The Great Tariff Boat Race

IMAGE: Peak Pegasus. Photo by Jackie Pritchard, Marine Traffic.

Peak Pegasus is a bulk cargo ship, built in 2013, and, like so many commercial vessels, flagged in Liberia. At 229 metres long and 32.26 metres broad, she is Panamax-sized (the maximum width that can squeak through the canal is 32.31 metres), and she can carry a little more than 82,000 tons of whatever you need to move. For her owner, JP Morgan Global Maritime, that has most recently meant commodity crops such as sorghum and soybeans. And that, thanks to the imbecile currently installed in the White House, has made her last couple of voyages more interesting than usual.

For those who have switched off the news in despair, a quick update: the United States recently imposed tariffs on $34 billion worth of Chinese goods; the Chinese responded by levying an equal amount on American imports; and, just today, the White House has threatened to tax an additional $200 billion of Chinese tilapia, handbags, and chemicals.

The majority of farmers across the American Midwest voted for the current President. They also export more than half their soybean harvest to China, as livestock feed. In Kansas, Texas, Colorado, and Oklahoma, farmers also grow tens of thousands of acres of sorghum, specifically for export to China, where it is fed to pigs and distilled into baiju. What could possibly go wrong?

This is where the recent adventures of Peak Pegasus are instructive. According to Reuters, back in April, the Peak Pegasus took on 58,503 tonnes of sorghum from an Archer Daniels Midland grain elevator in Corpus Christi, Texas, and set off for Guangzhou, in southern China. En route, officials in Beijing announced that they were launching an anti-dumping probe into U.S. sorghum exports, in retaliation for new U.S. tariffs on imported Chinese washing machines and solar panels.

Peak Pegasus changed direction, heading instead for South Korea. It was, Reuters reported, one of twelve cargo ships full of sorghum headed to China, whose importers, faced with losses of millions of dollars, were frantically trying to resell the grain elsewhere. “Four cargoes have been resold to Saudi Arabia and Japan, and another is heading to Spain,” Reuters continued, but at “steep discounts.”

IMAGE: Peak Pegasus en route, via Bloomberg.

Fast forward a couple of months, and the Peak Pegasus was in Seattle, loading up with 70,000 tonnes of American soybeans. It left on June 8, headed to Dalian, in northeast China. China’s new 25 percent levy on the cargo was scheduled to take effect at noon on Friday, July 6; three weeks into its month-long journey, Peak Pegasus was scheduled to land with a few hours to spare—long enough, according to an anonymous source quoted by Bloomberg, to clear customs before the tariffs took effect.

As it neared China, Peak Pegasus accelerated—and also began trending on Chinese social media. According to Reuters, on Friday, July 6, the ship’s progress was the 34th-highest ranked topic on Weibo, with users wishing it luck. “You are no ordinary soybean!” cheered one user.

And then, tragedy. Peak Pegasus finally arrived in Dalian at 5.07 p.m. local time. On Weibo, Reuters reported, one user wondered whether letting the beans sprout might offer a loophole, another offered to take the soy on a romantic trip to Turkey instead. As of today, Peak Pegasus is still a few miles offshore, lying at anchor amidst a cluster of ships.

IMAGE: Peak Pegasus’s position on July 11, according to Marine Traffic.

In an interview with the Communist Party’s official newspaper, the People’s Daily, on Wednesday, Yu Xubo, the president of state grain trader COFCO, said that, going forward, China will feed its pigs with soybean imports from South America instead, as well as increased imports of rapeseed, sunflower seed, and fishmeal. Meanwhile, much of the 90 million acres of the American Midwest—an area almost the same size as California—that is currently planted with soybeans will likely switch to crops with lower profit margins, such as corn or wheat, instead. And, no doubt, the Peak Pegasus’s future voyages will look quite different.

(Thanks to Geoff Manaugh for the tip.)

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Swedish Candy Culture

The year I moved to New York, Sockerbit, a Scandinavian pick-and-mix sweet shop, opened in the West Village. I went once, and never again in the six years I lived in the city. The problem was not that I did not enjoy the fragrant, soft pink Smultronmatta (rippled squares of wild strawberry licorice) or the refreshingly tart Rabarberbitar (cylindrical rhubarb gummis with a lemon-flavoured filling); the problem was that I could not trust myself to exert any degree of self-control once across Sockerbit’s threshold.

IMAGE: Some of Sockerbit’s chewy delights, including Dansk Skalle, Rosa Kubik, Smultronmatta, Rabarberbitar, Super Sura Banana, Elefantskumfotter, and Rambo Twists.

As it turns out, this is a problem that the Swedish authorities, in all their benevolent wisdom, had anticipated. In her review of Bon Bon, a newly opened Swedish sweetshop on the Lower East side, Hannah Goldfield introduces the delightful concept of lördagsgodis, or Saturday Sweeties: a day of the week set aside for unbridled candy consumption, on the understanding that the other six will be gummi-free.

Speaking as my former self—a child who used to receive my pocket money on a Saturday morning, and hit the pick-and-mix aisle of Woolworth’s shortly thereafter—I can understand how this might work. Saturday Sweeties was the inadvertent outcome of the fact that I spent my money all at once and the sweets didn’t last much longer. But, Goldfield writes, in Sweden, this Saturday candyfest extends well into adulthood—indeed, it has been the official public health recommendation of the Swedish government since the 1950s.

The problem began in the 1900s, when sugar became affordable enough for manufactured candies to be mass-produced and widely available. By the 1930s, as sweet-makers introduced foam and jelly-textured offerings, the overwhelming majority of the Swedish population had cavities. Indeed, only one in a thousand military conscripts didn’t have tooth decay. In response, following the Second World War, the Swedish Parliament introduced a public dental service, but also commissioned a study, to be performed by the country’s only dental institute, in order to establish “what measures should be taken to decrease the frequency of the most common dental diseases in Sweden.”

At the time, scientists assumed that there was a link between diet and dental caries, but they were divided on whether tooth decay should be thought of holistically, as a symptom of deficiencies in overall nutrition, or locally, as the direct result of consuming sugar. It was quickly decided that the study should be carried out at the Vipeholm Institute, a state hospital “for individuals with mental handicaps,” situated just outside Lund. In an era before institutional review boards, the inability of the subjects to provide informed consent was, apparently, not an obstacle. The trial was also, controversially, supported in part by the country’s sugar industry and sweet and chocolate manufacturers.

During the first part of the study, dentists studied the impact of vitamin supplementation on dental caries, and found no effect. In the next phase, they administered sugar in both sticky and unsticky forms. At mealtimes, patients might receive either a sucrose drink “with only a light retention tendency,” or “new bread”—a sticky, sugar-fortified bun. In between meals, they were served up to 24 pieces of “Vipeholmstoffee”—”very popular caramels,” specially formulated to last longer and be stickier than normal toffee.

The results were striking. Consuming the caramels between meals was associated with a significantly increased occurrence of tooth decay. The Swedish authorities promptly launched a campaign to limit sweet-eating occasions, suggesting that children should save their candy to eat while listening to a popular radio programme on Saturday evenings. The accompanying public health message translates as: “All the candy you want, but only once a week.”

IMAGE: Chart from “The Vipeholm Dental Caries Study: Recollections and Reflections 50 Years Later,” Bo Krasse, Journal of Dental Research, 2001.

Today, Goldfield reports, Swedes eat more candy per year per capita than the citizens of any other country, at more than 30 pounds each—but the rate of dental caries among twelve-year-old Swedish children, is, according to World Health Organisation data, “very low.” Sweden does not fluoridate its tap water or salt, but its youth still have a lower rate of decayed, missing, or filled teeth than those, say, in the United States. Of course, whether lördagsgodis, the provision of public dental care, or some other factor is behind that improvement is still to be determined.

According to a 2001 paper by Bo Krasse, one of the dentists involved, the Vipeholm Study had other, potentially more important outcomes. “We as dentists did not see any ethical problems with the study itself,” he writes, noting that most of the symptoms were only “early enamel lesions,” which re-mineralised when the toffee was withdrawn. Meanwhile, over the course of the six-year-study, the hospital’s chief physician concluded that “both the general and the mental health of the patients improved markedly.” Still, in 1953, when the study’s results were published, the resulting outcry prompted the Swedish government to forbid the future use of Vipeholm patients as research subjects. The study is still cited in medical ethics debates today, although Krasse seems unrepentant. “My reflection now,” Krasse concludes, “is that the Vipeholm Study illustrates two well-known sayings: (1) The end sometimes justifies the means, and (2) it is easy to be wise after the event.”

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Monsieur, with all these hazelnuts, you are really spoiling us!

IMAGE: The classic Ferrero Rocher “Ambassador’s Party” ad.

“To put a hazelnut into every bonbon, Ferrero buys about a third of the world’s hazelnut supply.”

A third! That’s just one of the fascinating details in this Forbes profile of the Ferrero family, which also includes the business’s origins in ersatz wartime “chocolate.”* Founder Pietro’s first enterprise—selling biscuits to Italian troops stationed in East Africa—failed, so he returned home, settled in Alba, and began selling “a blend of molasses, hazelnut oil, coconut butter and a small amount of cocoa,” wrapped in wax paper and sold under the gianduia-adjacent name of Giandujot.

(Gianduja itself was created during an earlier war: in 1806, when the Napoleonic blockade of England limited the supply of cocoa to northern Italy, chocolatiers in Turin stretched their chocolate bars with up to thirty percent hazelnut paste, for a result that is, in my opinion, far more than the sum of its parts.)

In Mussolini’s chocolate-starved Italy Giandujot was, apparently, wildly popular, and the Ferrero family business has never looked back. Today’s CEO, Pietro’s grandson Giovanni—who has written a handful of romance novels, frequently set in Africa—is attempting to make the company into the world’s largest confectionery manufacturer from its current third place position. One of his first moves? Buying the world’s largest hazelnut producer, based in Trabzon (historic Trebizond), on Turkey’s Black Sea coast.

*Some might argue that Nutella, Ferrero Rocher, and Kinder bear a similar relationship to the real thing even today.

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Lunar Hay Fever

As allergy season gears up in the northern hemisphere, yesterday brought news that even leaving the planet will bring no relief. A press release announcing the publication of a new paper in the journal GeoHealth warned that future astronauts may well suffer from “lunar hay fever,” complete with the characteristic sneezing, watery eyes, and sore throat.

In a fever of my own, I immediately assumed the research was about how the Moon-based agriculture of tomorrow will likely introduce new seasonal allergies into an otherwise season-less lunar year—and thus markers for a new, extra-terrestrial almanac. The term “hay fever”, after all, refers to the malady’s principal trigger: pollen from grasses, levels of which peak between May and July in much of the Northern Hemisphere, before the stems are cut down and bundled to make hay. John Bostock, the British doctor popularly regarded as the “father of hay fever science,” seems to have been the first to use the term in 1828, in follow-up to a 1819 paper that presented his own symptoms in a thinly disguised case study.

“With respect to what is termed the exciting cause of the disease, since the attention of the public has been turned to the subject,” he wrote, “an idea has very generally prevailed, that it is produced by the effluvium from new hay and it has hence obtained the popular name of hay-fever.”

In Bostock’s own opinion, the rays and heat of the sun were to blame; the earliest mention of seasonal catarrh, in a Persian text from 865, pointed the finger at roses instead. (It was titled “On the Reason why the Heads of People Swell at the Time of Roses and Produce Catarrh.”) Indeed, though Europeans appeared to be unaware of this paper, as of much Islamic knowledge, in the 1500s, Italian doctors referred to rare cases of seasonal allergies as “the rose cold.” In 1565, for example, Leonhardus Botallus of Pavia described persons “who held the smell of roses in deadly hatred because it gave rise to headache, sneezing and troublesome itching of the nose.”

By the mid-1850s, hay fever had become well recognised, at least in Britain—indeed, a German researcher labeled England as the “haunt of hay fever.” No less a personage than the King, William IV, was said to be a sufferer, reportedly escaping to Brighton to breathe the sea air each summer.

Intriguingly, the rapid rise of hay-fever took place during a time of equally rapid urbanisation in the U.K., as well as agricultural intensification, as a shrinking group of farmers fed a growing population. This link was pointed out in 1873, by another British scientist with hay-fever, Charles Blackley, who tested coumarin, the molecule responsible for the scent of newly mown hay, before narrowing in on the true cause: pollen.

IMAGE: LPX, or the Lunar Plant Growth Experiment. Photographs courtesy NASA Ames.

But, sadly, for a term so bound up with the history of agriculture, hay fever has since come to mean any form of allergic rhinitus, or nasal inflammation triggered by the immune system in response to atmospheric allergens. Thus, it turns out that the irritants responsible for the “lunar hay fever” mentioned in this new GeoHealth paper are in its soil, rather than its future crops. (Indeed, the term “lunar hay fever” was coined way back in 1972, by Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, to describe the watery eyes and sneezing fits he suffered after breathing in the lunar dust brought back into the command module on the surface of his spacesuit.)

After exposing human lung cells to finely ground-up lunar soil simulants, scientists at Stony Brook University documented significant injury—up to 90 percent of cells were killed, making it impossible to even measure the DNA damage. It seems that tomorrow’s lunar gardeners will have more to worry about than flowering mustard and cress.

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The Rise of Wackaging

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IMAGE: Innocent wackaging via.

If you’ve bought juice, crisps, cereal bars, soups, “breakfast pots” (porridge, as was), or any number of other ready-to-eat packaged foods in the U.K. this millennium, you may have noticed that your snack fancies a chat.

“British food packaging now has a matey, at worst babyish, tone that simply didn’t used to be there—commonly, food is describing itself in the first person,” explained an unimpressed Sophy Grimshaw, writing in The Guardian in 2014. “My basket of groceries now addresses me as though we are killing time on Facebook.”

This phenomenon has a name: wackaging, coined by journalist Rebecca Nicholson. Nicholson launched a tumblr to collect examples of the form in 2011, with the tagline “I blame Innocent smoothies.”

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IMAGE: Innocent wackaging via.

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IMAGE: Slightly blurry Innocent wackaging via Buzzfeed.

An interview with Innocent Drinks’ co-founder, Richard Reed, in today’s Observer confirms Nicholson’s suspicions. In a Q&A, Reed describes founding the company in 1999, with his “two closest mates,” outlines his philosophy of success, and confesses to the wackification of British packaging.

Is it true you were personally responsible for “wackaging”—the quirky labels that are now everywhere?
Yes, that was part of my beat. I do think, oh my God, will my long-term contribution to the species be that I was the guy who introduced really annoying body copy on packaging?

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IMAGE: Innocent wackaging via London Copywriter.

The standard media reaction to wackaging seems to be a pained grimace: for The Independent it triggers “a cute sense of irritation” at being treated “like idiots or children”; Buzzfeed’s listicle on the subject is headlined “16 Enraging Examples of Cutesy Packaging”; and Grimshaw concludes her article with a despairing plea, “Let’s please stop before ‘store in a cool, dry place’ becomes ‘I love it in the cupboard!'”

I, on the other hand, have quite a soft spot for it—a sentiment that is only increased by learning the inspiration behind Innocent’s labeling copy:

Was it an Innocent innovation?
If we can make one claim, we can make this—that was new. I’ll tell you where it came from: have you seen Kingpin?

The tenpin bowling movie with Woody Harrelson? Of course.
Well, there’s one scene, it’s not an integral scene, where somebody goes round to somebody else’s house and says: “Oh, I’m desperate for a dump, have you got anything to read on the toilet?” The guy looks around and passes him a bottle of shampoo and he looks at it and goes: “No, I’ve read this one already.” That’s where the idea came from.

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IMAGE: Innocent wackaging via.

This revelation raises a couple of thoughts. Firstly, might Dr. Bronner’s be true progenitor of wackaging? And, secondly, given that the rise of smartphones over the past decade has taken care of any possible bathroom- (not to mention commute-, kitchen table-, supermarket queue-, solo dining-, etc.) reading material shortage, why has wackaging become so ubiquitous during the same timeframe?

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IMAGE: Reddit user IRONFIRE.

The answer, I think, lies in seeing wackaging as simply a novel and perhaps peculiarly British chapter in the long story of packaging’s efforts to engender trust in an era of mass production. As I’ve written before, on the subject of butter packaging, the widespread decline in personal knowledge of food producers from the end of the eighteenth century is reflected in the simultaneous rise in packaging design that attempts to fill that gap.

As Gary Cross, co-author of Packaged Pleasures, explained on a recent Gastropod episode all about the history and science of packaging, the first labels promised a sanitary, standardised product—a cereal or cracker you could trust by virtue of its being made by machine.

More recently, as consumers have begun to mistrust “industrial” food, and sought instead to know where their food has come from and who made it, label copy has provided carefully edited personal stories and (frequently fake) geographies.

Seen in that light, wackaging is simply another iteration in this long shift from trusting people, to trusting institutions and companies, to trusting people again—a change that is playing out across society, not just in terms of food.

The difference, of course, is that if I had bought squashed fruit before the Industrial Revolution, I would likely have known the person who grew it; today, my only acquaintance with Richard Reed and his friends is through their label copy and media presence. In a way, Reed is like an online friend: the labels aim to communicate that same sense of knowing someone that you get from following the Twitter feeds of people you’ve never met, a technologically mediated kind of intimacy that is still real in its own way. Indeed, if packaging is a form of literature, wackaging is the social media equivalent.

Today, though, Innocent Drinks is ninety percent owned by Coca-Cola, a company that is synonymous with the industrial food system. Wackaging is simply part of Innocent’s brand now, rather than being any kind of personal connection to the people who made your smoothie. And corporations, despite the opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court, are not people. That, combined with its ubiquity, likely spells wackaging’s eventual demise, its authenticity eroded beyond belief. Enjoy those quirky labels while you can!

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Egg on Your Face

An egg, it turns out, is not just the best thing to put on top of almost any dish. For starters, artists have been using eggs as a canvas for centuries; the International Egg Art Guild showcases some fine examples of “eggery,” from delicate laser-cut eggshells to traditional Ukranian wax-resist methods. The photo galleries from its annual Masters of Egg Art competition are well worth a browse.

But using eggs to copyright clown make-up? That was new to me when I read about it on Atlas Obscura last week.

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IMAGE: Clown Egg Register photograph by Luke Stephenson.

In the article, associate editor Ella Morton describes the Clown Egg Register, as documented by photographer Luke Stephenson. Each of the few hundred eggs in the collection serves as “a copyright register for a clown’s personal make-up design,” the Register’s curator, clown Matthew Faint, told the Financial Times in 2011. (Faint’s own egg boasts an elongated black-edged white outline around the lips and eyes, red cheeks and lips, and a flower-bedecked bowler hat.)

The Register started as a hobby: Stan Bult, a circus enthusiast who founded the International Circus Clowns Society in 1946, painted portraits of his founding members on blown eggshells for fun. Bult died in 1966, and, according to Morton, many of his initial egg portraits have since been crushed. But, when the Society reformed as Clowns International in 1978, the egg tradition was revived.

Clown Egg Registry 1 Luke Stephenson

IMAGE: Clown Egg Register photograph by Luke Stephenson.

Today, writes Morton:

A designated “egg artist”—currently Debbie Smith—paints a pottery egg for each clown who registers. Unlike the Bult-era eggs, which focused solely on faces, today’s eggs also incorporate elements of each performer’s costume. The clowns help the egg creation process by sending fabric swatches and photos of their made-up faces.

Clown Egg Registry three across Luke Stephenson

IMAGE: Clown Egg Register photographs by Luke Stephenson.

Part of the Clown Egg Register, including the twenty-four eggs that remain of Bult’s oeuvre, is on display at Wookey Hole Caves, in Somerset. You can read the Atlas Obscura article in full here, and see more of the collection in Luke Stephenson’s short animation, below. Stephenson is currently working on a book about the Register, including the biographies of the men and women behind the make-up.

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Outside the Box: The Story of Food Packaging

The invention of food packaging is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. It may seem hard to imagine today, but the first clay pots made the great civilizations of the ancient world possible, while paper’s first use, long before it became a surface for writing, was to wrap food. But packaging’s proliferation, combined with the invention of plastics, has become one of our biggest environmental headaches. In this episode, we explore the surprising history of how our food got dressed—and why and how we might want to help it get naked again.

In Packaged Pleasures: How Technology and Marketing Revolutionized Desire, co-authors Gary Cross and Robert Proctor lead us through millennia of human ingenuity applied to the problem of how to contain food, from the clay pot, which transformed communal food reserves into wealth-generating private property, to the much more recent breakthrough in resealability represented by the Mason jar. That’s right, today’s hipster drinking vessel started life as the world’s first screw-lid container. Through the story of how soda got its pop and the invention of the cereal box, Cross and Proctor help us understand how recent mass-market food packaging is—and how it has revolutionized our relationship with food.

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Alongside these social and dietary transformations came an environmental nightmare. In the United States, the E.P.A. has found that a third of municipal solid waste—the stuff that goes into landfills—is packaging. And two-thirds of that once held food. But can we live without food packaging? We meet inventor David Edwards of Le Laboratoire and Café ArtScience in Cambridge, MA, who has developed and commercialized a form of edible packaging that keeps yogurt or ice-cream contained for fifty days, even after being rinsed under the tap.

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We explore the science behind his invention, but also the challenges that mean that, for now, his edibly packaged products are still sold in a box. And, with listener help, we explore the burgeoning “unpackaged” movement, in which individuals and small businesses are trying to reduce waste by reinventing the process of grocery shopping. Listen in now, and you’ll never look at a can of soup or a bag of spinach the same way again.

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The Great British Mistake

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IMAGE: Websters is one of only six dairies that is allowed to make Stilton cheese. Photograph by Martin Parr/Magnum, via The New Republic.

I am both stunned and heartbroken by the UK’s Brexit vote, as well as selfishly angry that my future as a European seems to have been taken away* by a disastrous combination of opportunistic politicians, racist liars, and a nostalgic and under-informed electorate. (*I am also in denial.)

But enough of politics, you say—what about food? Well, as it happens, Tim Lang of City University London and Victoria Schoen of the Food Research Collaborative recently published a paper examining the implications of Brexit for the United Kingdom’s food system. It surveys the extent to which every aspect of food in the UK is intertwined with Europe and EU policy, from imports (the UK relies on continental Europe for forty percent of its fruit and vegetable supply) to labour markets (nearly a quarter of the employees of UK food manufacturing businesses come from elsewhere in the European Union, as well as more than one in ten workers in the food and beverage service industry) to regulations (as Schoen points out, after more than forty years of ever closer integration, EU regulations and standards underpin UK food policy—and thus any decision to leave “would require us to re-inject these processes back into UK law.”)

As with everything to do with this unprecedented and uncertain process, it’s impossible to know how (if?) the disentanglement will occur, and thus which unravelings will be the most disruptive. I would rather not have had to find out.

Meanwhile, one of the thousands of regulations that will require renegotiation is the EU’s “Protected Name Food Scheme”, which guarantees that more than sixty British traditional food and drink specialities can only be produced in their region of origin, using traditional methods. The Protected Name Food Scheme is the means by which European producers ensure that we can’t call any old fizzy white wine champagne or that thinly sliced deli meat can never be sold as Parma ham.

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IMAGE: Butts Farm Rare Breeds, which raises and slaughters Gloucestershire Old Spot Pigs using traditional methods, which includes “access to wallows, dips, or showers.” Photograph by Martin Parr/Magnum, via The New Republic.

As Matthew O’Callaghan, chairman of the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association (itself one of Britain’s protected foods), explained to the BBC, post-Brexit, the UK will have to enact its own legislation to protect these iconic products internally, as well as negotiate a new trade deal to ensure those protections are respected in Europe. “My fear,” he added, “is that it’s going to get lost in everything else that’s being discussed.”

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IMAGE: Forced rhubarb is grown in the dark and harvested by candelight, resulting in stalks that are more slender and tender. (In the dark, the stalks grow so fast that you can hear them squeak and pop.) Photograph by Martin Parr/Magnum, via The New Republic.

In other words, supposing anyone ever takes the final step off the cliff and actually invokes Article 50, it’s entirely possible that in a couple of years’ time, Kentish winemakers will be free to call their sparkling whites “champagne” and, conversely, French cheese makers will be free to market their hard yellow cheeses as cheddar. A 2013 study commissioned by the European Union found that, in general, the Protected Name Food Scheme conveyed considerable benefits to food growers and manufacturers, not least of which is being able to charge substantially more for their product. Without that price premium, it’s hard to imagine foods as labour intensive as Arbroath smokies or forced rhubarb would continue to be produced.

During the run-up to the referendum, the amazing photographer Martin Parr travelled the country to document some of Britain’s protected foods, from the candlelight harvest of Yorkshire’s “Rhubarb Triangle” to Rutland Bitter, a “session” beer made using water and yeast from Rutland Lake. If you are able to face further evidence of Britain’s loss, head over to The New Republic to check out more images from the series.

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From Seed Drills to Cyborgs

I wrote a short essay for the “Field Test” exhibition catalogue, reprinted below. You can find essays by the exhibition’s other advisers—Mukund Thattai, a faculty member at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, Jane Stout of Trinity College Dublin, Charles Spillane, head of the Plant & Agrobiosciences Centre at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and Andrew Douglas, who created Urban Farm, an agricultural start-up based in Dublin—as well as the exhibition’s curators, Zack Denfeld and Cathrine Kramer of the Center for Genomic Gastronomy, and Lynn Scarff from the Science Gallery Dublin—online here.

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Jethro Tull—the man, not the British prog rockers—invented a horse-drawn seed drill in 1701. Using his machine, a farmer could, with a single motion, sow seeds at regular intervals and at the correct depth. Because Tull’s drill planted seeds in a straight line, it opened up the possibility of using a machine to remove weeds between the rows of crops. Tull went on to invent a mechanical horse-drawn hoe to do just that. Combined, his innovations reduced waste and greatly increased yield: the resulting productivity boost helped fuel Britain’s Agricultural Revolution, and, thus, its subsequent Industrial one. Of course, Jethro Tull’s seed drill—commonly considered the first agricultural machine—also set the stage for many of the most serious problems facing farming today, from monocultures to erosion.

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IMAGE: Jethro Tull’s Seed Drill, in Horse-hoeing Husbandry, 4th edition, 1762, via Wikipedia.

More often than not, thinking about the future of agriculture means thinking about the future of food. How will changes in the contents of our supermarkets and the composition of our dinner plates reshape the landscape around us in five, ten, or even fifty years? “Field Test” offers a rare opportunity to consider this fundamental relationship from the other, less-considered point of view: how will changes in the science and technology of farming change what we eat—and how we live?

If history is any guide, those changes will be both all-encompassing and rather slow. The dawn of agriculture, for example—an invention that is described with equal frequency as humanity’s best and worst idea—eventually led to the development of mathematics, measurement, property rights, and government, while disrupting the planetary nitrogen cycle, triggering the Sixth Great Extinction, rewriting genomes across hundreds of species, and even weakening human shin bones.

These kinds of massive changes occurred over millennia, but even smaller shifts take generations: it wasn’t until a century later, in the early 1800s, that Jethro Tull’s seed drill finally displaced the ancient method of hand-broadcasting seed. Farmers are not, as a general rule, Luddites: as in any field, there are first adopters and laggards, and new technology often requires time and iteration in order to work at scale and economically. Plants and animals provide their own inertia, by virtue of their lengthy growing cycles—if a newly planted tree only starts to produce apples after five years, ripping out an orchard to introduce new cultivars or make space for robotic harvesters may also have to wait.

Meanwhile, forecasting the future is a notoriously failure-strewn activity; humans are especially bad at imagining transformations that are long, gradual, and interconnected, as those prompted by agricultural innovation tend to be. Nonetheless, the seeds of future farms are here now.

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IMAGE: Sketch from Cyrus Hall McCormick’s 1845 patent for an improved reaper, via Wikipedia.

When Cyrus Hall McCormick’s mechanical reaper machine began the “power farming” era in 1831, it harvested as much grain in a few hours as two or three men could in a day, but it was for the most part seen as noisy, unreliable, and impractical. Few contemporaries had the foresight to imagine that, over the next 150 years, mechanization would mean that farming would slip from a majority activity to a specialised profession carried out by a tiny percentage of the population.

Today, as embedded sensors, drones, and robot harvesters promise to revolutionise farming once again, can we do any better at predicting the future? If we follow their logic across continents, cultures, and climates, what can the signals gathered here—the kitchen bioreactor, the franchised apple, acoustic pest control—tell us about future ecosystems, epidemics, economic models, and, of course, meals?

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Field Test

Field Test Screenshot EG

IMAGE: Screenshot from the Science Gallery’s Field Test video—watch it in full here.

In Dublin, my smog meringue collaborators at the Center for Genomic Gastronomy have been busy curating an exhibition all about the future of farming. Called “Field Test,” the interactive installation is on display at the Science Gallery until June 5, and, if you’re in town, you should most definitely visit. There are countless events, publications, and exhibits about the future of food, but many fewer about how shifts in agricultural technology and ownership will also help reshape landscapes and dinner plates alike. “Field Test” is a welcome—and exciting—counter-balance.

Some of the artifacts on display are simply on the cutting edge of today’s technology: something like 25,000 calves have already been born using Moo-call, the latest in wearable computing for cows. The Silent Herdsman, a smart collar and software platform, has been generating data points on the eating and rumination habits of British cattle ten times per second since 2010.

IMAGE: “Second Livestock” by Austin Stewart.

These two devices are both in the exhibition’s section on “Farm Cyborgs,” which Zack Denfeld and Cat Kramer of the Center for Genomic Gastronomy have identified as a “bridge species,” somewhere between electrical engineering and anatomical reality, the cloud and the manure lagoon. Other items on display in this section are more speculative, and, indeed, provocative: Austin Stewart’s “Second Livestock,” an Oculus Rift for chickens, conjures up an entirely credible future in which the use of virtual reality to enhance livestock well-being is standard practice—but also raises the question of whether our own technologically mediated existences qualify as humane living conditions.

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IMAGE: “Stir-Fly: The Nutrient Bug 1.0,” The Tissue Culture & Art Project in collaboration with Robert Foster. “Field Test.” Credit: Science Gallery Dublin.

Elsewhere, the plastinated remains of the first cultured beef burger, served by Mark Post in 2013, are on display alongside a working, table-top bio-reactor that is growing insect cells within the gallery. Unlike mammalian tissue, insect cells can be grown at room temperature, making them a perfect protein for domestic fabrication. (The installation is called “Stir-Fly,” which may or may not be a serving suggestion; no word on whether its harvest will be available for sampling!)

My favourite section, at least from afar, may well be the Seed Boutique: an installation that puts ten carefully selected seeds on a pedestal—and in a gumball machine, which dispenses one of the ten at random, in return for a one Euro coin.

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IMAGE: “Field Test.” Credit: Science Gallery Dublin.

These range from the Beefy Resilient Grex Bean, a pulse that not only “tastes more beefy than beef does,” but is part of the Open Source Seed Initiative, to an Outredgeous Lettuce seed, specially bred for flavour as part of the Culinary Breeding Network and distinguished by being the first lettuce grown and eaten in space. Together, the seed selections raise issues of intellectual property and agricultural espionage, industrial consolidation and food independence. And they force us to question the goals of plant breeding and genetic modification: is yield or pest resistance actually more important than environmental resilience or flavour?

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IMAGE: Astronauts sampling space-grown Outredgeous red romaine lettuce. Credit: NASA TV.

I was honoured and delighted to serve as an adviser to the exhibition, and even more chuffed to be listed as curator of one of the installations: Pest Sounds. I selected a soundtrack of insect recordings from a database assembled by U.S.D.A. entomologist Richard Mankin, whose research focuses on the acoustic detection of pests in stored foods, as well as sonic pesticides. For more on the challenges of finding a seventeen-day-old rice weevil in a grain silo, as well as the possibility of exploiting male citrus psyllids’ attraction to the mooing of horny lady psyllids, you should read this Edible Geography post and listen to this “Field Recordings” episode of Gastropod.

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IMAGE: “Pest Sounds.” “Field Test.” Credit: Science Gallery Dublin.

I can’t wait to check out “Field Test” in person. Fortunately, I don’t have to: I’ll be in Dublin next week, giving a free talk at the Science Gallery on Tuesday evening. You can register here—hopefully I’ll see some of you there!

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