Friday, December 28, 2007

Food production re-thought

Forgive my ignorance on these matters, I just feel moved to comment. I recently read Michael Pollan's article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine entitled Our Decrepit Food Factories and it got me thinking about the almond.

Yes, the almond. Eaters want almonds, apparently in large quantities (see the article), and it's causing all sorts of trouble to try and grow almonds to meet these demands.

One way to think of the almond is, of course, as a delivery system for an almond tree's DNA. The tree can't grow indefinitely, and can't split itself into two trees, so it must make little self-contained packages of itself if it is to live on. The almond is a tiny almond tree recipe, so to speak, which when planted and exposed to water, sun, and air will produce another fully-featured almond tree.

This is a beautiful result of natural selection but doesn't fit very well into the needs of modern eaters. Making almonds is slow, it requires a lot of water and space and sun to produce them, and now (argues Pollan) it's starting to mess with the bees.

Another way to think of an almond is as a small but carefully-assembled set of molecules that equals a tasty snack. Actually, it's not that careful of an assembly. No two almonds ever are exactly alike, are they? But that doesn't seem to matter to us eaters of almonds. Some are bigger some are smaller, some rounder, some craggier. It's not like buying a BMW, where we expect a precisely-engineered duplicate of the latest and greatest German engineers.

I haven't yet heard of any way to construct an almond that doesn't involve an almond tree, so we have to endure this slow and clumsy process which was developed to propagate the almond tree species just so we can have the snack we want. Pollan's article (and book, The Omnivore's Dilemma), talks about how natural systems don't mix very well with industrial systems, and how in general it's a bad idea to make the former try to fit with the latter.

I tend to agree with him, which is why I'm considering a hybridization of sorts: humans are good at producing industrial systems, and the tree is good at producing almonds. Maybe we can work together?

To build an almond, the poor tree has to mine resources from both the ground and the air, and even has to grab electromagnetic waves as they pass by. It has to contend with gravity, wind, rain, and who knows what else (loggers come to mind). Ultimately, when and if the tree is lucky enough to pump the appropriate component parts to the appropriate places on the tree (further apologies to botanists who can correct my errors), it has to make enough almonds and spread them over a large spatial area so as to maximize the chances of one actually becoming another tree. Can't we make this easier?

I imagine that if we can provide the low-level building blocks in a safe, controlled environment (glucose, nitrogen, carbon, other almond tree DNA that would come from pollination, and whatever other things are pulled from the ground, atmosphere, and light), and if we can get the almond tree DNA to act as if it were in the almond-producing phase, we don't need the rest of the tree and all of its now-unnecessary species-propagation and nature-enduring grandeur. We would only need the sprig, the twig, the bud, whatever that small part is that actually becomes the actual almond.

I need to be clear about something here. I am not looking to eradicate the almond tree species from the planet. It must continue to exist and evolve, as it will probably have much to teach us for many many years to come, and it will have to adapt to address the changing face of the planet.

I am also not trying to make a "better" almond, one with more protein or less fat or something. I am simply considering how we might better produce the same kinds of almonds we seem to demand at the moment without pushing natural systems to their breaking points to do so.

On a recent hike in California, I had the pleasure of discussing these ideas with a family member. Those conversations went beyond the almond-making factory to a generalized fruit-and-nut production mechanism. Grapes came to mind, because they have a high density of fruit in a small area. Imagine something like a grapevine that--instead of feeding grape-constructing materials to the proper grape-making cells--feeds arbitrary construction materials to whatever cells we choose to position at the ends of the countless stems. This same system might make oranges, or almonds, or grapes! As long as the vines can hold the fruit, and as long as we can continue to provide the appropriate building blocks, this might be a generalized solution.

I opened this with an apology and I will close it with the same. I realize I need to learn a lot more about biology, particularly genetics, to be able to take this idea further (or to discount it as impossible). But I am well-aware of the growing need for good, clean food in the world. I also think that the almond tree is the only way we know of to make an actual almond. Finally, I sense that the total work an almond tree does in making an almond is much more than is necessary if we can ease the conditions under which the almond-maker does its work.

I'd love to continue this conversation with anyone who's interested.