Friday, March 31, 2017

Beware of the techno-optimists!

Again and again, I read articles in magazines which are claiming that some new technology will save the world’s poor or hungry, produce food with almost no environmental impact or make cities independent on that boring “junk space” called countryside. I am astonished how people cling to these news and uncritically spread propaganda from individual researchers seeking more funds or startups needing investors. The latest months it has been new “impossible foods“, the lab burgers (again), 3 D printing, green skyscrapers, aquaponics, you name it. Genetic engineering and precision farming are perennial such tales. 

The romantic ideal of small organic farms providing everyone with healthy natural food is impossible on a planet of seven billion people, soon to be nine or ten billion, argues Jayson Lusk (a food and agriculture economist at Oklahoma State University). In his new book, Unnaturally Delicious: How Science and Technology Are Serving Up Super Foods to Save the World. In his view, not only is it impossible, it is also not desirable as it would mean that we reject the multiple benefits that the modern food system already has given us. And there is a lot more to come if we embrace modern food technology. Lusk presents the readers with stories how innovation and technology have found new solutions for, among others, production of eggs, 3-D food printing, robot cooks, synthetic biology, food fortification, genetic engineering, precision farming, meat tissue culture and food safety. 

According to Lusk, we don’t have to choose between prohibitively expensive organic eggs and eggs from hens held in miniscule cages. Instead we can design smart cages that combine the industrial scale with better consideration of the needs of the hen. Smart cages are just an example of how technology can solve most of our problems. “Sustainability and using agricultural technology is one and the same”, he states boldly – without providing any convincing evidence for it. 

Lusk relates many stories about new technologies. The relevance of the stories varies and a critical analysis is often lacking. Lusk readily admits that 3-D printing of food is expensive, incredibly slow (start your dinner while eating your lunch), demanding (3-D printers require CAD software) and not capable of making most of the food we like to eat - today. But he thinks those are all teething problems. My concern is more that 3-D printing of food and robocooks seems to be far-fetched solutions to marginal problems, and it certainly has nothing to do with “solving the world’s largest food and farming problems” as the jacket of the book claims.

Lusk claims that everything we eat is the result of hundreds or thousands of years of unnatural selection: “Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and kale didn’t exist before humans came along. All these veggies are descendants of the same plant, and they originated through artificial selection.” In the same vein he argues that genetically modified organisms are simply the next step in our technological evolution. Lusk states that the main obstacle to success is that the precautionary principle is taken too far. 

There is no doubt that technology has improved life for huge numbers of people. Plant and animal breeding have given us a variety of useful crops and livestock products – it is another thing if we should call breeding “unnatural”. Mechanical devices and tractors have made farming a lot easier. Food processing methods have made food safer to eat and sometimes tastier (think cheese). Sometimes, innovations have improved nutritional quality and the environment, but probably more often not. Technology and innovation will also in the future sometimes make wonders and other times wreck havoc. Some precaution has merit. 

But most importantly, technology can’t at all solve all problems of our food system. Like so many other techno-enthusiasts, Lusk forgets or neglects that food is a lot more than the intake of exact prescribed quantities of nutrients and that farming is an important tool for mankind’s stewardship of nature. He forgets that farmers and other actors in the food chain to a very large extent make their choices based on profitability, which is very different than making choices based on “science” or best practice. He seems to forget that trade-offs are not only mediated by technology or markets but more often by governments, local communities, farmers themselves or food activists. 

The messages of the techno-optimists is both deceptive and dangerous as it makes people believe that most problems can be solved by technological innovation which in turn make them passive in the political, social and economic arena. Of course, we can always improve technology, but in essence we already have (know) the technologies to feed the world’s population with healthy food in a sustainable way. The obstacles are economic, social and political. And that is where the struggle should be.

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