An Interview with Louise O. Fresco, author of Hamburgers in Paradise: The Stories behind the Food We Eat.
What’s new in this book?
Human history has been one of continuous scarcity. The abundance of food that has emerged for the majority of the world population in the last decades is so unique that we have not yet learnt to deal with it. We are still scared that there will not be enough, and that we will destroy our environment. Scarcity is our default mode, and that of our bodies, hence our difficulties to balance our diets and to reduce our ecological footprint. Abundance is a triumph of science and trade; it allows us to shed our fears of shortages. But the book argues that we require new ways of thinking, to reign in our needs (for example of meat) while producing food sustainably for all, with new methods (for example through recycling or using algae). The book demonstrates in detail that there is not one perfect way to produce and consume food, but that we always have to balance the trade-offs between different goals, such as large scale production (i.e. low food prices) and biodiversity. What is best depends on our goals and our insight in unintended side effects (we may like to see free roaming chickens but they may be more prone to disease that way).
Can you explain the title Hamburgers in Paradise?
The title refers to a thought experiment: if Eve were alive today, what food would she offer Adam as a temptation? Paradise as a metaphor also refers to the landscapes on our planet, the collective Garden of Eden which, according to some views, we have irreversibly destroyed through large scale food production. These semi-conscious images of a pre-Industrial and idealized past are still guiding many of our reactions to modernization. The hamburger, of course, is the iconic food that symbolizes the rise of the modern middle class, from suburban America to places like Moscow or Mumbai, as well as the critical counterforces: slow food, vegetarian and organic products. The hamburger illustrates also the adaptation to new demands: fat and salt contents have been lowered, information on calories and nutritional values are published, wrappings are made of recycled materials and advertising to children is limited. In the most recent twist of history, the hamburger becomes popular once again in upper class restaurants, dipped in liquid Nitrogen, or in a vegetarian reincarnation
Food is the source of much confusion today, we hear so many, contradictory stories about what we must or mustn’t eat and why. What is the reason for this confusion?
Food and agriculture are the basis human survival. Food conjures up strong feelings, based on individual memories, strict convictions and long traditions, especially in times of rapid modernization. Many people, even in rural areas, are hardly aware of how food is really produced and how it lands on their plates. Nearly all of us rely on others, often far away, to feed us. Ignorance and dependency make us feel vulnerable and worried about food.
But we can also turn this around: behind every meal there is a story, one that is nearly always fascinating and often complex, but always worth telling. Food connects us with the past and the future.
Is there room for optimism?
With current knowledge, we can feed nine or ten billion people quite easily. This doesn’t mean that there is no world food problem. Even if enough food can be produced this is not easy and more production does not mean food reaches people automatically. The current gap between actual and attainable yields is still enormous. At the same time, agricultural research and innovation continue to be needed to tackle specific problems of animal and plant diseases, poor soils and climate variation. The application of existing knowledge is hampered by poor infrastructure, unavailability of irrigation or fertilizer, dysfunctional markets and policy.
Food shortage is more a matter of distribution than just production. Hunger is caused by poverty, so creating employment is essential. The great improvements in agricultural production since the 1970s have benefitted the urban poor more than the rural poor. These improvements involve higher yields, through better agricultural techniques such as irrigation, leading to lower food prices that benefit those who buy food (those living in cities), while farmers selling foods are at a disadvantage. Today more than 850 million people go hungry and perhaps as many as 2 billion may lack balanced nutrition. Most of the hungry live in areas of civil war or frequent natural disasters, so peace and resettlement are priorities.
There seems to be much concern about Genetically Modified Organisms, is this concern justified?
This is a very complex issue about which it is impossible to generalize and about which there are many misunderstandings. For example, if cows are fed genetically modified soy bean, their milk does not become genetically modified, even if some people fear this. The modified genes and cells do not survive the gut. What the effects and risks are depends very much on what crop or animal, what genes are used for what purpose and where. Certain problems, for example diseases in banana, can only be tackled with biotechnology, a large toolkit which does not necessarily result in GMOs. There are two types of risk, for human and animal health. While we need to continue to monitor the situation, there are no indications that GM crops lead to additional food related risks in human beings or animals. So far, there are no indications of environment effects (such as insect mortality or genes “escaping “), but ecosystems are complex and difficult to monitor. Finally, there is also the issue of intellectual property rights: while a fair reward is needed for the companies developing the biotechnology or GMOs, we must also make sure that farmers and scientists and breeders elsewhere can keep access to varieties or breeds. Here the U.S. and EU legislation and traditions do not coincide.
What about chemical inputs such as fertilizer. Are we not destroying the land?
Plants and animals need food just as we do. These nutrients come nearly exclusively from the soil (and through water, transported from soils elsewhere). Only very few soils can sustain production for long periods and their nutrient reserve needs to be built up through other sources of nutrients. Whilst manure from animals can be used for this, this does not solve the problem, it just means that animals have to graze somewhere from where they take up the nutrients. Almost without exception agriculture requires fertilizer to be sustainable. Fertilizer has a bad name mainly because it has been overused in the past with detrimental effects on surface water, but in itself, if wisely used, it is a blessing. More land is depleted through lack of fertilizer than is affected through its use.
Is fast food the source of all evils?
Fast food is part of a complex process of transformation of society: greater mobility, work pressures, urbanization, diversification through trade, smaller and singe households, greater affluence of young, ubiquitous equipment like microwaves and fridges people all lead to out of home eating and pre-packed meals. As with all foods, it is not the individual item that is “bad” but the pattern. Eating fast food from time to time is acceptable in an otherwise healthy lifestyle. However, fast food often contains too many calories and we should be concerned if there are no other options, In so-called food deserts, neighbourhoods devoid of shops selling vegetables, fast food is often the recourse for single parents.
What type of agriculture is most sustainable?
There is no blueprint for an agricultural model that fits all situations. Agriculture is the art of the location-specific and always depends on soils, climate, geography, culture and economics. Agriculture is forever changing, adapting to new consumer demands and new technology. However, using resources as efficiently as possible is essential to avoid wasting labour, water, land, fertilizer, seeds or animals as well as reducing post harvest losses in the entire value chain. Efficiency is often misunderstood as large-scale and anonymous, but it applies at all scales. No farmer can afford to waste resources, nor can we as humanity. The World will need 50% more calories in 2030.
Would the world be better off if all meat would be prohibited?
No, meat is necessary for certain groups such as pregnant and lactating women, children, the elderly and sick and of course the malnourished. Meat is not only a source of proteins but also of essential nutrients such as iron and certain vitamins (B12). Humans evolved as omnivores; vegetarians, even in India, have always been a small minority. Also, there are areas in the world where nothing else can be produced but grazing land and animals. The growth in demand for meat and fish is expected to increase faster than the growth in population, especially in Asia and Africa.
However, there are major problems associated with meat production: environmental (water, emissions, production and transportation of feed) veterinary public health, human health (diseases associated with high red meat intake and overuse of antibiotics) as well as animal welfare. These can all be solved with adequate research and regulation. Reducing meat consumption through substitution of animal proteins in healthy individuals in affluent societies is part of that.
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File created: 9/23/2015