Amanda Little is the author of the new book The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World. She recently sat down with me at Betaworks to discuss lab-grown meat, GMOs, and why we need to really think through how technology can save our coffee from the climate crisis.
Nicholas Thompson: The way I started working with Amanda is that I tried to kill her. I assigned her a story that required her to fly 200 miles in a helicopter to an oil rig for a feature for WIRED.
AL: Yes, it was 2007. I had discovered Xanax, which was really good timing for me because I was in a very small helicopter for a very long time.
NT: So let’s start there. That was for a project reporting on oil. You spent several years working on that topic, and then you switched to food. Tell me why.
AL: I was following the interests of my readers. I did this first book called Power Trip: The Story of America’s Love Affair with Energy in 2008. And everywhere I went on book tour, people wanted to talk about food. As George Bernard Shaw said, “There’s no simpler love than the love of food.” It’s a topic that unifies people, and we do it every day, three times a day. And it was actually very liberating to come at this from the outside, not as a food person or as a foodie. It gave me a lot of freedom to look at the way that this issue is so emotional for people and why there’s such a polarized discussion around the future of sustainable food.
NT: Was the hypothesis: “Climate change is the struggle of our time, and the single most important element of its consequences that we can deal with is food”?
AL: Well, the main way that most people on Planet Earth are going to experience climate change is through its impact on food. And I really found that surprising. We’ve heard so much about forest fires and mega droughts and all the problems that come with climate change. But it was Jerry Hatfield, who’s a USDA scientist, who said to me that the broadest disruption caused by climate change will be in food systems, because there will be very region-specific impacts: from droughts, from flooding, from intolerable heat. There will be uninhabitable regions of the earth, and the global food system is completely integrated. In the US we import more than half of our fruits, we are so heavily reliant on other regions of the world to produce the food we love, to say nothing of, for example, coffee and chocolate.
NT: So the book starts with a surprising realization: We stress about water coming in off the West Side Highway, but actually we should really be worried about food.
AL: As I was reporting this in all these different locations—apple farms and corn farms and in aquaculture facilities—it kept occurring to me that climate change is something you can taste. We’re in this moment where we’re witnessing an assault on climate science from the White House, and the consequences are so intimate. The corn and soy farmers currently in the Midwest are dealing with flooding in their fields. Italy was running out of olive oil a few months ago because of extreme weather. The 20 million small coffee farmers around the world are dealing with the pressures not only of heat but of how fickle the coffee plant is. People are tuning in, because in part we realize strawberries and Chardonnay are on the line. I don’t know what would happen to the GDP in the United States if we couldn’t get a steady supply of dark roast. But in our household, it would be catastrophic.
NT: Help me understand a framework for the crops that are most at risk and why. Because surely there’s some that are more durable, that can survive through extreme cold, extreme heat, and can move as agricultural zones move.
AL: The high-nutrient, high-flavor crops are incredibly fickle. Coffee is a great example of a crop that needs very specific conditions to succeed. There are, I think, nine major coffee-producing countries in the world. And there are countries like Vietnam, where there’s now huge, large-scale coffee production, which is fairly new. But the single-origin artisanal coffee crops are very threatened. Stone fruits, for example, and vineyards are threatened, as are places where you can’t re-crop every year or every season. It takes six years to plant a new olive tree and get it back online. The impacts on fruits, particularly stone fruits and tree fruits, were really alarming to me, and it wasn’t just here comes a storm and wipes out all the blossoms and devastates the harvest. It was actually subtle changes in seasons, because this tree gets confused and thinks it’s spring and summer in February or January, and so it blooms. Then a normal freeze comes and wipes everything out.
NT: So everything is at risk, but the good stuff is the most at risk?
AL: Yeah, the high-nutrient, delicious stuff. I just was doing research on this Guatemalan coffee farm and this guy was taking me into his coffee farm that was 500 acres, and it had been in his family for five generations. He was at the lowest production level ever because of coffee rust fungus. He’s a 38-year-old coffee farmer and the entire legacy of his coffee farm had never seen this kind of pressure.
NT: All right, I’m getting depressed. But this book actually has lots of optimism. Would you call this an optimistic book?
AL: Well, it was really exciting to me when Julia Louis-Dreyfus decided to blurb the book. And then she said, “Amanda Little is hell-bent on hope.” I mean, I’m personally very optimistic. This narrative of “We’re running out of food” is as old as civilization, right? I think that that instinct for survival that kicked in historically is kicking in. And that’s what interested me. I mean, those were the people that I went to meet: the scientists and engineers and farmers who were adapting and thinking about how to adapt.
NT: And so that’s at the core of the book: the stories of people coming up and using science and technology to solve these problems. Let’s start with an interesting one: What is your position on GMOs and tell me how it evolved?
AL: Yeah, I kind of went into this with the same sort of assumptions that a lot of us have about GMOs. But I wanted to get out of the context of the US and so I reported that story in Kenya and went to some labs where they’re working on GMOs with sort of a different purpose.
The problem with GMOs right now is that the application of the technology has been really questionable. The big GMO crop out there is called Roundup Ready. It’s Roundup Ready corn, it’s been planted on millions of acres. And, essentially, Monsanto designed crops that can tolerate chemicals like glyphosate. So you can apply tons and tons of chemicals to these plants and they won’t die, but the weeds will. But you could also use genetic editing and modification to help plants adapt to more realistic or more necessary and urgent pressures, like, for example, drought. So the scientists that I interviewed in Kenya were working on drought tolerance, they’re working on insect resistance, and that’s really valuable for farmers who can’t afford pesticides. And they basically said, “Look, you can come at this with this attitude that GMOs are terrible and we need to label corn chips. But for us this is a question of survival.”
We have been genetically manipulating plant genomes since the beginning of farming. And so the notion that somehow GMOs give us this ability to tinker with the essence of life that’s more dramatic or invasive than another kind of conventional breeding is bullshit. Because that’s what breeding has been since the beginning of time. We’ve been selecting for sweeter, bigger, juicier fruits and vegetables for thousands of years. And this is why we’ve ended up with our food system today.
NT: So you’re walking by two bins of chips. One says GMO free. One has GMOs. You reach for the GMO one on principle?
AL: Well, I will tell you that I don’t want a corn chip that’s grown with a ton of glyphosate. My problem with the GMO corn chip is not that it is GMO. And by the way, we’ve all been eating GMOs for the better part of actually two and a half decades. But I don’t want corn that has a ton of agro chemicals in my food.
NT: So let’s pause there for a second. I totally agree: We have been manipulating genomes since the beginning of time. But is there a line we shouldn’t cross? Is there anything we shouldn’t do in manipulating plant genomes?
AL: Yes, absolutely.
NT: What is the moral line?
AL: Well, Dole for example just came out with the pink pineapple, where they have slid a gene for pinkness.
NT: You’re against genetic modification for aesthetic reasons?
AL: I just think it’s a frivolous use of a very important technology.
NT: Let’s talk about some of the other technologies that you write about. We’ve got vertical farming, 3D food printing, lab-grown meat—let’s talk about lab-grown meat because you ate some. How did it taste?
NT: Explain what it was, explain how it tasted, and explain what the future is.
AL: Well, let me just get back to the beginning of that story, because I actually started that story reporting on Tyson Foods, which had begun investing in Memphis Meats, which is the company that I ultimately focused on. So why are these people investing in this disruptive technology? And essentially Tom Hayes, who was then the CEO of Tyson, said, “We don’t want to be Kodak.” So I reported that story and I got the CEO of Tyson to say to me, “If we can grow the meat without the animal, why wouldn’t we do that?” And I called my editor and was like, “Oh my god, the CEO of Tyson just told me, like, if we can grow meats without an animal, why wouldn’t we do that?” And so we made that big splash. A month later, Tom Hayes was out of his job.
What they’re investing in these meat alternative technologies is negligible compared to what they’re investing in the 2.3 billion animals they slaughter every year. Tyson is the biggest meat producer by a long shot in the US. So it’s not like they’re jumping into meat alternatives, but the fact is that they’re saying they are a protein company, not an animal meat company.
NT: Let’s talk about the bioreactor duck.
AL: Uma Valeti, who’s on the front end of this lab-meat movement, or the cell-based meat movement, invited me to his office to try this meat. And it was a small lump of duck that was probably $600 or $700 to produce. But in three years, the cost of this stuff has come down from hundreds of thousands of dollars, I mean at least half a million dollars for one pound of this bioreactor meat to a couple hundred dollars. Anyway, he sizzled this thing in a little pan at the Memphis Meat laboratories on a little hot plate. And he kept saying, like, “Smell the aroma, you don’t get that from, you know, a veggie burger,” which is true, it smelled very meaty. And these cells seemed alive. They were, in fact, twitching and flexing and doing these things that live cells do before they then were deprived of oxygen and died, and I ate them. They’re real live cells, they’re real live freaking cells that are just not attached to a brain. And they’re not sentient, but living cells. And so they’re molecularly identical to the cells that come from the meat that you harvest from a sentient animal. It tasted very ducky. And it tasted very meaty.
We are in a moment in time when extraordinary, implausible things are happening, in part because we are responding to extraordinary and implausible pressures. And that was the story for me. Whether we’re going to have a future of live meat, who knows. And whether I’m going to be feeding it to my children, I don’t know. I can’t predict whether this thing is going to succeed. The fact that it’s happening and billions of dollars are getting plowed into this kind of research was what drove me chapter after chapter to meet these people.