• Ali Tadlaoui

There's a mad rush in the world of making food to make "fake" food that claims to be just as good, or better in some ways than the real thing. A lot of venture capital is being put behind food start-ups seeking to manufacture food from some essence of the real thing. The target of these substitutes is animal-based food. Red meat. Poultry. Seafood. Dairy. Eggs. With the right line of animal tissue cells, a medium to propagate these cells into recognizable, edible stuff - a big enough bioreactor - there is growing evidence that cultivated beef, chicken, turkey, lamb, tuna, shrimp, and salmon can be made and commercialized. The chief executive of Aleph Farms, suggested recently that their 3-D bioprinted ribeye steak may be approved for sale as early as the back half of 2022.

Some food makers are only taking inspiration from what can be harvested from nature, with a few processing steps, like a beef burger. It turns out it's not so impossible to make a believable, more than palatable burger from soy and soy derivatives, coconut and sunflower oil, potato protein, and synthetic heme instead of feedlot-corn-fed ground chuck, marbled with fat and bursting with real, meaty heme. Synthetic heme is genetically modified yeast that's been fermented. The aim is for us to exchange animal-based food with plant-based food that looks like, smells like, and eats like what we've been used to eating since we started cooking food tens or even hundreds of thousands of years ago.

I just finished a project on meat substitutes. In addition to burgers, there are plant-based sausages, breakfast links and bacon. Nuggets and tenders. Deli slices. Even a veggie roast. And a range of seafood lookalikes. I've also read about cheese that's made from non-dairy protein and fat that's not fat. The list is growing.

What about bee-less honey? It's a thing. Or it might be a thing as early as next year. MeliBio is working on replicating the process of converting nectar into honey using bioengineering, precision fermentation, and plant science. The idea is to co-opt and reprogram microorganisms to do the conversion work done in a honeybee's cells. Think of how yeast turns sugars into alcohols.

This attempt to fabricate a bioengineered honey analog strikes a nerve with me. Partly because we take some responsibility for endangering the existence of bees. It feels to me like we're giving up on bees and already looking elsewhere to create fake honey as good as or better than real honeybee honey. Reliably, through a controllable production process and predictable supply chain.

Bees going away is not like the disappearances of the dodo or carrier pigeon. We rely on honey in the Honey Bunches of Oats my kids devour every morning. How many of us swirl it into, spread it on, or bake it into all sorts of things? Honey has become more important as an alternative to refined sugar in the past few years. According to Innova Insights, which tracks new products, 5% of all food and beverage launches in the US over the past five years included honey as an ingredient. That's thousands of honeyed items. About half as many as for vanilla but double raspberry and ten times fashionable açaí.

Honey is more of a staple than salmon for most of us and we're knocking down dams on the Columbia river to preserve the salmon run. What can we do for the bees? They're not charismatic megafauna, a designation given to the bald eagle, gray wolf, and otter, but honeybees play an outsized role in most ecosystems as pollinators and providers of food for us and many other species.

Which brings me to Pooh bear. Honey, the kind that's regurgitated by bees, and the bees themselves, are woven into our literature and music and art too, of course. The storybook images of Winnie's honey entanglements remain ubiquitous, delightful and relatable. If honey as we know it goes the way of the dodo these images will become less relatable. Poignant, quaint illustrations. Not observable experiences out in the world.

Maybe the story about bee-less honey got to me because of another set of childhood memories. I'll call our close family friend Mr. A. Mr. A despised honey. And okra. The unique sliminess keeps me away from okra too, but what is it about honey that riled him up every, single time? Mr. A once told me it was because of how bees expel honey out of their bodies. Bee vomit. Whatever the reason, if you uttered the word "honey" he would cuss and tickle you hard if you weren't quick enough to get away. Mr. A's aversion to honey got him and us into good trouble over the years.

One night someone slathered the car's steering wheel with a thick, rustic honey. Mr. A jumped out of the car, screaming. The joke was on us too because it was our brand new car, and the honey had had time to drip onto the upholstery while we held back our snickers over dessert.

Another time, traveling together in France, we came upon a miellerie; a honey shop, on a hilltop with a commanding view of the Alps. With a huge metallic honeybee affixed to the top of the shop. We insisted on stopping to eat. Poor Mr. A endured tastings of local honey and ribbings over the course of a long lunch on the patio.

Maybe what also gets me about the idea of manufactured honey is a paradox many of us seem to live with when choosing what to eat. We say we want to stay tethered to the earth and water from which we sprang and yet we are willing to embrace a future of synthetic foods. When you survey consumers about what factors most influence their decision when they're shopping for food, "natural," "no additives or preservatives," "made with real ingredients," and "no artificial flavors or colors" are close to the top. Also, many Americans say they want to be familiar with what's in the food they buy, or at least be able to pronounce the ingredients on the label. At the same time there is a growing appetite for these bioengineered, analog products that mimic what's readily found in nature. The processes for making these products are somewhat mysterious and the resulting product story is not going to be easy to really understand for most of us. So much for real, simple ingredients.

Those paving the way for a synthetic food future make a compelling case that the environment will be preserved by not over-stressing it producing food the way we have been for the last 50 years. Beyond Meat claims that water use should drop by over 99%, energy by almost half, and greenhouse gases by more than 90% if we eliminate cattle from meat production and distribution. We're responding. Plant-based meat sales, like Beyond Meat, were up 45% in 2020. But, meat sales also grew by double digits last year. The substitution of real meat with food that mimics meat is not happening. Not yet. The natural/synthetic conundrum lives.

Reading the almost daily news in the food press about alternative proteins and cultivated meat makes the future I've just described seem inevitable. This is where the big money is going. This sense of inevitability makes me squirm. It feels like the easier way forward in some sense, but not the only way.

Another way forward is to cut back on consumption of animal-based food in this country and adopt regenerative agriculture with a more localized supply chain. Traditional, sustainable agriculture, which is dependent on multiple crops and multiple livestock species, and the birds and the bees, is still feasible. But it does mean upending the current way we produce and distribute food.

Food makers are constructing a future with a broader array of concocted products that I feel will over time muscle out whole, much-less-adulterated, naturally conceived foods. And I think you and I are going to be ok with this. It will happen gradually. We will find the food tasty enough, affordable, and convenient. And we will live with the paradox that bugs me because we will accept a broader or revised meaning of the word "natural."

Alternative is maybe a better way than substitute to describe these synthetic, analog products. Consumerism creates choice. There's room for all tastes and price points. A jar of bee-made honey may cost a small fortune one day. Just for those who have the means, or a weak streak of nostalgia.

I wonder if humans are evolving away from feeling inextricably entwined with the DNA of all that is alive on earth. Is it a done deal that we will one day colonize another planet blessed with virgin soil and teeming with game? Or more than one planet. Enough land and resources to leave Earth behind?

A vastly less important but amusing personal question I have is how Mr. A would react to bee-less honey? Would he feign indignation? Swear at the mere mention of it or a jar of synthetic honey thrust in his face? Is there the remotest of possibilities that he would take a spoonful in his tea?

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My grandmother, my mother's mother, lived in a small, corner apartment on the north side of Copenhagen. She relished fresh cucumbers, so she managed to coax them to climb up a fragile trellis in the pale, Nordic light, on a north-facing bay window sill. Unfortunately, we didn't visit Mormor in Denmark very often so I don't recall seeing more than a few of her cucumbers. For a small city boy like me this plant was a bit magical. The whole process of growing an edible fruit inside, especially in that smoky, musty, formally but sparsely furnished apartment was mysterious.

The memory of these home-grown, finger-length cukes on the vine had been tucked away until I read a brief article in Fast Company last week about a massive indoor farm in Kentucky. My grandmother didn't need more than a summer harvest of a pound or two. She lived alone. I think growing them was as much a precious hobby as a craving for the freshest possible cucumber. AppHarvest, on the other hand, is producing tomatoes to ship all over the country. They say this one facility will be able to grow up to 45 million pounds of tomatoes annually.

It would seem that we need a range of food production systems, including indoor farming given the environmental challenges we face like soil degradation and more severe flooding and drought cycles. AppHarvest's model uses no soil and counts on mostly filtered rainwater and natural light. They claim too that because the farm is centrally located the facility has a smaller carbon footprint than operations that import produce from Mexico or ship exclusively from California or Florida.

Where AppHarvest is taking advantage of relatively affordable land in Appalachia to spread growing containers over almost 3 million square feet, AeroFarms, promotes vertical farming, stacking growing containers up to the rafters. AeroFarms' flagship vertical farm in Newark, NJ can produce up to 2 million pounds on 70,000 square feet with a closed system of carefully monitored and metered artificial light, water, oxygen, and nutrients. Again, no soil. And in this case, no natural sunlight.

What does an AppHarvest tomato taste like? How might an AeroFarms cucumber compare with cucumbers grown in soil, out in the elements? I'm finishing up a Talk to Me About Food podcast about regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture is all about the soil. Rainfall and natural light photosynthesis are the same critical inputs as AppHarvest relies on...the difference is soil. What are we missing if we skip the soil, and the particular piece of land the soil covers?

Well, it's the interaction between the organisms in the soil and the plants growing in that soil that most determines both the taste and nutritive density of the stuff grown. Minerals make a cucumber or tomato taste better and minerals get into the plants through vigorous microbial activity in the soil.

The quality of a vegetable growing in the earth, outside, is also impacted by its interaction with the quantity and quality of light, the wind, humidity, as well as other natural variables and how these factors are variable on any given day or across a growing season. These disruptions build resilience but also add a unique taste profile to what's growing on the land. Carrots and beets benefit from the first touches of cold in the fall. They get sweeter as carbohydrates are released. Growth slows down when the frosts arrive which makes these root vegetables more nutrient-dense too. The cold gets more flavor out of things than summer's heat.

What about the pollinators? They too impact the flavor of what you bite into. I've had melon that tastes of floral lavender and I've sunk my teeth into melon that is almost mushroom earthy.

The symbiotic relationship between root and soil organisms. The climate. The solar and lunar cycles at a given latitude and longitude. The interaction between plant and animal, whether it's a bird or a bee or foraging mammal. This can't all be simulated indoors. I can't help but believe that a tomato grown on a vegetable patch will taste better than one grown indoors. Certainly different.

But I think too there is more to consider here than the taste benefits of a cucumber or tomato grown outdoors in fertile soil - and, by the way, there is evidence that food grown using regenerative agriculture is much more nutrient-dense too. The traditional approach also offers a vital symbol of our connection to nature. A reminder to most of us who are food consumers, not producers, that we are part of this living ecosystem not apart from it. A reminder that we need not envision ourselves forever more sequestered in a bubble where human activities, like food production, are uniform, prescribed, and controlled. LED lights, misters, fans, fertilizers metered out by algorithm-driven timers.

Food grown indoors might taste different, in a good way, or be better in some other way. But it should complement land-grown food, I think. AppHarvest's CEO says that most big scale fruit and vegetable production will end up being done in controlled environments like AppHarvest's. But I hope we can maintain a balance between food grown in the lab or lab-like environments and food grown in the wild of eco-mimicry on land teeming with the full range of flora and fauna above ground and the same, deep biodiversity below ground too. I think a balance is better for the collective physical and mental health of Homo Sapiens. We are still of this Earth.

Maybe my grandmother sought, in a small way, to strive for this balance; to nurture this attenuating connection to nature every spring when she tended to her bay window cucumbers.

Let's not assume that We will allow soils to continue to degrade so that we must rely on soil-free indoor farming, and meat grown in a lab (cell-cultured chicken was approved for sale in Singapore just a few weeks ago).

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  • Ali Tadlaoui

That's the name of a relatively new book I've been reading by Tania Lewis, a professor of Media and Communication. No, the book is not about manufacturing food through 3D printing. "Digital Food - From Paddock to Platform" is a review and analysis of the impact of the digital world many of us spend an increasing amount of time in on many aspects of food and eating. It goes beyond that, actually. Sharing pictures of what you chose from of a lunch menu or what you've made for dinner shares something about you, and does something for you that goes beyond the immediate benefits of eating that particularly compelling plate of food or preparing a noteworthy meal. Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, and other connection points to this digital world are facilitating new and fascinating consumer behavior when it comes to food too.

For one thing, I wasn't aware how many food photos are circulating in cyberspace; how big a behavior this is. There are probably more than 200,000,000 #food posts on Instagram, projecting from what was reported in a 2017 Business.com article cited in this book. The author posits that taking and sharing food photos, as well as images of other everyday objects and occurrences, speaks to a movement towards making our mundane, post-capitalist lives more interesting. That we imbue symbols of "domestic drudgery and housewifery," like meal preparation, with creative expression, pleasure, leisure, and aesthetics.

I can see how we are looking to attach more meaning to more of what we do, especially when the tools make it effortless, and to broadcast this within our circles to help our followers help us define and redefine who we are. A picture of food can be that impactful? I guess so. Five years ago already my niece was expending time and energy curating her social media story. After celebrating a milestone birthday at a place-to-be-seen restaurant I asked her why she hadn't yet posted one of the several pictures she had taken of her plate. She had told me she was waiting for the best time to get the most likes. Food can be a key ingredient in this unrelenting popularity contest, apparently.

I see what sharing food photos does for the sender; a picture of an awesome dessert in front of a smiling, knowing, self-satisfied face showing off glowing skin, braces-free teeth, and a great hair day. But what does it do for a follower on the receiving end? Do you envy the sender for discovering and enjoying this awesome dessert? Does she reaffirm that she's an influencer when it comes to food, and beyond, and that you are truly a follower? I wonder how many of these food photos streaming on your feed spur you to seek out an awesome-looking dessert. Or to ask for the recipe for that whole foods, plant-based lasagne basking on the kitchen island. Maybe it's just more food porn, like what many get out of the impressive scale and breadth of food preparation videos thriving online. YouTube research suggests that 50% of U.S. adults watch food-related videos on YouTube, and a Chinese online cooking video show called Day Day Cook gets between 200 and 250 million views every month.

There's more to it than food porn with food videos online, though. Watching home cooking shows on TV is mostly passive. It's entertainment, whether it's marveling over a celebrity chef's handiwork, or sympathizing with an amateur struggling to reproduce a dish under time constraints. You might look up a couple of recipes and file them away for the right occasion, which may or may not arrive. If, on the other hand, you've determined to make profiteroles, say, for a real occasion, there are a hundred how-to videos online to guide you through the process. (Gordon Ramsey's tutorial has 1.7 million views at last check.) You have the luxury of choice. You can find a famous chef, a non-food celebrity, an amateur cook, or member of your "tribe" that speaks to you. There are different formats too. In addition to on-demand videos, those looking for instruction, inspiration, entertainment, or even community can choose live-streaming, interactive content. The digital world continues to deliver on this over-abundance of choice for consuming food without eating it.

I'm intrigued by a smaller, but growing behavior around meal sharing. There's an app for everything, so, no surprise that there are apps to facilitate meal sharing. At its peak (before shutting down in the pandemic) Home Cook connected home-based cooks - 40,000 of them - with some 3.5 million folks across several Chinese cities willing to pay someone else for a home-cooked meal. Eat With takes a different tack. It offers a platform for an amateur cook or up-and-coming chef to turn their home or other venue into a restaurant of sorts for discrete occasions. It's a dinner party you invite yourself to through the Eat With app. The price tag for one of these events near me is $120/person. Clearly, this is an upscale experience. Not a humble bowl of food delivered by someone in a neighboring high-rise. And then, there are an uncounted number of meal-sharing "pop-ups" enabled by social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp. Imagine a homemaker posting that they're making a batch of something or other over the weekend, maybe a signature lasagne, and then taking orders from folks in their network. It's happening. For a little extra cash. Or to provide meals for free to those in need.

This grey market for prepared meals seems fraught. There is always the threat of health departments cracking down on this food gig worker for not having a license. And as we move beyond the Covid-19 crisis and start adapting to social life that is framed by a heightened awareness of viruses and germs will many of us want to engage in these kinds of meal experiences? How many of us will feel comfortable trusting private cooks, maybe only somewhat more skilled than ourselves in the kitchen, in kitchens not very different from our own, to make and sell us a meal we pick up on the way to or back from work. Some of us will.

On the one hand there are those who take all sorts of risks to endure or enjoy an experience. An elusive or exclusive experience. A meal and the context - the stories that complement the food - that only a few others can also claim to have consumed. Another photo op to share with those from whom they seek validation.

And then there's the struggle for too many in this country to secure their daily bread, while food goes to waste in many other households. Apps that connect those who need a meal with those who can provide one can and will create a necessary exchange platform. I see the opportunity to also connect people who want to eat healthier food but who don't have the means, time, or skills to make more nourishing food with competent cooks who can share an affordable, better-for-you meal.

There's more to the exchange of a meal you've made with someone in your physical proximity whether there's money involved or not. There's the exchange of goodwill that builds with each transaction across a community. Goodwill that makes neighbors out of strangers. I'm reminded of ethnography work we did when I worked on Banquet frozen foods. We saw how frozen and refrigerated foods are stored across several extended family homes because nobody's fridge is big enough. It's a pain, but how many extra bonding visits this creates...

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