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Publiceret den 10. august 2021

Chefs Book Notes; “Technically Food”

Larissa Zimberoff is a journalist and food writer from the Bay Area whose understanding of food has been largely shaped by the fact that she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes from childhood. That gave her an early habit (and I guess with time the skills) to break all her foods down into macros and keeping a vigilant eye on whatever she might put in her mouth. While announcing to be a fan of technology she is also a big fan of wholesome, clean foods and it is with this paradox that she ventures out to research and map the world of future analogue foods, their technologies, their founders and – their mission.

She dips into algaes, fungi and lab-meats and creates a very useful overview on the current state of these technologies. There is not a lot of farmers speaking their case in this book – and that is obviously because there is not much farming going on behind these processes. It all raises the big question, will our food be engineered rather than farmed in the future? Maybe followed up with another – isn’t it already?

I can very much relate to Zimberoff’s approach. I am myself a great fan of technology but I wish my foods to be as un-manipulated as possible. Which is in itself difficult to combine with my career and life in cooking where all great things that are created are made up by man, and crafted to become something special and often quite far from what nature created. We have always worked with technology to alter natures gifts into something more flavorful, or more nutritious, or longer lasting. You could discuss how natural a salami is after pork has been ground, seasoned with spices, stuffed, fermented, aged, dried, sliced and finally eaten. While accentuating all the greatness of the pig there is a great lot of manipulation involved in crafting it and if you were not informed it would be hard to tell that that meatstick once was a pig. Same goes with cheese, where mimicking some processes in nature like the curdling of milk by mammals, fermentation, salting and preserving over many centuries has provided some of the most fantastic food products that you could dream of. But how is it that when I think about meat grown in a lab or a soy and pea-protein based hotdog it makes me cringe? Crafts were the technologies of past cultures so while I instinctively want to write off any lab-coated engineer to make any of my food I want to remind myself to be open about what the future brings and what kind of problems we would need to solve.

Analogue Foods

Only a few years ago I would huff and puff about any of these “analogue” foods. I have been lucky to participate in several debates on the future of food and my standpoint has always been on the side of defending the natural, ethical and organic type of farming that will provide a good living for the farmer, a good health for the soil and great life for the animals involved. Small, handheld, (fairly) low-tech and very diverse farms could solve the problems we have and it would bring the prices up, bringing the perceived value of our foods back up where it belongs and hence bringing down foodwaste and upping the understanding of our foods at the same time. We would want to go meet our farmers, trust them and support them and as we sit at a table filled with home-cooked and delicious meals we could solve both the impending climate crisis as the full-blown diversity crisis.

As a cook and restaurateur I have tried to embody that vision in my business only choosing meats at the highest ethical quality and have taken it upon myself to “engineer” and design dishes to hold less, but better meat. All of this has presented many challenges and what I have clearly concluded is that my vision might be a part of the solution but it cannot, as with everything else, stand alone to solve the massive problems we face.

While the extreme consumption of meat is causing numerous issues, and the majority of the subsidy-supported farming behind it is completely outrageous, we do need to take into consideration any kind of solution out there.

Personally I believe that we can only really change the direction we are going in if we can change the mindset that cleared the path to get us where we are today. Understanding to have less, and to feel entitled to less (being meats every day or sugarbased indutrialized foods) would make us change that path radically. We have grown accustomed to foodprices being extremely low by an industrial scale making anything wholesome look like a luxury. I believe we should treat all foods as a luxury and not take any of it for granted. The complexity of changing peoples minds on this is completely overwhelming, and in reality a tad bit utopian. We have gotten ourselves down this path and we are living in a modern world where the only paradigm that has worldwide credibility is that all change has to be market-driven.

My main take away from “Technologically Food” is confirming just that. Zimberoff tells the tale of who will most probably lead the way in molding our future food system and how they will do it. Not because of the lack of other solutions that are plentiful and very viable. But because patents, technological leaps, engineers, algorithms and unicorns are what are capable of attracting investors. Investors are attracted by the future promise of profits and while that does not necessarily exclude changing things for the better, it is very clear that the return on the investment will always be the first priority. So the race to discover the next technological fix that will save us will not be make healthy food available to all of us – it will be to be able to patent it and secure the profit on that advance.

Silicon Valley has grabbed our attentions (all puns intended) and now sees the moment to get a piece of that food system. While we have all benefitted vastly from the advances made with Social media, google etc. in the last number of years we have already seen the issues that the consolidation of power in these enormous conglomerates can pose. We have also seen how difficult it is to enforce any type of policy on these mastodonts in the globalized world we live in. What scares me most about lab-grown engineered food is the motivation behind the technology and how difficult it will be to replicate at a small scale – if doing that will not be made illegal all together. This is where I differentiate the technological advances that made a cultural difference throughout the world – like cheesemaking – that will be possible to replicate in a bucket, on a mountaintop with a single goat – and a technology that is spoken of as to save us, but never will be accessible to us as producers, only as consumers.

The green revolution already stands as a broken promise of fixing food shortages with technological advances. It became a way of monopolizing seeds and agriculture by imposing pesticides and insecticides on small farmers with a promise of higher yield and more profit. This reductionist approach dismantled thousands of years of agricultural culture and knowledge and reduced diversity at lightning speed. The same approach seem to be embedded in the “new” solutions for a climate crisis caused by that same idea.

I don’t know what solutions will be the best but I am highly critical of the tech-world fixing the food-world. I believe that more than anything we do need to un-tech the food world. Make it more understandable, approachable and therefor both fixable and attractive to the newer generations. As a chef I find myself right in between technology, culinary culture and tradition and honestly I don’t feel it is right not to consider any of these advances as valid. While Technologically Food confirms my greatest worries about the future of my food-system it also makes me feel that I need to have a try at an Impossible Burger and some pea-protein based yoghurt before writing it off completely.

I think Larissa’s book is extremely important in starting a discussion on this matter that I believe will only be more relevant and increase in complexity in the next coming years.

I want to thank Larissa and the publisher Abrams Books for sending me the book.