David Sax has a recent article in the New Yorker where he decries everything wrong with the new food, Soylent and other tech-derived foods. He comes to his conclusions despite admitting he's never tried Soylent. Rather, it seems he's philosophically opposed to the idea. Sax writes:
But, what is it that people "really want" when they eat? My research consistently shows it's, healthy, affordable, safe, tasty food; whether it is natural or "fair" or from a particular origin matters far less. I believe Sax is also mistaking what people say they want which what they actually choose. As I previously discussed via USDA statistics, the amount of farmland in organic, for example, represents a very small share of all agricultural acreage.
I don't deny that there is increasing demand for organic, "clean", etc., but I think Sax is mistaking what people want for the method of how it's provided. The theme of my book Unnaturally Delicious is that if we really want to tackle many of our most pressing problems in agriculture it will require exactly the sort of stuff (like math, science, engineering) that Sax says he wants to keep away from food.
I can think of a lot of reasons why you'd want to "disrupt that." Because, for examples, his vision is too expensive, unavailable but for the most wealthy, too time consuming, and would use too many of our natural resources if everyone ate this way. No one I know is trying to keep these "natural" alternatives from consumers, and it is a testament to our vibrant food economy that the market provides these "natural" foods for consumers who are willing to pay for them. But, that doesn't mean we can't have Solyent too.
Let me state things differently. Modern food and agricultural technologies are providing us more affordable food than at any time in our history, reducing hunger all over the world, while at the same time reducing the amount of land we need to bring into production. We're adopting new technological approaches to keep food safe, quite literally saving lives, and using science to understand how to make a more nutritious, affordable food supply even for people in some of the most impoverished places on the planet. Scientists are using math, chemistry, engineering and the like to reduce the number of animal we need to produce meat and milk, thereby reducing our carbon impacts. Why would you want to stop all of that?
David Zilberman, an agricultural economist at UC Berkeley, has an interesting blog post on the slow and natural food movements. The timing of his piece is impeccable given the long, aggressive defense of the food movement Michael Pollan just wrote in the New York Times Magazine. After a bit of praise for the movements, Zilberman gets to some critiques.
Here are the core criticisms:
On his last point, I full agree:
I've given a couple presentations recently on food trends, and in each instance I was asked whether the so-called Millennial generation thinks differently about food issues than older generations. I haven't spent a lot of time delving into this question because a lot of the willingness-to-pay research I've been involved with over the years suggests demographics don't tend to explain a lot of the variation in willingness-to-pay.
But, given the interest in the subject, I thought I'd take a quick look at some of the data from the monthly Food Demand Survey (FooDS) I've been running for over three years now. In particular, I pulled the data we ask on so-called "food values." The question shows respondents 12 issues (randomly ordered across surveys) and asks respondents which are most and least important when buying food. Respondents have to click with their mouse and drag four (and only four) items in the “most important” box and then do the same for the “least important” box.
A scale of importance is created by calculating the proportion of times (across the entire
sample) a food value appeared in the most important box minus the proportion of times it
appeared in the least important box. Thus, the range of possible values for a food value is from -1 to +1, where a higher number implies more importance (a +1 would mean the particular food value was placed in the most important box by 100% of respondents). This is a zero-sum scale, and it only reveals relative importance (e.g., how importance taste is compared to price) not overall importance.
Ok, so here's a graphical illustration of the food values by age group (I've pulled the data over time, so each age group has several thousand observations, yielding margins of error of around +/- 0.025 importance points).
Except for the oldest group, there is agreement in ranking at the top: Taste>Safety>Price. In the middle-range of importance, there is far less agreement. Both the 18-24 year old group and the 25-34 year old group could be considered Millennials according to most definitions I've seen. The Millennials place less relative importance on nutrition than the 55 and older crowd. However, the top four issues (taste, safety, price, and nutrition) are way more important than the other issues regardless of the generation under consideration.
The Millennials place less importance on appearance but more relative importance on naturalness, animal welfare, convenience and environment than do older generations, particularly the 65 and older group, which compared to the other age groups, places the lowest importance on naturalness, animal welfare, and environment. There is a big divide when it comes to the importance of origin: the 65 and older group places quite a bit more importance on origin than do people who are 24 years and younger.
The biggest gap is for origin (there is a 0.30 spread on the -1 to +1 scale) between the youngest Millennials and the oldest group. The next biggest gap is for naturalness (there is a 0.22 spread on the importance scale) between the oldest group and the 25-34 year old Millennials. The most agreement is for "fairness."
It might also be instructive to compare all this along another demographic category: gender (margin of error here is +/- 0.014).
Women place more relative importance on safety, animal welfare, and naturalness than men. Men place more importance on convenience and novelty than women. The biggest gap is for animal welfare (a 0.19 point difference on the -1 to +1 scale) and then convenience (a 0.16 difference).
This piece by Rachel Laudan is a masterful discussion of the ahistorical fascination with "natural" food. She gives an interesting historical account of the evolution of cooking and eating, and make the case that industrialization was the great food equalizer - that the view that "natural" food was good for the poor is hogwash.
Here's one excerpt:
She points out the condescension in the idea that other people should toil away to make their artisanal ethnic foods so that we can take pleasure in them. Laudan concludes with some of the following thoughts: