Will The Food Of The Future Be ‘Unnaturally Delicious’?
Jayson Lusk's new book makes the case for robot chefs and pink slime
In one of the first chapters of Unnaturally Delicious, Jayson Lusk’s new manifesto detailing How Science and Technology are Serving Up Super Foods to Save the World, he describes a memorable meal with his wife at the Las Vegas Mesa Grill, “one of the trendy restaurants owned by the celebrity chef Bobby Flay.” As fans of Mexican and southwestern food, they of course “thoroughly enjoyed” the restaurant’s signature appetizer, goat cheese queso fundido.
So thoroughly did they enjoy this appetizer, that his wife bought Flay’s cookbook. And with that, dear reader, their disappointments began. First, the fuss over finding the right kind of chile peppers. Then, the time spent roasting the peppers, making a roux, assembling the various quesos together in a dish. The recipe claimed half an hour was needed to prepare the dish, but it took them all afternoon. The result? It was pretty good, but it wasn’t quite right. “Guess we’ll just have to wait till our next trip to Vegas to have the real deal,” Lusk laments.
Unless, that is, they had at their beck and call the services of “a personalized chef that makes perfect dishes every time, without complaining and without pay.” A robochef, like Rosie from the Jetsons, could be just the machine to salvage desire from disappointment. The robochef, Lusk informs us, isn’t just a dream of futures past, but a present-day reality. Designed by Moley Robotics, a prototype robochef — a pedestal topped by a seven-foot cylinder with programmable robotic arms — debuted at a 2015 industrial fair, where it prepared a crab bisque by duplicating the movements of a celebrity chef.
Lusk’s faith in the infallibility of the kitchen robot is almost touching: “The robot doesn’t forget whether it added an ingredient, how long the onions have been sautéing, or when to reduce the heat.” You’d never be able to tell the difference between the robochef’s handiwork and that of the master chef. “Actually, the robot would make the dish precisely the same every time, whereas even the best chef” — pace Bobby Flay — “is known to make the occasional mistake.” Such a machine, he crows, could make the entire kitchen obsolete.
In Unnaturally Delicious, Lusk, a distinguished professor of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University, whips up a benevolent portrait of technological change, recounting the stories of various “disruptive” innovations that could save our lives and our planet, if only we’d get over our nostalgic obsession with so-called naturalness.
In the book, you’ll encounter a techno-utopia that is new yet familiar, attuned to our needs in spite of ourselves, and always perfectly at our command. But as might be evident from his robochef ardor, in Lusk’s zeal to celebrate technology’s triumphs in “overcoming” nature’s limits, he frequently oversells his case, touting the latest technological fixes while downplaying the complexity of choices needed to get us there.
Unnaturally Delicious excels in some important respects. There is much in this book to please a reader curious about what the future farmers of America are up to. Lusk has a relish for the technical aspects of agronomy, and writes with lucidity and enthusiasm, for instance, about the “precision farming” methods that combine GPS, ingenious sampling techniques, and big data analytics, allowing farmers to customize the application of water, fertilizers, and pesticides on a nearly plant-by-plant basis, minimizing the resource intensity and environmental impacts of farming.
In another intriguing chapter, Lusk examines the effects of a recent California ballot referendum banning the use of battery cages on the business of industrial egg production. A hen in a battery cage seems such a self-evidently miserable thing that it’s difficult to think of the cage as anything but an invention of profit-maximizing maniacs, but Lusk describes how its design solves multiple problems entailed in hen rearing.
“There’s a reason farmers started bringing their hens indoors decades ago,” he reminds us. “It wasn’t because they were evil ‘factory farmers’ but because they could provide a safer and more stable environment for the hens.” Getting rid of cages and letting hens run free seems like a great idea — who doesn’t want to rush around without a care in the world, in a grassy meadow? — but is that kind of life actually best for domesticated hens? It’s not at all clear. In addition to increasing egg cost, cage-free production creates another set of complex problems, including increased risk of disease and hen mortality due to intra-hen squabbles, significant environmental and air quality issues, and growing (human) worker dissatisfaction.
But there are choices that lie between the “free and natural” hen and the miserable egg factory. Lusk describes some of the emerging solutions that will allow us to eat our omelets in good conscience: enhanced cage systems designed with hen behavior in mind, which include perches and nesting areas; a funky Dutch hen factory building called the Roundeel. He also suggests creating a market for animal welfare credits, similar to the emissions permits sold to incentivize investment in cleaner energy.
In Lusk’s accounting, the California ballot initiative, motivated by misguided sentimentality but unwilling to back up its feelings with investments in new methods of egg production, made little difference to the actual experiences of hens. For Lusk, this story has a clear moral: meaningful change comes neither from the ballot box nor from government regulations and standards, but from investment in basic research and technological innovations, guided by free market processes.
Perhaps, in an age of opportunists and charlatans such as the Food Babe, this kind of book is vital and necessary. To many intelligent, well-meaning, and influential people, calls for more local food and more farmer’s markets, less processed food and less fast food, seem like no-brainers, solutions to our culture’s anguished and dissociative relationship to food, our shameful fat children, our pained and dying bodies, our ravaged and warming planet. And it is absolutely critical to question the pieties that associate the “natural” with the good and the harmless, to ask who benefits and who bears the costs, and to calculate just what those costs are.
But for the moral authority of the “natural,” Lusk unquestioningly substitutes the moral authority of markets. Repeatedly, he suggests that the market picks winners and losers for the greater good of all. Discussing bioengineered yeasts, for instance, he claims: “to the extent that biotechnology applications can pass the market test, they may also address concerns that many social justice advocates express about exploitative plantations, high food prices, and unequal access to quality, nutritious foodstuffs.” This may or may not be true with regards to these products, but it should be abundantly clear that social utility is not an inevitable consequence of commercial success.
One chapter in particular, pointedly titled “Waste Not, Want Not,” exemplifies both the book’s greatest strengths — its lucid accounting of costs and benefits, its descriptions of technologies in development and machines in operation — and its greatest liability, a credulous insistence on the benevolence of technological entrepreneurs in a free market.
The chapter focuses on Beef Products International (BPI), and its chief product, lean finely textured beef. Founded by Eldon Roth in 1981, BPI pioneered technologies for separating “high value edible protein” from cartilage, fat, and other components of beef scraps, the tissue that remains on a beef carcass after butchering that would otherwise go largely to waste. According to BPI, the protein salvaged each day from beef scraps is the equivalent of nearly 6,000 cattle. Finely textured beef meant both a reduction in waste and a reduction in ground meat prices. However, you’re more likely to know finely textured beef by its pungent dysphemism, “pink slime.” If so, the image it will bring to mind is of a froyo-like Pepto-pink sludge, perhaps accompanied by ominous music and exhortations decrying agribusiness and demanding “real food.”
But, according to Lusk, the notorious image is not a photograph of finely textured beef, which is neither slimy nor pink (except when frozen, as with other ground beef). “I’ve yet to find a food industry expert who knows what’s in the picture,” he says, “yet it is the web image most viewed in connection with the term.” Food activists held up pink slime as a mascot for the multiple outrages perpetrated by Big Food, and demanded that fast food and other companies cease to use it in their burgers. “Finely textured beef,” Lusk says, “went from being an ingredient in almost three-quarters of the nation’s hamburgers to nearly none.” BPI had to close factories and lay off more than six hundred employees.
On one hand, we have our horror at pink slime, a disgust that has historic roots in muckraking exposes like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and in deep-seated cultural taboos concerning the distinction between edible food and inedible waste. On the other side, we have the factory meticulously designed to exclude pathogens and to recover the maximal amount of protein from the trash-heap, as well as all the jobs and value created. To this reader, it’s an intriguing case that shows how technological systems are entangled in complex and sometimes contradictory ways with social values, and how the languages of science and of food can apparently be at odds, even when describing the same object.
But for Lusk, the story of “pink slime” is a story of profound injustice, plain and simple. Lusk portrays BPI as a family business, whose patriarch, Roth, rose from humble origins, never attended college, and yet built a great company on the strength of an idea and an invention. Roth is the archetypal hero of this book, the effortlessly humanitarian entrepreneur, whose innovations serve the social good by reducing food waste, and who fully recognizes the tremendous responsibility that his company bears for the public’s health and safety. Yet he has been laid low, heartbroken actually, as his company’s product is maligned and its market share crumbles.
It’s a compelling tale, but one problem, of course, is that they’re not all like Roth. Lusk labors to explain how the logic of the marketplace holds food producers to higher safety standards than the government ever could, and how business principles support conservationist ethics more strongly than the laws environmentalists lobby for. In case after case, Lusk’s clear implication is that the government is redundant, useless, or regressive, and in any case completely behind the curve when it comes to technology.
Lusk’s previous book, The Food Police: A Well-Fed Manifesto About the Politics of Your Plate (2013), is, by some accounts, something of a screed, decrying the efforts of elite liberal “food fascists” to tax away our freedoms in a nanny state run amok. Unnaturally Delicious certainly puts a kinder, gentler spin on these politics — describing, for instance, the ways that government regulations benefit big business to the detriment of small entrepreneurs, and the gains that could be made by young researchers in academic and government labs if only the public would quit fretting about GMOs, gluten, and artificiality. In spending so much of his fire criticizing the pomposity of locavores or the chemophobia of buffoons, he fails to take seriously that public concerns about the role of big business in food production might not be due to solely to ignorance or anti-science bias.
While Lusk admits that the federal government plays an important role in funding basic research — indeed, he acknowledges his own academic position at a land grant college is made possible by public funds — he laments an erosion in the quality of that work. “An increasingly larger portion of federal research dollars has shifted away from productivity-enhancing research” on things like soil, seeds, and machines, “toward research on social goals like childhood obesity, climate change, and the economic viability of organic production and small farmers.” For Lusk, socially oriented research is unproductive.
The food system is both social and technological, natural and artificial. But just as the anti-battery-cage activists’ inefficacy was due to their inability to see how the cage was entangled in larger technological systems of food production, Lusk is blind to or dismissive of the social and cultural contexts into which his technological solutions must fit to be effective.
“The all-natural future is not the kind of future in which I want to live,” Lusk says at one point. I am in full and enthusiastic agreement. But I’m not sure that the future that he offers is the one that I would like to live in, either.