About Me
I'm a Melbourne boy, hailing from St Kilda with one ex, one current wife and four kids. Love the outdoors and making new discoveries. I cook a lot at home (cheers from wife) and do some preserving, mostly jams, pickles and fruit liqueurs. This is the diary of a cooking journey.

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Friday, August 08, 2008
Food Technologists
Saw a rather alarming set of figures last night; 100 years ago, there were 1.5 billion humans on the planet. Today there are 6 billion.

How are we going to keep on feeding them all?

It was a nice counterpoint to a John Lethlean article last weekend about the crap that's being sold in supermarkets these days. But when you have 6 billion to feed, its more a case of never mind the quality, feel the width.

Something tells me that a vast part of the world's population would be very happy to be able to shop at his local supermarket and even happier to be able to eat the sort of food he scoffs at, well, maybe not the coffee, with perhaps the exception of my dear departed mum, who was known, okay loved, to get her coffee fix from a tube. It was a coffee, milk and sugar paste that you squeezed just like toothpaste into a cup and then added hot water to and whose flavour probably came from being waved a couple of times over a roasted coffee bean.

In the article, Lethlean asks, "Can someone please tell me why the "great" chefs of Europe insist on seeking their inspiration from food technologists?" Nice point, and so long as he speaks Spanish, he'll be able to ask in person without even boarding a plane. Hola Adria.

As much as it pains me to say this, the real point is, how the hell are we going to feed everybody without food technologists? Is it coincidental that this enormous rise in population has come about at the same time as the rise in food technology? I think not. It is an iron rule of nature that a population explosion in any species can only come about in the event of enough food being available to support it.

In the case of our species, we have not only been able to grow enough food to do that, but aided by food technologists, have been able to convert that food into something that can be stored safely for a very long time, so that in times of plenty, excess production is not wasted, but ultimately converted into another human being.

So whilst a self heating cup of coffee might seem analogous to the NASA moon program, somewhat useless in itself, the spin off effect has the greater importance. Hands up everyone who has ever had freeze dried coffee.

We might like to blame food technologists for most of the rubbish lining supermarket shelves, but no matter how much we rail against them, their industry is growing in importance. Sure, some of the things they do can be regarded as no more than frippery, but our world could not survive in its current form without them.
  posted at 11:05 am

At 3:10 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's called globalisation. The grain and sheep my cousin grows in outback NSW becomes a kebab cooked by Mrs Hussein on a Baghdad Street. All assisted by GM technology which means more food, less disease, less pesticide and less starvation.

At 3:23 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The poor food technologists get a bit of a bad wrap don't they. It's product developers who are the instant-food-evil-doers really. As you say, technological innovations have given some of the 6 billion people a lot of value, and those innovations will be essential in feeding people on a planet suffering from reduced crops, fewer natural resources, etc etc. As for chefs... Lethlean should get over himself and think about how much innovation has gone into so much of the food we've enjoyed (or not) for decades in one way or another. Chefs are allowed to play, and they'll seek new routes with varying success.

(As an aside, his throwaway line about high fructose corn syrup is silly and uninformed.)

At 4:07 pm, Blogger Thermomixer said...

The food giants thru' food technologists are making the general public more dependant on their services - people buy food prepared, all ready to go and don't need to know how to cook. Calvin Schwabe was trying to alert us 30 yrs ago in Unmentionable Cuisine. Learn to cook & use all the cuts of meat. We may be in the middle of the Food Technology revolution??

At 2:08 pm, Blogger grocer said...

I think there are 2 distinct issues here.

agricultural science and food technology put to the purpose of feeding the masses


multinational food conglomerates pursuit of profits pushing costs down and jostling for market share introducing new flavours, new sizes, new shake-in-a-can-and-dish-it-up-with-a-gazillion-esters

The two share some common ground, but they produce two very different outcomes. The latter involves enormous waste of resources to produce something we don't need, whilst if applied to the former could feed many mouths.

At 2:09 pm, Blogger grocer said...

worth a read on grist

At 8:24 pm, Blogger Dani said...

With or without food technologists, the current population and food situation is unsustainable. Personally, unpopular though the idea maybe, I feel that systemic failure of some degree (most like of the great depression variety) looms and food will become much less abundant than the excesses we (first world country, collective 'we' there) have become accustomed to.

At 8:04 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi kitchen hand, you're right, we're all connected to each other and while I understand what locavores are on about, it's definitely not how the world functions today.

Hi duncan, it's all about feeding the people and as usual some are beter fed than others. Good chefs need to be creative, it's in their blood and the public eventually sorts the wheat from the chaff.

Hi thermomixer, sadly there will always be people who for whatever reason don't want to cook. Cooks like you and me are in the minority. There also used to be a time when mums didn't have to go to work too, that's long gone.

Hi grocer, very perceptive. But I get why the multinationals keep on pushing all this stuff. The pursuit of profit isn't a vile evil, it's what keeps the share price going helping all those superannuation funds to make money to tide us over in our old age. Everything is connected.

Hi dani, I'd disagree with you there, the world is just managing to feed 6 billion souls. Where the tipping point is, I have no idea, but we are on track to reach it. You're right though about something happening to adjust the population in some savage way.

At 8:30 am, Blogger grocer said...

said like a true shareholder/superfund baby boomer!
You're right, the pursuit of profit isn't a vile evil. I certainly pursue profit (or at least working on it).

The thing is, there is money to be made in both, just our ego-centric society thinks it's more important to have more flavours than feed more people.

AS for the world "just managing" to feed 6 billion peeps, it comes back to my first point. The sheer waste involved in FMCG foodstuffs is insane.

Then there's the carbon/oil/crops-as-fuel issue, which instead of addressing how to reduce the requirement of "fuel" in light of a depleting non-renewable resource and carbon emmissions, the powers that be are busy developing alternate "fuel" that is eating into (pardon the pun) the worlds larder. I don't know what the answer is, but I don't think the logic (or lack thereof) is sound.

So, I agree, food scientists in all their forms have a role. The person with the commonsense (and finances) to harness this for a broader focused benefit will be a nobel prize winner for sure.

In the meantime, perhaps our food technologists can propogate infertility by dosing our foodstuffs with contraceptives? That should slow the population a little! ;)

At 3:24 pm, Blogger Ran said...

Grocer, you will find that most scientists in the field are now working on biofuels from non food sources. this includes compost and all green and organic waste. im my mind, this is a very exciting step forward. some international companies may still be pursuing the crop biofuel route, but the government/ academic world has moved on a while ago. I went to a talk about this this morning actually.

as for contraceptives in food, i wouldnt be suprised if this hasnt happened already. i know many women in their 30s who have problems conceiving and those in their 20s too, and i believe it is due to environmental factors - the human body is a lot more sensitive to chemicals than we realise.

as for the food technoligists, I am a chemist so i beleieve good science should and does underpin everything without us realising it. I do think that replacing flavours with synthetic organic chemicals that in reality we have not tested sufficiently is not the way to go. For example, why is MSG still legal when oit is clear that it has negative side effects?

At 3:24 pm, Blogger Ran said...

kitchen hand -

i thought GM often meant more pesticides - crops developed to withstand more chemcials?


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