain the land, and in the importance of using institutions of education to encourage kids to think about food issues. She is critical of the fact that fewer people cook their own meals today despite the popularity of food-related media and would like to see this change. Getting people closer to their food, especially as a practical matter, is very important to her. Waters said “we have to get back to our senses,” talking about the importance of handling the raw ingredients of the things we eat and seeing firsthand where they come from. She is a big proponent of the role legislature can play in regards to food and is adamant that the president needs to promote the adoption of a national food policy. She also believes that chefs may be the most important promoters of food policy. Already they speak on behalf of farmers, and she would like to see more schools with their own chefs; a position as she views it, that could have an educational function in addition to the job of planning the lunch menu.

The conversation that is probably the most contentious involves the role that science and technology can play in our food culture. Among the ideas that were offered, Sarah Smith suggested the role that food might be play as part of healthcare and the need for research into that area, while Gold noted his reliance on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s sustainable seafood app. The consensus, though, would seem to be that a good degree of caution is warranted when considering the application of new technology into the present food culture. The impression that technology has had a negative effect on our food did seem to permeate the discussion. Waters said that consumers need to stop believing the food industry when they tell us it’s impossible for them to do what’s natural. And Smith noted that the food industry has to move away from short-sighted solutions. The present challenge is to figure out where technology can be used most effectively. There seemed to be an agreement that people should have a healthy skepticism of the large-scale industrial food companies. There also seemed to be an agreement that there is a danger in the information overload we are exposed to today on food labels and in the terminology used. This was related to the general hope of finding simpler approaches to everything from farming to recipes. Gold perhaps summed up this sentiment when he noted that he would like to see more recipes that are like “small essays” rather than “technical manuals”.

There was agreement that education and storytelling are vital to the future of food, as well as a general sentiment that it is important to foster the continuing acceptance of the traditions of the past. There was, for instance, a general enthusiasm about the reemergence of fermentation. As Jonathan Gold pointed out, in the typical restaurant-of-the-moment today, one expects to see a shelf full of jars with things fermenting in them. Masumoto added that people should seek out food with “a sense of history and a sense of place.”

In fairness, apart from Sarah Smith, the small panel consisted of established voices in the food community. Perhaps the science and technology community wasn’t adequately represented, and while the word “diversity” was tossed about a lot during the discussion, it was something maybe lacking a bit in the panel itself. The opinions expressed are characteristic of a certain segment of Americans — and specifically Californians, too — but in general they do seem to reflect the state of food today and where it is going.

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