The Fate of Food: What we'll Eat in a Bigger Hotter, Smarter World

Date Reviewed
January 5th 2021



The reader is soon disabused of the idea that 'The Fate of Food: What we'll Eat in a Bigger Hotter, Smarter World' by Amanda Little is about the pros and cons of different menus.


In fact it is indirectly about food and really about modern hi-tech agriculture and the twists and turns it could take going forward.


The looming pressure effecting it is climate change, particularly heat and disrupted water supply.


I don't think I have ever referred to a non fiction book as exciting, but this verges on it more than most. Each 20ish page-chapter is devoted to a different food growing modality. And while I didn't succumb to the temptation to read more than one chapter a day, that I might with a novel, I did look forward to the next session.


The author starts each chapter by introducing a passionate and knowledgeable proponent of the technique she is exploring. And each chapter could stand alone.


She doesn't suggest that current big field cultivation will completely give way to various other methods, or even be eclipsed by these others. And she doesn't foresee the world becoming vegetarian, as many suggest it should, but she sees a decline of animal husbandry and toward less and more irregular consumption.


Little expects an increase in quality of nutrition with a decline of other current food marketing values emphasizing appearance, durability and preservation. That will become more possible as some food production moves closer to the market, through factories in cities.


As a journalist and science writer, she is not an author bringing her own specific knowledge of the subject, but one who can ask the right questions of the experts, understand the answers and render them into prose that informs and enthuses the reader. So the style is similar to a journal article with the expert talking and she reporting.


One does not feel she has a personal political agenda, but is presenting the facts and trends as the evidence suggests. She mentions the political turmoil around genetically modified food (GMO), but doesn't comment on that fray. She reports the scientific evidence suggesting that such foods are not proven harmful or even suspect.


The techniques explored all seem about more efficient ways to utilize and provide the resources for growing food.


As well as mechanical robotic harvesting and irrigating for fields, she explores hydroponics, aeroponics and even laboratory meat production, as urban industries.


The book starts and finishes with the trend that may most appeal to her. It is a modern variation of the small mixed farm, but employing large doses of science. That includes what crops to grow under a forest canopy and how to 'employ' the livestock to benefit crops.


She expects some of these techniques will find there way into gardening.


Despite the use of more mechanization in large traditional farms, she is expecting that an increase in technical food growing will be an industry employing more people, not fewer, going forward. But rather than focussing on planting and tilling, the work may be more about adjusting, monitoring. deploying and experimenting with technology.




Early in the book she points out that many in the industry are already aware of increasing environmental effects and a decline of government safety nets. Further that farms now produce 17 per cent more than they did in 1990 and that there are 200 million people suffering from chronic hunger, all while prices have been falling prices especially in the U.S.


However, she does not take this to the bank as the end of a good news story, danger still increases.


As well as the existential dangers she points to.... waste, overconsumption, poorer nutrition, reliance on fewer, but larger farms to feed the world and methods compounding the looming dangers.


And the result is that the upward trend for the past 30 years will soon be a constant downward as the amount of productive farmland declines.


While such disasters as floods, storms, forest fires may be more sudden, localized and maybe newsworthy the biggest danger to humans is disruption of food supply.


To indicate dependency, she adds that the U.S. already imports more than half its fruit supply and one third of its vegetable. Little doesn't mention whether this is net of what it exports in these categories.


The success of modern farming was the realization in the 1840s of the understanding of how important nitrogen and phosphorus were to soil productivity. More recently the 'green revolution' was launched with hybrid seeds and pesticides and fertilizer after world war 2. She describes climate change as “the single biggest blowback of the 'green revolution'.”


Little says that for most people eating leads to more planet warming emissions than either driving or flying.


Coupled with this was the altering of natural earth systems (especially water) to food production. Fishing increased stress on coastal ocean biospheres. And more recently large amounts of tropical forest land has been cleared to sponsor big agriculture, especially livestock and to a lesser extent palm oil.


She says that while the amount of calories available to the world population has grown, the most complete nutrition goes to the richer populations. And as the amount of food increases the nutrient density decreases, partly because other factors effecting marketing take precedence.


Feeding more sugar and empty calorie food is more profitable leading to undernutrition accompanying obesity.


For the conscientious in protein selection, beef has a four times higher carbon footprint than chicken which is three times higher than lentils.



Food supply chains are long and inefficient leading to spoilage of about one third either in transit or thrown out before use.


And she adds, that overuse of herbicides and fungicides leads to declining vital soil microbial action.


In the face of this, the “food movement” suggests a return to traditional organic production which goes a way to solving the nutrition issue, but is unlikely to produce enough food.


Little favours a third way that combines the best practices of the past with the most advanced technologies.


In her first chapter, she introduces a couple, a software programmer and an artist who gave up their careers to go into mixed organic farming. They readily admit, while nutrition is high the cost is beyond most people. Their market is high end restaurants.


The mixed element of their operation provides some security. When one or more crops fail, they have others to fall back on, not subject to the same problem.


The apple, an international food, has a long and storied history from its notice in south eastern Kazakhstan in about 1000 B.C. Traders transported it eventually expanding to thousands of species and recently narrowed to about a dozen burnished for the marketplace.


The also receive more pesticides and fungicides than any other fruit. Before reaching market most have been in storage six to 12 months to meet year round demand.


Little points to the changes in farms. The number of farmers has dropped drastically in a century, the size of farms expanded greatly and the age of farmers increased to an average of 57, with many in their seventies.


A farmer she highlights uses new strategies rather than pesticides to control pests and maintain organic status. Not all experiments take place in the lab.


Little leads the reader through the strategies the apple trees themselves use to deal with sudden temperature changes, especially around blossom time. But the demanded changes are leading to more dieoffs than in the past, not so much from blossoms, but the more serious root damages, she adds.


Most farmers “recognize that the weather trends are out of whack, but many still accept the prevailing conservative attitude that climate science is bunk.” The big companies that rely on agriculture research such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Cargill and John Deere accepted climate science a long time ago.


Out in the field, the budding season has shifted 10 days earlier in the 75 years since world war 2. The farmers notice wetter springs, earlier blooming and more frequent frosts. All of this disrupts the fruit trees, invites new pests in and makes fields unworkable with heavy equipment. Later in the season water availability and the heat are the challenges. Although still manageable, they may suggest megadroughts later in the century.


These disasters may be hinted at by the droughts recently effecting California, the most comprehensive agriculture in the U.S.


Back in the labs the challenge is to “redesign” the plant for the new challenges.

Many food losses and declines may pass nearly unnoticed, until they hit mass market demands such as for coffee.


And crop comparisons I found interesting: corn produces about 15 million calories per acre, potatoes are close, rice is around 11 million, soy about six million and wheat about four million per acre. These differences indicate why corn is so important to the subsistence farmer, says Little.


She explains that genetically modified organisms get their new traits from different organisms. Traditionally plants were modified by getting the traits from the same or similar organisms. She said rat genes have been used to get lettuce to make vitamin C. Other additions may allow the plant to produce its own organic insecticide or use less water. These are benefits that help farmers in the poorest countries, she adds.


Most Americans have been eating GMO foods since the mid 90s, if unwittingly.


Although GMO terrifies people as tinkering with nature, there is no evidence it harms people. It was first commercialized in the 1970s.


The gene editing tool CRISPR may make it even more common. And while it is welcomed by the public to eradicate diseases it meets with suspicion in connection with food, says Little.


Public suspicion may have been enhanced when GMOs were used to benefit the industry rather than the consumer. Resistance to herbicides in corn, promoting the use of Roundup is central to the dispute, she adds.


Now, she adds, the 'no GMO' identifier is used to reassure consumers even on products that have no genetic component, hence no relation. Being told that salt has no GMO may assure ignorance.


While there are toxic chemicals being used in agriculture the danger is primarily to farm workers and little danger to the consumers from residue. However, there could be indirect danger from the chemicals going into the environment.


Replacing the chemicals may be mechanical weeding as machines get more sophisticated in recognizing plants. Weeding machines will have computers fed thousands of images of plants to learn how to discriminate.


Little also says we may get more sophisticated in determining the properties of plants currently declared 'weeds'.


Pigweed, palmer amaranth, the Genghis Khan of weeds is unlikely to be spared, she adds. Its huge seed production has allowed it to mutate fast and stay ahead of poisons.


Not only is the environment spared with less use of pesticide, the cost to the grower is reduced. It would also cut the cost of seed with resistance not needed as a characteristic.


Little points out that in recent decades about one third of the world's arable land has been lost to erosion related to mechanical tillage and damage from industrial chemicals. Degrading is occurring at ten times the rate of replenishment in the U.S. Tillage also reduces the microbiome of the soils hence its productivity.


Some think 'no-till' could be a major factor in ameliorating climate change. In the U.S. about 20 per cent is no till and world wide less than 10 per cent.


This being said there is a technological transformation in agriculture in the last two or three years. A lot relates to determining what even an individual plant needs and supplying it. This complexity of service may reduce the need for single crop fields and the attendant damage.


In terms of damage to the environment, agriculture has taken over from industry which has moved to more efficient technology.


China's huge population, shrinking farmland, increasing wealth, shortage of water, ground pollution and smog may see some of the most aggressive and innovative ways to increase food production. Much of its farmland is in greenbelts around urban areas. Currently they are using vastly more fertilizer and pesticides than the U.S. The government deployed soldiers to plant 'cleansing trees' to restore farmland.


The pressure to increase yields has led to crimes and corruption., made famous by scandals that have made news here. However, there are some hi-tech organic farms producing crops only afforded by the wealthy.


And a bit of a surprise China has 50 times as many individually owned farms as the U.S. The author doesn't mentione a practice in China where “owned” means an extremely long lease.


In China, the consumer must be educated to pay the higher price for “safe” food rather than the low price for the other. China has also purchased land in more than 30 countries.


Indoor production of food is fast increasing due to demand for local food, decreased cost of light and improved sensor technology.


Vertical agriculture adapts the growing environment to the plant rather than the traditional adapting the plant to the environment. Vertical agriculture has been described as “post organic” since it is pesticide free, uses much less water and fertilizer. Ultimately water saving may be the big one with indoor farming needing only about 10 per cent as much.


Aero farms need no soil, but use a mist with the nutrients and a careful monitoring of the individual needs of plants. Greens so far are the most common plants grown this way. Less resources are needed and the plants expend less energy. Aeroponics, despite being more complex and expensive, promotes faster growing as plants are exposed to more oxygen and the air also has a greater concentration of carbon dioxide.


Lighting is managed with “exquisite detail” through sensors, cameras and machine learning. And some of these operations are “hundreds” of times more productive on an area measure, releasing farmland to its natural state.


And a striking statement ...”the most complex ecosystem in the world is a square inch of soil.”


She points to the American farmer as focussed on yield “how cheap and how much at the expense of quality.”


Little speaks about the “internet of food” as a product of ongoing communication with growers sharing data about their growing conditions. And this amount of control can move into city food production, reducing transportation and waste.


Science may take wishy hopey food production to guaranteed resources leading to guaranteed product. It will lead to a lot more farmers who are a lot different....urban people with technical skills.


And an interesting quote: ”It's completely crazy that there are so many tax incentives for people to buy electric cars, but none to convert people away from meat-based diets.”


While oceans cover 70 per cent of the earth they only provide two per cent of the food. The way forward may be less wild fish and more fish farming. The challenge is that concentrations of fish mean concentration of their pests.


Wild fisheries are declining with climate change where they can't or won't migrate north. However, at the moment fish farms especially their waste pose a more immediate problem to wild fisheries than warm water or acidification. Quarantining fish farms may be one of the answers. This can lead to more control and engineered environments.


For centuries the Chinese have combined fish farming with rice farming to the benefit of both species.


Another food solution is for humans to learn to eat farther down, especially the aquatic, food chain, hopefully to seaweed and algae. That may form part of the solution to feeding fish that are higher on the food chain.


Fish are more efficient converters of food than land animals. Salmon require a pound of food for a pound of salmon (salmon are less efficient than most other food fish), it is two pounds per pound for chicken, three to one for pork and about seven to one for beef. On this, Little says, it may require rethinking beef as viable food for humans.


And now the expectation of meat eating has expanded to a more people worldwide. And currently livestock farming accounts for about 15 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than all forms of transportation combined.


Lab grown meat could reduce the GHG emissions by three quarters and water use by 90 per cent. As with the other hi-tech food production the composition can be controlled.


The founder of the meat lab calls his operations “farm” because many of the basic ideas relate to farming such as selection of the cells to propagate. Then they have to blend the food and oxygen according to the stage of development of the live product. And there can be nutrient control. It is described as alive, but not sentient. Growing and harvesting takes two to six weeks compared to 2.5 years with cattle. And it takes longer to decay at room temperature. The 'why' to that would be interesting. I am suspicious when things take too long to decay.


And another hi-tech firm is creating dairy products from GMO it has created, leading to, along with milk, the products made from milk. “Eggs” are another product to come from a similar process.


This approach is one alternative to plant based protein, which may in turn lead to the acceptance of the more exotic lab creations. And even the vegetarian version is being gassed up by the addition of a “synthetic blood”. And these investigations reveal what people crave in meat and other foods and create it synthetically with appropriate consistency and better nutrition. In addition, you eliminate the energy and time taken to grow the parts of an animal not eaten, reducing both resources and waste.


Little is not forecasting the disappearance of livestock, because there are other advantages to the environment and to economies in poorer parts of the world.


She expresses some personal squeamishness for how these things are created, but then how many consumers actually see the sausage being made anyway.


She devotes a chapter to waste with colourful description on how much waste is generated and its rapid increase. Most is by the household followed by restaurants and stores and on the farms. Food waste consumes 21 per cent of freshwater, 19 per cent of fertilizer,18 per cent of cropland and 21 per cent of landfill volume. If food waste was a country, she says, it would be third behind China and the U.S. in GHG emissions.


The food most often dumped include coffee, coffee grounds, bananas, chicken, apples, bread, oranges, potatoes and milk. Absent from waste is most junk food and snacks. Healthy diets are the most wasteful.


Wasted food seemed more common with those participating in composting than non composters. Little says it's believed that composter feel less guilty about waste. Parents with young children generated waste trying to get them to eat nutritiously and to try different things. Some waste is people rejecting unaesthetic looking food items.


She takes a special run at the U.S. for food waste. Organic farmers “toss” more than conventional because their product is less uniform. And the irony is the “marred produce” often tastes better and is more nutritious as a function of the stress the plant was under.


She references a “psychoanalysis comment that says Americans may lead in waste because food is relatively cheap and cavalier treatment of food and waste reflects freedom and power.”


On the waste front, she says that leftovers should be good for at least a week, ideally in glass containers, and judge by looking and smelling, not counting the days. Buying mottled and misshapen produce is the way to go. She also favours frozen fruits and vegetables over fresh, since nutrition is not lost as quickly.


Food past its “best before date” (generally not standardized) is almost never a health problem. Problems occur from not storing at the right temperature and contamination during processing. Sealing out oxygen is a main protector.


There is a hope that within a generation people will consider food waste as archaic as snail mail and corded telephones, she reports. There is hope that the linear economics of industrial food of consuming, depleting, and throwing out will be replaced by growing, reusing, and regenerating resources.


Water is a big one and Israel seems more resourceful in securing it than most countries. During the driest period in 900 years, it is 95 percent self sufficient in food and exporting despite its traditional sources only contributing 10 per cent of the needed water. And it produces thirsty crops.


Worldwide about a third of water distributed is lost to leaks and bursts. Israel now uses a vast system of sensors to keep track of water loss and susceptibility. Israel loses about 10 per cent through plumbing breaks.


Now Israel has different grades of water in separate systems. A lower grade, reclaimed from sewage, goes to irrigation with high grade to peoples homes. Desalination and sewage scrubbing increases the available water.


Israel has ongoing water allotments for families, with extreme price increases beyond. Conservation and recycling helped, but desalination now provides half of Israel's water. Yet filtration and recycling is half the cost of desalination. The filtration and purification is built around 'reverse osmosis' rather than chemicals.


Currently there are now more countries under drought than ever recorded before, she says. There are nine countries in East Africa and the Middle East.


Ethiopia is the best prepared to deal with it, based on experience. It has a ruthless and corrupt government, which can however respond to emergencies and it does. The lesson is that democratic governments should establish the funds and protocols to deal with emergencies.


The worst effects of climate change will probably be felt in the dry tropics such as India and sub-Saharan Africa which have a third of the world's population. One solution presented is cultivating the “Moringa” a fast growing small tree that produces edible leaves providing a surprisingly broad nutrition. But its uses are greater than just as food. Its nutrition towers above almost any plant and efforts are underway to make it more palatable for modern tastes. There is a high correlation with where Moringa grows and where populations are malnourished.


Little focuses on it as an example of an ancient food that may be about the make a comeback. Hardy, high nutrition, fast growing and tolerant of climate vicissitudes may become the prized qualities. Quinoa, now grown in Saskatchewan, may be another example of a crop to re-adapt to a different climate. Kernza, a version of wheat, with deep roots and five-year lifespan is starting to be utilized


Little says if we were starting civilization again rice and wheat , demanding so much water, would not be the plant choices.


The dry tropical forests may have the broadest variety of plant forms. Two of the more dramatic are baobab trees and acacia trees.


Insects as food is another area getting more research.


Decline in nutrition has increased with the human drive toward pleasure and convenience driven eating habits. That has translated into high sugar, starch and oil content. There seems to be a correlation between increasing palatability and declining nutrition in fruits and vegetables. Examples of old world high nutrition foods with strong sometimes resented tastes are arugula, brussel sprouts and most herbs.


Increasing carbon dioxide more sugar and less protein and minerals continues to trend. The amount of carbon dioxide in the air can be controlled in indoor vertical farming.


Malnutrition occurs where there is too little food, but also where there is too much. The challenge going forward may be more about higher quality foods, than simply more.


Little also speaks about the trend toward personalized data where a wearable computer will monitor individuals to detect nutrient deficiencies. It is currently being tried on U.S. soldiers. She pointed out that while soldiers are more conscious of nutrition than in the past and willing to have their needs monitored, lack of childhood activity means they are less fit than a generation ago.


She also explores the densification of nutrients in bars for military use as well as preservation.


Little expects it is more likely than not that there will be enough food for everybody and further that there will be expanding choices about what foods are available from the traditional, to the currently in vogue to new types from new systems of production. And it will be produced not by competing, but complementing systems that employ more people working in new ways of production as well as traditional.