olajacobsen / flickr.com

3D Printed Cheese Puff & Other Future Food Scenarios

An interview with Nicola Twilley on contemporary tendencies in urban food by Yana Mazol

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An interview with Nicola Twilley

An interview by Yana Mazol

It's easy to speak about future in terms of futuristic things that we inherit from our child/teenage animation with science fiction: cars, new technologies, control, architecture and etc. Food is something that is rarely taken into consideration.

Research of global and local foodscapes may turn out to be a powerful tool to bring some imposing urban issues to the surface. Nicola Twilley is a person who knows that for sure. Intellectual omnivore she explores cities, politics, architecture, technology, infrastructure and art through the prism of food. Nicola is the author of the unique Edible Geography blog that brings together various food researches, artistic and sociological projects and gives an interesting perspective to the food issue. She was recently appointed co-director of studio X-NYC, Columbia University GSAPP’s event space dedicated to the exploration of the future of cities. Here’s our conversation on collective future of food and cities on a global scale.
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Nicola, you’ve started writing about food aproximately in 2009. So it’s been five year since. How did food and cities shape each other when you’ve just started, how do they shape each other now and how it may turn out in the next five years?

I think the difference is when I started writing and now food and cities shape each other as much as they ever have. Now people have started to use food for its design potentials, started to be conscious about food. I think over the past five years that I’ve been looking more and more people were not nescessarily thinking about food as a design tool but also they’ve realised that food is an urban design tool. You can use it to shape the city and you can re-​design cities to reshape food systems. So I hope that the next five years will bring more people experimenting with how cities design food, how food designs cities and how we can embed this way of thinking in both urban planning and food system planning. It’s always consciously thought of rather than a side effect. I would like to see almost a set of best practices around food or key studies to help people understand how the two can work together.

There is a student course that I’m launching next fall at Columbia. First we start with two different cities (and then expand to four) to work out how two cities feed themselfes and then working collaboratively to figure out the overlapping points and opportunities in both cities for using food as a design tool.

jekemp / flickr.com

jekemp /​flickr​.com

You use curatorial and artistic approach to discover food as a productive constraint. It’s a very interesting approach and a useful tool that offers different perspectives of a city and food processes happenng in it?

I had a debate about it yesterday with a person that I’m co-​teaching this course in Columbia with. She is an urban planner, has worked as an activist and she is very much on a side of you-​must-​do-​it practical projects that change things, creating solutions that can be scaled up. I’m much of the opinion (I’m not against this thing I’m very much for these things) if you can offer people new ways of thinking and new ways of understanding something, just open up a different path for thought that has as much benefit as a project that serves food like mobile slotter house or something. They both have value changing the way people think, as much value as prototyping a new system. They both need to exist. Art is one of the best ways to introduce this kind of ideas and try to encourage speculations and encourage different ways of looking at things. To me it’s an extremely valuable tool for helping people to think how food could be different, how food could change things and how we could think differently about food.

I’ve contributed an essay to a book about urban farming. In some ways I actually think the whole debate about how can urban agriculture feed cities and will it ever take place is sort of missing the point. The point is actually much more. Not that a community garden as an art project but maybe if you think about it having those sorts of impacts it’s much more relevant. If it’s about changing how people think, how people perceive, how people interact it has more conceptual value than practical value and that’s what it shares with art.

Food activism happens as the reaction to contemporary global food policies. Different movements spread really fast around the globe. Is food activism suitable to every place?

It’s not a greenhouse that is interesting. It’s the fact that you’re looking at the available horizontal surface area for food production

It’s hard to answer yes or no. I think there are things that each city can learn from other cities. Different cities have different pre-​existing resources, challenges and opportunities. I was never a big fan of those projects that you see are like “oh we just take the same greenhouse and put it on a roof of every building in the city and the city would be able to feed itself”. That will not work equally well in suburbs and city centers. That strikes me as lazy thinking. It’s not a greenhouse that is interesting. It’s the fact that you’re looking at the available horizontal surface area for food production. That’s different in different cities. In some cities it might be more practical to look at horizontal surface area under utility lines and in some area it might be more practical to look at roofs. You have to make ideas transfer between different cities rather than just copy/​pasting the solution.

olajacobsen / flickr.com

olajacobsen /​flickr​.com

Do you think alternative food approaches may change the whole picture of consumption in the future?

We gonna see enormous change. The question is can we get the change we want. It’s about making sure that we’ll ultimately be positive about this changes

I think it could change. It would require other things to change but people are already realising that current inputs of fertilizers are not sustainable. And if there is cost efficient waste to not allow fertilizers people will go on this direction. It boils down to what’s cost effective, what incentives are in place to make people switch direction, what infrastructure is placed to either hold people in place and prevent them from changing things or to promote them. It is flexible enough to allow people to be able to change. We are looking at the future where extreme weather events are becoming more common and that itself would change the food systems. And where things are grown is going to change as climate changes. We are going to see enormous changes. The question is can we get the change we want? It’s about making sure that we’ll ultimately be positive about these changes.

Possibilities of urban farming are now a hot topic mainly because we believe in super-​power of vegetables. The rest of the food we consume every day is in deep and powerful relations with technology. Is there any way to diverge from technological determinism in food production?

If you can show technologies vulnerabilities you can start to build alternatives to it too

I’ll give one specific example of technology that completely shapes our food system. I’m spending a lot of time studying refrigeration. It’s deeply imbedded in food system and it’s also almost invisible. We see our domestic refrigerators at home but we don’t see huge refrigerated warehouses that fill them and bring food from farm to table. At the same time what’s interesting is when you research it more. First of all, you see how it was possible to feed people before refrigeration. Technologies are not like oxygen: we can live without it. I think making one of the things that I try to do with refrigeration mapping exhibition I did for the Center for Land Use Interpretation is also just about making things visible. I don’t think you come up with alternatives to a system until you understand a system itself within that picking out ideas that do offer possibilities for detaching ourselves from unthinking cold chain dependence. There is an idea of communal root cellar. After hurricane Sandy in NY people have realized that refrigeration is vulnerable to extreme weather conditions because if power goes out you close the doors and the machine stays cold for a while but not that long. NY was left with warehouses full of rotten chickens. Now there is a new director of resiliency in NY that the mayor has appointed. He put up his first report this summer about how to make a variety of different systems within the city resilient. Food section almost says “we don’t know”. We don’t know how this system looks like; we need to make it more resilient. What I was going to say is that if you can show vulnerabilities of a technology you can start to build alternatives to it too.

You think there is a way to work ethically while using technology to produce food?

It’s hard to develop ethics when it seems there is no choice. That’s where critical thinking of refrigeration. its weaknesses and its possible alternatives enables you to have ethics about it. When it seems like given, of course, how else we can store our food? Genetically modified food is the area where people think a lot about ethics of technology. One of the challenges that gets more complicated on a level of commitment you need to make to understand the nuances of its growth. The less people are able to make ethical decisions for themselves the more they rely on media stories that are not helpful, that are painting things black and white. One of the challenges to understand the debate around patenting certain vegetable traits is really arcane. Pattern laws are difficult to understand: it’s different in different countries. It’s very hard for people to have an informed opinion or ethics about it when you don’t understand it.

suavehouse113 / flickr.com

suavehouse113 /​flickr​.com

Do you think this situation may change in a decade?

I cannot imagine it getting easier because technology becomes more and more complex. That means you need to spend more time becoming an expert. And people don’t have that time.

Let’s talk about future and time. This world is becoming more and more inhabited by alternative diet followes such as vegans, raweaters and so on. Taking into account the price of this diets and its complexity in the context of contemporary urban routine it seems more of snobism than of a silent protest to existing food chain policies. What do you think?

Changing people’s diet on a more global scale that’s not perhaps a question of personal choise. It becomes a hot topic because it raises questions like what should government be subsidising?

Once people have a disposable income diet it’s one of the areas you can display that income in some ways. Beyonce becoming a vegan. i think it’s a form of conspicuous consumption. It’s a way of expressing class divisions, it’s a way of expressing your personal wealth and your belief in certain values. I just read a book of food historian Rachel Laudan and «Cuisine & Empire» is basicly the history of people developing specific cuisines to set their ground rules, to set themselves apart. This is what we belive, this is who we are and you’re not. The wast majority of the world doesn’t have the luxury of doing that and never had. That’s sad. There are larger systemic choises that can change what food is available, what food is subsidised, etc. There are ways for people who don’t have the money to express their individual choices to eat ecologically and sustainably. But those require systemic changes. For example, figuring out how we might want to charge for environmental externalities. If we actualy made meat reflect its true cost taking into account environmental impact the price for meat would change and people’s diet would change too. Changing people’s diet on a more global scale is not a question of personal choise. It becomes a hot topic because it raises questions like what should the government be subsidising? Should it be allowed to spend your benefits on fizzy drinks and should government be supporting corn farmers? These debates become politicised very quickly. On individual level I think it’s about wealth and it’s not about wealth in terms of money, it’s about wealth in terms of time. There’s some ridiculous number of food choises we have to make every day! I think having time to make descisions about food in very conscious way is a luxury. It is actually much of a signifier of wealth as having money to buy organic lettuce. It’s the time and the mental energy to do this as well as actual cash. People are as much time poor as they are cash poor and both of these things make it difficult.

kthread / flickr.com

kthread /​flickr​.com

Can you name 2 projects that have changed something on a local level as you see it?

Beyonce becoming a vegan and i think it’s a form of conspicuous consumption

There are so many great projects it’s hard to narrow to a particular one. I think NY city has done some really interesting experimentation around nudging and food policy. On a policy level I admire it. For example, getting a food cart licence is really difficult. It’s very expensive. It’s hard to subscribe because veterans, military veterans are at the front of the list and people actually rent veterans to apply to their food cart licence. It’s crazy business. Blumberg’s administration decided to create a fast track for people who are selling fruits and vegetables from a cart. So now we have a green cart scheme and people selling fruits and vegetables from their mobile carts. I think the Blumberg administration has done that in an interesting way with lots of things: experimenting with the pedestrian plazas, changing things as far as the transport goes, as far as food goes. I like to see this experiments even if I don’t necessarily agree with them or I don’t think that they are particularly effective. Some of them are. I like to see those experiments because it shows that people are thinking in creative way so we design foodscape of the city.

Can you speak about some issues in the context of food consumption (rituals, habits) that will disappear in the future?

One thing that is going to be more and mor relevant is microbio engineering and figuring out how we can design the contents of our guts and how this affects our mental health and our physical health and what we do or do not digest

It is interesting what the future of the grocery store would be in the era of on-​line shopping. E-​commerce and people getting delivery. Will the grocery store go the way of the book store? Will it transform its purpose into more food experience sort of place? Will it have to step up convenience and be actually smaller and closer to where people live? In South Korea people can go shopping on a subway: they have virtual grocery stores there. It’s amazing. You can recreate the entire process of going shopping in virtual reality. And the stuff just gets delivered to your door. Obviously, 3D-​printing could be shaped by the supply chain. People get very excited about that. I went to Google here in NY and saw this cheese puff thing being printed. It wasn’t very impressive. Somehow I don’t think that it may revolutionize food systems completely. I know a lot of food we eat have been processed but it’s not all the food we eat. I just can’t imagine the situation when we’re going to print the whole dinner. One thing that is going to be more and more relevant is microbiological engineering and figuring out how we can design the contents of our guts and how this affects our mental health, our physical health and what we do or do not digest. So I think that is going to become huge way as we understand that and then become able to manipulate. It’s going to reshape our relationship with food. Probably almost more than anything.