The most common question I get is: “What made you write a book?” A better question is: “Why did I care enough to write a book?” Below is the preface from my new book, Hungry For Disruption. Titled “The Future of Food Mission,” it is a culmination of stories and experiences that brought me to this book.
This is the story of Hungry For Disruption.
I grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in a privileged, loving home. Growing up, food was never an issue and in fact, it was abundant. On celebratory occasions and family meals, the table was always filled with all sorts of delicacies. I remember relishing Saturday lunches at my grandma’s house with her famous Roast Pork with applesauce. My mum’s homemade Bolognese will always bring back good memories. Like many, my earliest food memories revolve around everything home cooked. Home cooked food serves as a reminder of what home means to me and most importantly, what my mum and grandma’s love and nurture feels like.
Growing up in such a foodie home, I developed an intense love for cooking and baking at a very young age. When I was 8, I was already helping chop onions and stir-fry vegetables in the kitchen. When I was 10, I started selling my homemade cupcakes at a local sundry store. When I was 17, I started a farm-to-table, supper club restaurant in Singapore to pursue my passion for cooking, educate people about real food, and raise awareness about the Malaysian Myanmar Refugee crisis.
My passion for food really began with a love for cooking & hospitality. When I came to the U.S. to pursue this passion at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, my dream was to start a health food chain. This stemmed from seeing people around me happily eat McDonald’s 3–5 times a week and me feeling incredibly grateful that my mother taught me the importance of my 5 servings of fruit and vegetables a day. My goal was simply to change people’s perceptions of food. To show them that real food was better than fake food.
Over the last few years, my perspective of food and how we play a role in our food system started to change. In my first year of university, I took a class on food injustice and it deeply affected me. My final paper explored the effects of U.S. farm subsidies on the fight for food justice. I remember learning how the rise of large agribusinesses resulted in increasing corporate control of our food system. I remember discovering that corn subsidies perpetuated gross inequality in our food system. I remember being shocked to learn that while the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) spent more than US$13 billion on farm subsidies in 2017,¹ more than 90% of those subsidies went to 5 major crops — wheat, cotton, corn, soybeans, and rice.² Meanwhile, no subsidies were given to producers of fruit, vegetables, beef or poultry. It is an understatement to say that I felt a deep sense of injustice and discomposure.
Later on, I worked on an Agriculture Technology project at Cornell Venture Capital, which really opened my eyes to how technology could provide tremendous opportunities and solutions for our most dire food production problems. Inevitable issues like increasing urbanization, massive food supply chain inefficiency, climate change, and falling farmer incomes demanded better food production solutions. Suddenly, food became more than just cooking and hospitality for me. Clearly, food was a lot more.
The excitement I felt discovering emerging food and agriculture technologies coupled with my knowledge of pressing global food issues left me devastated and confused, but also remarkably optimistic. I started becoming deeply curious about how technological innovations like cell-cultured meat provided solutions to our most pressing food production problems. I remember reading up on plant-based meat companies like Beyond Meat and indoor farming companies like BrightFarms and thinking: “Wow. Everything about the food system is going to change. It will need to change. I want to find out how.” So, with that curiosity, I set out on a mission to explore how technology and innovative ways of thinking could help us nourish almost 10 billion people on this planet by 2050.
This mission has brought me to the wildest of discoveries and the craziest of adventures. I’ve talked to dozens of food and agriculture experts, entrepreneurs at the cusp of cutting-edge food and agriculture technologies and investors funding the next agri-food tech revolution. I’ve walked through rows of hydroponic, vertically grown kale, and feasted on insects, plant-based meat, and micro-algae based products at food tech conferences.
From skipping a midterm exam in order to attend the Future of Food conference to the shocking realization that we could either genetically engineer cows or feed them seaweed to belch and fart less (and therefore produce less methane — a key greenhouse gas), I hope you’re as excited as I am for you to join me in this exploration of how technological innovation can help us create a better, more sustainable and inclusive food system.
Hungry For Disruption is now 20% off at all Borders Malaysia stores!
It is also available at amazon.com/dp/1641372087.
Sign up here to get book updates, exclusive sneak peeks, and promotions: shenminglee.com/sign-up-for-updates
Hungry for Disruption offers a futuristic vision for embracing the scientific and technological advances in food for the coming decades. The book explores how breakthrough innovations in smart agriculture, novel farming systems, genomics, cellular agriculture, and food waste management will play a key role in the future of food and agriculture. This publication is a series of posts that brings the stories of farmers, entrepreneurs, investors, scientists, and innovators from the book alive.
¹ Adam Andrzejewski, Harvesting U.S. Farm Subsidies (OpenTheBooks.com, 2018), 2.
² Brian Riedl, “How Farm Subsidies Harm Taxpayers, Consumers, And Farmers, Too,” The Heritage Foundation, June 19, 2007, https://www.heritage.org/agriculture/report/how-farm-subsidies-harm-taxpayers-consumers-and-farmers-too.