Mike Elgan: Food Fight!

Written by Mike Elgan

Here’s our Mike Elgan on why the world is in a food fight over food tech — and why it’s the wrong food fight. Here’s the smart food tech we need and why.

aNewDomain.net — Arguing about food tech is like arguing about Apple iOS versus Android. It’s fruitless, says our Mike Elgan. But there’s a real food fight people should talk about regarding food tech. Here’s Mike Elgan on food tech and why the world is engaged in the wrong fight over the wrong food.

America and the world is engaged in a massive food fight. But it’s the wrong fight over the wrong food. And it’s time for all of us to get smart about what’s wrong with food tech and how to fix it.

What’s wrong with the food fight?

Arguing about food — GMOs, junk food and what people call “processed food” — is like arguing about religion or, worse, about the relative merits of the Apple iPhone vs. Android.

On the one side are the pro-tech, pro-science, pro-progress, pro-junk food people who want more industrialized food, genetically-engineered crops, artificial meat and brightly-colored fake food that never spoils. They say the health crisis is caused by irresponsible consumers making bad choices, not food industrialization.

On the other side are the hippies, quality-of-life yuppies and back-to-nature types who want to turn back the clock to an agrarian past, where the industrial food revolution is set in reverse and all our food comes from local family farms. They say the health crisis is caused by greedy corporations that train children to form a lifelong addiction to junk food.

The problem is that both of these approaches are unsustainable, unaffordable and ultimately undesirable.

What’s wrong with our food?

To oversimplify the problem, the industrial revolution turned food into a product.

Once food became a product, it began to evolve as a product, becoming “better” by getting cheaper, longer lasting, easier to produce and “safer,” or so proponents say.

Food also eventually became a so-called “better” product by becoming tasty to the point of being addictive, with food manufacturers engineering flavors that the human brain is unable to resist. Food by and by became cheaper through the overuse of taxpayer-subsidized corn, soy and wheat in almost every processed food product. And it has become “safer” by becoming increasingly sterile.

In short, food as a product is “improved” by modifying the food itself, which makes it increasingly incompatible with human biology. That’s the main reason children now get what used to be called “adult-onset diabetes” and why the industrial world is suffering from a growing obesity epidemic and why overweight people are slowly dying of malnutrition.

Everything about food products evolves, from the containers, to the shipping methods, to the species and varieties of crop plants selected, to the manufacturing chemicals and processes.

One extreme example is the invention of trans fat, which is ideal for making old food look and taste fresh. It keeps crunchy foods crunchy for years. But the body doesn’t recognize trans fat as a food — nothing like trans fat ever existed in nature or the human diet. And so we feel like we got hit by a truck when we eat it and it hastens the onset of heart attacks.

In general, the processes of “processed foods” involve direct intervention in the biochemistry of what we inject into our digestive tracts and from thence into our bloodstreams, organs, glands and the cells of our bodies.

How to make natural foods on an industrial scale

To me, the answer to the false choice between accepting more radically-modified foods on the one hand, or rejecting the industrial-foods revolution on the other, is to pursue advanced technologies that produce natural foods at an industrial scale.

Let me give you three examples.

Example No. 1: Weed-pulling robots

The bleeding edge technology today for dealing with weeds is to genetically engineer crops that can survive an otherwise-toxic weed killer — patented and owned by the GMO company, natch.

Unfortunately, biology exists, so weeds evolve resistance to the herbicide and come back as “superweeds” that can be eradicated only by massive applications of multiple herbicides. This industrial farming technology modifies the food at the DNA level, then saturates it with toxic chemicals before putting it on our dinner tables and into our bodies.

A superior future technology will be weed-pulling robots, such as the Blue River Technology’a LettuceBot  or Aarhus University’s HortiBot. Deploying fleets of automated weed pullers would eliminate the need for both GMO seeds and chemical herbicides. Robots can improve crops as a product in the same way that GMOs and herbicides do, but without modifying the food itself.

Example No. 2: Spoilage-detecting containers

Today, our best technology for protecting consumers from food poisoning involves sterilization or semi-sterilization. We pasteurize milk and juice, irradiate meat, heat-sterilize canned and jarred foods and even pasteurize nuts. We do that either through heat or chemicals.

Trouble is, sterile food is rare in nature, and we are programmed by evolution to need food covered with yeasts, pollen, bacteria and other microflora. In recent years, scientists have determined that our guts get thousands of species of microbes from food and the environment, and the quality and diversity of this ecosystem strongly affects the quality of our immune systems and overall health.

Sterilization also tends to reduce the nutrients present in many raw foods or introduces small quantities of less-than-healthy chemicals. Pasteurization of milk kills the probiotics and greatly reduces the vitamins C, A, E and D and calcium present in raw milk, as well as transforming the lactose, proteins and fats. Irradiation of meat scrambles the DNA of the flesh.

Sterilization modifies the food, altering it from its healthy and natural state and makes it less healthy — a trade-off we’re willing to make in the interest of safety. We make foods a safer “product” by reducing the nutritional quality of the food through sterilization.

In the future, chemical and other sensors will be small, flat and cheap enough to make them part of packaging. For example, milk bottles that turn from clear to green when there’s any kind of spoilage could mean the end of pasteurized milk. Examples of early-stage spoilage-detecting containers are the Milkmaid jug and the similar Cravendale jug. There is also new spoilage-detecting technology for meat and fish packaging invented by Germany’s Fraunhofer Research Institution. See a shot of the Milkmaid product, below left.

Image credit: appliancemagazine.com


Note that the milk jugs are for pasteurized milk, but better technology could detect harmful pathogens in raw milk, too.

Food could be sold fresh without sterilization, and the risk of food poisoning would be nearly eliminated by smart packaging.

Example No. 3: Smart shipping

In general, perhaps the greatest possible advance in the quality of food is to use machine intelligence to orchestrate the delivery of foods from farms to homes, stores and restaurants in the most-efficient and fastest way possible, then process and prepare foods just before purchase or consumption.

Software intelligence combined with inventory and delivery systems can eliminate the need for preservatives, additives, artificial colors and all the rest. Instead of modifying food biochemically to simulate freshness using preservatives, additives, coloring and chemicals in packaging, more advanced technology can make the food we buy actually fresh.

It’s time to end the false choice between radical food modification or simply ignoring industrialized food.

Bottom line? What we really need is fresh, natural food that’s also safe, inexpensive and plentiful. The way to do that is to focus on technologies that produce foods on an industrial scale, but don’t modify the food itself.

On food tech for aNewDomain.net, I’m Mike Elgan.

Based in Santa Barbara, Mike Elgan is a veteran tech journalist and tech culture columnist. He writes most-visibly and frequently at Computerworld, Datamation, Cult of Mac, Houzz, PC World, InfoWorld, MacWorld, CIO Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle and The CMO Site. Now Mike is a senior commentator with us at aNewDomain.net. Follow Mike’s stream on Google+ and on Twitter @MikeElgan. The best way to reach him is via Google+. Email Mike here at aNewDomain at MikeE@aNewDomain.net.



  • I couldn’t agree more with this. I have long thought that small delivery bots could bring food from the store directly to your house, including machine chopped vegetables and other food in exactly the quantity you need for your desired recipe. No waste, and the delivery time for most standard ingredients would be under an hour. Local supermarkets would use robots to make fresh prepared ingredients to save you time, but the supply lines would be short and the economies of scale would make it inexpensive.

    It might also get sophisticated enough that they could even precook some of the items, such as carmelizing onions/garlic or even following a recipe to provide a hot meal customized to what is currently available and what you like to eat.

  • it is my contention that the hippie way of food cultivation and production will save the world. local organic food is good. there’s no doubt about that statement anywhere. i’ll just talk local here.

    local food is close. when people buy local they cost of shipping decreases dramatically. not just the monetary cost but the cost of fuel for trucks, the cost of wear and tear on roads and highways, the cost of co2 and other emissions from the process of shipping… the list goes on.

    local food is observable. when people can see their food being grown or raised there is a decrease in anxiety about where their food comes from and what it actually is. people may not realize they have anxiety about it but the root of the anxiety around all the food related ailments in western society is ignorance. people see reports on the news or read articles on what is good or what is bad. a lot of it can be contradictory as it comes from unknown or suspect sources. go and look at your food being produced. you will know.

    local food is small scale (relatively speaking). this mean even if a local producer is growing or raising only one thing the detrimental effects of large scale monoculture production are eliminated. just look at a strawberry farm in california. vast swaths of desert sucking up water from lake mead. that farm is a huge patch of land where both the flora and fauna are so restricted. large amounts of time and energy are spent to keep it that way. smaller patches of monocultures require much less time and energy per acre as that time and energy are spread throughout.

    local food production uses local water. as in the preceding point where huge monoculture farms in arid landscapes suck up so much water from a single source hundreds of kilometers away, so much so lake mead is getting low enough that it may not have enough water to generate power at hoover dam, taking water from several sources that are far away not only costs a lot but leaves other “less important” communities without enough water. local food production uses water that is local to it’s point of production. the cost of using local water is significantly less than bringing water from distant sources.

    local food provides income for locals. putting your hard earned dollars back into your community is just good. no need to explain. it just is. a local producer provides for you as you provide for the producer. and the producer pays taxes in your community (municipality, province / state, country).

    local will help get people out of cities and into rural areas. support local and you support jobs where local food is produced. no longer will the proximity of a supermarket be a feature on a reator’s feature sheet but the feature will be where to get food that is good for you right where it is produced. and less congestion in cities means getting around in cities is easier and less stressful.

    what are the big issues we talk about (or the governing officials don’t want us talking about)? co2 and global warming, taxes, availability of water, obesity / diabetes and other diet related diseases / malnutrition, and what industrial food actually is and means. buy local food. even when you’re travelling buy food that is local to that community or region to support the place you’ve traveled to. you’ll save the world and not die trying!

    p.s. except for coffee, tea, chocolate and spices. :p and maybe olive oil.

  • The traditional weed removal “robot” was the tractor with plow. It worked fine but it used a lot of fuel and so will the other mechanical options. Okay slavery works but I think we can all agree that solution is off the table. Of course in China they use flocks of ducks to weed some crops but then you need a market for surplus ducks.

  • The problem is more about energy and time vs profit, yes we have the technology but out there are founds and political will, who knows, its like the phantom of Nicola Tesla, now days, have great ideas but any resources.