TED2009: Louise Fresco


Louise Fresco, food and agriculture expert is on stage at TED2009. She's making bread as she talks. She is holding up two loaves, one in each hand: Wonder Bread, and artisanal whole meal bread. Asks audience, which do you like better. Only about two people out of thousands say they like the Wonder Bread.

Fresco says that we feel whole meal bread is more real, more honest, more authentic. Why do we feel that whole meal bread has these attributes? Because we connect it to a mythical agricultural past, of Tuscan farms.

We have mythical image of how life was in rural areas in the past. The reality is quite different. These poor farmers had hard lives.

200 years ago we had industrial revolution. It brought us power, mechanization, fertilizer, drove up yields. Horrible things like picking beans by hand is automated. All this is a great improvement. We've enveloped world in dense chain of supermarkets with global trade, we can eat food from around the world.

You may prefer the artisanal bread, but don't despise the white bread. Bread and food have become plentiful and affordable to all. It has changed the world.

As food became plentiful it also meant we were able to decrease the number of people working in agriculture. Only 1% of people are farmers. It frees us up to do other things and not worry about food. Never before have so few people been responsible for feeding the rest of the world. And we are oblivious.

Today bread is associated with obesity, which is weird. We have been making it for 10,000 years. The whiter the bread in many countries, the better it is.

How many of you can tell wheat from other cereals? Can you make bread? Do you even know how much a loaf of bread costs? We are removed from our food.

But some people are still struggling for their daily food. Wheat is getting more expensive because meat consumption in China and Asia is driving up wheat prices. Can we find a solution to help them produce more food? Yes, but we need mechanization. It is not good to have small farmer grow rice by hand and work under lousy conditions. We need clever low-scale mechanization to help these small farmers. Fish ponds and horticulture in basements and rooftops.

Ask your government for an integrated food policy.

Now she removes some bread from an over and is sharing it with people in front row.


  1. I make my own bread, as well. It has allowed a greater connection with my mother, and an attachment to a tradition I have always enjoyed.

    These TED posts must be liveblogged, I realize, but they are cracking me up — they read almost like the Dr. Bronner’s magic soap bottles. All they need are a few! more! exclamation! marks!

    Loving the TED posts..

  2. My impression is that in the 21st century USA, bleached white bread is probably not as good for me as the whole grain stuff. Am I incorrect?

    Obviously it is an indicator of the privilege I was born into that I am more likely to die of obesity-related illness than malnutrition, and most people in the world don’t have the luxury to be so choosy.

  3. While I’m sure the presentation was interesting, it’s doesn’t appear to tell the whole story. Certainly we CAN get foods from halfway around the world, but what does it cost in money, fuel, and labor to get it to us? Does it actually taste good out of season?

    Your bread is only as good for you as the ingredients that go into it. Wonderbread is made in bulk and made for the masses, with the cheapest ingredients they can get their hands on to meet whatever standards they set. And what are those standards based on? Profit or health?

    I wonder if that 1% of the population that farms includes those who do the things related to farming or not? In my experience there are a lot of people in the industry who never see a field.

    I like her questions about bettering conditions for the small scale farmer with innovations. But will we ever really make something like that a focus? If more people could grow their own foods and meet the gov specs, who would it benefit? Not big business. We need a viable happy medium between the past and present.

  4. I study anthropology and the points she hammers home are basically drilled into your head by the profs. If you’re interested search out the three tiers of civilisation, the ladder priniciple, what have you.. I found the woman fascinating, so I did a little digging. I found this…

    The Future of the Land: Mobilizing and Integrating Knowledge for Land Use Options (Paperback)
    by Louise O. Fresco (Author), et al.

    —->>>>$252.94 + $3.99shipping

  5. Bread and food have become plentiful and affordable to all.

    Um, what?
    I must be missing something here. Anyone care to explain (I looked for some indication of sarcasm, but to no avail)?

  6. Obesity is malnutrition.

    Whole wheat flour has more fiber and protein and a few more micro-nutrients than refined white flour, but the usual supermarket whole wheat bread is fairly indistinguishable, nutritionally, from supermarket white bread. Most supermarket “whole wheat” bread is only partly so – most contain less than 1/3 whole wheat flour. If you want the benefits of whole grain bread, you’ll want to check the labels carefully or buy artisan bread (which is also mostly white (unbleached at least) but its just so much tastier!

  7. “Why do we feel that whole meal bread has these attributes?” Because it is often, in fact, better than white bread in many ways, including taste and nutrition. Any bread made in bulk using industrial processes like the Chorleywood bread process is going to be inferior to handmade, small batch bread.

  8. Wonder bread is spun corn syrup. Most other brands of “regular” bread have followed this lead, and injected their product with high fructose death goo.

    If I want actual bread, I have to spend $2-$4 more for it, and usually find it in a different section of the store.

    Redubbing real bread as “artisanal” is a marketing slight-of-hand. As brilliant as it is evil.

  9. What this immediately brings to my mind is the unfortunate intersection of “we need mechanization” with the demand to decrease fossil-fuel consumption. Yes, there are alternatives, but are they durable and simple enough to be used and maintained in areas of lower technological sophistication? Are they cheap enough, in terms of fuel input and work output?

    It’s always struck me as something of a cruel irony that we here in the “first” world are calling for a massive decrease in the use of some of the core technologies that enabled our productivity revolutions, just when the “third” world is needing those same technologies to facilitate their own growth. If we’re going to do that, it seems to me that we ought to be providing the world with technologies that are at least as effective as the brute-force, petroleum-burning iron beasts that catapulted us into leisure.

    We’re in a much better position to develop, say, a rice drill seeder that’s powered by ethanol derived from rice straw than the communities that are in need of such a thing. But even if we do, it’s still not going to be as cheap as a third-hand Chinese-made tractor that chugs diesel and spits out great clouds of black smoke while towing a drill seeder that accomplishes the same task.

    I’m keen to watch the TED video and see what solutions Ms. Fresco is proposing…

  10. “Today bread is associated with obesity, which is weird. We have been making it for 10,000 years. The whiter the bread in many countries, the better it is.”

    What is this even supposed to mean? Sorry, I don’t get it. Also, it is quite possible to mass-produce a high-quality bread. Wonderbread is not bad because it is made in a factory, it is bad because it is made from bad ingredients.

  11. I may be latching onto something totally silly here, but man I really and totally hate the little photoshop flourish on the portrait of each TED speaker. It’s silly to say that, but I can’t read the article after seeing it. The swirly thing is just too distracting and in my mind it implies hubris or superiority? I’m not sure, and like I said, it’s silly but golly I hate every TED post that I see one on.

  12. #12 posted by g.deck:

    I may be latching onto something totally silly here, but man I really and totally hate the little photoshop flourish on the portrait of each TED speaker.

    I thought the one around Bill Gates’s head as he stretched forth his malaria-curing finger was a bit much.

  13. You may prefer the artisanal bread, but don’t despise the white bread.

    I don’t despise it – I’m grateful for it. As long as there’s Wonder Bread around, I don’t have to waste my five dollar a loaf artisanal bread on PB&Js for the kids. (who, like most kids, prefer Wonder and turn up their noses at “brown bread”)

    So I don’t despise it – I’d just have to be pretty hungry to eat it, that’s all.

  14. Erm, I like wholemeal bread because it’s much better nutritionally and it tastes a hell of a lot better. White bread tastes pretty much of nothing – it’s just texture. Give me wholemeal any day, preferably homemade and chock-full of seeds and grains…

  15. The photoshop flourishes look a little silly and fyoocheristic to me too. Not sure who’s putting them in there.

    The staccato, info-dense reporting style, on the other hand, comes across as bready and credible. Overall, quite edible.

    “Artisanal” is the new “natural”.

  16. What am I, a leper? =P

    Can someone point out how I misread this, or are we debating the opinion of a woman who claimed that food is accessible and affordable for everyone?

    (As a side note, I was just telling my husband the other day about how I miss picking beans by hand, so it was weird to see said task described as “horrible”. Although I understand she seems to mean this from a farming perspective, rather than my kid-in-a-veggie-patch one.)

  17. I missed the reason why I’m not supposed to despise white bread. Except for its lower cost, what’s the point of it? Whole wheat is isn’t much more expensive, is made using the same industrial techniques as white bread, and it doesn’t have the flavor and texture of fiberglass insulation.

  18. I’ve always cooked, but recently just started making bread on a regular basis. Why? Because it’s not as easy as it might otherwise seem, especially with whole-wheat flour, to get a quality loaf of bread. (My most recent effort makes a great doorstop, but piss-poor sandwiches.)

    I would suspect that many people who might otherwise try baking are intimidated by the prospect. Also, they are so used to spending $1.99 for a loaf of supermarket bread that spending $5-6 seems a bit nuts to them.

    Historically, white flour (and by extension white bread) were seen as solely for the wealthy, as white flour was far more expensive to make. The poorer you were/are, the browner your bread. Now it’s quite opposite – the less crap and processing that goes into a loaf of bread, the more expensive it generally is. How screwed up is that??

    Redubbing real bread as “artisanal” is a marketing slight-of-hand. As brilliant as it is evil.

    I tend to agree. “Artisan” to me is just another yuppie marketing buzzword.

  19. Can someone point out how I misread this, or are we debating the opinion of a woman who claimed that food is accessible and affordable for everyone?

    I think what people are debating is the way she chose to make her point: by implying it was strange for a privileged, well-fed Westerner to prefer an artisan loaf over Wonder Bread.

  20. Most pre-industrial bread was sprouted. Sprouting dramatically improves the bioavailability of the nutriments but takes longer.

    Mass market bread sucks for the same reason that mass market cars and houses suck. Products designed for the highest immediate commercial yield to the seller are often the exact opposite of what is optimal in the long run for the buyer.

    -Ugly American

  21. Re: #19

    I’ve…recently just started making bread on a regular basis. Why? Because it’s not as easy as it might otherwise seem…


    Good, mouth watering, eat until you burst bread is easy peasy!

    You just need to let the bread do the work for you!

    The BEST bread recipe I’ve come across, (also the most forgiving and easiest to play with and adapt) is the “New York Times No Knead Bread”. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/08/dining/081mrex.html

    Personally, I skip a lot of the steps, and I still come up with beautiful bread.

  22. Buying local is not always better from the carbon footprint point of view. If the crop is kept in greenhouses with artificial heating, then that crop is going to be worse than an open-sky grown crop brought in plane.

    And I really like her observation that modern agriculture has freed us from the hard work of the fields, something that many forget.

    “It’s always struck me as something of a cruel irony that we here in the “first” world are calling for a massive decrease in the use of some of the core technologies that enabled our productivity revolutions, just when the “third” world is needing those same technologies to facilitate their own growth. If we’re going to do that, it seems to me that we ought to be providing the world with technologies that are at least as effective as the brute-force, petroleum-burning iron beasts that catapulted us into leisure.”

    Exactly. But a number of technologies are arising that could allow us to leapfrog some stages. GM technology could help us to increase our yields and use our land better.

  23. Bringing the world’s farmer population down to 1% while increasing the percentage of white collar middle managers is not necessarily an aggregate improvement.

    I’ve spoken with hundreds of farmers in several countries, including several states in the US, about the toil involved. Everyone I’ve spoken to loves their work and considers it their life’s avocation. They are not all craving a desk or factory job. And – noticeably – the less mechanized, the happier they are.

    The differences between homemade or artisanal whole grain bread and Wonder bread start with taste (vs. cotton wool) and end with having a well-functioning GI tract (vs. being plugged up).

    Interestingly, it is impossible to get the ingredients for Wonder classic white bread from their website. It is only available on the packaging itself. Shouldn’t they be more proud of their crowning achievement?

  24. It is a fact that white bread metabolizes quicker. The bad news is that it spikes your blood glucose.

    In 1962 I worked for a classical FM station and we got a rare agency buy of time. It was for Wonder Bread. Like many breads then and now, some slices had holes in them. Some copy writer decided to turn that into a virtue. The recorded commercials all contained the line, “The holes eat as good as the bread itself.” Our over educated audience made quick work of that via phone calls and letter.

  25. Well, to me to have the choice to be a farmer rather than being forced to be one unless you want to starve to death is a very positive thing.

  26. The benefit of artisanal breads is that the consumer is more likely to get a diverse range of nutrients.

    We are wired to want to eat the greatest variety of things. Orowheat can produce a diverse product line but only at great expense. The artisanal baker in the expensive neighborhood near you, on the other hand, can produce much more variety much more cost effectively.

    So big markets and robofarms aren’t all good. I’m surprised this isn’t obvious.

  27. RE: #23

    I’ve made the no-knead bread you mentioned, and it’s lovely stuff and quite easy.

    But. It’s just white bread. Plain, white, bread. Yeah, it looks pretty and is tasty, but it’s just white bread.

    That said, you missed my point. Most people in industrialized, developed countries don’t bake. Hell, lots of us “First World” types hardly know how tocook.

    And the people who know about (and make) no-knead bread can probably number in the tens of thousands at most. I know bread is easy, you know it’s easy. They don’t. They are the ones who feed the demand for overprocessed crap.

    The solution is education. Hell if I know how to educate people who don’t want to know, though.

  28. I agree with Takuan. (what?! Unheard of! No one agrees with Takuan!)

    I developed a life-long aversion to stoop labor while picking strawberries almost forty years ago. I’m just not built for squatting in fields, although I don’t mind picking cherries or chopping wood.

    I’ll happily chop wood and forge metal in exchange for fresh peas and beans.

  29. I had fresh English garden peas (already shelled) the other day. Very nice with a spot of butter. From Guatemala. Now, they were expensive,and it pleases me to think a village in Guatemala hopefully made some money – but there is something profoundly wrong with this picture.

  30. I must be alone in finding the denunciation of “white bread” to be a tad smug.

    Comparing a freshly baked “artisanal” (my eyes rolled here) loaf to bloody Wonderbread is hardly a fair representation of the Brown/White dichotomy.

    Wholewheat bread has certain charms for certain purposes, but I’ll take a golden, crispy-fresh, fluffy white baguette over that chewy brown, mouth-drying, self-congratulatory bowel-flagellation stuff any day.

    I really hate TED. It’s a buzzword generator for the Prius crowd.

  31. #24 posted by GuidoDavid:

    Exactly. But a number of technologies are arising that could allow us to leapfrog some stages. GM technology could help us to increase our yields and use our land better.

    Yes! Which is why I find the “Frankenfood” movement so infuriating, especially when such opposition is coupled with staunch opposition to petroleum-based technology. What, exactly, are developing nations supposed to develop with? Good intentions?

    I think that such apparent cognitive dissonance becomes somewhat more explicable if I feed a fundamentally anti-human, anti-progress stance into the equation, along with an overly romanticized notion of what it means to “live in harmony with nature.”

  32. On a slightly amusing note, it’s no coincidence that the demand for organic food has plunged along with the rest of the economy.

    It’s because it’s hideously expensive.

  33. Well, I’m a bit out of practice, honestly; I’ve been rebuilding the smithy for the last couple of years from the ground up (literally – I replaced the floor with a foot of stone dust) so a lot of the metalworking kit is packed in crates.

    I should have the forge back together by next summer, and hopefully a foundry soon after that. The goal is to be able to lost-wax cast 6 kilos of bronze!

  34. I have never been terribly impressed by the TED Talks, but I found this one offensive, condescending, and irrelevant in particular.

    Perhaps it’s just me, but I have no illusions about fictional peasant farmers of the past. I’m well aware that the people of agrarian societies spend most of their lives struggling to produce food. I don’t worship the muddled notion of natural foods and Nature.

    Nature isn’t my friend. Disease and death are “natural.” Hemlock and curare and any number of other deadly poisons are “natural.” I’ll stick with the unnaturalness of antibiotics and advanced surgical procedures, thanks.

    But I also don’t believe in unnecessarily complicating things. Technology gives and technology takes — you have to pay close attention sometimes to know which items accomplish which ends. In the case of the industrial waste products sold in most American supermarkets as “food,” you are certainly on the “takes” end.

    If you’ve read the label on most loaves of bread in grocery stores, you know that the ingredient list is quite long and includes a number of very odd chemical names. The truly odd thing about this, however, is that you don’t need all that many ingredients to make bread. Flour, water, yeast, and a pinch of salt will do it. (And you can omit the salt if you must.) Preservatives, diglycerides, artificial colors and flavors, bleaching agents, and all that sort of thing probably won’t kill you immediately, but they also aren’t likely to enhance your long-term chances of survival. (Granted, the companies that produce them will say otherwise, and have acquired the best FDA regulations money can buy in order to confirm their self-serving opinions.)

    Food isn’t an easy topic. The best sorts are controversial, but it’s clear that they’re neither “all natural” nonsense nor factory-synthesized slop. The vast majority of us are aware of this, at least one some level.

  35. What, exactly, are developing nations supposed to develop with? Good intentions?

    Hey, if they can’t sustain their economies with stuff that looks good in our tan and olive upmarket boutiques, they need to die off.

  36. #35: Yes! Which is why I find the “Frankenfood” movement so infuriating, especially when such opposition is coupled with staunch opposition to petroleum-based technology.

    I hear petroleum-based technology is the way of the future.

  37. Iwood:

    I cannot agree more with you. I subscribe every one of your words.

    What is worse, we will have to feed 9 billion people soon (or let massive famines happen). At the same time we have to stop the destruction of ecosystems that lie mostly where this increase of population is going to happen. We have land that is already used, but that has suboptimal yields to what we know can be done in developed countries. We could use this land and increase its yields to feed the extra people, and adopt new tech to avoid the environmental disasters of yore.

    What about nitrogen-fixing crops? multi vitamin rice and potatoes? Water resistant rice? Insect resistant tomatoes? This can be done in an open way, no patents, local development, encouraging biodiversity with varieties tailored to specific conditions instead of the current One Size Fits All method so cherished by Monsanto (very little R&D compared with developing multiple varieties), fuse organic methods and GM, traditional breeding with modified traits.

    But that a taboo, that makes Mother Gaia cry. So, what is the option?

  38. Theladyfingers:
    Could you give me a link about organic plummeting? It would come handy for a paper I am writing, thanks.

  39. @34 theladyfingers: Not alone.

    I like Wonderbread. This dates back to elementary school when my mom, on a health kick, bought nothing but whole-wheat bread for several years. I was vaguely embarrassed by the “you poor bastard” grimaces I’d get from classmates who saw my sandwiches. All I remember about the bread itself is that it had too much texture. The kind that gets stuck between your teeth.

    I now consider the experience practice for tolerating lectures from amateur nutritionists who want to warn me about the terrible health risks of white-bread sandwiches. As a former dancer, I am endlessly aware that I am getting older and that my choices affect my body. But unless a particular morbidly strict diet-and-exercise routine can be demonstrated to mimic the fountain of youth, that is inevitable. Even, one might say, natural.

    I appreciate pricey bakery bread as much as the next upper-middle class WASP. If I have time, I occasionally like to make my own- kneading is good for the soul. But the rest of the time, if my bread needs more nutrition I’ll just add another vegetable to my sandwich, thanks.

  40. Andrea,

    I don’t know what local bakeries are like in America, but there are plenty of simple, affordable “low class” bakeries here in Australia that make their own rolls and loaves with ordinary flour. It’s usually white bread, and it’s usually tasty as Hell compared to the hair-shirt brown from the luxury aisles.

  41. I’d also like to point out that on average, despite the terrors of online paedophiles, refined foods and HFCS, we generally live longer, healthier lives than at any prior point in human history.

  42. The locavore movement has cultural and health benefits, but, yes, the environmental aspects are, at best, questionable:


    Agreed that the act of genetically modifying food may be fine, but the current intellectually propertized implementation raises some legitimate concerns.

    Try lecithin or tiny amounts of vitamin C to lighten breads made from non-wheat flours.

    The organic/natural/artisan/local food industry vigorously exploits the abundance of consumer trust that is foolishly placed in its pockets.

  43. Bread is wonderful stuff. My wife and I enjoyed making and eating it. However she suffers from celiac disease, something we didn’t know about earlier, which prevents her from eating any gluten. Unfortunately from the perspective of someone for whom gluten is life threatening there is far too much of it around.

  44. #34: You are most certainly not alone, though I can understand why you’d feel that way. When BoingBoing groupthink gets going, it can be a force to be reckoned with.

    #35: Regarding GM food, I think most real objections to the use of GM crops in developing countries have little to do with the crops themselves, and everything to do with the companies making them. GM companies such as Monsanto have some of the most odious business practices in existence.

  45. I also like the condescension to the poor plebs who simply aren’t educated enough to eat the brown stuff.

  46. Ironically, it was initially only the poor plebes who ate the brown stuff.

    @Beelzebuddy ~48 — Yes. Boingthink.

  47. #41 and #42

    That’s a bit misleading. Whole Foods (who openly admits to being about image rather than true organic culture) may be losing customers, but organic market farmers and CSAs are earning money hand over fist. More and more farmers are foregoing the organic label because it’s costly and becoming less meaningful to consumers. It’s not really meaningful to gauge a drop in organic sales if farmers are not getting certified because it’s annoying and expensive, and you can just talk directly to your consumers instead.

    The 2007 USDA farm census was just released – small farms are making huge market increases. Most of those small farms are under 50 acres, which likely means sustainable and something approaching organic, even if not certified.

    And for folks complaining about the price of organic food: the reason food is so cheap is because of commodity subsidies. The reason wheat, corn, beef, soy, all that processed crap is cheap is because *your* tax dollars are funding it. For the most part, small
    (and especially organic) farms do not receive any government money, so welcome to the real price of unsubsidized food. Cheap food has little to do with economies of scale or conventional being passed off as efficient. Wonderbread is at every level welfare food. If you were to add up the actual, non-subsidized cost of that cheap bread, you’d find it would cost a lot more than you are paying in the grocery store.

  48. If you were to add up the actual, non-subsidized cost of that cheap bread, you’d find it would cost a lot more than you are paying in the grocery store.

    That’s nice, but if you buy the actually-it’s-cheaper-when-you-think-about-it expensive stuff, you don’t exactly get to stop paying those naughty taxes.

  49. I recall going to the Victoria Market in Melbourne to get apples for a housemate and myself. “Get organic! It’s so much tastier!”

    I took a look at the very clearly organic stall owned by the dreadlock gang, and the rather slicker, cleaner place owned by a nattily-attired Chinese gentleman, and did the math. I got her the bag of bird-pecked, shrivelled, floury horribleness she wanted, and got myself a pack of massive, glossy, absolutely delicious Granny Smiths for half the price.

    When I got home, I told her she was being hosed. We tried both for empiricism’s sake, and mine were absolutely better. Juicier, crisper and tangier.

    Her response? “Well, I just prefer my organic stuff.”

    Emperor’s new clothes.

  50. Well, first off, it’s nice to know that Ito Kagehisa has entered the bronze age…

    Now to the task: What is this woman’s point? The idea that industrial Wonder Bread is even equivalent to food is ridiculous. It is white flour paste with additives, then leavened (whipped?) with air. It is literally airy garbage. No one should eat this crap regularly. That she seems to equate high priced “artisanal bread” with our romantic longings for a mythological agrarian past is simply the musings of an idiot, and I don’t say that lightly. This is an idiotic thing to state. The plain and simple fact is that as food has become more industrialized, it has become less healthy, not more. It is more expensive if you’re only exposed to decent whole grain bread via the Whole Foods supermarket chain. It is more expensive because of marketing to a crowd with more money than brains.

    The statement that “Bread and food have become plentiful and affordable to all” is crazier yet. It’s more affordable to those of us in the industrialized west, and to those in the sections of the rest of the world that have industrialized, but for the lower third (and maybe a good part of the second) of the global income distribution, it isn’t “more” affordable. It, like clean water, is just affordable or much worse. And I can’t imagine that anyone in this distribution is better off in the long run if their only access to cheap food is “Wonder Bread”. I mean, great, they don’t starve, but they still don’t have access to a decent and minimal variety of nutrients. The silliest part is the facile arguments of folks like this woman, “See, it’s wonderful how technology and modernization work. They can have subsidized white bread!”, meanwhile, nobody asks why the poorest of the poor can’t afford decent food in the first place. Maybe it’s western economics?

    Incidentally, I haven’t eaten store-bought bread in 27 years. Twice a month I bake two loaves of bread on the weekend. It isn’t difficult. It is time consuming. And it isn’t Wonder Bread. Life is about choices after all.

  51. Seems crazy to nitpick, but the fact that 1% of people are farmers seems to me to be completely wrong; I’d be interested to say what her definition of farmer is, but in BRIC countries (especially the IC part of it), it seems like the vast majority of the population are farmers or tied to agriculture. Case in point India alone has over 300 million farmers, more than one percent of the world’s population…

    Check it out.

  52. @ theladyfingers:

    The availability and quality of bakeries in America very much depends on where you live. I’m currently residing in Chicago, where there are many excellent bakeries, all of which have managed to be located horribly out of my way. Cost is not really an issue so much as distance. It’s a nice city but the transportation should not be discussed in polite company.

    Speaking of things that are awful, “hair-shirt” is by far the best description I have ever heard for grocery store brown bread, both in flavor and function.

  53. Andrea

    The kind of bakeries I’m describing are bottom rung cornershop-style ones. Racks of freshly baked white rolls, either Portuguese with flour on top or the soft white hamburger variety. The day-old rolls and buns cleared in filmy plastic bags. Loaves left open on shelves. Bread either baked in the back of the shop or by a small local factory.

    I can’t imagine this type of store not existing within strolling distance in any suburb. We had at least one in every neighbourhood back in South Africa and Melbourne and there are plenty here in Sydney. Americans on the internet complain so much about food in their country that I have this mental picture of every store being part of some horrendous dayglo franchise selling only inedible, near-poisonous junk.

    If you liked my “hair shirt” quip, you might like my blog.

  54. #49 posted by Beelzebuddy

    Regarding GM food, I think most real objections to the use of GM crops in developing countries have little to do with the crops themselves, and everything to do with the companies making them. GM companies such as Monsanto have some of the most odious business practices in existence.

    Well…what’s a “real” objection? I won’t argue about the ethical nature of Monsanto’s overall business practices (although back in 2000 it did provide royalty-free licenses for genetically-modified Golden Rice, and also open-sourced its rice genome sequence database). But the populist face of the objections–the people that have taken to the streets in France and elsewhere–is very much based on fear-mongering and ignorance of the science involved.

    The term “frankenfood” itself was actually coined in a letter to the editor of the NY Times back in 1992:

    Ever since Mary Shelley’s baron rolled his improved human out of the lab, scientists have been bringing just such good things to life. If they want to sell us Frankenfood, perhaps it’s time to gather the villagers, light some torches and head to the castle.

    To be clear: this line of thinking equates, for example, Golden Rice, genetically enhanced to produce beta carotene–which could help prevent 300,000 cases of childhood blindness a year–with a monster that will kill you.

    I’m not in favor of producing GM crops that don’t breed true, thus creating what I consider to be an immoral dependence on a corporation for seedstock. I’m not in favor of highly speculative engineering that, for example, adds human immune proteins to a crop or causes the crop to synthesize pharmaceuticals.

    But: increased yields, resulting in less labor? Pest resistance, resulting in less toxic agricultural runoff and less exposure for farmers? Drought and sodium resistance, opening up previously infertile land for cultivation? Vastly improved nutritional content, resulting in the reduction or elimination of dozens of diseases brought about by malnutrition? I say: regulate the bioengineering process, vet the research, verify the results, and bring it on!

    There are quite literally tens if not hundreds of millions of people for whom such bioengineering would result in vast improvements in health and quality of life.

  55. #40 posted by Anonymous:

    I hear petroleum-based technology is the way of the future.

    No, you’re thinking of steam.

  56. Ladyfingers:

    I think your impression of America is more correct than you think, sadly. I’ve lived quite a few places, but most suburbs don’t have corner bakeries. From living in some major cities with large immigrant populations I know the kind of bakery you’re talking about, but they don’t exist in much of America.

    The difference, at least in my experience, and from talking to European friends, is that grocery shopping is a different experience in America. You grocery shop at most once a week, and you buy large quantities of food that has to last. That’s a totally different model than the “stop by the store on the way home from work to get food for dinner and breakfast tomorrow” model that many europeans seem to have.

    Good bread, because it is made with simple ingredients and without preservatives, lasts a day or two. That’s not going to work if you only go to the store once a week, or every other week.

  57. Workergnome

    That’s very sad. A lot of poky little cornershops are really pretty grotty and overpriced for the convenience, but I’d really miss not being able to simply walk out and buy some rolls.

    I mostly shop at a local chain called Coles who are reasonable and have a good selection of store- and factory-baked bread. I sometimes pick up a couple of loaves if they’re on sale, and just freeze the other one for later.

  58. It’s missing the point to argue that more mechanisation will help feed the starving poor. Often, the problem is not a lack of food (see Amartya Sen), but rather the distribution of food. This is not a controversial point.

    Mechanisation *may* increase the amount of food available (although there is a considerable body of work that argues that large-scale monocultures don’t actually increase total outputs – c.f. Vandana Shiva’s work). But mechanisation puts farm labourers out of work, meaning that they don’t have the money to buy food if it is available.

  59. Not that I don’t like the debating about white vs. brown here, but what about the common sense factor?

    Really? It takes this woman to come up with the idea that as a whole we should figure out how to fix these problems? Really. Just like I should know if I don’t want to be fat I should stop eating the Wonder Bread.

    This is common sense. I know it’s in short supply (and possibly short demand, as ignorance is bliss I hear). I see a lack of it every day. And frankly, that disturbs me. When did people become so helpless. If WW3 or a major catastrophe happen these people are screwed.

    I may not know the specifics of bread making, but I can farm. I have shelled peas before, broke beans, weeded fields, and have done a hard days work.

    Personally I see this as a role the government should actively have. Common sense. Hey, we need to feed our billion country men, how are we going to do that? Instead it’s more like, oh we have a billion tax payers, sweet.

    Greed, stupidity, and ignorance are killing the world.

  60. PR for GMO is very tricky. No matter what you do, you are screwed:

    1)You plan to release a crop and test it:
    OMG! The evil scientists are going to test Frankenfood that we know NOTHING ABOUT!

    2) Then, you sit with the government and draft a plan to avoid any risk, strict quarantine:

    OMG! Those evil Frankenfoods are DANGEROUS! LOOK HOW THEY QUARANTINE THEM!!!!!! They are AFRAID of it!

    3) After years of tests (tests that only apply for GM foods, not for regular crops), you are pretty sure that your crop is safe and you start releasing it in a controlled way.
    OMG! They are POLLUTING our fields with GM scum! It will infect regular crops and farmers will lose profit!

    4)Then, you create new technology that renders plants sterile, so their pollen won’t cross breed other plants.

    OMG! They are preventing the poor farmers from the world to get this technology! Evil corporate capitalist bastards! Let’s go for them!

    5) Back to # 3 and then to # 4


    I have a HUGE problem with that affirmation about the distribution of food. Yes, there is plenty of food that could be redistributed and nobody would starve. But the fact is that it creates dependence from unreliable sources of food.
    We cannot depend from the good will of the developed world, that would be suicidal, the US cannot even keep its people healthy, so, we must bet our survival on distribution schemes that might not last more than until next Senate elections? Neither can we rely on Europeans, they probably devote more to agricultural subsidies than to aid, so we could not sell our crops to them. India and China have their own troubles. The fact is that we cannot do anything about any of these situations. What we can do something about is about improving our yields, and if we have these tools, we could do it for ourselves, develop new varieties, suited for our weather and soil, add more diversity instead of prepackaged varieties.

    The excess of regulation makes the development of new crops a Pay for Play scheme, where only Monsanto and the likes of it can afford to play, and where stupid zealots screw the efforts of small labs and independents scientists when Monsanto and others hid well (and guard well) their test fields. Burning a field does not screw Monsanto, it helps it to keep the monopoly on the modification of plants and it kills the alternatives.

    The varieties that were developed during the Green Revolution and the potatoes were crops introduced with very little analysis, and they have no been panacea, but modern life without them would be impossible. We have no regulation at all for regular hybrids, but a too tight regulation for GM crops.

    Ehrlich once predicted that India would collapse in massive famine, that it could not endure more people and that its population would fall. Borlaug proved him wrong, and today, thanks to this Green Revolution, so despised by many, India provides the world with outstanding mindpower, bright people from there drive a lot of innovation in the developed world nowadays, and many others are building tools for people with few resources in India and abroad. Make no mistake, India still has a long way to go, but its current development is grounded in having a steady source of food, thanks in part to the Green Revolution.

    Can you imagine what a wonderful place the world would be if all these whose minds are rotting now, decaying to hunger, would be able to bloom and contribute to our collective effort of understanding the world and creating tools for each one’s particular purposes? Part of this vision requires to change the prevalent viewpoint about GMO in the developed world and build a set of common, free tools for genetic tinkering. The DIY Bio movement is part of this effort.

  61. “Mechanisation *may* increase the amount of food available (although there is a considerable body of work that argues that large-scale monocultures don’t actually increase total outputs – c.f. Vandana Shiva’s work). But mechanisation puts farm labourers out of work, meaning that they don’t have the money to buy food if it is available”

    I would have to read Shiva, but, comparing the before and after pictures of grain production due to Green Revolution, I would say that argument is BS.

    In what I agree with you is that human beings affected by a new technology should have some safeguards. After all, not everybody is able to do career shifting. Some kind of Basic Income Guarantee, maybe, would help, after all if the economic pie gets bigger, why should not these people get a slice?

  62. Theladyfingers,

    In the up-and-coming suburb where I grew up, the bakery was a brisk thirty to forty minutes if you chose to go on foot. The store was part of a nationwide chain. Its bread was fresh and good, but it was also overly complicated and expensive.

    In Chicago there are bakeries like the ones you describe, but as far as I’m aware, none in my immediate vicinity. A bakery in America is not a basic part of the urban landscape. It’s a specialty shop. In my life, at least, this does not cause me to consume large quantities of inferior bread so much as to cut bread out of my diet except for the occasional sandwich. This would almost certainly be a tragedy if I were used to anything different, but I hardly notice unless it is brought to my attention.

    I would say that those certain kinds of food complaints are an American meme. They certainly are hitting a nerve or people would not be repeating them so frequently or with such vigor, but in most cases things aren’t really as bad as all that. It’s just currently popular to see them that way.

    I do not have a lot of experience with living and shopping in other countries, but for the record I did not find that my grocery experiences in Japan were significantly different than those in America. I walked instead of driving, but it took about the same amount of time. What did surprise me was the casual way in which my Japanese friends consumed foods that Americans would consider downright hazardous, such as artificial sweeteners.

    Well, I do ramble on. Thank you kindly for the link to your blog, by the way. I am very much enjoying your commentary on tattoos.

  63. @ TheLadyFingers, WorkerGnome & Andrea:

    I lived in Australia for most of my life, and have been living in the US for the past two years. The lack of fresh-baked bread kills me.

    I don’t entirely understand why it is like this, and my best assumption so far is that many Americans (although increasingly less, I think) do fit the lazy stereotype they have. Maybe it’s just the ones I know, but the idea of going to an additional store (even if it’s on the same block) to get something which could be bought at your usual grocery store is dismissed as silly. But, this is only what I’ve perceived from my small group of pals and my housemates (who say organic is a waste of money and don’t give a damn about ingredient lists).

    On top of that, one of the very first differences I noticed here is that the breads from the supermarket are sweeter than ours. Some have HFCS, some just have a little more sugar than I’d like. But, that’s just the way it is. The quality of grocery store bakeries vary quite a bit from store to store, the best I’ve found has decent cakes, cookies and danishes… but still pretty lousy bread.

    I recently found a good little specialty store (A.G. Ferrari) not to far from me that has nice fresh, crusty bread – although they charge a pretty penny. This weekend I am going to try making my own bread from the no-kneed recipe linked earlier.

  64. once again Guido David, you impress me. I want you on my team.

    How can the public image of Genetically Modified Organism food be improved? How to both get public trust and educate enough?

    I myself don’t trust Monsanto at all. Not one bit.I do also understand they didn’t invent GMO food and don’t own it either. Or control it.

    Why am I thinking biohackers?

  65. Banksynergy:

    As for the lack of bread stores, I think American history ought to shoulder at least some of the blame. Most of the country was not heavily populated until very recently. A small town with one general store could certainly not support a separate bakery, especially since no one really needed one. You made your own bread.

    (I remember making zucchini bread once and fretting to my mother about whether or not I had bought enough zucchini. She couldn’t fathom my concern, as zucchini bread is a recipe for using up your excess zucchini.)

    The breadmaking skills of the general populace have declined since then, but maybe some habits are harder to break- you go to the general store, now a grocery store, which may be a ways away, and buy everything you’re likely to need for the next little while. Refrigeration and preservatives have made this possible, even without a family farm from which to get spoilables. Suburban planning has kept the store at a distance, even without the stretches of farmland between.

    It’s not that going to one more store is difficult, it’s just that it’s not in the script. If it’s not in the script it’s not out of the question, but you really ask yourself whether it might not be one of life’s unnecessary frills.

    Though honestly I’m making this theory up as I go along, so don’t cite me in a paper or anything.

    As for me, I’ve jumped on the bread-making bandwagon for the weekend. I’m not gonna run all the way to the store just for yeast (yeah, yeah), so I guess it’s Irish soda bread.

  66. Takuan:

    Again, thanks a lot for your comments and support.

    How to improve the perception? I am not sure, those are muddy waters to me, as most of the opposition seems to be based in Europe. I have never been there, neither I have enough knowledge or day to day interaction with Europeans.

    But I would say that emphasizing how heavily tweaked our current crops are. Emphasize that we eat many crops from diverse origins, and those mutations that make those tasty, organic varieties, are completely unknown (Or were completely unknown until not so long ago). These crops are not tested in any way, they could be poisonous even (for instance, certain potato varieties can secret alkaloids known as solanines in cold weather http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele=afficheN&cpsidt=3543268 and these alkaloids can be toxic). The cross breeding of varieties A and B is neither tested, but a GM variety that is exactly variety A plus 4-5 genes is held a highly dangerous. This process is not rational at all, it has to be changed (which does not mean there should not be regulation at all).

    The DIY Bio (biohackers, if you want) mov. is working in making technology cheaper and easier to use for everybody. We want to develop that set of free (libre) tools that I was talking about in the other post.

    We have to point what might happen if people takes the technology for themselves, as the farmers from Gujarat did (http://www.salon.com/tech/htww/2007/02/08/gujarat/). This kind of thing should be on BoingBoing! It has high technology, copyfight, and social change, besides a nice aesthetics (seed package with hints about being GM, as it was illegal to sell the seeds: http://www.indiatogether.org/opinions/psainath/images/2005/psa-seeds.jpg).

    We have to set apart differences if we really care about the environment, the dichotomy between Organic and GM is illusory. What about creating a new movement? Genorganic. GM crops that comply certain standards, improve yields and could do without pesticides. Maybe the standard would be the approval of the new gene, introducing it in new species would not need approval besides routine sequencing of the GM. If we could introduce nitrogen fixation the fertilizer needed would be much less, and lkess manure, less labor, better yields.

    If we really care about Mother Gaia we better drop the dogmas.

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