Big Tech Robert Scheer SI Podcast

Larissa Zimberoff: What Has Silicon Valley Done to Our Food?

In a new book, the investigative journalist examines how companies have changed the way we eat in the name of climate change without always considering their products’ health impacts.
Journalist, Larissa Zimberoff.
Journalist, Larissa Zimberoff. [Photo by Winni Wintermeyer, courtesy of Larissa Zimberoff]

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Companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have started to become household names, producing meat substitutes that taste as close to meat as their scientists have been able to engineer. In the midst of a climate crisis that threatens our very existence, plenty of scientists have been recommending that we all look for ways to cut down on our meat intake because cows produce large amounts of methane that has a significant negative environmental impact. Eating animal products also brings up animal rights questions. One of the main selling points of these Silicon Valley companies is essentially that we can save the planet and eat ethically without sacrificing taste. Yet, there is a key question few people seem to be asking about these new products: Are these meat substitutes good for our health? 

That’s the question at the heart of investigative journalist Larissa Zimberoff’s new book, “Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat.” Zimberoff joins Robert Scheer on this week’s “Scheer Intelligence” to talk about how so many edible products are marketed as healthy when in fact they may be just the opposite. 

“We’ve had an obfuscated supermarket for a long time, filled with snack foods and junk foods and things we shouldn’t be eating,” the investigative journalist tells Scheer. “So the overhauling of the food system is mission-based. These companies purport to be wanting to save the planet from the climate crisis, wanting to end industrial animal agriculture, the death of animals, by creating these new foods. Now, I do think they believe that they can do that, but the thing is that once Silicon Valley’s in, once the investors are in, once Wall Street is in–then we’ve got people that expect to make money.” 

Keeping in mind how profit incentives and a lack of adequate regulations affect  our food system, Zimberoff and Scheer also examine how some foods that are marketed as sustainable, are highly processed overseas, which impacts both their nutritional values as well as their carbon footprint. On top of this, Scheer argues that consumers are often seemingly wilfully deceived by marketing tactics that blur and hide the facts about the foods we eat and even what foods we should be eating for our health. The “Technically Food” author concludes that while we should all try as best we can to eat “whole foods” that are unprocessed both for our health and to an extent the planet, it is difficult to maintain a whole food diet in the U.S. today for a number of socioeconomic reasons that go beyond what one person can do. Perhaps worst of all is the fact that U.S. companies are not only inflicting these flawed food systems on its own people, but globally. 

“We’re shipping out our American diet everywhere, and we’re making other countries unhealthy,” says Zimberoff. “We’re just expecting to send our snack foods and soda pops to other countries and get them to buy it so that [big multinational] companies can keep their profits, [and] to me that’s something that really needs to be changed.” 

Listen to the full conversation between Zimberoff and Scheer as they discuss if there are any bright spots in this latest food revolution as well as ways to combat the more dangerous shifts occurring in our food systems on a larger scale. 

Credits: 

Host:
Robert Scheer

Producer:
Joshua Scheer

Introduction:
Natasha Hakimi Zapata 

Transcript:
Lucy Berbeo 

RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. It’s Larissa Zimberoff, and the book is called Technically Food. The subtitle is Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat. And first of all, I want to thank my producer Joshua Scheer, because every once in a while I end up reading and doing a podcast on a book that I probably wouldn’t have bought, and might not have read; I don’t know why, maybe I thought I knew too much about the subject, or had heard too much. This is–I am so happy. I want to thank Josh for finding this book, and the author. And not only because as opposed to the sometimes 700, 800, even 1,000-page books that are sent to me, this one is a very quick read, and yet full of very important ideas, and raises a fundamental challenge about where we are in this whole sort of food issue. Eating healthy, eating sustainably, and so forth. And I’ll tell you, if you’re going to only read one book on this subject, this is it. Because it really raises a whole lot of questions.

 And let me begin by just going to the subtitle: again, the book is Technically Food. It’s all about what we do technologically to food in the name of making it healthier and spreading it and saving the planet, et cetera, et cetera. Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat. And after reading your description of that mission and the people carrying it out, I’m afraid to go to Whole Foods today, or any other store, you know, Trader Joe’s or whatever. Because I stupidly buy things that tell me they’re healthy and good for the planet. And tell me about their mission. And it seems to be a mission that drowns in the profit motive more than anything else.

LZ: Well first, thank you, Bob, for having me on, and thanks to Josh for finding the book. Yeah, I wouldn’t–I mean, we’ve had an obfuscated supermarket for a long time, filled with snack foods and junk foods and things we shouldn’t be eating. So the overhauling of the food system is mission-based. These companies purport to be wanting to save the planet from the climate crisis, wanting to end industrial animal agriculture, the death of animals, by creating these new foods. Now, I do think they believe that they can do that, but the thing is, is that once Silicon Valley’s in, once the investors are in, once Wall Street is in–then we’ve got people that expect to make money. We also, right, there’s a lot of tension here, because we also have mission-based investors that want to change the world. You will find more and more of them; these people want to make an impact, and they want to do something good. But they’re still using a food system that has a lot of issues to it.

RS: But you know, while I was reading your book, I went to my freezer and looked at these different products, and I was shocked that most of them were made by traditional companies–General Foods, and I forget the others–Kellogg, right? They have almost the majority, most of these products, and then they market them under these wonderful-sounding labels.

LZ: Absolutely.

RS: Yeah, and what you really–you know, I don’t want to prejudice people reading your book, but to me it’s a tale of chicanery. It’s really a lot of people out there, in the name of doing good, messing around. And it’s interesting. You know, it’s sort of like, what happened to natural food? I mean, they take natural food, like algae or something, and they distort it. I mean, your discussion of how we get protein isolate and so forth–and in the name of saving the environment, what do we do? We take peas from North America, ship them to China; we ship soy to China, they then strip out the starch to make cheap products and noodles for people, and then send it back. And there’s all this stuff going back and forth. Why don’t you just introduce us to this world of high-tech food and what it looks like?

LZ: Yeah, that’s a great question, because it’s one of the reasons I wrote the book. Because so many people would ask me, like, should I eat this? Is it healthy, is it good for me? What is in it? Is it delicious? You know, their questions range. But I would get questions from family, from friends, from strangers; everybody wanted to know, what should I be eating? And it’s such a hard question to answer, because the basics are: eat whole foods, right? Eat what you recognize that hasn’t been changed. But that’s not for everybody; that’s not for most people, right? We do have our salads with our meals, but we don’t have it constantly for every meal; that takes a lot of effort, and people don’t have necessarily the time or the interest in making that effort. So these foods, these isolates, have appeared as solutions to getting plant-based protein into burgers, for example. Beyond Meat uses pea protein, and Impossible uses soy protein, and these are helpful proteins to bulk out their burger, and to return protein that the American consumer thinks that they need. In fact, 98% of Americans get enough protein in their diet; we actually don’t need protein, we need fiber, and fiber comes in fruits and vegetables mostly. So–

RS: Let me just stop you on that. That was an eye-opener, because I had read–what was it, Diet for a Small Planet

LZ: Yes.

RS: 1970 or something, which I thought influenced my life. And you point out in that book, they already–was it a woman author? Who was the author? 

LZ: Oh right, Frances [Moore Lappé].

RS: Yeah. And she said we already had twice the amount of protein we needed.

LZ: Right!

RS: [Laughter] And so here I am, something of a vegetarian thanks to my wife, looking for protein all the time, and then I added up the numbers this morning and I’m getting way more than I need. And so we have, like, fake science going on here, and, ah–

LZ: It’s not necessarily fake science, but it’s messaging, right? It’s marketing; it’s this, like, protein makes you strong, and everyone’s looking at exercise and being fit, right? So protein is this, like, necessary kind of very masculine nutrient that we all need. But it’s not the one we most need; the one we most need is fiber.

RS: No, but you–when I say fake news, I mean here you got a cup of peas that come out of a pod, and you can eat them; and it’s good for you, for a number of reasons, to have peas. They take these peas, they send them across the ocean–so forget about helping the environment. Everybody’s worried about cows farting, as if that’s the biggest problem; maybe it is a big problem, but it’s not good to take soybeans and peas and ship them across the ocean and then get back a purer form, bring it back here. There’s a lot of waste that you recount in this book. 

And then they’re stripping a lot of what was in the pea that I need, right? And they’re making a, not a very tasty ice cream or something from it. I mean, the whole thing–I can’t remember who said it, Buckminster Fuller or Marshall McLuhan or somebody–don’t confuse the thing being sold with the thing itself. And what your book does splendidly is strip that down: what are they really talking about? And so tell us, what are they really talking about? Because so much of what is hyped about this is not helping the environment, and is not helping our health.

LZ: Yeah. You know, the problem is that our health typically falls on the lower end of the list of this mission, these mission-based founders. You know, it’s climate, it’s animal agriculture, and it’s those two things that really weigh out ahead of human health. And there are only so many organizations that, like, want all three to be of equal importance. And so the thing is, is that what I’ve presented in my book hasn’t changed, right? Our food system is like this now. Soy protein isolate has been used in our foods for a very long time, so I don’t necessarily think they are unhealthy. I just think that we don’t want them to be the crux, the cornerstone of what we’re eating, of our diet. You know, we know what to eat; it’s just that we’re being sold a basket of goods that are, you know, like you said, being presented as sustainable, being presented as climate-saving, being presented as better for the planet. You know, my question is, is it good for us? Is it healthy? It wasn’t easy to tease out; I still have a lot of open questions. Some of that comes from that these companies all need intellectual property, so they apply for patents, and they can’t share everything. So there’s an added complexity, because I don’t know all the answers, and they aren’t going to tell us. 

RS: Well, one of the revelations of your book was that the FDA, the federal agency that’s supposed to inform us–and this goes back to talking about the role of Ralph Nader, you know, aside from seat belts saving us from car crashes, that he investigated baby foods. And even there, you know, we didn’t know what, they were these increasingly popular products a half-century ago. And the FDA investigates things only after bad stuff happens; they don’t do it in a preemptive way. But on the question of health, you have a quote from your book, you say: “Most every plant-based company uses coconut oil, which is 90 percent saturated fat, something doctors tell us to limit.”

LZ: Yeah.

RS: Well, that’s fake news, then, to tell me this product that I bought is healthy when it may be causing a heart attack or something. I just bought a product the other day, I bought one that’s in your book–I think I did, I bought something that sounded like it, at Whole Foods. And it’s Vegan Koji Chicken Kung Pao Rice Bowl.

LZ: Oh yeah, uh-huh.

RS: Right? And then I read in your book–which, I like kung pao; I used to make kung-pao ji ding, the ji is the chicken, you know? I used to cook that stuff. And I’m trying to avoid that now, help my wife, and then you find out it’s mostly rice with some of this green stuff sprinkled on the top. And you know, if we can talk about fake news, why not talk about fake advertising, fake–you know, I don’t want to encounter a lot of lawsuits here; they’re very good at it. But you know, the fact is, it’s alarming. Because I buy all these products, and I’m sure plenty of people listening to this, because we don’t have time to become experts. 

And you’ve put in the time, and you’ve gone to their labs; you’ve interviewed them, you’ve talked to them. And they all sound good, you know, but so what? Maybe they’re the good Germans of the food industry, I don’t know. Maybe they’re just so interested in their own success, financial and otherwise, that they’re forgetting: is this the right thing to do? And I want to end, when we get to the end, somebody I really trust a lot who I actually went to graduate school with, Marion Nestle. And she says some–you quote a lot of very well-known experts in the field at the end–what can we do, what will the world look like in 20 years, where are we headed with all this technological stuff? And she just gives some very sensible, down-to-earth advice, you know, not all this craziness that you’re debunking, really. 

LZ: Yeah, you know, I think that I want people’s eyes to be wide open to how our food system is changing, and the way we are getting these overly complex foods into our food system that may be too difficult to understand. And with these complicated foods coming to market, with questions that can’t be answered–you know, how are these cells being grown, what are they being fed on? If we’re being told not to eat, to lessen our animal meat, why are they making animal meat? You know, these are technology companies that are trying to solve problems with the world, and they’re not food companies. 

And our food companies don’t have regulations that tell them that they have to make healthy food; you know, we’re starting to get things like soda taxes, and in Europe sugar taxes are coming. And those are good guardrails to have in a food system that doesn’t really look out for consumers’ health. You know, we are expected to look out for our health. And so we want to know how the sausage is made, even when it’s made from, like I say in my book, flora and fungi.

RS: Yeah. And so tell us about extruders. [Laughs] They look like a tractor or something, the original one that these guys played on. By the way, I’ll just say, the book is not Bay Area-based, San Francisco Bay Area. There’s a lot of people that you quote that are in Berkeley, where I happen to have spent quite a bit of time, and San Francisco–I know those people. They talk a great game. But then they’re, what, shoving stuff into one end of a machine and it comes out as attractive pellets at the other, and all they care about is the color of the pellets, or what? I mean, what’s going on here?

LZ: Yeah, extruders have been used for decades. Our cereal’s made with extruders; baby food is made with extruders; pasta is made with extruders, cereal. It’s a large machine that ingredients can be fed into, and there are screws that are turning, and then there’s heating and cooling and steam, and there’s like a few different systems that are, like, hitting these ingredients to turn them into–the one that I use in my book is textured vegetable protein, or TVP. And TVP is what helps all of these burgers get their mouthfeel; it’s what gives kind of a tug and a meat-like texture to burgers. And it’s this extruded protein, you know, and an isolate or a concentrate or flours are used in this extruder to make these components. 

And that’s where I want people to be thinking about their food. And this isn’t new; this has been done to our food system and the things we’re eating already. Like, that part isn’t new, it’s just that there’s new ingredients and new forms that are happening. But this extrusion, this creating something from an ingredient that’s been touched maybe by five other people before it, right–it’s a long chain that this food has come down to make it into our food. And that’s what I want people to think about when we talk about processing. When something’s ultra-processed, we kind of go in the direction of it’s unhealthy. But in my mind, processing–because everything’s processed, you know; dairy milk is processed, wine, cheese, things that seem simple; bread. Things that seem simple, but once it’s been touched by 10 different companies, or it’s gone through three or four or five different countries, you know, to me that’s too much processing, and it’s not something I want on my plate.

RS: Well, what I got from your book is there’s no such thing as natural food. Because they take something that’s natural, like algae in your first chapter, which is really an eye-opener. First of all, a lot of this stuff never works. You have a whole series of big venture capitalist investments and people who become instant millionaires, and then at the end of the day they don’t produce the new chicken or the new beef or the new whatever, and they go on to another one. So there’s a lot of hype in this. But they also take natural ingredients, and then they make them unnatural. 

LZ: Yeah. Yeah, they turn them into–I mean, protein is what everyone’s kind of working on, right? In my algae chapter I talk about lemna, which is also called duckweed, and it has a protein in it called RuBisCO. Now, RuBisCO, according to [Ethan] Brown, who’s the founder of Impossible Foods, was the preeminent protein he wanted to use for his burger, but he couldn’t figure out how to extract it on a massive scale, so he didn’t go down that route. But now there’s a company in San Diego that’s using lemna to take the protein out and then making products from that protein. 

Now, I don’t–algae, I’m kind of a fan of algae, Bob, I have to admit. I think it has so much potential, and it’s sort of the scrappier stepkid, stepbrother to the other, bigger foods, like cultured meat, which has all of the investment. Algae doesn’t have all the investment, and so it has these entrepreneurs that are tackling this sludgy green thing and trying to make it into something worthwhile. And I think it’s a worthwhile effort to figure out how we can use algae. And for myself I take spirulina or I take chlorella as a supplement, or I take omegas from algae as a supplement. Of course supplements often get debunked and don’t have a lot of weight when you look at studies, but I still take them, right? And so I still believe in algae, because I want it to come to fruition. 

But so this lemna that the protein is extracted from is about 40-45% protein, each individual little tiny little plant. It can–it doesn’t need so much processing, that you could envision a food that maybe had five to eight ingredients in it, that was algae-based, or single-cell-organism-based, that might not be so bad. You know, like I said, it’s how many steps of processing, how much has to be done to that ingredient, how many places does that food have to go to before it’s final. These are all sort of part of, for me, the story of whether or not I want to eat it. 

RS: Well, you mentioned Ethan Brown of Beyond Meat, right? And these are the companies now that they don’t produce all of it, but they are the glamor stocks, and everybody thinks they’re wonderful. I think you quote him as saying an extruder, this machine we’re talking about, turns plants into chicken in about a minute, and that we have to do that, and there’s all these managing constraints and then how much waste is created. And I just wonder whether we’re not in the hands of hustlers. I mean, I’m sure this is all worth doing; we’ll get to that before we conclude, about what can be done. But your book does not build confidence in these people. I don’t know if that was your intention–

LZ: [Laughs]

RS: –but it certainly leaves me–I’m not even going to read the labels anymore, you know. I’m just going to look for some piece of fruit that has bumps in it, or a tomato that looks less than perfect, and start eating imperfect food. Maybe the throwaway food of old, you know? You have very few real heroes in this book.

LZ: It is hard to look at foods that don’t come from, you know, that aren’t whole, in that way that you’re framing it. I see my healthy diet as needing to involve as many things as possible. So you know, how many fruits and veggies can I eat during the week? How many–and then, you know, I had a burger last night that was made from vegetables, that was components that were put together and made into a burger. And so as long as my diet has variety, the biggest variety I can get, to me that’s the answer. So it doesn’t just mean I’m only eating the bumpy fruit, which I do tend to do, because I like to forage around where I live. But it’s eating a little bit of everything. So these companies are looking–they’ve got big goals, right, back to my subtitle; mission-based, right? They’ve got big goals to save the climate, which is–I mean, many think that the next generation is kind of screwed, right. So to them, that’s what their mission is; they want to save the planet and end animal suffering. So if those are their goals, then they’re doing exactly what their mission is. I just want–

RS: But what does that mean? I mean, these guys, first of all they’re profiteers. They mostly want to make a lot of money. You got a few idealists in their garage or something, but first of all most of the people are going to make them real by putting in lots of venture capital. I mean, I’m not disparaging all of those billionaires backing some of this, and those big companies like Kellogg and what have you. But why are we trusting the reordering of the planet, and the changing of our consciousness about food, to a bunch of people who you say in your book, mostly they’re interested in making profit?

LZ: Well, I don’t think that I say–I say that they have to do both, right?

RS: What is the “both”?

LZ: Oh, that they’ve got their mission, but in the end, they have to answer to investors, to the street, right?

RS: But what’s their mission? If their mission is to help me have a healthier heart, why are they using coconut oil? I mean, what is going on here?

LZ: Because they’re trying to stop people from eating meat, right? And so the best way to stop meat-eaters from eating meat is to make the closest analog possible, the closest identical food as possible. And coconut oil is a good match for animal fat. I know that there are startups working on fat, to make fat in the lab, which will be another question mark that I have–like, whether or not that’s good for us. I mean, even what our diet should be, people are still arguing about. If we look at the keto diet, it’s heavy on fat; there’s lots of people kind of back and forth on whether or not that’s good. You’re going to find that in our diet from any product in the world, and with any human, we’re all going to need something different. And it’s just a matter of, like, let’s be as informed as possible. And the book was to inform people.

RS: Well, but wait a minute. These guys are smart, or they hire very smart people. If they take an ordinary pea and they only extract the protein, you in your book say they’re throwing out much of what is valuable in that pea and its pod, right? You know–that’s not helping us, that’s hurting us. And then if they got to ship the stuff to China and have it come back in big canisters of the protein, without all the other stuff–when we already have more protein than we need–what’s going on here? Where are the adults watching the store? It’s not the FDA–

LZ: Yeah, but we’re in charge of our own diet, Bob. Right? 

RS: But we’re not, we can’t get information. That’s why I read your book, you know, that’s why I’m counting on it. And then I assume these labels mean something. I’m not going to stop there in Whole Foods this afternoon and bring my computer with me and start analyzing the science. You know, and you point out in fact, in some of these key studies, the companies were paying for it. Didn’t Beyond Beef pay for the study–

LZ: Yes.

RS: –to see whether cutting out meat was good or bad. Right?

LZ: They did, they funded a study, but that–

RS: So why are you pulling punches here? I found your book–I want to urge people to read the book, because it’s very exciting and important, but I thought very well-reasoned and documented. I mean, you know, this is serious stuff. If they’re getting us to think about everything differently–and I bought one of these Beyond Burgers, I think it was at the Lakers game a couple of weeks ago. You know, oh, that seemed like a good thing to do for the climate and everything. Well, maybe it’s not. And maybe it wasn’t even helping me. And then–

LZ: Well, one or two burgers a month, in my point to variety, is fine. Like, you know, enjoy–you want to enjoy life, right, so I’m not saying these things shouldn’t exist. But I am saying that, you know, like the wholesale change of our food system–we want to be cautious about bringing these foods in without really fully knowing what it is that we’re bringing in. But we can’t expect food companies to just make food that’s healthy for us, right? Because we Americans say we want healthy food, but that’s not necessarily what we buy. You and I might be buying the healthy stuff, but it’s not what people are buying. 

And so it’s a struggle. It’s this push-pull of companies that want to save the climate, companies that want to end animal agriculture, it’s “I want us to be healthier”–you know, I have type 1 diabetes, which I write about in the book, and that’s why I look at food so stringently. And I think everybody should be looking at their food so closely. But that’s not what happens. And we can’t expect food companies to be that person that’s looking out for my health, like our doctor is. But we can expect them to be more transparent, right. I want this book to bring more transparency to this sector of technology-based foods. 

RS: That’s what we’re trying to do here, but they control the transparency. Now, for example, this afternoon I’m going to pick up one of my grandchildren, and then to school, and they’ll probably be leaving with a bag of food that’s been supplied to the school. And there’s all these fake or new products that are mixed in. And yet on page 54 of your book it says, there is no incentive to produce food that is as healthy as possible; many of the foods being marketed to us as healthy are not. Isn’t that fake news? If you’re marketing something as healthy and it’s not? Isn’t that lying to us? 

LZ: Absolutely, but we’re not–it’s not new. That part of our food system isn’t new. We haven’t–you know, sugared cereals for kids have been sold in the supermarket since the seventies. It’s not–

RS: No, but we have a wave now. Our sail is blown by two big things. One is global warming and the end of the planet and the end of life as we know it, and we have to raise food differently to stop these cows from farting, et cetera, et cetera. I don’t mean to trivialize it. But how we eat and what we eat and everything seems to have a lot to do with whether the planet will continue to exist. And the second thing has to do with we have populations that increasingly eat an unhealthy diet, and we’re trying to reverse that. And all of that seems to be bound up with this new, healthier food revolution, which reading your book–and I don’t want to put too sharp an edge on it; you’re entitled to your own, obviously, interpretation of your own book. But it scared me, because it made me feel like the hype was overwhelming. 

LZ: The hype is overwhelming. I would agree with you there, and I hope that came across in my book. The hype is overwhelming. You know, investors investing in startups, and there’s sort of an urgency to write about the company, even before the company’s done anything. And that to me is a problem, because they aren’t food companies, they’re technology companies, and writing about them because they got funding–like, to me, that’s not a story. As a journalist, I try to be very careful with what I write about, but it is a challenge, because I get pitches every day about new food companies that have new investors and are kind of changing something. 

So then you have to kind of weed through it to find out which ones are actually something I believe in and which ones I might want to eat. You know, the koji and mycelium startups, I’m actually interested in, because I don’t think it takes a lot of heavy processing, and I think it’s close to the origin. And so to me, it is believable, and it is worth investigating further. But this thought that there is this wave of technology and technological innovation in food that’s coming, that is something to think about, and to think through a little bit further, and get more dialogue to. And I don’t know that enough people are talking about it. 

RS: Yeah, and I think that’s the value of the book. I should give the title again. It’s Technically Food–and that’s a pretty tough title right there. Technically food–I mean, is it really food? And is it really helping the planet, and is it really moving in the right direction? And I must say, your book is also about a number of false starts. Now for instance algae–we can all admire algae; I like it a lot when I see it in the water. But the fact of the matter is, it really didn’t produce this revolution. And you go through a number of failed experiments, and then a lot of them are forced. 

And again, I get back to the pea and the pea pod and everything: you’re losing a lot of what is valuable in this food. You start with natural ingredients and you seem to destroy them very often. If you could think of a success story in your book, what would it be? Where is the–technically food, what’s the success that you–and I think your reporting is terrific, you have great access, you ask all the right questions. And by the way, Technically Food is a joy to read. I always like mentioning that, because a lot of people who even buy books, they don’t read them. This one you should buy, you should get it, and read it. And you’re a terrific writer. But let me ask you: where in your book is there a success story? 

LZ: Yeah. I’m excited about microprotein. This is the fungi chapter, which is chapter 2. It’s mycelium; mycelium is the underground root network of mushrooms. So the mushrooms you might cook, a button mushroom–that’s the fruiting body, and mycelium is the underground network that’s in the forest floor. But that is now being grown inside buildings, right? Even mushrooms are being grown inside buildings; like, that’s not something new to our food system. We know all mushrooms don’t come from the forest. So they’re growing slabs of mycelium which can be turned into bacon, or could be turned into chicken. And it just, it only needs to grow and then be flavored and then be, like, formed into chicken. So that’s just three steps, it’s really simple.

RS: Well, let me quote from that chapter, chapter 2, fungi. you say–I think I got this from that chapter–you say the amount of refinement our foods undergo is unsettling.

LZ: Yes, but let me point out where that comes from. So that comes from a company in Denver called MycoTech. And MycoTech is taking mycelium, right, which is what I just talked about and said I’m excited about, and they’re taking mycelium and they’re using it on pea and rice protein. They’re using it to change the flavor profile. And so that pea and rice protein powder is then used by other companies to create foods. And so to me, that is a great example of what happens in our food system, of how, you know, something is sent to China and fractionated and turned into protein and sent back here, and then you know, mycelium treats it–just like enzymes were used in our food system. Mycelium takes away the vegetal, the plant taste. And then this powder at the end is then shipped out to other companies who do other mysterious things, and that pea and rice protein is actually in a veggie burger by Planterra. And so that mycelium chapter does indeed talk about these levels of post-processing that does caution me to think further about things. But it doesn’t apply to every example–but that is part of the problem, right? You might see mycelium and think, great! Mycelium–Larissa said it was good for me, I’m going to eat it. But that’s not always the case.

RS: So let me conclude this with a big question or topic. Where does this all relate to social justice, and the well-being of the world’s people, as well as the planet itself? And I was struck by this example of grabbing all this food and shipping it to China, and then stripping out the protein, and then the Chinese companies that are stripping this out, then they give the starch to the Chinese people, which is not the best thing for them. And all of this requires, as does our ability to have iPhones and the latest model of everything, or Android or what have you, shipping a lot of stuff. That certainly is not good for the planet and the climate. And shipping it all over the place. And instead of, hey maybe we should just send some food over there and let people eat it, and charge a reasonable price. But I want to read that thing from Marion Nestle; would you agree that she’s sort of one of the foremost food scientists that we have?

LZ: Well, I wouldn’t call her a scientist, but she is a food critic. And she is so valuable, because she doesn’t have any concern about making her point in any kind of level of–she has no agenda, other than to make sure people know exactly what is being sold.

RS: Right. And she’s written a number of really important books about what you need to know about food and nutrition. And it’s great; one of the good things about your book, you quote a lot of well-known people who care. I’m not going to deny the Michael Pollans and the Alice Waters and the Marion Nestles and a lot of people that pop up in your book, that they do care and have a conscience. But they seem to get swept up in this market system. You asked these people, what do you think will happen in 20 years and what would you like, right? And you get these responses, and it’s really an interesting part of your book. And she responded, “In twenty years, I hope food is on our dinner plate. And by that, I mean sustainably grown and raised edible plants and animals, under conditions that promote the health of workers”–that’s very often left out:

“…the health of workers as well as eaters, that are kind to animals, and reduce environmental damage and greenhouse gas emissions. The food challenge for the future is to feed the world’s population in ways that promote health and protect the environment and do so sustainably. Diets that do all this are largely (although not necessarily) plant-based, which for people in industrialized countries means increasing the proportion of food plants and decreasing the intake.” 

And then just one more little paragraph: “If I could wave a magic wand, I would create a food system that feeds a healthy, sustainable diet to everyone on the planet, regardless of income”–I think that’s really important. If we’re asking people to eat in a way that helps the planet, we’ve got to make sure that they can eat in a way that they survive and can live:

“…regardless of income, that pays decent wages to everyone involved in producing, packing, cooking, and serving food, that ensures food safety, and that protects the environment. That’s a utopian vision, but I think it’s what we need to aim for.”

Do you share that utopian vision? 

LZ: Absolutely. You know, she’s painted a very, very pretty picture that we need to make happen. But I don’t know how to get us there. I don’t know who the right people are. We need government to be more involved. I think that with Biden paying more attention to climate, I think if we could get some better guardrails to our food companies, more regulations on what they have to achieve–I think that they need to achieve health metrics, right? And without that, we can’t get to what Marion wants. Without OSHA working better, without our workers being treated better, paid better, we’re not going to get there. And so that takes a mix of industries and a mix of levels of government that have to get involved to make something changed. We need another Ralph Nader [Laughs] probably. 

RS: We do need another. And that’s a worldwide point, because after all, people in China should say wait a minute–we don’t want just the starch. We want the other stuff that you’re shipping, you know? What’s going on here. 

LZ: Well, we’re shipping out our American diet everywhere, and we’re making other countries unhealthy. So we need to be looking at our American diet closer and think about what it is that we’re doing to other countries, because that’s what’s happening, right? They’re shipping it out, they’re shipping these foods out globally. The Impossible Foods burger, the Beyond Meat burger–these are going around the world. We’re just expecting to send our snack foods and soda pops to other countries and get them to buy it so that companies can keep their profits, these big multinationals, and to me that’s something that really needs to be changed.

RS: And that’s another strong statement that should be studied. The author is Larissa Zimberoff, do I pronounce that correctly?

LZ: You’ve got it perfect, Bob.

RS: OK. The book, which I just–again, I said it’s a joy to read. I mean, it’s just great. You could read it on a commute back and forth to your job if you’re on a train or bus. And the book is called Technically Food. Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat. And whether we like it or not, that mission is affecting how we think about food. It’s like, you know, condemning the advertising industry; you can condemn it, but they have power. And this book is really about the power to change how we eat, whether it’s for good or bad. And you should read the book, and you can decide. 

And so that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW and this station for carrying these shows. Joshua Scheer–and again, as I began, I would not have likely read this book. I’m thrilled that I did, it’s a really terrific book. I want to thank our producer Joshua Scheer for making me broaden my own vision and challenge my own subjective views of what I should read or not read. And Natasha Hakimi Zapata, who writes the marvelous introductions; Lucy Berbeo, who does the transcription. And I want to thank the JWK Foundation in the name of, honoring the late Jean Stein, a terrific independent journalist like the one I’m talking to today, for helping make these shows possible. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. 

6 comments

  1. The tragedy is that the United States has such a weak, after the fact, consumer protection apparatus. And to make matters worse 13 states have food anti-disparagement laws which at the least give the food producer the right to sue anyone that criticizes a food product. It has been suggested on a number of websites that the Patriot Act could also also be used to curtail criticism of food products because doing so would be aligned with a form of domestic terrorism. So if we have reservations about what is sprayed on the food products or how the food is processed-we would have to have an army of lawyers and lab technicians to protect our health interests and prove our case.

    In brief I think the only way to really have safe food is if you grow it yourself.

  2. This problem has, seemingly, gone on for a very long time. From the 30’s to the 60’s it was a battle against the denaturing of foods ranging from flour to soft drinks. Food producers had to fortify various foods to even have a marketable product. During this time period it was not only about quality, the spectre of pesticides and herbicides started to emerge as a concern.

    Fast forward to 1990 and the scenario shifts more to higher concentrations of pesticides and herbicides being a co-equal concern along with food quality. This is a time period, from 1990 to today, where the decision hierarchy has shifted. Food that is considered organic is to be considered ‘cleaner’ than the usual non-organic foods. Is that true?

    I started testing chemical residue on foods and have found it’s a real mixed bag. If you test for just Roundup residue it’s a real eye opener. It’s just all over the food supply from wine to veggies. It’s difficult to get nuts that don’t have chlorpyrifos residue on them.

    It’s ended up that I don’t take for granted that anything labeled organic is necessarily chemical free, I have it tested. I know the producer so I’m able to drill down to a short list of producers that, for the most part, are safer longer term. Certainly cuts down on shopping time so that’s a bonus but all in all it’s a real pain in the ass to have to do testing.

    As for Soylent Gates and his ilk trying to take over the food supply? It’s simple, don’t buy their food or whatever they are passing off as food.

  3. Whew — so many elephants in the room, so little time, and both the author and interviewer seem afraid of looking at this perverse industrialized food system. CAFOs, antibiotic resistant microbes, the waste, the environmental racism, the pollution, over-harvesting. No look at how neoliberalism and libertarian investing (sic) is about PROFITS. There are so many people working on bio-agro and diverse and scaled organic growing. Deep looks at these topics.

    There is no mention of SLAPPs, or cheeseburger legislation — you get sued by these wonderful people if we date question the safety of these foods. Howard Lyman, anyone? Oprah and Howard, sued by cattleman association about prions and mad cow disease.

    I have been studying this and writing about this intensely since 2001. This is like a Rip Van Winkle show, and, the amount of amelioration is disgusting, Bob. Another book, another documentary, and the revolutions will not happen via Zoom, Facebook, Netflix, or Random House . . . or the Scheer Report.

    Yes, dairy is all about industrialization, even the old time way — imagine, cows, feed feedstock, locked up, milked three times a day, and then the slurry and separation and preparation of cheese. So, from bovine to Swiss Cheese, now that is some processing. Let alone the embedded energy, and the life cycle. And water usage.

    This is madness. I was in El Paso working as a journalist. One truckstop — giant tanker truck with orange juice concentrate from California heading to Florida, and another tanker from Florida heading to California.

    Guardrails? We need deep ecology, ecosocialism, true regional and national and international organizing. I live in Oregon, and the timber industry clear cuts, sends the logs to China, Korea, EU, and alas, the carboard products and IKEA products, et al shipped back. And, the clear-cuts are sprayed with herbicides that, darn, cause birth defects, miscarriages, neurological diseases, gut disorders, cancers, and, more. And the “replanting” of monocrops sucks up more water than any natural forest system. And most of the timber is on private property,, and many stands are owned by insurance companies like Hancock. Fun stuff.

    Read Against the Grain — How Agriculture Highjacked Civilization by Richard Manning. I had him on my radio show in Spokane in 2006.

    Oh, interesting how the Scheer Report is so dated in so many ways.

  4. It’s not only the methane from “cow farts” that makes such a significant contribution to GHG from raising cattle. Among other things, it’s also the land that has to be cleared to raise the meat. A lot of that clearing has recently been done in the Amazon Rainforest.

  5. I am always perplexed that articles about climate change, environmental degradation, etc., often scarcely mention overpopulation. We can’t rely solely on technology to rescue civilization from its ills. We are exhausting our resources well beyond a sustainable rate. Reducing population by simply limiting families to 2 children (some have 1, some have none) would lead to gradual reduction. Its painless and not “genocidal,” as some critics would have it. Population “growth” seems akin to economic “growth,” which is worshipped by most economists and other social commentators. We need to wake up and realize this is a FINITE planet, and that means limits, something we ignore at our peril.

    1. Overpopulation is an issue, to be sure, but when some people consume 50x as much fossil fuels in a lifetime than others, it is clear that population is, statistically and in terms of primacy, only AN issue, not THE issue — especially if you want to avoid calling for the massive restriction of human rights and/or quasi-genocidal policies on certain populations.

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