The Promise and Hubris of Silicon Valley’s Vision of How We Eat

The Promise and Hubris of Silicon Valley’s Vision of How We Eat

The Promise and Hubris of Silicon Valley’s Vision of How We Eat

A conversation with Larissa Zimberoff about the emergence of food start-ups, lab-made solutions, and the future of the American diet.

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Silicon Valley has changed the way we eat. Delivery apps like Postmates and DoorDash, now a central part of our culinary culture, originated in the Bay Area. But the Valley isn’t done changing our habits yet, and the new wave of change has a more radical ambition. In her debut book, Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat, journalist Larissa Zimberoff considers the many answers to a single question: What do we gain—and what do we lose—by embracing a future of lab-made food?

A childhood diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes gave Zimberoff what she describes as a “superpower” that helps her keenly cover the intersection of food and technology. “I see through food,” she explains in the book. Her goal is to make her readers question how exactly the sausage is made, “even when that sausage is made from flora and fungi.” Conversations (and arguments) with food scientists, academics, start-up founders, investors, and other food experts paint a complicated picture of an industry that is optimistically promising solutions to save our planet from the climate devastation and waste caused by our current system of industrial agriculture, to ensure animal welfare and end the inhumane conditions for workers in meatpacking plants (which the Covid-19 pandemic both illuminated and exacerbated), and to address the reality of food as a business sector subject, as Zimberoff reminds us, to the “levers” of capitalism. “We’re in the midst of a huge food experiment,” she writes, one that is being overseen and engineered by New Food—her catch-all term for the numerous food start-up companies that have emerged in recent years to invest in lab-made solutions. Technically Food gives us a peek at the early results, which indicate that New Food is not too dissimilar from the industrialized food industry we know now.

I spoke with Zimberoff about the promise and hubris she sees in Silicon Valley, and why our economy is the biggest problem in our food system.

Naomi Elias

Naomi Elias: Your book is ostensibly about Silicon Valley’s food tech innovations, but the underlying story is that our current food system is broken. What’s wrong with the way we eat now?

Larissa Zimberoff: We can point to a few things that speak to how broken our food system is currently. In the pandemic, the US has had such a high number of deaths, which is directly related to our underlying conditions like the rise in Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. All of these are coming about because of what we’re eating. If our food system is broken, it’s because we have industrialized food, processed food, snack foods, fast foods—all of the things that underpin how we eat today versus how we ate 100 years ago. New Food—as I call it in my book—is technology, and it’s going to be used to industrialize, process, and further distill these ingredients into single items. They’re not changing the food system; they’re just replacing one industrial product for another. That’s one of the reasons I wrote the book.

NE: You introduce that dichotomy in the food system between Big Food and New Food in the book. Who are those players, and how does their relationship impact the future of food?

LZ: Big Food is Nestlé, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kraft, Tyson. It’s also JBS (the largest meat producer in the world), Ingredion, Cargill—every massive company. All of these companies are investing in New Food because they know that they need to expand their product assortment, and they need to be ready for the shift. I don’t want to say that all innovation and all technology and all of this food potential is bad, but I want us to be more thoughtful about it: Are our eyes wide open to where food is going? Maybe New Food can save the climate and address the blight of industrial agriculture, but I’m not so sure our health is as important to the people investing in it.

NE: You bring up the need for greater consumer advocacy when it comes to New Food and disappointedly describe the US Food and Drug Administration’s approach to regulation as reactive rather than proactive. Why is that a problem?

LZ: The FDA has kind of always been reactive versus proactive. I mapped out how long it took the FDA to approve certain things and how that’s getting shorter and more compressed, to the point where these companies are all talking to the FDA very, very early on. It seems like the FDA is sort of working for these companies, and they’re having closed-door meetings to talk about what these companies need to do. I don’t see the FDA as being a government agency that is doing its best for humans. It’s gotten shorter-staffed; it has fewer guidelines. I feel like start-ups are pushing the FDA to approve certain things, and that’s the problem I have. Impossible Foods, for example, had its heme approved by the FDA based on Impossible Foods’ own findings and experts. It just doesn’t sit well with me.

Our food system isn’t perfect: We still have synthetic dyes in our foods, in our candies. Mars has been working on a new blue M&M forever, and they’re still not using a natural blue because they don’t want to give up that shiny, pretty, happy blue. The FDA has it on their list of things that need to be out of our food system, but it’s still there. If it hasn’t worked in the past, why will it work in the future if nothing changes?

NE: We’ve already normalized non-dairy milks despite Big Food’s objections, but other projects you mention, like cell-cultured meat and the one hinted at in the book’s cover image—eggs without chickens—all involve actually disrupting nature. Is that a necessary course of action or a consequence of the New Food gold rush?

LZ: I wrote a story for Bloomberg about making vegan pet food and cultured pet food where I said something like, “Business idea of the year: Figure out what’s not vegan yet and make it vegan.” Instead of trying to replicate nature, I would rather see innovation and technology go toward making things that they know we need. Why does bacon from fungi have to be “bacon”? Make it something different so that there isn’t that comparison.

Technology can’t solve everything with one single ingredient, but that’s what we’re being told. We’re being told that this new cultured non-animal-milk protein in an ice cream is somehow the answer to the universe. And it’s like, “Well, ice cream is not the solution to climate problems.” It’s technology looking for a unicorn item: What ingredient hasn’t been remade yet? We’re going to make it, and then we’re going to solve the problems. It’s that hubris where founders say that their solution is the thing that we all need, but in reality it’s just a lot more complex. That’s what I’m trying to tease out.

NE: What role do you think the media plays in all this?

LZ: These foods are marching in with excitement. The media writes about JUST launching its cultured meat in Singapore, launching the JUST eggs made from mung beans in China. And there’s such enthusiasm to create these foods that this excitement from the novel and new—which we all need and crave as humans—is not being tempered by, “Hey, wait, what is this? What’s going on?”

Beyond and Impossible got into fast food so quickly, and are now seemingly everywhere. I hear constantly about people’s parents buying Impossible. This just speaks to that novelty aspect of food and how technology and venture capital and Wall Street prop these things up as the next wave of “cool,” like Elon Musk and Tesla. That’s what’s happening with all these foods. But because I have Type 1 diabetes, I think of food a lot more often than most people do. I think about every bite—it’s not fun. And it’s much easier when I eat simpler and closer to the original item than when I eat anything that’s been through 10 steps of processing and has 20 ingredients. I’m certainly not saying, “Stick to me.” I’m saying, “Let’s be careful and thoughtful about what we are eating.”

NE: One of the experts in the book brings up food studies scholar Warren Belasco’s “culinary triangle of contradictions,” which depicts our relationship with food as a negotiation between the interdependent ideas of convenience, responsibility, and our identity as consumers. Do you believe Belasco is right? Can food tech innovations create a future where we can have all three instead of having to choose between them?

LZ: I want New Food to be good for the environment, for people, for my health and the planet, and I think there are groups that are really behind this idea, like the EAT-Lancet organization. Belasco’s book is great, if you haven’t read it yet, but it is a high bar that I’m asking these companies to achieve: that they look at our nutrition and our health as being on an equal footing with the other things we’re trying to solve. I think that capitalism is problematic to our food system. Impossible Foods was just talking about going public at like a $1 billion or $2 billion valuation. It’s outrageous talk—like you mentioned earlier, a gold rush. How on earth can they think about our health when it’s so important to them to make money? I think that that alone means that they can’t hit the three pieces of Belasco’s triangle.

NE: Gen Z is the generation most willing to pay for sustainable goods, according to a statistic you cite. So there’s a growing interest in eating healthier, but that interest doesn’t necessarily match up with who these foods are most convenient for or who can afford them. It’s like a Catch-22.

LZ: I talked to a nutritionist who does meal planning for college-age twentysomethings, and she’s like, “People want things simple—they can’t be asked to do too many things.” As our food system gets overly complicated, there’s this deluge of newness to look over and understand. We are expecting humans to want to look this over and understand it and read the studies, and they’re not going to. They don’t want to; they want it simple. Convenience and snacking and quick has its flaws, and the complexity that’s coming to our food system is going to make it even harder. We’ll have snack foods that have animals in them, that don’t have animals in them, that have cultured meat in them. It’ll be really hard to determine what’s actually good for us.

NE: Media coverage of this industry is often more prematurely congratulatory than critical. How do you keep from falling into that trap as someone who, for reasons both medical and moral, is invested in healthier New Food succeeding but also wants to report on it honestly?

LZ: I’m really glad you asked this question, because it’s one that I’d like to talk about more. It is a little nerve-wracking to release this book, because I get to be a little clearer than I’ve ever been. When I write for the media, I feel that I need to temper it a bit. That’s why I wrote the book, because I no longer needed to be beholden to anybody. It is complicated for me, because I like these companies. I’m not saying I’m in bed with them, but they have welcomed me in and shared their stories in some fashion.

I have a lot of questions, and I don’t answer them all in my book because I think it’s too early. I want to bring up the questions, and I want to keep digging to find out more. There are so many evangelists and cheerleaders to the movement, and there needs to be people on the other side, too.

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