On the Future

and why justice is more important than innovation.

There was a sudden shift at a magazine where I was working in New York City. Though this small, local publication had made its name focusing on urban rooftop farms and craft beer, we were eventually tasked with covering “tech”—food tech. This meant everything from vertical indoor farming to 3D-printed cookies. The common denominator was always a lot of money, usually supplied by venture capital. These weren’t the small pierogi shops that most readers were on the lookout for; these were mainly male-staffed start-up operations looking to innovate in the food space, to use their parlance. Basically, they wanted to fix something (the global food system) that had been broken by capitalism with more, better capitalism.

One evening I was sent to check out an event held in a fake apartment, where a chef I knew mainly from yelling about raw red onions on Chopped would be using a fancy new oven to make passed appetizers for the media crowd. The co-founder of this oven operation showed us how it worked, reminding me a lot of the guy showing off a primitive computer in Willy Wonka who promises it can predict the location of the golden tickets (it cannot). With this oven, they told us, you could cook using your iPhone. No more worrying! It would program everything and you could look on from the couch in the other room, or even as you walked back from the subway. 

An older woman in the crowd raised her hand to ask a genius question under the circumstances: “Would it be better to bake a pie in a glass or metal plate in this oven?” The co-founder said he’d have to check on that; he wasn’t sure. The question was genius because it pulled the curtain back and revealed the wizard was a man pushing levers and pressing buttons: This was an oven made by people who don’t care much about food, and don’t expect anyone else wants to cook either. They were attempting to solve a problem that they created. No one asked for this. The ovens I still see in the kitchens of food people, through their Instagrams, have gas ranges or induction burners. They’re not interested in cooking via iPhone, in being distanced from their senses.

A few years later on, after being fired and re-hired by this very magazine (only to be fired again, hence this newsletter), I went with the publisher to check out some other operation that was being housed in its investors’ Columbus Circle office for the time being. They were 3D printing food—recipes and ingredients were put into the machine, then spat back out in the desired formation. Perhaps a flower; maybe the outline of an elephant. What was the use? They said something about making it easier for people with swallowing issues to eat, which is nice, but they were also trying to sell their presence in Michelin-caliber restaurant kitchens, where pastry chefs wouldn’t have to pipe a chocolate design, say, over and over again. It would be uniform on every plate. Why would this be preferable to the studied human hand, the beauty of slight differences? Because efficiency is the only language these people know.

These two inventions seemed dead in the water to me (maybe they’re not—I don’t care to look them up), but they made clear to me what I had sensed about “food tech”: It’s not about providing real solutions; it’s about money, and the people making the money don’t really care how people eat or cook or why people love food. For this reason, I’m dubious of invention, of “innovation.” We know what the planet needs, and it’s the radical restructuring of land use. We know what the people need, which is self-determination around farming for the Global South, as well as for the Black, brown, and Indigenous people upon whose land the United States and other nations settled. Instead, we’re getting steaks made in a lab. Who asked for this?

I suppose it doesn’t matter who asked for this, when the media and many others are lapping up stories of new green tech that promises to solve the problem whose cause is ultimately an obsession with consumption, and a manufactured lack of self and community reliance in “developed” countries. It will never cease to shock me (and indeed, I’m writing a book on the subject) that people would rather spend millions creating “meat” out of all sorts of products than simply stop eating meat or make meat a treat—to eat meat, indeed, according to the model provided by Indigenous diets. It’s this capitulation to endless consumption that rings problematic to me about all this stuff. Because that’s what it is: stuff to buy. There’s nothing necessary about any of it.

I called up Andréa Hernandez, the Honduras-based writer and marketing expert behind SnaxShot. I wanted to know what it’s like to write on the subject of branding in food and beverage, as well as many of the options that purport to “fix” the world like “plant-based” meat, from the perspective of someone who doesn’t have access to these things where she lives. Hernandez told me that while she can’t pick up an adaptogen-laced seltzer, she has ancestral knowledge of various herbal remedies and fruit carts on every corner where she can get the ingredients from local growers. That seems ideal, no? Like something we all should have!

As we talked, we focused a lot on how the United States, as a settler state, destroyed ancestral knowledge of the land and the medicinal purposes of what it could grow, and so as an imperialist and capitalist entity, its corporate arms go around the world to extract resources to sell back to its people. One example Hernandez mentioned was the newfound popularity of hibiscus as a flavor. Many people she was speaking to first tried it in a beverage at Starbucks, when agua de jamaica is a traditional and cheap drink to make. 

Corporations also always try to expand their markets where there is already tradition and history. See: Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, and Eat Just—all makers of plant-based or “tech” meat—trying desperately to get into the market in Asia, a continent of many nations that have plant protein traditions. Would they like to kill the tradition and create a reliance on their products? 

That’s the kind of situation that is happening in Ethiopia, where Britt H. Young reported for N+1 on the replacement of traditionally consumed local chickens by a hybrid meant to encourage Ethiopian people—who rely more on beef—to switch to chicken for its more climate-friendly reputation. Young defines a resilient chicken as one that allows farmers to no longer need the state: “In this new era of climate adaptation development, the desired outcome is to discipline a neoliberal subjectivity comprised of subsistence farmers who internalize the state’s neglect of them.”

The thing is, this chicken tastes bad. It doesn’t hold up to traditional preparation. So what’s its value? As a commodity that green-washes reality, when we already know this kind of effort doesn’t work. I called Young up, too, to further discuss her piece and she told me that the idea of the market as the only entity that can create means of stemming climate-change is, from her research, globally pervasive.

In Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food, Timothy A. Wise writes of a similar project in Malawi, where “high-yield” seeds developed by scientists in the Global North replaced heirloom seeds. The yields declined year after year, requiring farmers who usually save seeds and share them with neighbors to buy new ones as a matter of course. Local women call the hybrid version of maize “a marriage breaker” because it doesn’t make a good enough dish for their husbands; local varieties are “marriage builders.” But subsidies force farmers’ hands into what isn’t traditional, into what requires constant purchasing. Whose brilliant, climate change–resilient future is this? 

Bill Gates recently gave an interview to Kara Swisher at the Times where he discussed “flying around Africa” and “seeing, you know, no electricity and wondering, how do we electrify all of Africa?” This has a big, stinky whiff of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”–type imperialist paternalism, and nowhere in this interview do I see Gates really interrogate his role as a male billionaire from the U.S., nowhere do I see him thinking about how to give the reins over to African people to lead their own forays into green energy, into regenerative agriculture and agroecology. (He also says, “it’s important to say that what Elon did with Tesla is one of the greatest contributions to climate change anyone’s ever made”—this is a car for individuals; the cheapest model goes for $36,490. Does Bill Gates think a banana costs $10?)

These are the people with resources, with capital, and this is how they think: They don’t ask the people what they need; they just make something that seems like a solution and say, “Ta-da!” The future doesn’t need their visions; the future needs justice, reparations, the redistribution of wealth, and radical restructuring of who has land, who farms, and how land is used. Look at Texas, where people are suffering the effects of climate change while fossil fuel companies rake in the profits.

If this can happen in Texas, it doesn’t really seem like people interested in new climate change “solutions” are doing a very good job. Without water or heat, no one is asking for a cow-free steak or a 3D printed meal. What is helping in this situation is the same thing that’s always helped when the state is a failure: human beings, mutual aid. Look at what Karen Washington has been doing in the Bronx for decades, as written by Ligaya Mishan in a deep piece on food activism in T: “She has since cultivated many gardens and drafted policy proposals for government officials, but the heart of her work is still local, done in and for her community.”

“Equity is as important as technology,” says Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The future doesn’t need to be neo-colonized into the Global North’s visions of “efficiency.” We have to change how we live, how we engage with each other, who has power. Can we start to discuss justice-oriented food initiatives with the same breathless fervor with which we cover every capital-driven “innovation,” as Mishan has done? Because the people don’t need to cook with their iPhones. The people, everywhere, simply need power.

Friday’s paid subscriber interview will feature Helena Price Hambrecht, the founder of Drink Haus. We discuss access to non-corporate booze, the issues with the major makers, and how she successfully launched the line of aperitifs online.

Annual subscriptions cost $30.

This podcast with Areni Global, discussing the multi-dimensional reality of sustainability.

The Bloodless Revolution, a very long text on the history of vegetarianism.

Olive-oil carrot cake with walnut butter and cinnamon buttercream!