Having reinvented information gathering, social interaction, business, finance and many other areas of human life, Silicon Valley now wants to reinvent food.
The whole venture-funded, startup-driven, engineering-focused system that brought us Apple, Google and Facebook is now turning its attention to inventing meat grown in a lab from cow stem cells, artificial salt, 3D-printed fruit and beverages that can nutritionally replace all solid foods, and many other such research projects.
These companies are brazenly Silicon Valleyish in their orientations. One artificial meat company is called Sand Hill Foods (Sand Hill Road in Palo Alto, Calif., is the epicenter of the high-tech venture capital community in the valley).
Meanwhile, an artificial egg-based food company called Hampton Creek Foods (backed by Khosla Ventures, Bill Gates and Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund) says it’s not a food company at all, but a technology company.
Silicon Valley companies are inherently (and aggressively) expansionist. When they conquer one market, they want another. And another. And another.
And now they’ve set their sights on your dinner plate.
As a technologist, foodie and health nut, I’m here to tell you that this is a terrible idea. I don’t want Silicon Valley to reinvent food. Here’s why.
Tech companies exist to find things wrong with the world and set it right through the creative application of new technology. The companies behind these new approaches to food say they’re solving the problems of environmental destruction by the food industry, cruelty to animals, world hunger, and the hassle of making and eating food.
One thing all these startups have in common is the desire to make food that lies. They want to make food that appears to be one thing but in fact is something completely different.
The startups are already green-washing and health-washing these products to consumers. The Websites and marketing show happy people in natural settings eating natural foods—all to sell some very unnatural foods.
And I think it’s likely that they’ll scaremonger consumers into accepting it, too. Using the triple threat of the global health crisis, climate change, and overpopulation and famine, they may imply that radical science, engineering and big data applied to the creation of science-fiction fake foods is humanity’s only salvation.
But I don’t trust Silicon Valley with our food and our health.
They have already demonstrated a perfect indifference to our health and wellbeing. One small example: lights. Our countless gadgets, such as smartphones, smartwatches, alarm-clock phone docks, surge protectors, TV boxes, electric toothbrushes—you name it—callously display bright lights all night while we sleep.
The fact that such lights at night have been linked in countless studies to cancer, diabetes, heart disease, depression and obesity is both mainstream information and also completely and callously ignored by the tech industry. If they want to improve health, start by turning those lights off.
Silicon Valley likes to use the word “disruption.” It means taking something that’s been working for many years and going along fine, and wrecking it for some shiny new thing. Yes, Silicon Valley would disrupt the world of processed industrial junk food. But they might also disrupt the growing real-food movement.
We Don’t Need Silicon Valley to Reinvent Our Food
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.