The Challenge of Ultra-Processed Food
Last fall, my students and I enjoyed George Monbiot’s Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet (Penguin Random House, 2023). Monbiot explores agriculture’s widespread and devastating impact on climate change, and advocates for regenerative agriculture, perennial grains, and protein grown in vats. His is book is a compelling critique of large-scale industrial agriculture, and the local and organic food movements. While I found Regenesis provocative at the time, it left me wondering about the rural livelihoods of agrarian peoples around the world. More recently, I’ve stated to wonder about health impacts of Ultra-Processed Food, a category in which vat grown non-farm protein must fall?
I came across the concept of ultra-processed food in Chris van Tulleken’s Ultra-Processed People: Why We Can’t Stop Eating Food That Isn’t Food (Penguin Random House, 2023). I read van Tulleken’s book out of interest, after reading Daniel Lieberman’s books on evolutionary anthropology—Exercised (Pantheon, 2021) and The Story of the Human Body (Knopf Doubleday, 2014)—and Herman Pontzer’s Burn (Penguin, 2021). One thing to take these three books is the idea of mismatch disease, that is diseases caused more by our indoor, sedentary, calorie-dense lifestyles than our evolutionary ancestors would have experienced in the long span of human history. Reading them alongside van Tulleken, it seems clear that ultra processed food has its own health impacts, because we’re simply not evolved to eat a lot of the food that our industrial food systems produce.
Thinking about Regenesis and ultra-processed food, I suspect that farm-free and vat-grown food that Regenesis describes is, clearly, ultra-processed food. This gives me pause to optimism about vat-grown food, which might cause its own mismatch diseases. What does this mean for food systems in the context of climate change? One the one hand, large-scale industrial agriculture is unsustainable. On the the other hand, ultra-processed foods bring their own health consequences.
I suspect part of the solution involves more real farming, ingredients. But, the question is, can the planet handle that, and can our bodies handle the alterantive?…