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The case for a nutrition revolution

In the run-up to NewsHour Weekend’s special series, ‘The Future of Food’, Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Amanda Little, writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt University, about her new book, ‘The Fate of Food’ that focuses on the global challenges and possibilities in food production and nutrition.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Next week we will kick off our special series 'The Future of Food.' Well we'll explore global problems and solutions involving food supply and nutrition.

    For some early perspective on a few of the challenges and possibilities I recently sat down with Amanda Little, professor of investigative journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University and the author of the book 'The Fate of Food: What We'll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World.'

    Let's put this in perspective. Kind of the big picture here. What kind of a food crisis is the planet facing?

  • Amanda Little:

    Well we're pretty kind of close to a crisis but we're not probably in one. It's hard to say. You know in very definitive terms there are a lot of, there's a lot of evidence of climate change in the way it's affecting food systems all over the place. And you know, in the Midwest, for example, we see the impacts on corn and soy farmers right now because of all the storms that are really saturating the soil and making it hard to plant.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And that's going to move markets, less food in the field means the price is going to go up?

  • Amanda Little:

    And I mean it's you know in Italy, where we're hearing about the devastation to olive groves and in Georgia and Florida, we hear about the impacts on peach and citrus production. We hear about you know cacao and coffee to to farms equatorial countries. I mean it's just sort of endless. You can look almost anywhere in any food system and see the impacts of heat, drought, flooding, invasive insects and you know there's just trauma that's expressing itself in different ways.

    It's hard for consumers to relate to right, because we're so displaced from the source of our food. So as farmers begin to experience this in different ways, consumers are maybe experiencing it as you know, fluctuations in cost. But the real you know, sort of crisis in terms of food security and you know and disruption in food supply, you know, will happen regionally. You know in one region hit by floods or blizzards or droughts there might be you know a temporary disruption. Certainly in parts of India and you know sub-Saharan Africa there are serious famines going on and in the Middle East.

    So you know what in one region it might be a threat to chardonnay and strawberries, in another region it might be serious food security issues which is why that question you know is this a crisis now? It's hard to answer. Certainly the beginnings, these sort of early stages of crisis are becoming evident, 10-20 years from now will we see serious food disruptions in supply? Very, very possibly.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And you're saying that those general trend lines are heading in sort of the wrong direction? We have less land that we're gonna be able to plant crops on and we just have more people that are going to need food?

  • Amanda Little:

    This is the the paradox of the you know our future food supply, right? We have and climate models show we will see a decline of about 2 to 6 percent of crop yields globally, every decade going forward. Meanwhile, we're going to you know, nearly 10 billion people by mid century. So right, that sort of contradiction of increasing demand and decreasing supply is a really significant problem.

    I mean the other thing is that a lot of the population is coming online and you know middle income populations are demanding more protein, more diverse diets. So what we're eating is changing along with how much we're eating and that is certainly you know, a serious problem that a lot of the scientists and engineers and innovators and folks that I interviewed are trying to address.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You've talked a lot in the book about kind of alternatives to meat because right now we see at least one company doing really well in the stock market, thinking about Beyond Meat and whatever. You've tasted some of this stuff in labs. Is it a legitimate replacement and are we gonna be able to create that at scale to prevent the economic or I should say the environmental consequences of all these people wanting more protein and if they start eating meat what we consider meat that could have real long term consequences?

  • Amanda Little:

    This is a crucial question right. And one of the statistics I kept coming back to is that in the last 50 years we've seen a doubling of global population and a tripling of meat demand. Right. So these more protein intensive meat heavy diets are really affecting how much meat we're eating and of course meat is so carbon intensive. It's the most, single most resource intensive part of the food chain.

    And so what we're seeing now with the emergence of plant based foods with you know Beyond Meat and possible foods, plant based meat alternatives are are certainly gaining ground and appeal for consumers. What I looked at was also this sort of more extreme and maybe a little bit more sort of hard to swallow aspect of meat research which is what they call cell based meats or lab grown meats right, where you're actually growing the meat without the animal. And there's a sort of biopsy taken from a live animal and those cells are given an environment in which they can replicate and grow into muscle tissue and fat tissues and connective tissues that are essentially what we eat. But they're not attached to a sentient animal.

    And again one of these concepts that seems really hard to sort of accept but I did taste it at the laboratories of Memphis Meats in Berkeley California, which is a really interesting place for this to be going on because we think of it as like the you know farm to table mecca of you know sustainable food. And here are these scientists developing sort of non-meat meats.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How is that ethically OK? I mean technically it's meat but it doesn't have a sense you know there was no cruelty involved.

  • Amanda Little:

    That's right. I mean that was why so the CEO of Memphis Meats you know Uma Valeti was interested in it for that reason right. You know seven billion animals a year, I believe, are or many more than that actually now that I think of it, are you know, killed for human consumption and with this growth in population and demand how are we going to sustain that? Right? So he was concerned about the ecological impacts and the know ethical impacts of that kind of livestock you know farming and I think there is a lot of interesting sort of questions around, is this you know, first of all, ecologically optimal? Because there's a lot of energy that has to go into the process.

    Can it be as healthy and nutritious and flavorful and certainly it saves a lot of animals from being killed if it if it works. So yeah. There's some really interesting sort of cost benefit analysis but my own experience of eating it was was pretty I would say the hopeful. I had lab grown duck meat and I haven't had a whole lot of duck in my life but it tasted very meaty and ducky. And it's again very early stages and so you know will it be indistinguishable from animal meat five or ten years from now? I think that's pretty likely. Are the costs coming down dramatically. Yes.

    So it's just an interesting time to look at where the innovation is going. Where the investment is going and it's a way of sort of helping us understand the problem by saying this is how real the you know the solutions are becoming. And it's it's going to help us understand why they're emerging right because the problems are very significant and immediate?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Can we engineer our way out of this. I mean sometimes we paint technology as the ultimate savior to all of these problems that we have. So how do we find this kind of mix between where leading edge technology is and maybe, things that we have learned from farming for a few thousand years?

  • Amanda Little:

    So the the kind of thing that I came upon ultimately and this was a five year journey into the lands and mines and machines that are working on the future of food. And the thing that I really hit on were two key things One is the main way we're going to experience climate change is through its impact on the food systems. Most people on planet Earth there will be regional disturbances but across the board we're all going to experience this in some way or another.

    The second thing is that the food debate is very polarized. It's very you know politicized, it's even you know sustainable food is seen as very elitist and inaccessible to a lot of people. There needs to be a third way where we really draw on the wisdom of sustainable and traditional food systems and we leverage and make use of the best technologies that are available today. There are ways of applying technology that can support and sustain sustainable food systems and approaches to food production. And we need to kind of move beyond looking at them as at odds with each other. There's one side that's saying, let's reinvent food. I think that's a quote, Bill Gates said that food is ripe for reinvention, a couple of years ago.

    And then the sustainable food folks are saying I want my food deinvented, thank you very much. I want to return to pre-industrial agriculture and we need to move beyond that sort of binary approach and think about how do we do technology right and how do we draw from again these you know sort of traditional principles of sustainable food production and then use the best technologies that are a hand. And so I looked at you know crisper and vertical farms and drones and artificial intelligence and robotics and then also at you know, insects and ancient plants and you know permaculture and there are ways in which we can sort of do the best of both approaches.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How likely is that to happen in the amount of time you're talking about, in the timeline it's necessary to be able to make sure that everyone that's gonna be born in 2050 has access to food?

  • Amanda Little:

    I came out of this really optimistic and I will say, you know, this is a sort of narrative that's as old as civilization, right. We've been wondering, are we going to run out of food? Will we have enough to feed humanity for you know, again millennia? And you know, we've always found a way to find you know adapt and survive. And what's interesting is that this is you know sort of engaging and motivating our instincts for survival.

    These pressures that are coming online are engaging and motivating these instincts for survival and so some of what I encountered was you know capable of not only sort of beginning to pre-empt and prepare for these pressures that are coming online but to address the problems that existed you know that have come from industrial agriculture.

    You know we had this flawed system to begin with that's very chemically intensive that's just you know eroding soil that's unhealthy in a lot of ways. And then we have all this new pressure coming online. So can some of these solutions do both? What I found out was that in fact a lot of what's emerging, there are really really great interesting you know approaches to solutions, are doing both — they can redress the problems of the past and sort of begin to prepare for what's coming.

    So the answer in short is yes, I think we're going to do it.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Amanda Little from Vanderbilt University. The name of the book is 'Fate of Food.' Thanks so much for joining us.

  • Amanda Little:

    Thank you so much.

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