An expert on the future of food responds to JoeAnn Hart’s “Good Job, Robin.”
The first time I seriously considered crickets as the food of the future was in late 2015 during a presentation by undergraduates. Their policy proposal outlining how the adoption of insect protein in the Los Angeles Area could help insulate the region from some of the impacts of climate-change included a tasting of a recent-to-market, paleo-friendly, cricket-based protein bar. As I sunk my teeth into the slightly gummy, peanut-buttery bite being passed around the classroom, my mind flashed between the grim food futures presented in science fiction novels and the much smaller collection of hopeful fiction portrayals of delicious future feasts. What is it about our contemporary anxieties that makes it so easy to imagine such dystopic food futures?
Perhaps, as JoAnn Hart’s short cli-fi piece “Good Job, Robin” suggests, the seeds of those grim food futures lie in reports streaming across our feeds of viruses devastating banana farms, wilting vineyards in California, or a future with drastically altered coffee and chocolate supplies. The Extinction Emergency, as Hart calls it, is brooding both stage left and right. It’s so large that the curtains can no longer hide its presence.
Enter crickets. In the past decade climate advocates and body builders across the United States have turned to these tiny, chirping insects as a possible route toward salvation from the excesses of meat-eating society. Yet seeing crickets as salvation requires a distinctly 20th-century set of trifocals: nutritional reductionism, consumer activism, and Western culinary exceptionalism.
The 20th century witnessed a massive change in how eaters made sense of their food. Nineteenth-century discoveries that foods contained quantifiable amounts of energy—with carbohydrates and proteins offering 4 calories per gram while fat offered 9 calories per gram—opened the door to top-down population-feeding strategies. Once those in power came to understand food as fuel, feeding the population moved from a riot- or revolution-preventing necessity to an economic tool capable of building nations. Just as one could quantify the amount of coal needed to move a train a certain distance, one could calculate the ideal amount of energy a working adult would need. Early 20th-century researchers added insights that foods also contained micronutrients, which, although devoid of calories, were critically vital to human health.
Not surprisingly, what folks ate gained a new moral valence. Adequate nutrition meant a body capable of contributing to a country’s economic success, while incomplete nutrition threatened not only individual bodies, but also the health of the nation. Over the 20th century, this calculus intertwined with economic pushes, war efforts, shifting body ideals, and the industrialization of food production to offer up Corn Flakes touted for their ability to cure cancer, pasta with omega-3 fatty acids, and more recently, a booming supply of protein supplements. This nutrient-based moral economy reduces the value of food to its macro and micronutrients. Left behind? The social and cultural aspects of breaking the same bread, together, as well as the awareness of combining different plant-based foods to meet nutritional needs.
Nutritional reductionism does not transform crickets into a form of salvation on its own. It gains force when paired with consumer activism, the effort to make a difference in the world through the aggregation of individual choices. In this world, fighting climate change happens at the policy-making table, and in the grocery store aisle where a range of new foods offer buyers the opportunity to, as Beyond Meat’s current marketing puts it, “Take your health beyond” to “feed a better future.” By harnessing the premise of nutritional reductionism—that foods can be successfully broken down to their constituent bits of macro- and micronutrient data and then rebuilt—companies invite people to sidestep the hard work of making any major changes in individual behaviors. Given the close links between plastic packaging, the petrochemical industry, and industrial food production, the salvific narrative currently on offer by meat replacements that slot directly into current food systems is suspect, at best.
Indeed, without Western culinary exceptionalism crickets would already be just another food on the table alongside ants, grubs, and the maligned cockroaches and rats that Hart’s main character, Isaura, notes even she wouldn’t eat. After all, crickets already fit within food systems. Promoters of insect consumption from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to food policy think tanks point out that people all over the world currently consume insects as a normal part of their diet. Many insects are a better source of complete protein (containing all amino acids necessary for human health) than animal food per gram of weight. Despite this fact, and the decade plus of promoting insects as food in festivals, television specials, and official reports, a distinct division exists: for many North Americans and Western Europeans, insects remain foods eaten by—although few may be so gauche as to say it—others.
Cultures and religious groups share a long history of using culinary borders to divide self from other. During the 20th century, the culinary borders for many living in Europe and North American solidified: French haute cuisine came to culturally define “good taste” while pure food movements resulted in new regulatory structures bounding what could and could not be legally food. Historians and psychologists are still overturning the rocks hiding why insect breeders focused on crickets. I suspect they will point us to a combination of positive media portrayals (Mulan and A Psalm for the Wild Built offer recent examples), pleasant memories of cricket-filled summer nights, and the protein-crazed diet trends of recent years.
Fast forward to the possible future “Good Job Robin” paints. If Isaura’s own disgust at rats and cockroaches is any indication, or Ahimsa’s distress at the thought of eating anything living, the AI shepherding animal, insect, and plant life past the Extinction Emergency, too, has culinary borders that rub up against regional and individual values. Isaura and Ahimsa’s home in the “Lower U.K. Zone” is just one of thousands of zones with its own administrators. How do the local administrators and the all-powerful Talos AI make allowances for these differences? Given current critiques about the way that programmers’ biases and ethics get baked into AI systems, it is easy to imagine a Talos hampered by the same 20th-century trifocals, imposing one region’s prejudices and predilections on others. As policy makers, climate advocates, philanthropists, and entrepreneurs gather plan for the changing food future, even in the absence of a near-apocalyptic calamity, they would do well to account for local and regional food values. If we eaters want to survive and thrive in the coming decades, it’s time to find a new set of glasses.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.