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Philip Wylie (1902-1971) wrote on a range of topics, from science fiction to ecology. His satirical essay “Science Has Spoiled My Supper” addresses the impact that scientific innovation has had on the quality of food on the American table. His leading argument is that “year by year it [food] grows less good to eat” (par. 2).
Efficiency has supplanted quality, Wylie writes, because marketers have found that the less tasteful is easier to mass-produce and, while nobody’s favorite, is acceptable for adequate nourishment. Of cheese, it “is possible turn out in a quantity a bland, impersonal, practically imperishable substance more or less resembling…cheese – at a lower cost than cheese” (par. 7).
While not an eater of cheese, I am a joyful eater of bread – a food also not safe from Wylie’s evaluation on the ruination of taste. The average loaf of store-bought bread has a laundry list of ingredients, including dough stabilizers, preservatives, and cellulose, aka wood pulp.
I have baked bread. Store-bought – even the more expensive, back-to-basics brands – does not compare. As Wylie observed, you can take a typical loaf of store-bought bread and easily “[squeeze] the whole loaf to a length of about one inch” (par. 10).
While almost 40% of Americans are obese , the supermarket trends of the past decade reflect a growing health-consciousness. Since at least 2007 organic food sales have steadily increased , topping $40 billion in 2016. Natural and organic food offerings are no longer limited to health food stores like Whole Foods Market; regular retail stores have their own brands, like Stop and Shop’s Nature’s Promise and Shaw’s O Organics. According to studies from the Nielsen Group, from 2014 to 2016 sale of all natural products rose 24%.
The dubious meaning of “all natural” on food labeling aside, this growing interest indicates a growing awareness of the culinary deterioration about which Wylie lamented. In addition to taste, the nutritional quality of food has declined. Food scientists calculate that today, conventional crops contain 10 to 25% less of several nutrients. The shift toward unadulterated foods, for lack of a better word, is restoring those lost nutrients, though one might ask whether or not this is enough.
I don’t mean to say that scientific involvement in food production, whether through development of new pesticides or genetic modification to grow more weather-hardy crops, is the bane of agriculture. Contrary to current rhetoric, not all genetic modification is bad. For example, thanks to selective breeding, a form of genetic modification, we have big yellow bananas instead of measly, seed-filled ones.
A little science in agriculture helps farmers grow attractive, edible, and cost-effective foods. The question, then, boils down not to how science is spoiling Wylie’s supper, but to how extensively and in what realm science can involve itself in agriculture before supper is spoiled.