Um, Is That Natural?
In an effort to provide more sustainable options, the food industry is trying new things. It’s time to get adventurous — again.
Would you eat a fist-full of fried crickets? How about crackers made with cricket flour? A burger made with lab-grown meat cells? Increasingly, more people are saying yes to inventive new food, including Impossible Burgers, Exo cricket protein bars and Plenty vertically-farmed kale.
As an investor in sustainable products, including more Earth-friendly ways to make and grow food, I’ve met with dozens of founders working on inventive new ways to give us our daily bread — many of which promise to transform our entire food system and provide tasty, nutritionally dense food with a fraction of the environmental and resource impact of traditional agriculture.
Because I want to understand the market better, I like asking people what they eat and why, and would they try something really new. Although many people are game for mushroom, plant, even lab-grown “meats”, or super vegetables grown by robots, quite a few are not. They’re not interested in these new food items because they “only eat natural food.”
Part of this reluctance to embrace potentially revolutionary food technology might be how I ask the question, as I enjoy phrasing it in the most shocking way possible, but I think it is really a lack of understanding of what is and what isn’t “natural”.
And this matters. According to the USGS, modern agriculture consumes 65% of all freshwater withdrawals worldwide, and up to 80% in the western United States. It accounts for 9% of US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and most farmable land is already under intensive cultivation. Although the oft quoted UN report stating we need to double food production by 2050 is debatable, we clearly need to increase food quantity, nutritional quality, reduce GHG emissions, and make farming truly sustainable during a time of unprecedented climate change.
Given the urgency of this issue, it’s worth learning a bit about our history with food and why only eating “natural” food would leave us quite hungry.
1. existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind.
Dictionary.com/Oxford University Press
Many people seem to believe that the food we eat today existed in nature before humans. I’m not talking about the food-like options in fluorescent colors available near the checkout stand, but “real” food, like fruits, vegetables, and beef. An image comes to mind of our ancestors, sac and bow in hand, wandering through an Eden-like world picking fruits, digging up vegetables, and hunting animals. Our excursions to the supermarket are just the streamlined version of this same experience, but with shopping cart and smartphone. To bring us a step closer to that idealized world, we might even strive to find organic or artisanal crops to put into our basket. Nothing wrong with that, I look for those too.
But the truth is that we humans, our ancestors and more recently perhaps our co-workers, made nearly everything we eat.
I don’t mean “grew”, I mean “made”, meaning invented. There is nothing “natural” about any of it, even the non-fluorescent stuff.
Nearly all the most basic foodstuffs did not exist before us. Broccoli was engineered from a wild plant in the “brassicas” family by the Etruscans (an early Italian people), and became a staple during the Roman Republic.
Cabbage was created, both Asian and European forms, from other wild brassicas family plants. They look nothing like what you think of as those cabbages today, but forgotten Mesopotamian and Asian farmers made what we now think of as cabbage out of humble shrubs only 3000 years ago.
Cauliflower was fabricated on the island of Cyprus, also from that same versatile brassicas family of plants, and later farmed all over the Roman Empire.
Corn was invented by people living in central Mexico 7,000 years ago from a wild grass called teosinte. Teosinte can’t be eaten by humans, but our clever ancestors transformed it into one of the most important human food crops. It complements wheat and rice, also largely created by innovative farmers a few thousand years earlier.
Our society and our planet face large resource challenges in the next fifty years. I believe it will take everything we know, and everything we can do, to create a future world of abundance and diversity. Our ancestors clearly thought so too, and used what technology they had to engineer new foods that we now rely on so completely we consider them fully “natural”. We never stop to think where the primordial corn forests were, or the great plains of kale that stretched to the horizon before humans found them.
So, when you are looking at a menu that includes a plant-based burger, or are invited to try a piece of lab-grown meat, or perhaps sample ice cream made from dairy proteins produced by genetically modified yeast and grown in vats, I urge you to give it a try. There may be legitimate reasons you choose not to make some of these foods a big part of your diet, but not being “natural” shouldn’t be one of them.
Our very existence owes itself to creative farmers and breeders that took what they had around them and created something new and wonderful to eat that decidedly wasn’t natural. Let’s hope future generations look back on this time and admire our creativity that permitted their future world to prosper.