"History is just people doing things"
THE ABQ CORRESPONDENT
ISSN 1087-2302 Online Edition Number 261......August 2017
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The Correspo has commented in the recent past on the phenomenon of growing quantities of food in greenhouses exploiting the technology of the digital age. It’s conceivable that wise use of these resources can supply massive amounts of desirable food for the world’s population, but not by next week. It will be difficult not only to scale the process up, but to figure out which strains of which crops thrive in this new era of farming. Can we produce lots of potatoes, for example, and will they be as inviting to eat as the Maine or Idaho spuds we’re accustomed to? One notes that the “seed vaults” recently much in the news, intended to “save the seed corn,” preserving what future generations will need if some catastrophe befalls our current food production system are in fact, creating the vaults is also a selection process that most effectively saves seeds that can tolerate cold storage for a long time, with occasional floods. The new technology farms will gradually select for crops that flourish under special new conditions, unhindered and unaided by the bazillion different life forms in the biome of the natural outdoor world. We’ve no idea which plants will like the new conditions, or if we’ll like those plants. We can’t start BIG, how but there’s some real small scale activity, for example, this. It appears that, given reliable electrical power and a wide variety of sensors and effectors, systems are able to grow edible plants at optimal rates with optimal quality, in any season…even at reasonable cost, considering reduced need for timely shipping and handling. “Vertical farming,” as they now seem to call it, is exciting and promising. In the midst of the enthusiasm it may be helpful to consider the context. At a 1970s conference that included discussion of feeding the world under trying circumstances, one of the speakers said “When people are seeking nutrition in difficult times….” Impatient with the academic tone of the meeting, Don Isenberg interrupted. “They’re not seeking nutrition, they’re lookin’ for sump’n to eat!” Dr. Isenberg’s observation lent more vigor to the meeting. Much of the current discussion is along the lines of “seeking nutrition.” Not all of us are deeply concerned about the better flavor of fresh tarragon and basil in comparison with the wilting leaves that are shipped great distances expensively. The refugee struggling ashore through the surf with his wife and kids is likely more eager to find a bowl of rice than a nice salad. We gotta start somewhere, and if haute cuisine is the path to developing the necessary knowledge, skills, and economic base to pull this off, bring on the tarragon and basil.
The piece above speaks of technically managed systems for growing crops…plants of various sorts. There’s a parallel effort (of which the Correspo has also spoken previously) to use technology for the production of food that cannot be distinguished by the consumer from meat. This goes somewhat beyond Morningstar’s excellent meat-like products and certainly beyond things like Hamburger Helper, which is basically plain “textured vegetable protein” (TVP) that is sort of meat-like in texture, and picks up flavor from the meat with which it is cooked (as does soybean-cake tofu). In this case, the subject is “real” meat that did not necessarily grow in an animal. There’s a sort of spectrum of products. A company called Memphis Meats does not shilly-shally in describing what they are producing…real meat, grown from animal cells. They don’t say how many cells they start with; maybe they just inoculate agar in a petri dish with a few cells, and encourage them to grow the way microorganisms do.* (How do they make chicken breast different from chicken liver…or do they?). Memphis Meats calls this class of product “clean meat,” because it involves no feeding, breeding or slaughtering of actual animals. A company called Impossible Foods makes a point of not starting with animal cells. Their founder says “Today we rely on cows to turn plants into meat. There has to be a better way.” No animal cells involved; it’s all vegetable chemistry…but the end product is “meat.” In their video, a kid to whom the product is being explained eyes a dish of what looks suspiciously like blood, and asks what it is. It’s “heme,” a substance found in living cells, including plant cells, from which this is presumably derived. When it’s mixed with the other ingredients, it sure does help the uncooked end product look like raw hamburger. A company called Beyond Meat carefully doesn’t talk about animals at all, and doesn’t mention meat, except in their name, which basically says they don’t have anything to do with it…though the burgers on their website certainly look like appetizing, meaty hamburgers. Other companies are getting into the business. No one seems yet to have worked the cost of their products down to a level that will let them be generally popular in the marketplace. One wonders where the industries relying on the byproducts of slaughterhouses will obtain the materials they need. On the whole, the idea’s appealing, but nothing is simple, and this seems more complicated the more you think about it.
*This all does call to mind the movie Soylent Green, in which recently deceased folks are converted into wholesome protein for the remaining populace. Always disliked the movie, which is now considered a cult classic, but have watched it more than once, because Bro Terry was an American Film Institute apprentice working on the production, and Bro Jeff played the polite, reassuring, white-uniformed guy who checked Edward G. Robinson into the establishment. If the cultivation of clean meat does not require a large number of cells as a starter, it may be possible to use human cells in the process without really injuring anybody. The market might with a clear conscience offer long pig as a food product. This is not a recommendation, just an observation about what is probably inevitable at some scale.
Internet service went out as I was working with somebody five thousand miles away. In the course of figuring out how to wake it back up, I was asked “What color are the lighted icons on the modem, red or green?” Red/green colorblind as I am, I couldn’t say. While the modem was resting unplugged in the hope that it would forget its recent history, I called computerist/ physicist grandson Skylar a mere 800 miles away, hoping he’d have a helpful suggestion, and mentioned the color issue to entertain him, because he too is red/green colorblind. (My maternal grandfather was. My mom was not. I am, daughter Chantal is not, but her son is. That’s the pattern of genetic transmission.) “Take a picture of the modem with your iPhone, and send it to me,” said Sky. “I can’t tell what the colors are, but I’ll show it to somebody here in the lab who can.” Why didn’t I think of that? Well, because my view of reality was established when a camera was a Brownie Reflex, a phone was tied to the wall, and when a Long Distance Call came in from perhaps fifty miles away, it was a big deal…probably related to a death in the family. One is slow to adapt to modern times.
Mr. Peers said last month’s “Hum a few Bars” piece reminded him of the termite who went into a pub, asking “Is the bartender here?”
The Correspo has spoken a couple of times about Estonia’s efforts to become a virtual home for businesses elsewhere in the world, and it’s intriguing to see this essentially unrelated report in the news. The country is switching the way it measures heights above sea level, thus adding between 15-24cms to vertical measurements in the country. Significantly, this will add 20cm to Suur-Munamagi, which is reportedly the highest point, not only in the country, but in the Baltics, making it 317.4m (1,041 feet) above sea level. In contrast, the building in which this is being typed is right on the 5,280 foot contour line on the USGS map. Not bragging, just observing with interest.
ITEM FROM THE PAST
This item from not long ago, 2006, is brought to mind
by the recently announced acquisition of Whole Foods
Our reference to Safeway Stores, which have now vanished from New Mexico, and which I haven’t noticed in California for some years, recalls an interesting phenomenon of the mid-20th Century. When we moved to Northern California in 1951, and were first exposed to Safeway (instead of A&P, for example) it was the era when California supermarkets all featured towers bearing their names. The Safeways all had flat, wide, brick towers with the Safeway name on them, and Lee's had a similar tower in orange. Lucky Stores had much taller towers covered with what I recall as yellow tile, or anyway, glazed, probably metal, panels of some sort, and the towers were not solid, but had big rectangular openings in them. In early-fifties California you could spot a supermarket easily from a considerable distance, as you could pretty well spot churches and banks. The practice seems to have faded. I sorta liked it.
No, grocery stores don’t look like that anymore,
and there are a few other differences. The early
‘50s were pre-credit card days…it was all cash or
check, and having established respectability with
the Safeway near us in Mountain View, California,
we used it almost as a bank, cashing checks there
instead of visiting then-regional Bank of America.
(In the early ‘60s when I was traveling occasionally
for business, the purchase of airplane tickets was
a bit awkward. There was such a thing as an Air
Travel Card, which allowed some flexibility in the
purchase of tickets (only) but its cost was more than
we could swing. Eventually, the newfangled Diners
Club card allowed purchase of tickets and other
things, and an ordinary person could get one easily.
I carried Diner’s Club into the ‘90s.) Shopping carts
were wire baskets on wheels, sometimes actually
removable from the cart frame, not the huge chromed
steel or molded plastic vehicles in current use. …and
supermarket produce departments varied enormously.
If you wanted a limited selection of fruits or veggies
fast, the supermarket served, but if you wanted quality
and choice, you went to a store dedicated to handling
and presenting produce well. For years in Albuquerque,
we bought from a great place called The Farm, right
next to the big wholesale produce company in town.
We began to go there less often, then not at all, and one
day a few years ago it disappeared. Quietly in that time,
the supermarkets had begun to pay real attention to
produce, with good product, well presented and well
tended. The change just sneaked up on us. It’s hard
for us no-good-at-prophecy types to imagine what big
changes the Whole Foods/Amazon thing might bring,
but one supposes they won’t be stealthy.
And a tip of the hat to June Foray (that’s IMDB, this is Animation Magazine Online)) who died at 99 on 26 July 2017. She was a voice (e.g. Cindy Lou Who, Natasha, Rocky the Squirrel) in hundreds of television shows and movies, mostly, but not all animated. My dad worked with her as writer/producer of commercials, and Bro Jeff worked with her as fellow voice talent. I met her only once. She was pleasant and interesting. The trade sometimes referred to her as “the female Mel Blanc,” while many thought of Blanc as “the male June Foray.” Times gone by. Aw.
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