Articles Published in The New York Times Magazine
When I was a kid growing up in the early 60’s, anybody could have told you exactly what the future of food was going to look like. We’d seen “The Jetsons,” toured the 1964 World’s Fair, tasted the culinary fruits (or at least fruit flavors) of the space program, and all signs pointed to a single outcome: the meal in a pill, washed down, perhaps, with next-generation Tang.
The first time I opened Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation,” I was dining alone at the Palm, trying to enjoy a rib-eye steak cooked medium-rare. If this sounds like a good recipe for cognitive dissonance (if not indigestion), that was sort of the idea. Preposterous as it might seem, to supporters of animal rights, what I was doing was tantamount to reading “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on a plantation in the Deep South in 1852.
Garden City, Kan., missed out on the suburban building boom of the postwar years. What it got instead were sprawling subdivisions of cattle. These feedlots—the nation’s first—began rising on the high plains of western Kansas in the 50’s, and by now developments catering to cows are far more common here than developments catering to people.
The way we think about and deal with pollution has always been governed by the straightforward rules of chemistry. You clean the stuff up or let it fade with time. But what do you do about a form of pollution that behaves instead according to the rules of biology? Such a pollutant would have the ability to copy itself over and over again, so that its impact on the environment would increase with time rather than diminish. Now you’re talking about a problem with, quite literally, a life of its own.
New technologies can bring mankind great benefits, but they can also cause accidental harm. How careful should society be about introducing innovations that have the potential to affect human health and the environment? For the last several decades, American society has been guided by the “risk analysis” model, which assesses new technologies by trying to calculate the mathematical likelihood that they will harm the public. There are other ways, however, to think about this problem. Indeed, a rival idea from Europe, the “precautionary principle 2/3″ has just begun making inroads in America.
Almost overnight, the amount and variety of organic food on offer in my local supermarket has mushroomed. Fresh produce, milk, eggs, cereal, frozen food, even junk food—all of it now has its own organic doppelganger, and more often than not these products wind up in my shopping cart. I like buying organic, for the usual salad of rational and sentimental reasons. At a time when the whole food system feels somewhat precarious, I assume that a product labeled organic is more healthful and safer, more “wholesome,” though if I stop to think about it, I’m not exactly sure what that means. I also like the fact that by buying organic, I’m casting a vote for a more environmentally friendly kind of agriculture: “Better Food for a Better Planet,” in the slogan of Cascadian Farm, one of the older organic brands.
For a while there, it looked as if this might be the year it never happened, but the gardening season has arrived at last. Last week the peas went in, finally, and today I’ll plant potatoes. Nights are still way too cold to put out the tender vegetables—tomatoes and the like—but on my windowsills their seedlings are already pressing against the pane, leaning into the strengthening sun and the traffic of bees building outside.
Unless I’m missing something, the aim of the biotechnology industry’s audacious new advertising campaign is to impale people like me—well-off first worlders dubious about genetically engineered food—on the horns of a moral dilemma. Have you seen these ads? Over a speedy montage of verdant rice paddies, smiling Asian kids and kindly third-world doctors, a caring voice describes something called golden rice and its promise to “help prevent blindness and infection in millions of children” suffering from vitamin-A deficiency.
Whenever I go to the supermarket these days, I collect labels. No, I’m not saving up box tops in order to get a decoder ring from Battle Creek. The sort of labels I collect now promise something else, a slightly different decoding. Each of them tells me a little story about where the food I’m buying comes from and how it has been produced.
History is written by the victors, it’s often said, but what about natural history? This invariably gets written by one human being or another, no matter what species’ triumph it trumpets, for the altogether trivial reason that (so far as we know) humans do all the writing around here. But what if it were otherwise? What if, let’s say, the plant perspective were brought to bear on the events of the past year? My guess is that the death of one Claude Hope, a man you’ve probably never heard of, would rank as a big, big story.