The Chef and the Genomicist
Ryan Bethencourt
203

The Chef and The Genomicist

Imagining a Food System Without Animals

Letter #3

Dear Ryan,

I, too, believe that in the very near future, mankind will by sheer necessity have to adopt a diet very different from anything in the past. After all, we are simply running out of room and resources to support animal agriculture, an industry that takes up more than one-third of all land mass, consumes 80% of all grains and legumes grown, and contributes over 51% of all greenhouse gases. As the United Nations have said, the most impactful way to combat climate change is a worldwide shift away from animal products. We are running out of time indeed.

I do think it’s a bigger — and very different, — issue than printing presses or even the post office, however. Those were technological advances benefitting most people, except perhaps those in the industry (but even they quickly adapt). What’s happening now is actually a crisis — a lopsided world of food shortages and surpluses, environmental destruction, and incomprehensible abuse of farmed animals — that is threatening whether or not the planet and its denizens can continue to eat — at all. I would say it is more like the end of slavery — the forced end of cruel convenience, but absolutely necessary if we are to truly evolve as a human species. And just like slavery was not only something that prevented us from discovering our humanity but was an economic model that could not survive, animal agriculture faces the same problem. Take away government subsidies, and meat, dairy, and eggs would become economically unfeasible to produce or buy.

It could be, therefore, a change that will be imposed upon most of the world’s population whether they like it or not. But one thing we must keep in mind is that it is often very hard to change people’s eating habits. We like to eat what we like to eat, and we don’t like people to tell us about our dietary preferences. So there will be those who will kick and scream as they drink Muufri, but there may not be much they can do as animal agriculture dies.

I am hopeful in the general awareness that has grown about veganism — apparently, 5% of the population now considers themselves vegan, a number that is double what it was a couple of years ago. So perhaps as information is disseminated, there will be an almost yearly exponential shift toward a plant-based diet, and the increasing number of companies making vegan foods (apparently, 7% of all new food products in 2014 were vegan) will be there to provide actual dietary solutions. People often wonder: what do you vegans eat? And they will discover that it’s not that different — we vegans eat food, a variety of it, and like it to be delicious. A luscious vegan cheese platter with a glass of wine can go a long way to converting people to veganism. You know what I’m talking about!

But what is the best way to urge people to adopt this diet sooner than later? Or is that even necessary? Will biotech companies making meat and dairy alternatives at lower costs be able to succeed in replacing mass market products across the board and fool the unwitting consumer? What do we need to do to move things along in the best way possible?

I think it is important that people are cognizant of the change and willing to make it, simply than buying certain foods because they are less expensive. But no matter how much information is shared, people still make food choices with their senses rather than their reason. Certainly making more and more tasty vegan products available is extremely important, but so is teaching culinary arts. I’m a chef — and while I love a certain degree of food science and chemistry, my method of creating foods that satisfy the palate and senses involve culinary skills that are possible in any kitchen, not a laboratory. I think what’s happening in the arena of “tech food” is fascinating, but it’s equally amazing all of the things that can be created in a regular kitchen with whole, plant foods. And I think it is very important to give people the skills they need to be able to create on their own so that they can become part of the process and the solution.

There’s a deep education that needs to happen in the kitchen as well. Plant-based eating requires a few twists to old tricks. While one food technology company may be creating a vegan egg white, this year, an unprecedented discovery was made creating a egg white substitute to create lovely, fluffy meringues and more. And it happened in the kitchen. It’s been dubbed “aquafaba,” which is a made-up name meaning “water of beans.” That’s exactly what it is. It’s the water drained from a can of chick peas (or other beans) that whips up just like egg whites. I’ve used it for meringues and souffles, and vegans the world over are experimenting with it. So we may not even have to wait for technology — there’s a store of discoveries waiting to be made with everyday foods.

I have a company that produces a handcrafted, artisan vegan cheese, with many more products to come, and I love sharing them with people who tell me that they can now go vegan. But companies alone can’t do it. We need to give people the skills to cope on their own in the kitchen. When we give them those skills, we help to liberate them in a way so that this new way of eating becomes much easier.

Part of the reason for the resistance by many is because they just don’t know what to do and how to do it. When we show them, when we make it easier for people to act on their own, we can motivate them to make a change. Yes, we want to liberate animals, but we need to liberate people, too.

Best,

Miyoko


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