“Technology can help us feed the world, if we look beyond profit”
MIT Technology Review, December 18, 2020
The Food Issue
by Fabio Parasecoli
“This is what happens when a system fine-tuned for efficiency, productivity, and profit collides with a shock. ”
We won’t easily forget how we worried about food in the first days of the pandemic: empty shelves, scarce products, and widespread hoarding became an alarming reality around the world. While being reassured that the disruptions were “temporary,” Americans also heard troubling news about farmers plowing crops back into their fields, dairy farmers pouring milk into the sewers, meatpacking plants shutting down. Meanwhile, lines at soup kitchens and food banks grew.
As it turns out, these failures derived from built-in features of our food system. It was cheaper to destroy crops than harvest and process them when bulk buyers like schools and catering businesses all but suspended purchases. Dairies set up for selling big volume weren’t equipped to shift their packaging machines to consumer-sized containers. Meatpacking plants revved up to meet demand—a situation that required as many workers as possible to crowd in along processing lines. Predictably, many fell ill, and plants across the country were forced to shutter.
The shock of the virus’s first wave exposed the inner workings of our interconnected system of food creation and delivery—and its weak spots—to many of us who’d never given it a second thought. That system is, of course, a result of decades’ worth of technological advances, from globe-spanning shipping and refrigeration networks to commodity markets (running on high-speed internet and massive cloud-computing infrastructure) that provide the capital to make it all run. There may yet be more unpleasant surprises in store for millions of people around the world as the pandemic plays out. But this moment offers us an opportunity to examine how we got to this point, and how to change things for the better.
The cost of growth
Simply put, the modern food system is a product of the forces inherent in free-market capitalism. Decisions on where to invest in technological research and where to apply its fruits have been guided by the drive for ever greater efficiency, productivity, and profit.
And criticizing the mass production of food per se is misguided. It is indeed a very flawed endeavor that produces a lot of calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods. But it is not doomed to ruin our planet and our well-being. Not if we make choices that take factors other than profit into account.
The value of values
The shutdown of slaughtering and meatpacking plants in response to covid-19 caused troubles upstream, forcing farmers to kill and dispose of livestock that were too expensive to feed without the certainty of sales. This is what happens when a system fine-tuned for efficiency, productivity, and profit collides with a shock.
These are profoundly political choices. They should not be left to supposedly self-regulating economic mechanisms or to the quest for ever greater efficiency and productivity. Such priorities need to be balanced with others to ensure the greatest possible human benefit, rather than merely the greatest possible profit. That will require active participation from governments, activists, international organizations, research institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and representatives of local communities … the kind of authentic, democratic coalition that would please even the most demanding “food movement” devotee.
About the Author:
Fabio Parasecoli is a professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University.
- MIT Technology Review, The Food Issue, January 2021.
Technology has made food cheap, plentiful, tasty, and novel—but not for everybody, and not always for the good of the planet. How can we put our tools to better use?