We Don't Need Silicon Valley to Reinvent Our Food

By Mike Elgan  |  Posted 2014-10-07 Print this article Print

The new high-tech revolution is in some respects a competitor to the real-food revolution, represented by the Michael Pollans, Alice Waters, Jamie Olivers and Mark Bittmans of the world.

I'll throw my lot in with these folks long before I do the Silicon Valley crowd. The reason is that they base their food philosophies on increasing nature's role in our diet, on reviving traditional growing and food preparation techniques—not replacing nature based on the false and hubristic belief that we understand human and environmental biology well enough to replace it with fake food.

After Louis Pasteur, food was considered healthy if it was sterilized or semi-sterilized. Science has recently learned that human health requires the ingestion of countless living microbes.

After Umetaro Suzuki first isolated Vitamin C—and later each vitamin in turn was discovered—food scientists assumed that fruits and vegetables were mere delivery vessels for vitamins. The roles of fiber, phytochemicals and other elements were later found to be essential.

Each generation in turn has its assumptions about food based on the science of the day—upon which the entire food system is based at any point in history—and each generation overturns the last one's assumptions about food.

Long story short: Silicon Valley doesn't know enough about plant, animal and human biology to invent food that replaces natural food. They proceed as if all that can be discovered has already been discovered. Yet this assumption is surely false. Food and health discoveries are accelerating.

Yes, there's a huge role for technology in the future of foods. Weed-pulling robots, food containers that indicate spoilage and the application of big data to managing inventories to make food both fresher and cheaper are very welcome examples of what's possible when your goal is better real food rather than an ambivalence about whether the food is real or not.

We also need Silicon Valley's expertise and money urgently to address the growing crises from the last high-tech food revolutions, including what GMOs and industrial agriculture in general have created, such as the growing problems of superweeds, superpests, soil degradation and erosion, and bee colony-collapse disorder.

We need to convert wasted resources into food-producing land. The U.S. has more land devoted to lawns and grass than farming.

And we need to teach kids about producing and preparing food so we can stop relying so much on unhealthy, environment-destroying food systems and stop throwing half our food in the trash. Education about food is practically nonexistent.

I'm a huge fan of Silicon Valley culture in particular and technology in general. But I don't support the entry by technology companies and leaders into the food industry with the goal of creating artificial foods.

Silicon Valley is far too aggressive and hubristic about innovation for us to actually eat their products. Silicon Valley innovation is all about iteration—get something out there and tweak as you go along.

That's the wrong approach with food.

Food innovation requires humility before nature, and respect for tradition—not Silicon Valley's let's-cancel-everything-and-start-over mentality.

I want real food. Not venture-funded Frankenfood.



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