A grayish blend of freeze-dried vegetable chunks and whey protein, “Chicken-Flavored Pot Pie” feeds the market for “preppers,” individuals looking to stockpile food and water in case — or rather, when — the food supply is cut off. These survivalists are just like you and me: Little describes a former cop in Indiana, a business executive in downtown Washington, a climate scientist in West Virginia, and it turns out there are even a few preppers in Little’s own family. Customers can purchase nine freeze-dried meals for $20 or opt for a one-year supply for a family of four, priced at $7,999. Sales of freeze-dried food grew to $400 million annually between 2014 and 2018.
At once a throwback to the heavily processed foods common during my childhood and a scary sign of what might be coming, the pot pies are an appropriate introduction to a book that aims to answer the question, “How screwed are we” in our search for a way to feed an ever-growing population? Surveying freeze-dried production and other technological food endeavors, Little elaborates: “Where is this long chain of technological experiments going, exactly? Can we reasonably, responsibly dare to hope, given the failures of technology in the past and the environmental and population pressures to come, that it’s headed in a good direction? We want assurance not just that there will be enough food for all of us to survive, but that our culinary traditions, including our fresh-food supply, will continue to live on.”
Little walks readers through the many complex threats to our food supply, including industrial agriculture’s role in waste, undernutrition and overconsumption; agricultural consolidation; and the harm to biodiversity. She explains that the industrial food system is one of the biggest contributors to climate change and paradoxically the industry most susceptible to extreme weather events. Most of us will feel the impact of climate change not through floods, storms or forest fires, but through what we eat, the price we pay for it and how much is available.
Having traveled to 13 states and 11 countries, Little depicts the changes taking place in the global food system — both the developing threats to our food supply and the solutions hoping to mitigate them — and tells the stories of the experts who might help us avoid a freeze-dried future.
She explains that advocates in the battle over our food challenges fall into two camps: the deinvention camp and the reinvention camp; in other words, those advocating for a return to a pre-Green Revolution era centered on organic and biodynamic farming practices, vs. those hoping to build a smarter food system through technology and innovation. But as with many issues in the public discourse, this creates an impossible dichotomy, where you’re on one side or another. It’s led to acrimony and curbed progress and potential.
The solutions need to be more nuanced, as Little suggests. To save the world from hunger, obesity, disease and other problems, a combination of approaches is the answer. We need innovations in technology to bolster the regeneration of natural ecosystems, as well as approaches that value the generational wisdom of women and men who have been part of farming for generations.
The stories in this book depict these issues as not simply about the food we eat but about the way it is grown. How a frozen dinner is produced and transported to the grocery store has implications not just for consumers’ health and nutrition but for the health of the planet. Despite a potential wealth of cynicism over the many vexing challenges, Little finds hope in a variety of efforts, such as engineers who are building robots that can weed crops and allow growers to reduce agricultural chemical use, and a smart water network pioneered in Israel that is able to dramatically cut waste.
Little concludes — like many who have been studying the fate of our food — that there is no one answer to creating a food system that is environmental, economical and socially sustainable. It is critical that the different sides come together for the future of food and humankind. We have the tools, the knowledge and the resources to build a food system that better serves every eater today and long into the future. What we need is more conversations, more collaboration, more support and more breaking down of silos. As Little shows throughout her book, the solutions are there, and they’re already working.
The Fate of Food
What We'll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World
By Amanda Little
Harmony. 340 pp. $27