Image by Don O’Brien via Creative Commons

Bloated: Food Tech Goes Over the Edge

Everyone but for industrial food makers knows that industrial food is bad. Industrial food is only worth trying if you like orange Cheetos dust on your hands, preservatives in your body, low nutrition in your bloodstream, and want to die fast. It’s terrible for the chickens, pigs and cows who are mistreated as they provide their eggs and flesh for hungry humans. There are only two things that industrialized food has going for it: It is cheap. It is a profit center for its makers.

It seems strange to say that food used to be better for you, but it’s true. It’s not just that we have become snack hounds, fooled by high-fructose corn syrup, or puffed up with the antibiotics in our meat. It’s worse. Food that we want to believe in actually isn’t real. Baby carrots aren’t baby carrots. They are shaved and sculpted out of misshapen, rejected larger carrots that were too unsightly to put in a supermarket. Something has happened to the bread we eat, with more people having toxic reactions to gluten and wheat. Somebody show me the part of the chicken that is the nugget.

As food has become more industrialized, we have become more disconnected from the act of nourishing ourselves. As we cook less, we know less about the world. Seven percent of all American adults believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows. I prefer not to picture the pig who was my bacon. We eat apples from Chile and strawberries from Mexico in any season with no idea about the journey they took to our refrigerator. We amp up agricultural yields with pesticides that stick around for decades. Now that Amazon has bought Whole Foods, the supply chain has become even bigger, more abstract, and more industrialized. The disconnect is even larger between how food is produced and how it ends up on our table.

Cut off from the social act of growing food and cooking it, eating becomes an act of merely fueling the body. Soylent is the future, but does the future have to come on so fast? The future can’t be stopped (spoiler alert), but people still save heirloom seeds to preserve species. Paleo types recommend making your own knife from stone, chasing down an animal to kill it, skin it, and eat it. I don’t have time for that, and I think blood dripping from your chin is a bad look. When opting out, I join many others who know how to do less, depend on tech and “services” more. I once knew how to change the oil and adjust the clutch in my car. When I open the hood now, the computer inside is sealed from my intervention. How long before a frying pan looks exotic?

The future of food will require navigating a twisty path past killing a pig so you can eat it, ordering from a recipe service like Plated or Blue Apron so you have the experience of cooking your own food instead of opening a plastic package, and finding a way to connect with distant cultures through cuisine.

Tech will be a big part of it, because tech is a big part of everything. Tech will feed the hungry. Tech will help us produce more food, even if it is artificial food. Tech is also destroying what is good about food. Can this be stopped? Yes.

Consider how the maker sensibility has become the rallying cry of craftsy Etsy people, STEM instructors, and tech startups. We need a renewed maker sensibility for food. Michael Pollan and others advocate that we cook our own meals as a way to connect with those we love, with the land, with the deepest meaning of ourselves. Our love of technology will save us from many evils, but there is too much to lose by throwing in completely with tech. We must redeem ourselves. Our relationship with food can show us the path.