Soylent Slushies and Tractor Tech: Brian Halweil on Our Food Future

While I might tell myself that ChickieNobs and Happicuppa beans are born of the imagination of novelist Margaret Atwood, the real marriage of technology and food is already as advanced as it is in any dystopian fiction. In an amazing three-hour dinner presentation at Almond restaurant’s Artists & Writers Night in Bridgehampton this week, Edible publisher and editor in cheif Brian Halweil detailed a world in which food remains at the epicenter of our human life while simultaneously becoming more detached from eons-old human culture.

The evening started with a questionnaire, printed appropriately on the back of our menu, in which we were asked to rate our response to Halweil’s talk before, during, and after, on a scale of 1 for “excited/happy” to 5 for “creeped out.” I fully admit to being creeped-out before he uttered a word, thinking of the Atwood trilogy I’ve read twice over. But, hoping for a more optimistic view, I replaced that high number with a more average one.

Halweil, my very smart, very balanced publisher, analyzed everything from “cultured” foods (aforementioned ChickieNobs), GMOs and world hunger, to rent-a-tractors in Africa, OpenTable apps, and the uniquely American notion of seeing food as a time-wasting burden rather than an ingrained part of our shared human existence. Interestingly, perhaps the most audible gasp from the audience came when it was suggested that, in the very near future, restaurants would track your orders and create customized menus when you arrived: in other words, an Erica-Lynn Huberty menu would not look like a Brian Halweil menu, at Almond. Far from being thought of as a smart business idea, the diners present were visibly upset that—like some chess game robot—the eating experience would be void of two things basic to human existence: variety and curiosity.

At my table was siting a natural foods store manager, an architect, an IT consultant, a physical therapist and a yoga instructor who works in integrative medicine. While we noted how technology could help assist in efforts to eat better and more sustainably, all of us grew increasingly terrified at how easy it has been for big business to gobble-up this technology in order to continue to monopolize farming and eradicate safer, integrated ways of growing food. A weather app for farmers might be a good idea, but not if it is acquired by Monsanto (it has been) in order to force those farmers into agribusiness models and materials. And, as for the time-worn argument that we can “feed the world” with these technologies, the short answer is: Over the last two decades that these tools have been in place, we haven’t even come close to feeding the world or enabling it to feed itself.

Chef Jason Weiner’s miraculously palatable presentation of the lifeless and tasteless “complete meal” shake, made from Soylent, has never made frosted flakes feel so appropriate or necessary.

By the time our Soylent Slushy desert was served—chef Jason Weiner’s miraculously palatable presentation of the lifeless and tasteless “complete meal” shake (frosted flakes have never felt so appropriate or necessary)—my head was spinning with information, and with fear. Fear for our bodies, our ecosystems, our civilization. On the way home, I conceded to my husband, “I can see how fish burgers, delicious while reversing 60 percent of the depletion of sea life, is a really great idea” before remembering that millions of Brits since the Victorian era have eaten similarly out of sheer frugality. “And, even though this evening made me want to grow even more of our own food in our garden,” I noted, “I could see where one of those weather thingies you stick in the soil to tell you how its doing would be helpful.” My husband merely glanced, silently, at me. “Then again,” I muttered, “the Montaukets and Shinnecock didn’t seem to need those little gadgets to grow the food they needed.” He nodded.

Days later, what stayed with me were two basic concepts. One is that—like the Googling that weakens our memories even as it fills us with more knowledge—as we gravitate towards the lab and further from the soil, we need more technology to counter the loss of knowledge we are imposing on ourselves. And the other was this simple, sage comment from Halweil about the farm-to-table movement. “Farm-to-table has taken root in our larger American culture,” he said. “Yet there’s a risk of understanding it, and not implementing it.