Are bugs the food of the future? Should I start a bug farm? What’s the best way to cook them? All that and more on today’s episode, featuring the amazing Soleil Ho, food critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, host of the podcast Extra Spicy, and founder of the podcast Racist Sandwich.
- Edible Insects – Future prospects for food and feed security (PDF)
- U.N. Urges Eating Insects; 8 Popular Bugs to Try
- Insects May Be The Taste Of The Next Generation, Report Says
- How to Develop an Appetite for Insects
- Methane production in terrestrial arthropods
- Three decades of global methane sources and sinks
- Roasted Winged Termites Are My Favourite Monsoon Snack, Even If Others Might Not Find it ‘Appropriate’
- Don Bugito (Oakland insect eatery Soleil mentioned owned & operated by Monica Martinez.)
- We Already Grow Enough Food for 10 Billion People … and Still Can’t End Hunger
- U.N. Warns Number Of People Starving To Death Could Double Amid Pandemic
Advice For And From The Future is written, edited and performed by Rose Eveleth. The theme music is by Also, Also, Also. The logo is by Frank Okay. Additional music this episode provided by Blue Dot Sessions. Transcription by Emily White.
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Advice For And From The Future
S1E7: “Should I Start a Bug Farm?”
[store bell jingle]
[Advice For and from the Future theme kicks in: low, long synths under a steady, crunchy rhythm]
Hi again. Welcome back. I’m glad you could join us. I know our door is a little bit hard to find, nestled between the intergalactic travel agency and the microbiome black market, but here you are. Got a question about tomorrow? Well, you are in the right place. Welcome to your friendly neighborhood futurology shop, where you can get the answers to tomorrow’s question, today.
On today’s trip to and from the future, we are considering questions about food. So to do that, I called up Soleil Ho, food critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, host of the podcast Extra Spicy, and founder of another podcast called Racist Sandwich.
[theme fades out]
ROSE (on call):
Okay, Soleil. Welcome to Advice For and From the Future. Are you ready to give some advice?
I am rip-roaring. I’m so excited.
[laughs] Okay. So, I actually want to have you listen to this question, like, the full official question. So, I’m going to text you this audio file. Let’s see if this works.
I got it.
You got it?
Yes. I’m listening.
Hey, Rose. This is Quim here. I’m sending this memo from Reus, Spain. And my question is: Do you think bugs are really the food of the future? I’ve been thinking a lot about food security recently, and thinking about, is it possible to make sure that my community, my family, my area, or my town has food for the future. And I’ve learned about bug farming, and people are saying that bugs are the food of the future because it’s really sustainable compared to other sources of protein, at least animal protein.
And yeah, so I’m thinking actually of maybe setting up some kind of bug farm, something like that. But I’m not really sure that it’s really, let’s say, the food of the future. I mean, couldn’t we just eat chickpeas, or how about chickens? And also, because bugs need a lot of electricity to grow them usually, and I’m not really sure that’s really that resilient in, maybe, a climate change future or in a future where electricity might be very expensive. So yeah, that’s my question. Are bugs really the food of the future? Thanks a lot. Bye.
That’s such a good question. I love that.
Okay, so maybe let’s start with the simple, but probably hardest question, which is: Are bugs the food of the future?
Oh, you want me to elaborate now? [laughs]
You say that as a bug lover.
I am a bug lover, right. But the important distinction is, I love bugs because of their present and their past, not because of their future, if that makes sense. Edible insects have been part of foodways around the world for a very, very long time, right? Like, probably before we were truly, like, developed as human civilizations, people were hunting, and gathering, and foraging insects.
And you know, it makes sense, right? Insects have protein, as the caller describes, and it’s a lot less dangerous to have to forage for insects than to hunt, like, a wild bison; of course many people did that too. So, they continue to persist as a food source in many places, right? Thailand, Mexico, Botswana… There’s so many cultures and contexts in which… Edible insects have never gone away. They’ve never been a trend. They just have been, just as dairy has been a part of Northern European cuisine for a very, very long time. And wheat has been part of Levantine cuisine for a very long time.
The whole reason why the caller even thought to associate insects with the food of the future as a concept all stems… All of this, all the cricket chip businesses, all of the powdered cricket flour, all of the innovations, the edible insect festivals that have happened in the US, they come from this one paper that was published in 2013. It’s called “Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security.” And that was by the UN’s food division, the FAO. It was so, I think, mind-blowing for a lot of people in the food space.
One of its arguments was that insects could be a really great way to fix a lot of the problems presented by food insecurity in the world because they’re more efficient, as the caller says, because they take up… you could have a lot more individual crickets in one space than you could have individual cows. They don’t excrete methane when they fart. I don’t even know if bugs fart. I don’t think they do.
[laughs] Isn’t there a book, like, Does It Fart? I feel like we need to consult that expert on this.
There should be, yeah.
Sorry, hello. It’s me again. Just popping in for a second to say that I did look this up and some bugs do fart! They have anuses, and digestive tracts, and some amount of “digestive gas” comes out of their tiny little butts.
[Tina from Bob’s Burgers: “That goes in the butt bank.”]
One study from 1994 looked at 113 arthropod species to see if they produced digestive gas, aka farts. And they found that 45 species out of that 113 made enough farty gas to measure. And – this one really blows my mind – termites are one of the bugs that farts. And in fact, termite farts, like our farts, contain methane. There are, as you probably know, a lot of termites in the world, and all those little toots add up. According to one study, termites produce 10 million tons of methane every year. 10 million! They’re still nowhere close to cows, who globally produce hundreds of millions of metric tons of methane every year, but they still do make some toots.
Anyway, back to Soleil.
Insects aren’t responsible for the deforestation of the Amazon. There’s a lot of stuff going on, like layered arguments for why edible insects are better. But what I will say is that in the years since this paper was published, there have been a lot of anthropologists, sociologists, entomologists who have dug into this question of whether or not bugs are the future of food. And they have found, largely… and some of the original authors, too, of this paper have found that the issue isn’t whether or not we’re eating bugs, or cows, or chickens, but it’s a question of distribution.
If you’re changing the input into crickets, or water beetles, or whatever, if you’re still persisting in the, sort of, social organization that will mean that some people get less food than other people, and some people have housing and other people don’t, food insecurity will still persist. It doesn’t matter if there are crickets in the grocery stores if there are neighborhoods that don’t have grocery stores. The end.
ROSE (on call):
Yeah, no. That’s great. I was going to ask you, like… I wanted to talk about that paper and how all of a sudden… because it does feel like seemingly overnight, everybody in the Western… especially in America, and apparently in Spain, like, are suddenly talking about bugs; eating bugs, bugs are the future. It was like, “Where did this come from? How does this become the trend?” And you get all these, like you said, cricket flour companies, and cricket chip companies, and candies with little bugs inside of them.
Right. As the paper argues, there are many cultures, I think the majority of cultures in the world, that consume insects as, sort of, daily… whatever. At the same time, there are some really influential cultures, a minority of the world, that doesn’t eat insects and actually has a very strong distaste towards edible insects as a concept.
So, the interesting thing that has happened is that the people who tend to be from places that are experiencing disproportionate food insecurity, people in Africa, people in certain regions of Asia, they already eat bugs, right? I guess the question is, like, we’re trying so hard to convince what we sometimes consider to be the First World, these industrialized countries, the people in rapidly growing economies… We’re trying to convince them to eat bugs. But why? Because they already have enough food, largely, so it doesn’t make any sense.
And that’s why you have all of these premium products that are marketed toward people in what we consider to be the West; lollipops, and cricket power bars, and that sort of thing for people who are largely affluent relative to the rest of the world. It’s a really interesting, and I think wrong, answer to a very legitimate question of how we feed an expanding global population.
Yeah, and there seemed to be… In my research on this, which is not nearly as deep as yours, I feel like I’ve seen two, sort of, very distinct groups of people who are excited about eating bugs. One group is the group that is these cricket flour, food-of-the-future, sustainability, this is the way, this is what we’re going to do, just-discovered-this-idea people. And then there are the folks who are excited about bugs because they are, like, a heritage food and they want to go back to some of these things that were nourishing to their cultures at all levels. And those two groups do not seem to be in conversation with one another very frequently. Is that fair to say?
Right. The kind of people who are writing these papers are largely from European or American universities. They are researchers who are from these populations that don’t really eat the insects and don’t have, like, a really deep cultural memory of eating insects. It’s such a disconnect between the people who already do it. The latter camp are rarely asked about their experiences, and they’re more treated as a, sort of, anthropological kind of curiosity, generally. Insects are another thing that can, and will be, and have been gentrified.
Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that, because there’s been, I think, a big conversation for many years but I think has ramped up a little bit more recently in the food world around cultural appropriation and food, and what does that mean, and how does that manifest in the food space. I’m curious what you think in terms of the push to eat insects. How does that factor into the conversation here?
I mean, once you identify cultural appropriation as a mechanism, as a process of assimilating an otherized food into the mainstream, it’s pretty easy to see how that’s happened with insects. The reason why cultural appropriation matters is because of the way it exacerbates the existing racial wealth gap between whites and non-whites. That’s a huge gap in the United States. When you look at the leadership of who owns these edible insect companies, these startups, who is getting all this VC funding for these projects? It is largely not people who are from the cultures that have been eating insects for a very long time.
The people who came into this as a business opportunity once that paper was published, they saw this coming, or at least they saw this trend. And so they’re trying to engineer it, and make it happen, and get ahead of it with the patents, and the automated cricket farms, and all of this stuff in order to profit. And insects… There are so many things I could say. I’m just, like, so mad right now.
If you’re going to farm insects, one, they have a very different environmental impact… because the original paper was talking about foraged insects. Like, in Oaxaca, people don’t grow chapulines or ant larvae. They gather it, or they facilitate it through permaculture in agave or other sorts of natural plants that exist on ranches. And they are kind of a seasonal thing. Like winged termites in India for instance, they come in during monsoon season and you catch them. You don’t farm them.
But once you start trying to industrialize insects and make these products to scale, the environmental impacts, the nutritional impacts, all the things that are bandied by this paper as being really significant benefits to an edible insects culture are completely… They’re just so undermined by those practices. So it’s a very funny American impulse to try to industrialize everything. That’s not the solution, actually. It’s the distribution of resources; that’s the solution, and the redistribution of wealth. But you know, when you think about edible insects and you think about power together, they mirror a lot of these conversations about cultural appropriation and food.
It reminds me a little bit of the conversation around vegetarianism, veganism in the US where there are all of these papers that identify meat eating as a large input into the climate change system, and the recommendation is, like, “Maybe eat less meat,” and the reaction has been not just to eat less meat, but to, like, get into a lab and engineer fake meat to be as close as possible to real meat in this very complicated and resource-intensive way, and then be like, “See! We’re not eating meat!” It’s like, “I feel like you’ve missed a step here.”
Right. I think there’s a very distinct cynicism to this too, because the selling of vegetarian or vegan meats or edible insects is so based on these bigger-picture things. They’re based on climate change, environmental impact, nutrition; whereas a lot of vegetarians, culturally, a lot of people who eat edible insects eat them because they like the food. They like how it tastes. And they’re so rarely marketed because of how good they taste.
And if you’re going to try to convert people to a diet or a different way of eating, anyone with a kid can tell you, you don’t sell it to them based on how good it is for them. You tell them, “Oh, this is delicious!” And then they’ll get interested.
I also wanted to ask a little bit about the, sort of, intra-culture dynamics. You sent me this amazing piece by Jahnavi Uppuleti in Vice about the roasted winged termites, the monsoon snack. And in that piece they talk about, like, a caste system, and the ways in which, even within a culture, there are some places in which eating bugs is seen as low class and, you know, is considered disgusting by those who are, sort of, high society. So even when you aren’t talking about, like, the “West, white, colonial power” as taking things, and co-opting them, and trying to industrialize them. Even within some of these cultures there are interesting dynamics at play here when it comes to conversations around eating insects.
For sure, yeah. I loved that piece also because you rarely hear from people who are considered to be lower caste in India talking about Indian cuisines. So that in itself is awesome.
But yeah, as you see, there are these really interesting patterns of dietary change as people, and nations, and communities become more affluent, or as their income rises they start to eat kind of the same, which I find really fascinating. Eating seasonally, for a long time, that was sort of a poor people’s thing. That was a farmer’s way of eating, or eating fresh food was, sort of… really only farmers got that. Many people who were more affluent would eat preserved foods or spices that had been imported and preserved in a certain way; meats that were preserved in honey, for instance, or pickles, that sort of thing.
As people, especially in the US, assimilate as immigrants, they eat more meat, for instance. There have been countless examples of immigrants writing back home and saying, “I eat meat every day as opposed to once a month. This is amazing! I love America!” That’s a part of what we do here. And you’ve seen it in the work of Luz Calvo and Catrióna Esquibel who wrote Decolonize Your Diet about the Hispanic paradox, where a lot of Latinx people who immigrated to the United States, they tended to be healthier than their descendants who, you know, grew up here, because of the diet, because of the way their diets shifted more towards processed foods, and meat, red meat especially. It’s really interesting.
So you see this with insects as well, where, as people move into cities for instance, and they urbanize, you see this in Thailand, they are more separate from that Indigenous food culture. They want to eat like everyone else. They want to fit in, and so they’re not going to eat bugs and look like a fucking bumpkin, right? You see this in Japan in the mountains where they eat wasps, grasshoppers, hornets, and other insects, where a lot of the people who maintain these practices are older. They’re getting older, they’re aging up, and their kids are just leaving home, going to the city, and completely just, like… They’re completely not participating in that practice anymore. They eat fish. They eat meat, hamburgers, whatever.
It’s interesting to think about, like, the power that food has as a cudgel to be used against people, or to bring people in, or whatever it is. And the versions of the bug-eating startups and stuff, they’re always converting that food into an item that is, sort of, more familiar, like a power bar, or a candy, or something like that. They’re not replicating the dishes that these cultures make. They’re just, like, making it into something that you, startup guy, would already eat.
Right, like Bug Soylent. Or protein powder.
Exactly. If someone’s listening to this and they’re, like… Let’s say that they live in Berkeley and they go to the store, and they see these items, these insect items at the store. Whether that’s cricket flour, or bars that are made with it or whatever, should they buy those things? Or do you think it’s not worth it to, like, participate in that mini economy?
I mean, buy it if you like it. I really like them, so I will buy edible insects if I see them at… because, you know, they have them at the Oakland A’s stadium, for instance. They sell them at the Mariners stadium in Seattle, too. If you find them tasty, definitely. Don’t buy them because it’s, like, some obligation thing and they’re just going to collect dust in your cupboard, just like any other food. But the thing for me that’s really important is also thinking about sourcing and thinking about who owns these companies.
There’s a very small minority of edible insect companies that are actually owned by people who have a cultural stake in the practice. In the Bay Area that includes Don Bugito, which is owned by a Latina, and probably one of the very… I don’t even know if I can name any others that are owned by Latinx people. So, that sort of thing, I think, is really important to think about.
When we think about… Again, the problem with cultural appropriation is a problem that has to do with money and consolidating money in the hands of people who really don’t have a cultural stake in these products, or these items, or these foodways. So, just consider that. Read the label.
That’s always a good recommendation, read the label. Think about who you’re buying things from, whether it’s bugs or not bugs.
I want to zoom out a little bit from the specifics of, kind of like, insects and eating them in different places and different forms, and I want to ask a little bit about, like… And maybe this is a mealy question, but what does it mean to be a food of the future?
That’s a really good question. The way I perceive it is, “This is the food that will solve the problems that we’re dealing with right now.” Whether we’re talking about automation, or food scarcity, or nutrition, or global warming, I think that, generally speaking, the food of the future is a very optimistic idea of, “When we eat this, this problem will be gone. This is how we will be eating, or should be eating, in order to continue to exist and persist into the future.” Alternately, it could also be a pessimistic kind of glimpse of, “This is what we’ll be resorting to in the future,” depending on who you ask. But I think, generally speaking, the food of the future either solves a problem or is the result of a problem that we just have not been able to deal with in the present.
Yeah, and why is it, seems to me at least, that people want this food of the future, or even the system of the future, right? I get a lot of press releases about, like, vertical farms, or these really big indoor automated farms that are taking up way less space; these systems of the future. Why is it that we want them to look and feel different, or unique, or surprising, for whatever version that means to the person who’s considering it? Like, it’s not sexy to talk about, like, “The future of food is to change these systems in all these ways in which they don’t actually look that different.”? Like, why is it that we need it to look “weird”?
I think it’s the same reason why nobody wants to read the farm bill.
You know, it’s, like, boring shit, but it means so much for so many people, right? Whether you are on food stamps, or you’re an actual farmer, but it’s just so… It’s so intimidating, and it’s so boring, and just, like, full of legalese and process that the average human being does not want to deal with. And when we think about these silver bullets for the problems of today, you want to just buy something that looks cool, and then that would solve the problem. I think that’s a very American thing to do. We’re very much into, like, the flashy, instant, “Okay, something is different now.” You want to feel that difference, otherwise it doesn’t feel real. Advocating for UBI doesn’t really feel real. It feels kind of fake. And policy stuff always feels kind of fake.
And I think this overinvestment in product-based solutions also speaks to a failure, one, of the government and our society not really impressing upon people the importance of policy, and the importance of long-term change, and really sticking with fights. And two, it speaks to a frustration that people have that these fights don’t matter in the end, that policy will never change, that we are so not in control of the greater forces that govern our lives that we might as well just change the tiny sphere that we have access to through our income or our means, and that’s enough.
Yeah, it does definitely feel like everybody wants there to be a consumer-based solution because we’ve been told that, like, that’s how you change things, by buying a different product, or not buying from somewhere, or picking this company over that company, and that’s your only vector to be able to, sort of, have a voice in the system, which is obviously a very problematic and frustrating thing to feel, where it’s like, “I care about the future of food, so I guess if I make this purchase from this company, then I’m doing the right thing,” as opposed to collective action or the much harder, slower, more demoralizing work of organizing in some way.
Right. Again, to go back to the question of food scarcity. Insects are not the solution to that because there already is enough food for everyone on this planet. The problem is getting them that food of good quality, that is culturally appropriate, and that actually feeds people who need it. You can just see, like, it’s obvious, I could order an insane amount of food delivered to my door right now after this call, and many people don’t have that option. Why is that?
So, this is sort of an unfair question given everything we’ve just talked about, but I’m going to ask anyway. What is the food of the future?
[laughs] That’s such an unfair question. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t think there is one. I don’t think it makes sense to even think about it. I think we have to be more specific too when we ask that question of… what do you mean by food of the future? Do you mean, what are rich people going to be eating? Or what are the working class going to be eating? What are people going to be eating because they want to, and what are they going to be eating because they have to? I think those are all really different questions. It’s hard to say what we’ll be eating in the year 3020. Will there be a planet? I don’t know.
I feel confident in saying there will be a planet. Will there be humans? Not so confident.
True. Will there be food on that planet? Not sure.
Yeah. Is there anything that you are excited about, at least, in terms of changes that might be coming, new ideas, or anything that you’re like, “Oh, that would be great for us to have”?
Okay, my goofy answer is: boba ice cream is an amazing innovation. I’m very happy…
Wait… Is it ice cream with boba in it? Or is it…
I see. Okay.
It’s like a milk tea flavored popsicle with boba in it.
That is amazing.
So, that is a great food of the present, near future, that many have enjoyed, including myself.
I can’t wait for the New York Times to discover it in three years and write about it.
[laughs] Right. And I think the really interesting thing that I’m seeing right now, as we are speaking during this pandemic, and during a time when many people who are in the restaurant, food and beverage industries, have found themselves under- or unemployed, a lot of people who are really talented and know their way around kitchens are starting, you know, cottage businesses, or like gray market businesses where they are grilling chicken for their neighborhood, or making tacos in their garage, or selling tamales on Facebook. It’s a really interesting thing where, I think, we’re at this critical mass point where many diners are actually less worried about that too, as far as safety goes. They’re just like, “Yeah, I’m going to go to this garage and eat a taco. Why not? Definitely the health inspector has never been to this place, but that’s fine.”
And as many people in cities know, this has been a hallmark of city life; the tamale lady who goes to the bars at close and sells them out of a cooler, the street vendors who cook hot dogs wrapped in bacon on the sidewalk. This has been a part of the economy, whether you like it or not, and whether it’s legal or not, for so long for so many people who’ve been shut out of the restaurant industry and don’t have the money, or the credit, or the capital to start a legitimate restaurant. And so, like, more and more, people are going to enter that economy and we’re going to reach a point where that’s just a normal part of life. Selling Jamaican beef patties on Instagram is just a thing that people do now.
So, I think that’s really exciting, actually. The decentralization of food and dining out from restaurants is super exciting. It’s more and more in the hands of people who have been shut out, and that’s always a good thing.
We just signed up for a bread CSA that I am incredibly excited about, which is, like, a guy, his bakery’s closed because it’s, you know, a pandemic, and we’re just getting bread. He makes bread, and we buy it, and he delivers it, and it’s amazing. Bread’s my, like, main food item. It’s mostly what I eat, all day every day. So, bread and olives, my two food groups.
[laughs] That’s very healthy.
Yeah. Do you have a favorite bug dish or food item?
That’s a good question. Yes. I really like chicatanas, actually. They are kind of a flying ant with a really big, sort of… I want to say thorax.
It’s the butt part.
It’s a really big butt.
[Tina from Bob’s Burgers: “That goes in the butt bank.”]
And they taste like… They tend to be toasted on, like, a comal, and they’re migratory, a lot like flying termites. They taste kind of like… kind of petrichor-ish, actually. Like autumnal rain, and you kind of smell the dead leaves and the earth together. I love that.
That sounds so good.
Sometimes they’re put into a sauce or, like, a salsa. The last time I had them they were a garnish on top of a fresh tuna tostada that was, like, amazing.
That sounds good. Now I want all of these things that you’re describing.
[laughs] They’re hard to find up here, so if you ever see them, let me know.
Yeah, I will. I’ll go a’lookin’. Oh, after I do the thing where I say that we’re ending.
Soleil, thank you for coming on the show and talking about bugs and the not-future of food.
Thanks for having me.
Do you have a question about the future? Some conundrum you’re facing now, or one that you think we might face in the future? Send it in! You can send a voice memo to Advice@FFwdPresents.com or call (347) 927-1425 and leave a voice message.
And now, a quick break. When we come back, I’m going to read some children’s literature to you.
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When I was a kid, I read a book called My Teacher Flunked the Planet by Bruce Coville. I’m going to go ahead and spoil this book for you because I am pretty sure you’re not going to read it, since it’s the fourth installment of a children’s series called My Teacher is an Alien and it was published over 15 years ago.
There’s a scene in the book, near the end, where they’re in a spaceship with the aliens, evaluating the Earth. And the aliens are listing all of the reasons that the planet, and really the people on it, humans, suck, and why they should be destroyed. One of the ways they illustrate their point is by taking these kids to various places where humans are doing horrible things. The rainforest being destroyed, a literal warzone. And then they go to a refugee camp in Ethiopia where people are starving to death. They see children literally dying right in front of them. It’s a super intense scene, which I will spare you the actual details of, but then here is what happens. Here is the part of the book that comes next.
DRAMATIC READING BEGINS
[acoustic guitar music begins]
“Why did you take us there?” demanded Susan when we were back on the ship. Her face was pale, her cheeks moist with tears that kept coming no matter how many times she wiped her eyes. She was as angry as I have ever seen her.
“Because we want you to explain it to us,” said Broxholm. (He’s an alien, if that’s not obvious.)
“Forget explaining it!” said Susan. “Why don’t you do something about it?”
Broxholm looked at her, his orange eyes glowing in astonishment. “What do you mean?”
“Stop it! Fix it! You could feed those people, couldn’t you?”
“Why should we?” asked Broxholm, genuinely puzzled.
“Because it’s so terrible!”
“Yes, but why should we stop it when you can do it yourselves?”
“But we can’t. We just don’t have enough food for everyone.” Susan’s voice began to falter. “Do we?”
Kreeblim looked at Broxholm. He nodded and she sent the saucer into the air. Soon we were hovering over a large building, not that far from where we had seen the starving people. Kreeblim made some adjustments to the control panel, then said, “Turn around.”
The center of the floor contained a holographic image, a three-dimensional picture of the warehouse below us. “Watch,” said Broxholm. Kreeblim made another adjustment.
The image shifted as the walls of the building vanished, revealing what was inside. It was food. Enormous amounts of food.
The aliens spent the next hour taking us around the world, showing us place after place where vast amounts of food were stored. We saw mountains of food that weren’t being used. Enough for every hungry person on the planet.
[music fades down]
DRAMATIC READING END
I don’t honestly remember very much about these books. Why is the teacher an alien? What happens between book one and book four? I have no clue. But I very, very distinctly remember this scene. I remember marching into my parents’ room and demanding that they tell me if this was true. Was there actually enough food to feed everybody on Earth?
The answer was, and remains: Yes. Farmers today grow enough food to feed about 10 billion people, a global population that we have not yet reached. And yet, despite that, about nine million people die every year of hunger. And the United Nations warns that that number could double due to the current pandemic.
This is not an easy problem to solve. It is not easy to get food distributed to those who need it. There isn’t one, big thing that would change this. We couldn’t fix it quickly even if we had the political and economic will to do so. But it’s not impossible either. The problem is, the solutions, they aren’t sexy.
We don’t need new food sources. We don’t need big labs full of biochemically engineered meat replicas. We don’t need bug farms. We need new food thinking, new economic incentives, new political structures. We need to change how we eat, not at a menu level, but long before the price of your sandwich is printed on a piece of paper.
There are lots of people who are working on these changes out there, but they rarely get the kind of press that a new cricket farm does. And that’s because journalism is often very bad at covering systems.
In journalism, a story has to have characters. It has to have drama. It has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. There have to be stakes, and there have to be specific actions. And ideally, something that you can take pictures of. At the end of the story there should be a winner and a loser clearly defined.
And that works in a lot of cases; sports, politics, even science sometimes. “This researcher uncovers a new way of understanding fruit flies,” or giant squid, or whatever it is. Cool. But some stories, they don’t have those things. In some cases, focusing on the small, concrete stories that have clear outcomes doesn’t actually illuminate the bigger issues. There’s nothing clickable and surprising about a long slog to fix a broken system. People want stories. They want something that they can see, something they can recount at a party.
And when it comes to the future, this issue is compounded even further. People want disruption. They want a wild, and unexpected, and strange future. Drones, and flying cars, and talking animals, and robots trying to overthrow us. Spaceships, and brain implants.
People often ask me why we don’t feel like we live in the future promised by sci-fi movies. The gleaning glass towers, the flying cars, the wearable tech that is visible to all. Constructing a world that the viewer immediately reads as “the future,” requires blatant, flashy changes.
We don’t want to have to reimagine whole invisible or abstract systems or ways of thinking. I admit that sometimes I, too, suffer from this novelty brain rot. Some of the most interesting futures out there are hard to visualize. They’re a re-thinking, a shift in worldview.
Ruth Gilmore, the prison abolitionist says, “Abolition requires that we change one thing. Everything.”
And sometimes when I hear that, I think, “Okay, but what does that mean? What does it look like? What’s the science fiction movie version?”
[thoughtful, slow electro music fades in]
Colonialism is not something you can invent your way out of. Neither is climate change, or racism, or injustice. No device will do that work for you. No ribbon cutting. No unveiling. No big PR announcement. No CEO will add ‘one more thing’ that saves the world on a dark and dramatic stage.
Systems futures are the slow-twitch muscles. The big, deep rivers that must be re-dug by hand, underground, without fanfare or glory. Most people will never notice the river shifting until they arrive at a different destination. And then many of them will forget there was any change in course at all. It simply… happened. They were carried along.
If we’re lucky, the river diggers can trigger earthquakes, or seismic slippage, a jolt. A diversion that would’ve taken decades to carve out my hand. One that spills the beers of our tubers on the river above and forms some unexpected rapids in the water. Some will resent those bumps, but the river moves on, pushing through rock.
Journalists will look down from their floats and see movement under the water, but it’s just too murky to make out. Too hard to see a clear image of what they’re doing, and why, and whether it’s even going to work. It’s easier to cover the bumper cars around them than to try to make out what’s going on beneath.
But beneath the surface, those who make the future are holding their breath and digging.
[background fades out]
[Advice For and From the Future theme fades in]
Advice For and From the Future is written, edited, and performed by me, Rose Eveleth.
The theme music is by Also, Also, Also, who has a new album out called The Good Grief, which you can get on Bandcamp. Thanks to Quim Packard for your question, and to Soleil Ho for joining us to talk about the future of food.
If you want to ask a question for or from the future, send a voice memo to Advice@FFwdPresents.com. And if you go to FFwdPresents.com, you can learn more about this whole project and about the overall network of Flash Forward Presents. There are other shows, there are upcoming experiments, and if you want more about any of those things, you can become a member of the Time Traveler program. Again, go to FFwdPresents.com for more about that.
[music fades down]
Until next time…
[store bell jingle]