Photograph by Sam Abell
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Can food grown in a lab compete with the good food movement for hearts and minds?
Photograph by Sam Abell

Bracing for a Food Fight: High Tech vs. Slow Food

Eat real food. This is the advice of a thousand health advocates at a thousand typewriters in a thousand books. The problem is definitional: What is real food?

A thinking person can weed out the obvious imposters created by corporations who aren’t overwhelmingly concerned about public health or good: froot flavor, cheezy goodness. But for the past few years, food has been reimagined by our fin-de-millennium heroes—technology entrepreneurs—who we assume are creating more products that will make the world a better place.

In the past five years or so, Silicon Valley, through its individual billionaires and hedge funds, has pumped more than a billion dollars into food technology ($250 million in the past month alone), including creating high-end food substitutes. The latest ingredient to be replaced: milk.

The clogged Starbucks line might lead you to believe that there are plenty of milk alternatives out there already: soy, almond, hemp, coconut, etc. But at Silicon-Valley based Muufri (say it out loud…Moo-Free) the CEO is genetically engineering yeast to mimic milk proteins. Genetic engineering = GMOs—something many good-food people are not on board with.

But the good-food people are exactly who Silicon Valley execs wants to sway with their talking points. Moofri’s founder talks about working toward a food world that stops perpetuating animal cruelty, unsustainable foods practices, and climate change. “There are just so many problems with the food industry,” he told Gizmag, “and the way to address those problems with inefficiency is to remove animals from the equation as much as we can.” One assumes he would remove animals by using something other than the natural milky substance that man has pressed from nuts and other plants for centuries or millennia, something that tastes more like milk. Except that it isn’t.

Likewise, several other companies funded by Silicon Valley are taking the same page from the good-food movement’s book by claiming that their work is spurred by the impending food and environmental crisis of feeding nine billion people by 2050.

Bill Gates and Jerry Yang are patrons of Hampton Creek, which creates egg substitutes (from its website: “What Would It Look Like If We Started Over?”) and Peter Thiel invests in Modern Meadow, which is creating a master meat product for 3D printers that can replicate the taste and texture of any animal and cut, from cow rib eye to pork ribs. Just like our phones can become cameras, calendars, video game consoles, libraries, or televisions, one substance can become many foods. 

Because of Silicon Valley’s vast contributions to improving the world, most are willing to give its companies the benefit of the doubt when it makes bold and unsettling statements about high-tech sustitutes such as, “in my view, it’s meat” (as claimed by Beyond Meat‘s Ethan Brown). Imagine the reaction if Monsanto, vilified by the good-food movement, made such claims. 

The culture of 3D-printed meat is something very different from the cutlure of buying only what you eat in a day, even if the rhetoric is similar. Silicon Valley’s ethos values food as fuel, and meals as quick and pure nourishment to keep someone plugged in and working for as long as possible without having to bother with market shopping and dining. 

Which paradigm will win out—the one that is willing to eat less of some things so that they don’t disappear entirely; or the one that values something that resembles the original food—is very much in question and will have vastly different consequences. As Mark Bittman said once, “When I want to eat meat, I eat meat; I don’t eat something very much like meat.”

FreshFarm Markets, which runs the farmers’ market at the White House, just announced a new director, Mike Koch, who is also a cheesemaker. In his first remarks, he encourages eating locally because “the alternative might lead to some Soylent-Green reality of mass-produced, synthetically manufactured food.” In other words, if we don’t change the food system by eating differently, the food system is going to do it for us.

Unless Silicon Valley Farms starts discussions with the good-food movement about how to integrate substitutes into the “real food” spectrum, food substitutes are poised to be a fault line dividing people who care about the food system. Eschewing “real food”—milk—for genetically engineered yeast is going to be a hard sell to people who want to know what farm their chicken came from. And the food system is embattled enough to begin with.

Bill Gates recently claimed that when he tasted Beyond Meat’s faux animal proteins, he “honestly couldn’t tell it from real chicken.” Perhaps that’s because Beyond Meat is very good. Perhaps it’s because our food system has created chicken that generally tastes pretty bad. Perhaps some of both.