Amanda Little: What Is The Future Of Our Food?

Originally published on September 7, 2021 5:23 am

Part 4 of TED Radio Hour episode The Food Connection

How should we ethically feed our world? Are we supposed to return to organic pastoral practices or trust new technology? Journalist Amanda Little believes the answer lies in the middle.

About Amanda Little

Amanda Little is a journalist and author. She is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University and a columnist for Bloomberg, where she writes about the environment, agriculture and innovation. Her reporting has taken her to ultradeep oil rigs, down manholes, into sewage plants, and inside monsoon clouds.

She is the author of The Fate of Food: What We'll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World, which explores how we can feed humanity sustainably and equitably in the climate change era.

Her writing on energy, technology and the environment has been featured in The New York Times, Washington Post, Bloomberg, Wired, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com.

This segment of TED Radio Hour was produced by Sylvie Douglis and edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour. You can follow us on Twitter @TEDRadioHour and email us at TEDRadio@npr.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi.

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ZOMORODI: On the show today, the food connection. We've heard about a TikTok influencer making a personal change to her diet, an Indigenous chef bringing the old ways of eating back to the dinner table and an entrepreneur who wants to make sure good food isn't wasted. But with so many people and a planet that's so maxed out, how will we be able to produce enough food in decades to come on a global scale? What is the future of our food?

AMANDA LITTLE: We have a growing global population. We have growing demand for meat. We also have decreasing arable land. We have increasingly brittle and antiquated food supply chains. And all of this is combined with these increasing climate pressures. And there has to be a new approach.

ZOMORODI: This is journalist Amanda Little. And like a lot of us, she's trying to make ethical food choices for herself.

LITTLE: I live in Nashville, Tenn., land of barbecues. I am a shark in chummed waters. And it has been very hard for me to remove meat from my diet.

ZOMORODI: And that's just one reason why Amanda wrote a book called "The Fate Of Food." It's an investigation into what needs to happen to prevent future food emergencies.

LITTLE: The International Panel on Climate Change has said that by midcentury, the world may reach a threshold of global warming beyond which current agricultural practices will no longer support large human civilizations. And I've committed that to memory. It's an actual quote from a 2014 IPCC report, because it's just such a staggering statement.

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ZOMORODI: When you put it like this, Amanda, like, part of me is like, oh, my gosh. It's enough to want to turn off the radio and cry. But I don't want people to do that because you - you know, you've spent all these years traveling and talking to people who are trying to fix it.

LITTLE: Yeah, this is a deeply troubling story. How do you feed the world? This is a question that has propelled and troubled civilization for the better part of 13,000 years, right? And you have one side saying, let's go back to the way things were. Industrial farming screwed everything up. You know, we need to deinvent our food supply and go back to sort of pre-industrial agriculture.

ZOMORODI: Those are folks who are composting and sort of going back to the land and no pesticides - those sorts of things?

LITTLE: Yes. So they want a return to this sort of pre-green revolution - organic, biodynamic, regenerative farming practices. And then you have on the other side the techno-optimists who are saying food is ripe for reinvention, right? Let's throw technology at this problem. And then you have this other side that's saying, oh, no, no, no. I'd like my food deinvented, thank you very much. We've seen how technology has caused this problem. Why would we bring more technology to bear?

ZOMORODI: So you've got the techno-optimists on one side, and then opposing them is the kind of back-to-the-land camp.

LITTLE: Yes. And I, as a sort of detached observer of all this and not someone who had a dog in either fight, was really perplexed. Like, why is it one or the other?

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LITTLE: The rift between the reinvention camp and the deinvention camp has existed for decades. But now it's a raging battle.

ZOMORODI: Amanda Little continues in her TED Talk.

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LITTLE: One side covets the past, the other side covets the future. And as someone observing this from the outside, I began to wonder, why must it be so binary? Can't there be a synthesis of the two approaches? Our challenge is to borrow from the wisdom of the ages, and from our most advanced science, to forge this third way - one that allows us to improve and scale our harvests, while restoring rather than degrading the underlying web of life.

I belong to neither camp. I'm a failed vegan and a lapsed vegetarian, and a terrible backyard farmer. If I'm honest, I will keep trying at this, but I may fail. But I'm hell-bent on hope, and if my travels have taught me anything, it's that there's good reason for hope.

Farmers and entrepreneurs and academics are radically rethinking national and global food systems. They are marrying principles of old-world agroecology and state-of-the-art technologies to create what I call a third way to our food future.

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ZOMORODI: So what is this sort of third way, this middle ground?

LITTLE: The middle ground is to find a synthesis of the traditional and the radically new. The answer to food security is not technology alone, and it's not traditionalism alone, but it's technology combined with the wisdom of ecology, right? It's technology in cooperation, not competition, with the natural world. And as kind of theoretical as that sounds, there were so many examples of innovators who are really bearing this out.

ZOMORODI: One of those innovators is a farmer named Chris Newman. When we called Chris, he'd just corralled some of his runaway cows.

CHRIS NEWMAN: When it rains, crazy things happen on ranches, especially when it hasn't rained in a while. So they wind up in the highway. And nice to get them out of the road before the sheriff finds out.

LITTLE: So Chris and his partner, Annie Newman, are two farmers in the northern neck of Virginia.

NEWMAN: We farm the land Stratford Hall, which - I guess its claim to fame is being the birthplace of Robert E. Lee, which is an odd place for a Black farmer to be farming. But we have an opportunity to be on this landscape and to pursue Black- and Indigenous-led food sovereignty from here.

LITTLE: I first encountered Chris through his writing. He's been chronicling his own adventures as a new entrepreneurial farmer who has come up against a lot of the profound hypocrisies in sustainable food production. And he wrote this manifesto, "Clean Food: If You Want To Save The World, Get Over Yourself."

ZOMORODI: By get over yourself, Chris means that organic farmers need to be less precious about their methods. They need to embrace new ways of growing healthy food that everyone can afford.

NEWMAN: I grew up around poverty and grew up around people who were food insecure and who were financially insecure. And this movement is never going to gain traction or take off or become a mass movement if we're not appealing beyond people who are in the luxury sector.

ZOMORODI: To make his food more affordable, Chris uses old and new tools to farm.

LITTLE: His farm is a really fascinating blend of traditional approaches to farming and technology. And the more time I spent with Chris and Annie, the more I began to see what, you know, they describe as this kind of personal Wakanda, this food-rich forest ecosystem that he imagines will be managed and tended by intelligent machines, by robotic harvesters - a place where technology exists to serve and elevate nature.

He has, you know, drones and electrical fences for managed grazing and cameras and software. But what he really envisions is weaving together these old forms of agroecology, of food forests, of crop production, of livestock production, in harmony with the natural world, in harmony with ecosystems, alongside technology that can help him scale his enterprise and make it possible for him to produce his food for more people more affordably.

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ZOMORODI: Amanda traveled the country and the world, meeting dozens of pioneers working toward this third-way approach. In Arkansas, she witnessed the maiden voyage of an army of weed-destroying robots.

LITTLE: I had this sense that this robot was going to look like C-3PO, like some glittering, gold battalion of C-3POs who you would see marching out into the fields and have little pincers, and it'd be plucking weeds from the ground. But in fact, it was this big sort of hoop skirt on the back of a tractor under which there was a bank of 24 cameras using computer vision. And the computers could distinguish between the crops and the weeds. And in a fraction of the time it takes you to blink, these computers deploy, with a tiny little jet, a squirt of concentrated fertilizer that's too strong for a baby weed to tolerate, but spare the plant itself. And so this intelligent weeder has the potential to cut the use of agricultural chemicals by up to 90% or more.

ZOMORODI: Amanda, you mentioned in your book that in 2017, the guy who developed these robots, Jorge Heraud - that he sold his company to the tractor company John Deere. Did that deal raise some eyebrows?

LITTLE: Yeah. My question to him was, you're, you know, a paradigm shifter. You're a disruptor. Why are you selling out to the old guys? And he said, because we need to scale, because we need to get these things out into the fields, because they're great at building really good machines, and we have no time to waste.

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LITTLE: Heraud is the embodiment of third-way thinking, right? Robots, he told me, don't have to remove us from nature. They can bring us closer to it. They can restore it. Increasing crop diversity will be crucial to building resilient food systems and so will decentralizing agriculture, so that when farmers in one region are disrupted, the others around you can keep growing. Here, again, we see innovators borrowing from and perhaps even elevating the wisdom of natural ecosystems.

Development in plant-based and alternative meats are also profoundly hopeful. Uma Valeti fed my first plate of lab-grown duck breast, harvested fresh from a bioreactor. It had been grown from a small sampling of cells taken from muscle tissue and fat and connective tissues, which is exactly what we eat when we eat meat. This lab-grown or cell-based duck meat has very little threat of bacterial contamination. It's about 85% lower CO2 emissions associated with it. Eventually, it can be grown in decentralized facilities that aren't vulnerable to supply chain disruptions.

Valeti started out as a cardiologist who understood that doctors have been developing human and animal tissues in laboratories for decades. He was inspired as much by that as he was by a 1931 quote from Winston Churchill that says, "We shall escape the absurdity of growing the whole chicken in order to eat the breast or the wing by growing them separately in suitable mediums."

Like Heraud, Valeti is a quintessential third-way thinker. He's reimagined an old idea using new technology to usher in a solution whose time has come.

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ZOMORODI: This is some futuristic meat, Amanda. OK. Just to be clear, though, they take cells from animals. They culture them and then grow these cells in a lab into meat that you got to taste.

LITTLE: I did. I tasted duck breast, which had just been produced in a bioreactor. And a bioreactor is like a giant, sophisticated crockpot. It basically creates a sort of warm environment in which these growing cells can replicate. And they pulled it out. And their company chef put a little salt and pepper and a little oil in a pan and mashed the thing into a little meatball and sizzled it in the frying pan. And it smelled like meat. And I'm going, oh, my gosh, what have I got myself into, in part because I had just signed a document that said this is an experimental product...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

LITTLE: ...That has not been approved by the FDA. And...

ZOMORODI: That'll whet your appetite.

LITTLE: Yeah. But what was so moving was that Valeti said to me - as I was sort of digging into this bioreactor meatball, he said, you are participating in history. We are working on this to change the lives of billions of humans and trillions of animals. Welcome to a paradigm shift. And then I said, thank you. Thank you. I can't think of a better grace. This feels very, you know, profound and moving. And right as I was digging into this thing with my knife, he said, no, no, no, pick it up and pry it apart with your fingers so you can see the texture of this thing, which I thought was so interesting. I mean, I've never been encouraged to, you know, pick up my meat and rip it apart.

ZOMORODI: And what was it like?

LITTLE: Well, at first it was a little bit like a sort of rubber ball. And I was kind of thinking, I'm not sure what you're getting at here. But as I pulled it apart, I saw these striated layers of muscle that clung to each other and pulled apart just as you pull apart the meat on a chicken breast. So I pull off this little chunk and start chewing it. And it was a whole different experience than an Impossible burger or a Beyond Meat burger or certainly a black bean burger. It was meat.

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ZOMORODI: You write in the book that you keep wondering what will be on the table when you hopefully visit your grandkids for Thanksgiving dinner in the year 2050. What do you think that meal might look like?

LITTLE: Yeah, I - you know, I spent all this time roving around the world, trying to find an answer to this question. And I arrived at, I think, a probably inappropriate request, which was to spend it with Chris and Annie Newman.

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NEWMAN: I would love for Amanda to be able to come to our Thanksgiving. And it's like a weeklong thing where people who participate in the eating part of Thanksgiving also participate in the provisioning part - you know, lots of nontraditional foods that are prepared by all the hands that are at that table. And I would love it to be a real, real big damn table.

LITTLE: I love the possibility of eating at Chris and Annie's table because they want their farm to be honoring and producing the full spectrum of foods that are a part of his and Annie's family tradition - turkey and duck, heirloom varieties of corn and green beans and potato grown at the margins of their food forests, sauces of cranberry and elderberry and the plants of Chris' Piscatawayan (ph) ancestors - pawpaw, persimmon, chestnuts. But every element will have been made possible by the next-level technologies that he plans to bring into his farm. You know, it's not so much that the foods of the future will be unrecognizable to us, but the means by which they are grown will be potentially totally different from the way that foods have been grown in our lifetimes.

ZOMORODI: That's Amanda Little, author of the book "The Fate Of Food: What We'll Eat In A Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World." You can watch her full talk at ted.com.

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ZOMORODI: Thank you so much for listening to our show today called The Food Connection. To learn more about the people who were on this episode, go to ted.npr.org. And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app.

If you've been enjoying the show, we would be so grateful if you left us a review on Apple Podcasts. It is the best way for us to reach new listeners, which we are really trying to do.

This episode was produced by Katie Monteleone, Fiona Geiran, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham and Sylvie Douglis. It was edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour and James Delahoussayee. Our production staff at NPR also includes Jeff Rogers, Matthew Cloutier and Harrison Vijay Tsui. Our audio engineer is Daniel Shukin. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan, Michelle Quint and Micah Eames. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.