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The Fate of Food

The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World

Amanda Little
350 pp.
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Imagine you have just eaten the best burger of your life, covered with creamy avocado, crisp lettuce, and a ripe tomato, and nestled between a hearty bun. Now, what if that burger did not come from a cow but was cultivated by using stem cells? What if the avocado spread was crafted by a 3D printer, and the lettuce and tomato were grown in a warehouse with no natural sunlight or soil? What if you learned that the bun was made by using an ancient ancestor of wheat that is more resilient to drought and was weeded and harvested by robots? Although this may sound like science fiction, according to journalist Amanda Little, it is all possible today.

Over the coming decades, food demand will increase as the world’s population surpasses 9 billion people and diets change to include more land-intensive dairy and meat. At the same time, agricultural systems will likely face more uncertainty because of climate change and the degradation of natural resources on which they depend, such as freshwater and healthy soils. The United Nations estimates that food production may have to increase by up to 70% by mid-century to ensure global food security. In The Fate of Food, Little explores how we may be able to meet this growing demand and, if we are not able to, “how screwed are we exactly?”

Little interviews innovators at the forefront of a new wave of food production that is more automated, environmentally sustainable, and resilient to climate change. Her research takes her from smallholder farming systems in Ethiopia to large-scale organic farming operations in China and across more than a dozen U.S. states. During her travels, she meets with entrepreneurs who are blending technological innovation with tried-and-true agro-ecological practices and with entrepreneurs who are entirely upending traditional food production systems.

There are many potential solutions to sustainably increase food production, she reveals. These include using robots equipped with artificial intelligence (AI) to differentiate between crops and weeds (reducing the amount of herbicide applied to crops) and disseminating seeds that are more drought-tolerant to communities that have been ravaged by a lack of rain.

Little takes a balanced approach when describing each new technology or potential solution. She acknowledges, for example, that AI-enabled robots are only realistic for large-scale, relatively rich farmers. Similarly, she concedes that promoting new drought-resistant seed varieties can lead to problems if farmers become dependent on store-bought seeds and their prices rise.

Little’s main point is an important one: In order to solve the world’s impending food production challenges, we cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach of either “reinventing” the food system with technological innovations or “deinventing” it with a return to preindustrial organic farming. Instead, she proposes a third option, one that blends the use of new technologies and ways of farming with more traditional, sustainable agricultural approaches. If we adopt such a strategy, she is optimistic that we will meet growing food demand in a way that is simultaneously more sustainable, nutritious, and resilient.

About the author

The reviewer is at the School for Environment and Sustainability, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA.