Why Study Food?

Dr. Lenore Newman is a Canadian author and culinary geographer. Born into a fishing family on the coast of British Colombia, she studied physics, worked in Silicon Valley then backpacked from Moscow to Beijing before returning to study environmental science. From there she fell into food and agriculture and became a leading expert on the impact of climate change on food security and global cuisines. A connecting force throughout this career journey has been her fascination with complex systems. Our interview takes us on an interconnected trip from Californian lettuces and bread borders via the Gobi Desert to the extermination of the passenger pigeon, and the future of AgTech.

Sophie Lovell: What is food security and why is it so important?

Leonore Newman: Well, my definition is pretty close to that of the UN. We can just describe food security as food being available at a reasonable price, which provides good nutritional balance and also meets social and cultural needs at any time, in an environmentally sustainable way. That wasn’t in the original UN definition of food security, but it is in some of the later ones. I think for me there is a bigger and broader sense of “plenty”: the idea that people aren’t worried about food.

The reason that I can import a head of lettuce from California, is that California has skimped on things like labour and environmental standards.

SL: As Canada Research Chair in Food Security and the Environment and advisor to the Canadian government on the subject, you are presumably focused on Canadian food security, how do you put this in a global context and show that it is a global issue?

Whether or not one should be striving for achieving food security locally, regionally or globally, really depends on the commodity. For example, in Canada, we grow grain, a lot of grain. We do it very well in an environmentally sustainable way and we can do it forever. Here in British Columbia, we do not grow grain, it’s not the right climate, it’s too wet. So we get our grain from the prairie provinces where they put it on a rail cart and it rolls down to us. To me, that’s kind of perfect. But when I want a head of lettuce out of season, it will come from California and taste terrible, be environmentally terrible and grown under terrible labour conditions too. So, in my mind, pushing food security in Canada means I want to figure out how to grow lettuce, say, indoors in the winter, so I don’t need California’s terrible, terrible lettuce. It’s this balance of seeing where it makes sense to export and import and where it makes sense to produce things locally. The reason that I can import a head of lettuce from California, is that California has skimped on things like labour and environmental standards. If I had to pay the actual cost of the lettuce, I would be producing it here in greenhouses instead, because it would clearly make economic sense.

Image: “Avocado: Exp. 2050” The Museum of Endangered Foods by Sharp & Sour

SL: So these terrible lettuces are subsidised. Are subsidies then amongst the biggest culprits?

Oh, for sure! The US is a great example of that. You can see that meat and corn and sugar are very heavily subsidised there in terms of what they eat. I live right next to the border and one of the things I am always shocked by is that if you buy a loaf of bread on this side of it, where we don’t have sugar subsidies, bread tastes like bread, as one would expect it to, like in Europe. If you go across the line, the bread is sweet. Everyone sticks sugar in everything in the US because it is cheap and it’s subsidised and there is an entire lobby in Washington forcing people to eat tons of it.

SL: You were born and raised in a fishing family in British Columbia, did your upbringing influence the area you now work in?

Yeah, it’s what I call the long road home. My family are Sámi Finns, they moved to Canada early in the last century and fished as they had for centuries. So I was born into a very insular fishing family that still maintained a lot of the Finnish ways and grew up in that environment. My first job was selling fish on the docks with my sister and really that’s what I planned to do with my life – my goal was to run the family fishing company. But then I won a physics scholarship to go to university in the big city and ended up getting a degree in applied physics and mostly experimental and complex adaptive systems.

My first job was selling fish on the docks with my sister and really that’s what I planned to do with my life – my goal was to run the family fishing company.

Once I finished that I wandered down to Silicon Valley. It was during the first dot-com boom. I really enjoyed that period, but wanted to do something more. So I spent a year backpacking from Moscow to Beijing, through Mongolia and the Gobi Desert.

It was shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. I didn’t really have a plan, but what really struck me was the level of environmental destruction in the post-Soviet state and I started to get very concerned about the environment. So I ended up doing a degree in environmental studies, pulling again on these complex systems and the physics background and ended up doing a doctorate in the same thing.

Image: “Honey: Exp. 2050” The Museum of Endangered Foods by Sharp & Sour

Orlando Lovell: Is that when the jump to food came about?

One of the things that struck me then was that no one was studying food. To me, that seemed insane. It’s such a major thing. And agriculture programmes across the western world were closing for want of students. So I decided I wanted to work with food. My supervisor said “You can’t do that, you’ll ruin your career. No one studies food, you’ll never get a grant, you’ll never get a job.”

There was this guy eating in some alley and talking about the socio-political context of it. I loved that!

The weird thing is that, almost as soon as I made the decision, there was suddenly this weird sea change. It came about for a lot of reasons. One of them was Anthony Bourdain and the Food Network (American TV channel). Bourdain was always one of my real heroes, he presented food in a way that people could actually absorb. There was this guy eating in some alley and talking about the socio-political context of it. I loved that! So I decided to try. What’s the harm? I thought. I could still go back and run the fishing company.

I ended up getting a research chair, founded an institute and the rest is history. It was a really good time to go into the field and I feel really privileged to have been able to help grow that field in Canada as it developed from literally almost nothing. So that’s how I got here. Part of it was coming home, in that, I had grown up in an industry that always was looked down upon.

OL: All your steps seem to have come beautifully full circle.

I had really good mentors along the way.  When I was in California I got one really good piece of advice. I had the chance to meet David Brower who was a really formative North American environmentalist best known for saving the Grand Canyon from being flooded, which is such a weird thing to think of now. He always liked to say “a ship in harbour is safe but that’s not what ships are for.” That resonated of course because I like boats. The thought of choosing the safer, less ridiculous path reminded me that you only get one shot at this.

Image: “Fish; Exp. 2048” The Museum of Endangered Foods by Sharp & Sour

SL: I think it’s really interesting that you came from this physics and complex systems side of things along this great big curving path to advising governments on what is one of the most complex systems of all: food. What stage are world governments at in this dialogue about food security?

It depends on who they are. Some of them are doing really well. The Netherlands for example, have a really strong sense of what they call “the golden triangle” – combining universities, industry and government to work together towards goals. They spent about 40 or 50 years after WWII pursuing a strong strategy to see “how much we can produce on the smallest amount of land”. It is an interesting goal, but you lose things if you do that because you make food cheap, you make it kind of uniform, you lose flavour. Also, your environmental outcome is not always as good as you would like. So their next period is not going to be about how much they can produce intensively but how they make it environmentally friendly, how to regain some of the diversity, some of the flavour.

We need a very skilled workforce to produce the world’s food in the most sustainable way possible and very few countries are doing that right.

Another one I find very interesting is Singapore, with its goal of producing 30 per cent of food domestically by 2030. It is totally impossible, but it’s a really interesting goal. The amount of effort they are putting into saying: “Okay, with as few resources as possible, how can we do this?”. They are looking at all these interesting things to get around the problem that they have no land such as vertical agriculture, indoor aquaculture and oceanic farming. What I find fascinating in there is that vision.

OL: So those sound like positive examples, but many governments are still nowhere near that far along in the discussion. What would you advise them to do differently?

We lack focus, focus where governments say “hey, food is the single most important system” because it is. Let’s treat it that way. Let’s have a minister of food who actually gets to sit on the front bench of a government meeting. Let’s actually give some teeth to this, let’s fund it, let’s have universities that advertise it as a great career. What children are shown about agriculture in picture books is kind of backwards, like what your grandpa did. It’s not seen as a viable career. But meanwhile in places like Holland they are training people to fly drones through greenhouses full of robots and nanobots. We actually need a very skilled workforce to produce the world’s food in the most sustainable way possible and very few countries are doing that right.

Image: “Bananas Exp. 2050” The Museum of Endangered Foods by Sharp & Sour

SL: What about us citizens, do you think changing habits on an individual level can have any real effect on our food systems?

I’ll be honest because I work in a policy realm I want the change to happen higher up so the consumer doesn’t have to spend three hours trying to figure out what’s best for the environment. But that said, at this point in history, the single biggest thing you can do to address climate change is to go vegan. There is nothing else that is even close. Giving up your car is kind of close, but not really.

We have spent 70 years making meat cheap and what we’ve created is a system that is horrendous. It will be looked back upon historically as a great wrong.

It is partly a numbers game. There were never supposed to be this many cows. If you feed them 100 calories, only 3 calories actually make it into the food system. The rest turn into methane and go into the atmosphere. In North America, we have spent 70 years making meat cheap and what we’ve created is a system that is horrendous. It will be looked back upon historically as a great wrong.

It is a system that kills people because everyone is eating way too much unhealthy stuff. The workers in that system have some of the worst jobs in human history – they suffer terrible injuries and are injured at ridiculous rates. They tend to be undocumented labourers who are paid very poorly. They suffer incredible PTSD because of the need for speed killing. Every time someone drives to a big store and buys a two-dollar chicken, which is somehow a thing in America, they are really taking advantage of a worker somewhere who made that chicken available for two dollars.

What worries me, given that 40 per cent of the earth’s surface is already being used to feed the animal industry, is that in South Asia, East Asia, China, in particular, meat consumption is ramping up towards our level. And it can’t. There isn’t enough planet to do that. The nice thing with saying “okay, I’m eating less meat” in North America, is that it’s low hanging fruit, given that most Americans eat meat three times a day. 70 per cent of all the beef in America goes into hamburgers. So to me, this is the number one thing you can do.

Image: “Potatoes: Exp. 2050” The Museum of Endangered Foods by Sharp & Sour

OL: If that is the case, wouldn’t your time be better spent as an individual lobbying McDonald’s to switch to lab-grown meat?

Weirdly enough I do think that’s going to happen and it’s going to be one of the biggest changes in human history. I think we will gradually phase out mass animal agriculture. But it’s not like you have to get all of it at once. So lab-grown meat at McDonald’s? That’s a huge change! It cuts out a giant piece of the industry. The other one that needs to happen is on the dairy side. In America, 80 per cent of mass dairy is going into milk powder. If I produce it in a lab using a fermentation-derived dairy process, no one would even miss it if it went into a cereal bar, it’s not like a slice of camembert. I think we could shrink the meat industry by about 50 per cent without even noticing we’d done it. And I think we will because the economics are pushing that way. If we could hack out 70-80 per cent of the meat industry, or 100.000 dairy farms. If we can kill that side of the industry, it buys us a half-century of worry about climate change.

One of the examples that makes me the saddest and was the hardest to write about, was the passenger pigeon.

SL: Your latest book Lost Feast is about foodstuffs that humans have eaten to extinction. Could you give us an example of one of those that shows the impact ecologically, socially and maybe health-wise as well?

One of the examples that makes me the saddest and was the hardest to write about, was the passenger pigeon. It was a North American bird that at one time was the single most numerous bird species on earth. There were billions of them. They flew in giant flocks of millions and millions of birds. It actually got dark, and stayed dark, for hours while they flew overhead. They were critical to North America’s forests, east of the Rockies, in that they were this giant destructive force. They literally crushed the forest where they lived and then they would get up and move on.

I’m very fond of nomads. These birds flew in a giant circle every seven years or so, all around the continent. When settlers arrived they were kind of free food. They were really easy to kill. You could walk out among them throw some corn on the ground and throw a net over them. You could wave a stick, knock them out of the air and get lunch. They were so ubiquitous, they were the poultry of the time. Chicken was quite rare in North America until the extinction of the passenger pigeon.

This consumption went on for centuries. Centuries! Indigenous people didn’t even dent their numbers, neither did the settlers. But the advent of the railway and the telegraph and the big public market did.  All these technologies came together. Professional pigeon hunters, kind of like cowboys, would follow the flock. They’d get a telegraph that might say “the flocks are now in San Antonio” and they’d go. They obliterated millions of pigeons, packed them in barrels and shipped them back to Chicago or New York. No species can really survive that.

So there were plenty of pigeons in the market until there weren’t. They got rarer and rarer. It was the first time in human history that we knew exactly when a species died. They went extinct in the wild in 1898 roughly. They didn’t breed well in captivity, so the numbers got smaller and smaller until there were only two: George and Martha. Martha outlived her species by about five years. And we actually have a name for such a horrible thing. We call it an “endling”. An endling is the last of something. So of course we have this weird horrible poignant moment where you have one of something, which is not enough. Martha died in the afternoon of September 1st 1914, surrounded by her keepers. And it made the news. Some of the first preservation laws in the US came out of a last-ditch effort to save the passenger pigeon. But it was already too late.

SL: It is a horrific story.

Yeah, I know, researching this was actually terrible. They got a bit serious about saving the buffalo after that. The story of the pigeon still haunts me. When I went down to San Francisco recently to see a fellow researcher, he was actually trying to bring it back from extinction; de-extincting the passenger pigeon using Crispr technology. We’ll see how it goes.

Image: “Wine: Exp. 2100” The Museum of Endangered Foods by Sharp & Sour

OL: Did you come across any documentation showing whether the experience of the extinction affected the consumer? Or was it just that they went to the butcher and thought “oh, no pigeon today, I’ll have the chicken then”.

They really missed them. There is a lot of documentation about this pigeon hunger. And it’s one of the first times that an extinction registered that way. They were like “oh, there’s no pigeon, this sucks, I hope they come back”. And they didn’t of course. People wrote about what they missed. They missed many things, missed the noise, missed their physicality – they were very beautiful – and they missed the taste and preparing them. It’s interesting how much documentation we have about it.

Whether you end up with a horrible dystopian future or something really cool where food is nearly free and there are no animal ethics or labour ethics problems – all hangs on policy.

OL: So where will your researches take you next? What is going to be the next most important area to look at in our search to stop being such monsters as a species?

Lately, I have been bringing back more of the physics in terms of really looking at AgTech. I think technology is wonderful but you need the right policy. Because policy dictates how it works. Whether you end up with a horrible dystopian future or something really cool where food is nearly free and there are no animal ethics or labour ethics problems – all hangs on policy. I don’t quite know what it’s going to look like yet. In a way, I am still that girl with the backpack wandering through the Gobi Desert with no idea what I want to do when I want to grow up.

Lenore Newman is a Canadian author and culinary geographer. She was born and raised in a fishing family in Sechelt, British Columbia. She is Associate Professor of Geography and the Environment at the University of the Fraser Valley and Director of the Food and Agriculture Institute. She holds the Canada Research Chair in Food Security and the Environment. She attended the University of British Columbia, where she received a BSc (Hons), and then completed an MES and PhD at York University.

Newman has conducted fieldwork around the globe, studying public markets, regional cuisines, farmland preservation, global food security, and the ecology of the world’s food system. As Canada Research Chair in Food Security and the Environment, she researches the impact of climate change on food security and global cuisines. Newman currently researches technology and the future of food, agricultural land use policy, and placemaking through food and agriculture. In 2018 she was appointed to a government committee to strengthen the Agricultural Land Reserve in British Columbia. In 2019 she was appointed to a Food Security Task Force with the mandate to advise the government on ways to apply technology and innovation to support the agricultural sector in British Columbia – and to reduce food waste.

Her first book, Speaking in Cod Tongues: A Canadian Culinary Journey (University of Regina Press, 2017) explores regional food cultures across Canada and argues for the existence of a distinctly Canadian cuisine. Her second book, Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food (ECW Press 2019) explores the foods that humans have eaten to extinction.

Title Image: “Honey: Exp. 2050” by Sharp & Sour, for their project: The Museum of Endangered Foods which references Lenore Newman’s book Lost Feast. All images reproduced with kind permission.

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