Nicholas Thompson: I started working with Amanda trying to kill her. I gave her a story that forced her to travel 200 miles by helicopter to an oil rig. for a feature for WIRED.
AL: Yes, it was in 2007. I had discovered Xanax, which was really a good timing for me because I was in a very small helicopter for a very long time.
NT: So let's start there. It was for a project on oil reporting. You spent several years working on this subject, then you went to the food. Tell me why.
AL: I followed the interests of my readers. I made this first book titled Power Trip: The story of a love story between America and the energy in 2008. And everywhere I went for a book tour, people wanted to talk about food. As George Bernard Shaw said: "There is no simpler love than the love of food." It's a subject that unites people and we do it every day, three times a day. And it was actually very liberating to eat from the outside, not as a gourmand or gourmand. This has allowed me a lot of freedom to understand how this is so emotional for people and why there is such a polarized discussion about the future of sustainable food.
NT: The hypothesis was: "Climate change is the struggle of our time, and the most important element of its consequences that we can handle is food"?
AL: Well, the main way that most people on the planet Earth will experience climate change is by its impact on food. And I really found it surprising. We have heard so much on forest fires and mega drought and all the problems related to climate change. But that's Jerry Hatfield, a USDA scientist, who said the biggest disruption caused by climate change would occur in food systems because there would be specific to the region: droughts, flood, intolerable heat. There will be uninhabitable regions of the Earth and the global food system will be fully integrated. In the United States, we import more than half of our fruits. In other parts of the world, we depend so much on the food we love, not to mention, for example, coffee and chocolate.
NT: The book begins with a surprising finding: we insist that water enters through the West Side Highway, but we should really worry about the food.
AL: I reported this in all these different places – apple and corn farms and aquaculture facilities – it seemed to me that climate change was something that we could taste. We are at this moment where we are witnessing assault on climate science of the White House, and the consequences are so intimate. Corn and soybean producers currently in the Midwest are dealing with flood in their fields. Italy lacked olive oil a few months ago because of extreme weather conditions. The 20 million smallholder coffee growers in the world are facing the pressures not only of heat, but also of the way they plant coffee. People are listening, because we make strawberries and Chardonnay is at stake. I do not know what would happen. the GDP in the United States if we could not get a steady supply of black roast. But with us, it would be catastrophic.
NT: Help me understand a framework for the most endangered crops and why. Because there are surely others who are more durable, who can survive in extreme cold, extreme heat and can move at the same time as agricultural areas.
AL: Nutrient-rich, high-grade crops are incredibly versatile. Coffee is an excellent example of a crop that needs very specific conditions to succeed. I think there are nine major coffee producing countries in the world. And there are countries like Vietnam where coffee production is huge and large-scale, which is relatively new. But single-origin artisanal coffee crops are highly endangered. Stone fruits, for example, and vineyards are under threat because they are places where you can not repopulate every year or every season. It takes six years to plant a new olive tree and retrieve it online. The fruits, especially the stone fruits and the tree fruits, worried me a lot, and it was not just here. There was a storm that swept all the flowers and devastated the harvest. It is in fact subtle changes of seasons, because this tree is confused and thinks that it is the spring and the summer in February or January and that it blooms. Then a normal freeze comes in and erases everything.
NT: So everything is in danger, but are the good things the most risky?
AL: Yes, the delicious stuff rich in nutrients. I was doing research on this Guatemalan coffee plantation and this guy was taking me to his 500-acre coffee plantation, which has been owned by his family for five generations. I was at the lowest level of production ever because of the mushroom rust of coffee. He is a 38-year-old coffee farmer and his entire heritage has never experienced this kind of pressure.
NT: Okay, I'm depressed. But this book is actually very optimistic. Would you say it's an optimistic book?
AL: It was really exciting for me when Julia Louis-Dreyfus decided to edit the book. And then she said, "Amanda Little is unyielding about hope." I mean, I am personally very optimistic. This story of "We lack food" is as old as civilization, right? I think this instinct of survival that has manifested itself historically is put to use. And that's what interested me. I mean, these are the people I met: scientists, engineers and farmers who were adapting and thinking about how to adapt.
NT: And so it's at the heart of the book: the stories of people using science and technology to solve these problems. Let's start with an interesting question: what is your position on GMOs and tell me how it has evolved?
AL: Yes, I have somehow addressed this issue with the same assumptions that many of us have about GMOs. But I wanted to get out of the American context and I told this story in Kenya and I went to laboratories where they work on GMOs for a different purpose.
The problem with GMOs right now is that the application of technology is really debatable. The big GMO crop is called Roundup Ready. It's Corn Roundup Ready, it has been planted on millions of acres. And, basically, Monsanto has designed crops that can tolerate chemicals such as glyphosate. So you can apply tons and tons of chemicals to these plants and they will not die, but the weeds will be. But you can also use genetic editing and editing to help plants adapt to more realistic or more necessary and urgent pressures, such as drought. For example, the scientists I interviewed in Kenya were working on drought resistance, insect resistance, which is very useful for farmers who can not buy pesticides. And they said, "Look, you can eat with this attitude that GMOs are terrible and we have to label the corn chips, but for us it's a matter of survival."
We genetically manipulate plant genomes since the beginning of agriculture. And so the notion that GMOs give us that ability to tinker with the essence of life that is more dramatic or pervasive than any other type of conventional breeding is bullshit. Because that's what reproduction has been since the beginning of time. We select fruits and vegetables that are sweeter, bigger and juicier for thousands of years. And that 's why we ended up with our food system today.
NT: So you go past two garbage cans. We say without GMOs. We have GMOs. You reach the principle of GMOs?
AL: Well, I'll tell you I do not want corn chips grown with a ton of glyphosate. My problem with the GMO corn chip is not that it is GMO. And by the way, we have been eating GMOs for almost two and a half decades. But I do not want corn that contains a ton of agrochemicals in my food.
NT: So let's stop for a second. I totally agree: we have been handling genomes since the beginning of time. But is there a line not to cross? Is there anything we should not do when manipulating plant genomes?
AL: Yes absolutely.
NT: What is the moral line?
AL: Well, Dole, for example, just came out with the pink pineapple, where they slipped a rose gene.
NT: You are against genetic modification for aesthetic reasons?
AL: I just think it's a frivolous use of a very important technology.
NT: Let's talk about some of the other technologies you are writing about. We have vertical agriculture, 3D printing of food, meat grown in the laboratory. Let's talk about lab-grown meat because you've eaten it. How did he taste?
NT: Explain what it was, explain its taste and explain what the future is all about.
AL: Well, let me go back to the beginning of this story, because I started telling this story to Tyson Foods, who had started investing in Memphis Meats, the company I focused on in the end. So why are these people investing in this disruptive technology? And Tom Hayes, who was then CEO of Tyson, said, "We do not want to be Kodak." So I told this story and I asked Tyson's CEO to say, "If we can grow meat without this animal, why would not we do that?" And I called my editor and it was: "Oh my god, the CEO of Tyson just told me, for example, if we can grow meat without animals, why would not we do it? We do that?" And so we made that big splash. A month later, Tom Hayes was at his post.
What they invest in these alternative technologies to meat is negligible compared to what they invest in the 2.3 billion animals slaughtered each year. Tyson is the largest meat producer by far in the United States. So, it's not like they're jumping into meat substitutes, but the fact is that they say they're a protein company, not a meat meat company.
NT: Let's talk about the duck bioreactor.
AL: Uma Valeti, who is at the forefront of this movement of laboratory meat, or cell-based meat movement, has invited me to his office to try this meat. And it was a small piece of duck that was to produce 600 or 700 dollars. But in three years, the cost of this equipment has been reduced by hundreds of thousands of dollars, at least half a million dollars for a pound of this bioreactor. Whatever it is, I've toasted this thing in a small saucepan of Memphis meat labs on a small hotplate. And he did not stop saying, "Feel the aroma, you do not get it, you know, a veggie burger", which is true, it smelled very strong. And these cells seemed alive. In fact, they were contracting, bending and doing these things of which they were living cells before being deprived of oxygen and dying, and I ate them. They are real living cells, they are real scary cells that are simply not attached to a brain. And they are not sensitive, but living cells. And so, they are molecularly identical to the cells that come from the meat that you harvest from a sensitive animal. It was very duck. And it was very fleshy.
We are at a time when extraordinary and improbable things are happening, partly because we are responding to extraordinary and implausible pressures. And that was the story for me. Who knows if we are going to have a future with live meat? And if I'm going to feed my kids, I do not know. I can not predict if this thing will succeed. The fact that this happens and that billions of dollars are invested in this type of research is what pushed me, chapter by chapter, to meet these people.
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(tagsToTranslate) food (t) Climate change</pre></pre>