Archives for category: Food

At nine years old, Nathan Myhrvold thought he’d try to do something he hadn’t done before. So he went to the library, carried home as many cookbooks as his little arms could tote and made Thanksgiving dinner for the whole family. By fourteen, he’d graduated high school. By 23, he’d earned two masters degrees and a Ph.D. from Princeton – in theoretical and mathematical physics. He’s studied under Stephen Hawking and, up until 1999, worked for Bill Gates at Microsoft as the company’s chief technology officer. He’s a multimillionaire and part-time paleontologist (who just so happened to systematically, methodically stumble upon 9 previously undiscovered T. Rex specimens) and wildlife photographer and car racer and skydiver and volcanologist and all-around world-changer (check out his ideas for handling global warming and preventing malaria) .

Oh, he’s also a chef who’s even published a cookbook.  By now, you probably expect me to say something like, ‘But not just any chef – Myhrvold has a World Barbecue Championship under his belt; and not just any chef with a cookbook – Myhrvold’s recently released work has just been inducted into the cookbook Hall of Fame.’ Which would be right.

I can’t afford to buy the book, so this isn’t a review. But something tells me that a cookbook on the ins and outs of what some call ‘molecular gastronomy’ to the chagrin of the ‘molecular gastronomists’ (who, I hear, would prefer their field to be called something else, like Modernist Cuisine, which Myhrvold, of course, understands), is sure to be as high-charged and prodigious as its author (overseer would perhaps be more appropriate, since not even Nathan Myhrvold can compile a six-volume, 2,400 page, $625 tome all by himself).

And if the hype is any indication, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, might be as era-defining as Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. But I think I know of an even better indication of how effective this volume will both channel and shape the present culinary culture.

If you’re fortunate and curious enough to purchase a cookbook for about the same amount of money that you’d spend on a 40 inch flat panel plasma television, when you’re done browsing (what I think will be its) glossy, super cool, kick-ass pages, tell me whether or not you actually cooked something from them. Any answer would be revealing.

In the wake of the recent E. coli outbreak that’s spreading across Europe and threatening to reach a global tipping point, Food & Water Watch’s Factory Farm Map (which I came across on their blog) has a fresh relevance. E. coli, or Escherichia coli, so named after Theodor Escherich, the German-Austrian pediatrician who discovered it, is a bacterium found in the lower intestines of warm-blooded organisms and an important part of poop. This is vital to a basic understanding of the developing controversy, since neither Spanish cucumbers nor German bean-sprouts have the ability to excrete feces. You’d think that this fact might suffice for the vegetables’ immediate exoneration. However, this doesn’t appear to be the case.

First Causes First

E. coli didn’t come from real farms; it came from factory farm feedlots, where “cattle and other ruminants (animals with hooves)” are “crowded together in tight conditions and cannot carry out normal behaviors such as grazing, rooting, and pecking” (Food, Inc.). In order to mitigate the sickness and disease that these conditions create, the animals are perpetually pumped with “low-doses of antibiotics (lower than the amount used to treat an actual disease or infection)” via the food they eat and the water they drink. The problem with these antibiotics, of course, is that they encourage resistance among bacteria like E. coli; turning an organism that normally resides in human intestines without starting too much drama, into the stepchild from hell.

There are basically two ways that a bacterium that originates in animal shit can end up contaminating innocent vegetables and, thus, the humans who consume them: Fertilizer and Irrigation. If the animal manure to fertilize crops isn’t composted before it’s used—hello Mr. Coli. If crops are irrigated or cleaned with water that’s been contaminated with animal waste—hello Mr. Coli.

This is a very simplified way of saying that the real culprits behind the recent E. coli outbreak aren’t the ones the authorities are pursuing. Rather than scouring the earth for errant greenery, a  more permanent solution to industrial food outbreaks would be to dismantle the industrialized food system completely (starting with CAFOs or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, née factory farms), and replace it with a more localized, decentralized food system that’s more resilient, more robust and more adaptable to uncertainty.

This, of course, although seemingly the most logical solution, is so untenable that it’s barely even discussed as a viable option—in part, perhaps, because it may not be viable, since one drastic, albeit well-intentioned, move in our complex, interrelated global apparatus might ignite a host of negative unforeseen reactions.

As Bill Marler comments in Mark Bittman’s insightful piece in The New York Times:

What you can say is that cows fed DDGs” – distillers’ grains with solubles, a by-product of distillation, including ethanol production, which I’ll write about at some point – “may have a higher level than cows that weren’t fed them. If you’re anti-CAFO” (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or factory farms) “and anti-corn subsidies, you jump from that study to ‘get rid of this and you get rid of e-coli,’ and it would be great if things were that simple but they’re not.”

Nothing’s that simple anymore. We live in a very uncertain world, the complexity of which makes it that much more uncertain. You don’t dismantle a house of cards by starting with its foundation, which is a partial explanation to why most pundits and experts, even when attempting to address the fundamental problems with our present food system, rarely go past offering topical solutions for dealing with the present outbreak (irradiation, anyone?).

So What?

It would appear that we’ve come upon an impasse for trying to effectively and meaningfully handle crises like the E. coli outbreak. As the 2008 banking crisis demonstrated, the most fundamental solutions to systemic problems – let the banks fail, let the automakers tank, ban factory farms – often amount to the end of not only the separate systems these big institutions have corrupted, but the very civilization that undergirds them. There’s no Charlie Trotter’s or McDonald’s or Subway or even Chipotle’s (and the jobs that come with them) without the industrialized food system; there’s no food aid to poor countries without the industrialized food system; there’s no supermarket without the industrialized food system; in fact, there’s not enough food, period, to support some seven billion people without the industrialized food system. At least for now.

But would-be problem-solvers aren’t completely hopeless. Just because we can’t viably dismantle the entire industrialized food system tomorrow doesn’t mean that we can’t call for measures that seek one), to dismantle the system strategically and carefully over the long-run and in stages that would allow us to absorb the consequences and two), represent sustainable, robust and workable alternatives to the system that was phased out. This means subsidizing organic and/or locally-grown and/or hormone- and antibiotic-free food producers, while taxing big industrial producers whose operations sicken the earth and the people who live on it.

This is the logic behind certain energy policies. We’ve seen the consequences of carbon dioxide in the environment and there’s a critical mass of world decision-makers who at least tacitly admit that something should be done. Hence, the carbon and sulfur taxes for big industrial polluters and subsidies for clean, alternative energy producers.

And yet, instead of being subsidized, organically grown bean sprouts get punished for a problem that large-scale meat producers unleashed. The problem will only mushroom (pun intended) until big meat producers are made to pay the real costs of their mistakes, which will only become deadlier and more frequent as the global appetite for steak and sirloin grows exponentially each year.

Jorge Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images

Spanish cucumbers, once considered along with German bean sprouts to be a likely suspect in the recent outbreak in Germany of a particularly deadly new strain of E. Coli, have been acquitted on all charges, the BBC reported last week. In light of the acquittal, the cucumbers are suing for defamation and demanding to be compensated for the approximately €200 million in expected revenues lost.