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Technically Food

Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley's Mission to Change What We Eat

Larissa Zimberoff
Abrams Press
2021
240 pp.
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The latest food tech to hit the mainstream may be plant-based burgers, but countless start-ups and research labs are gearing up to transform the way humans think about what we eat—or at least, so they hope. From giant tanks of protein-rich algae to petri dishes culturing animal cells, researchers are seeking ways to give consumers—and investors—products that will improve food’s sustainability, healthiness, or preferably both (bonus points if they are accompanied by new, patentable technologies that will keep the cash coming).

Some groups are trying to turn plants into meat, while others are trying to turn meat into more meat without killing more animals. Others still are trying to revolutionize parts of the production process, building artificial intelligence–laden greenhouses in cities, for example, or salvaging food waste and turning it into more food. In Technically Food, journalist Larissa Zimberoff explores eight of the latest tech trends in the food sector, giving readers an inside look at the progress that has been made in each, a thoughtful look at current shortcomings, and, whenever possible, a taste test.

Zimberoff walks readers through the latest breakthroughs from groups working to turn algae, fungi, or peas into protein sources; the worlds of upcycling and vertical farming; laboratories culturing cell-based meat; and more-mainstream staples such as nondairy milks, nonchicken eggs, and plant-based burgers. The book wraps up with a surprisingly delightful medley of commentary from 19 experts on what they think will be on our plates in 20 years. (My personal favorite was from author and animal rights activist Paul Shapiro, who asks: What if local establishments could brew their own meat on-site like they would a craft IPA?)

Unfortunately, interspersed throughout Zimberoff’s otherwise detailed reporting were more than a few technical flubs—mostly harmless in nature, but certainly distracting to a careful reader. She mentions, for example, that ocean acidification occurs when pH levels rise (it is the opposite), references COVID-19 when she means SARS-CoV-2, and refers to yeast as bacteria. I also could have done without the occasional implication that science is boring or hard to understand (“Have your eyes glazed over yet?”) and her take on Expo West, a huge natural products show, where she tasted and spat out the free food samples. (The displays, she writes, were “enough to torture anyone’s waistlines.”)

Still, the reporting behind this book is masterful. I was constantly pulled along by ideas about the food system that I had never considered, from secondary plant compounds that might be beneficial to human health—and are only produced if you lay off the pesticides and let a plant get nibbled a little—to what the median age of the United States’s traditional farmers (57.5 years in 2017) portends about the future of farming.

Even the title proved to be a wink I did not expect—not just “technically” as in technical, technological, but also “technically” as in “well, technically, it’s food.” The overarching question of whether high-tech food is actually an improvement or not is not answered by Zimberoff, but she leaves readers with plenty of food for thought.

About the author

The reviewer is a freelance writer based in Kansas City, MO, USA.