To follow by Email (RSS Feed)

Friday, May 8, 2015

Does Science Belong On Your Dinner Plate?

(Originally published on Forbes 5/5/15

I was recently asked to give a talk in Toronto addressing this question: “Does science belong on my plate?” The quick answer is:

“No, because Science isn’t a “thing” you can serve or eat. Science is really a verb - a process, a method, a conversation.”

A longer, better answer is:

“There is a rich history of innovation and change in the human food supply extending over millennia. More recent innovation examples that have been achieved using sound science are a continuation of that tradition. They certainly belong on our plates.”

Many consumers have the impression that, until recently, food and food production was something little changed. This mistaken view is understandable considering modern society’s isolation from the production of food, and marketers’ penchant for using romanticized imagery and narratives to sell food products.

This is a great bread product, but that image has nothing to do with how the wheat for that is produced today.

The truth is that innovation and change have been central to food and farming throughout human history - both before and during the scientific era. One of my goals as a new Forbes contributor will be to tell some of the stories behind interesting and important innovations that have changed what is “on our plates” in very positive ways.

Feast or Famine

From the beginning, a fundamental challenge for humanity has been that sources of food tend to be either over-abundant or scarce. Thus, innovations around food storage and preservation have been key to our survival (e.g. drying, salting, pickling, cheese making, fermentation…). Even the ancient storage of dry grains involved innovations like using herbs to line the urns to reduce damage from insect pests.
Cold storage has been used to spread-out the supply of food beginning with caves or cellars. Later people used stored ice from the winter, and eventually came up with refrigeration. Susanne Freidberg’s excellent book, Fresh, describes just how transformative and controversial the innovation of mechanical refrigeration was as it was slowly adopted around the turn of the 20th century.


Another major theme of human food-supply innovation has been “genetic modification.” The “natural,” pre-domesticated forms of our food plants are barely recognizable vs their modern forms. Over millennia, humans consciously or unconsciously selected for more desirable specimens, and in so doing, they achieved dramatic genetic changes even with no understanding of the underlying biology. While this worked well for grains and vegetables, a few thousand years ago people realized that you cannot propagate a desirable specimen of a tree or vine by replanting its seeds, because they don’t grow up to be the same as the parent. So, people innovated various ways to “clone” these desirable cultivars – rooting, grafting, budding etc. A “transgenic” innovation of that category saved the European grape industry in the 1870s when it was on the verge of collapse due to a deadly new pest. The innovated solution was to use American grape species as the protective rootstock on which to graft venerable varieties of the traditional species, Vitis vinifera. That system still protects virtually all of the world’s grapes today.
This cool vineyard I saw in Sicily a few weeks ago survives because it is on American rootstock

In the last century, increasing scientific understanding has enabled continued innovation to enhance the food supply in terms of quality and availability. By better understanding plant physiology, innovative controlled atmosphere storage systems were developed that have greatly enhanced our access to fresh fruits throughout the year. Similar packaging and shipping innovations have reduced post-harvest waste and expanded value-added, “fresh cut” options for consumers. Science-based advances in chemistry, biology, and toxicology have enabled innovative new methods of crop pest management with far better health and environmental profiles. Rapidly advancing understanding of genetics has enabled a growing and increasingly precise “tool box” for crop innovation (cross breeding, hybridization, wide crosses, mutation breedinggenetic engineeringmarker assisted selectiongenome editing).
The long tradition of food and agricultural innovation continues, enhanced by the application of the scientific method.  So, yes – “science” in that form certainly belongs on our plates.  I'm happy to talk about this in the comments here and/or at