Of all the places I’ve visited, the Pot Pie room is easily one of the most surreal: a large white-walled, cement-floored space filled with big steel machines and a funnel roughly the shape and height of a back-alley Dumpster. The machines hum and chuff as conveyor belts move materials between them, but the funnel and the substance inside it have me mesmerized: a grayish blend of freeze-dried potato chunks, carrot pieces, celery and onion slivers, peas, and whey protein. I dig my gloved hands into the pallid, pebbly stuff, sifting through it the way people rummage through piled shells at the beach. It’s weightless—hundreds of gallons of vegetables with the heft of confetti. For what instantly feels like too long, I stand there digging around, like a kid after a Cracker Jack prize, searching for I’m not sure what.
The mixture slowly flows down from the funnel base through a chute to another device that weighs and divides it. The portions travel to a machine dispensing bursts of beige powder made from dehydrated milk, celery salt, powdered garlic, and chicken bouillon. The seasoned kibble is then deposited and sealed, one seven-ounce portion every few seconds, into Mylar bags along with pods of oxygen-absorbing iron, clay, and salt. The bags are labeled “Chicken-Flavored Pot Pie.”
This is the first stop on a tour of the Wise Company’s manufacturing facility in Salt Lake City, Utah. Leading the tour is Aaron Jackson, who at the time is the company’s tall, smooth, forty-three-year-old chief executive officer. We’re both suited head to toe in the factory’s sanitation gear, and even with his Clark Kent hair tucked under a mobcap, Jackson is magnetic. Before Wise, he’d worked at Tyson Foods, where he sold frozen chicken nugget and cutlet products. After Wise, he would go on to become the CEO of NorQuin, a large quinoa producer on a mission to mass-market the ancient grain. The man could probably sell snowplows in the Serengeti, and despite my unease in this strange, vaguely ominous place, Jackson has me oohing and aahing my way through the “Hearty Tortilla Soup” and “Maple Bacon Pancake Breakfast” rooms, where thousands more gold and silver Mylar pouches roll off conveyors into bins. In each, technicians in white lab coats and hairnets look like Oompa Loompas as they pull levers, toggle buttons, and examine packages for flaws. At one point, to demonstrate the bag’s airtightness, a stocky technician in boots places a pouch on the floor and jumps on top of it.
The scene recalls Willy Wonka’s factory in part because it’s achieving Wonkian ends. As a kid, I’d spent hours imagining the sensations of Roald Dahl’s three-course chewing gum “made of tomato soup, roast beef and baked potato, and blueberry pie.” This is a similar attempt to create an all-in-one meal that bears little resemblance to the foods it conjures—a product that when combined with a serving of hot water simulates a home-cooked dinner. “It’s the food equivalent of a first-aid kit,” Jackson tells me, wiping a film of beige powder from his safety glasses. “A household staple that can sustain families cut off from their normal food supply.”
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Jackson’s products range in size from a small, $20 seventy-two-hour kit with nine freeze-dried meals to a one-year supply for a family of four that goes for $7999. Each serving is about 300 calories and costs less than $1—a per-calorie cost on par with prices at McDonald’s. In his four years at Wise, from 2014 to 2018, Jackson says he more than doubled the company’s annual sales, to about $75 million. The freeze-dried category as a whole had been growing during that time period, too, to about $400 million in annual sales, and that’s part of why I’ve come to Wise—to see how real this ersatz food trend really is.
I’m skeptical going in. The survival food business smacks of zombie-apocalypse paranoia to my mind. Its success depends on the threat, real or perceived, of major food shortages in the United States in the coming years. And while famine is on the rise in certain parts of the world—I’d recently seen its punishing impacts on populations in drought-stressed regions of India, Ethiopia, and elsewhere—the United States has been struggling not with a food deficit, but with caloric overload. Nearly 40 percent of our population is obese, and more than two-thirds are overweight.
The industrialized world on the whole is enjoying a more abundant, diverse, and accessible food supply than ever before in human history. The Kroger supermarket that’s located a few hundred feet from my house in Nashville, Tennessee, for example, is open nineteen hours a day, seven days a week, and stocks more than fifty thousand distinct food items deriving from countries as far-flung as Taiwan and Zimbabwe. To many of us, worrying about threats against our food supply right now seems absurd, given how much there is of it.
And yet I know a growing number of people buying into the survival food trend. I’d first heard about the Wise Company from my cousin-in-law, a former cop in Zionsville, Indiana, who had stashed a supply of Wise products in his basement that could sustain his family for six months. My stepbrother, a business executive who lives in downtown Washington, D.C., has invested in a one-year supply of drinking water and long-storage food. And my brother, a climate scientist with the Nature Conservancy, has also begun building a supply in the basement of his West Virginia cabin. Part of his job is wading through reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of more than three thousand scientists predicting an increase in average global temperatures of at least 4 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century. “I can’t imagine anything worse than not being able to feed my kids,” he reasons. “And the probability of major interruptions in our food supply in our lifetimes is, by almost all accounts, rising.”
Granted, my brother, cousin, and stepbrother represent a skewed sample set: all are guys, all own guns, and two like to hunt in their free time with compound bows and arrows. Each possesses at least a flicker of the fatalist “prepper” sensibility that the Wise Company was founded in 2008 to serve. “Early on, our market was mostly the people preparing their bunkers for Armageddon or resisting a government they feared would take away their guns,” says Jackson. Like many survival food companies, Wise was founded in Utah to serve the Mormon community, which is encouraged by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to prepare for the end of times. But Mormons and for that matter male preppers, Jackson tells me, no longer represent the entirety, or even the large majority, of Wise’s exploding market.
Jackson himself is not Mormon. He grew up in the L.A. suburbs and looks more Brooks Brothers than Duck Dynasty, dressed under his white safety coat in a quilted jacket, ironed dress pants, and shiny chestnut leather shoes. When he came on as CEO, he began building out the company’s product portfolio to what is today dozens of different freeze-dried comfort-food products and branching out to new markets, including the camping and wilderness-adventure set, the Department of Defense, and international militaries. Eventually, he picked up distribution at Sam’s Club, at Walmart, and at what is now the company’s largest distributor, Home Shopping Network. “Five years ago, our market was more than 95 percent men. Today, we’re reaching about 50 percent women,” Jackson says, “most of them moms—guardian moms, we call them—worried about a stable food supply for their kids.”
Male or female, Wise Company customers share growing fears about political and environmental instability. The first wave of customers a decade ago were concerned about inflation, economic collapse, and terrorist attacks; today, though, the major driver is natural disaster. After Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in September 2017, the Federal Emergency Management Agency sourced about two million servings from Jackson for their relief effort. “It’s not just the freak events. We get calls from people saying, ‘I live in Miami and flooding is now routine. I’m worried Florida is going to be under water in two years,’” Jackson tells me. “Or from people in upstate New York who experienced a one-in-a-thousand-year blizzard and couldn’t get out of their driveway for two weeks.”
Calls from people who saw the impacts of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, who lived through the 2014 drought and 2018 forest fires that scorched California, and know maybe the government won’t come to their rescue when a disaster hits. “They’re adopting the attitude that, well, luck favors the prepared.”
I have yet to invest in this luck, in part because I’m optimistic enough to believe that I won’t need to. But Jackson made a compelling case that the survival food industry is as much a function of pragmatism as it is of paranoia among a growing number of people who realize they’re up against increasing environmental threats on the one hand and diminishing government safety nets on the other. It’s not just happening in the United States—every country in the world today is facing environmental volatility, and many are also politically unstable. There are millions of us who exist well outside the Wise Company demographic wrestling with a common question—a question that’s propelled my reporting throughout this book: How screwed are we exactly?
* * *
Before we consider the extent of the current threats to our food supply and, in particular, the perils of modern farming, let’s quickly review some of the achievements of industrial agriculture. As many as two billion people might not exist if it hadn’t been for the advent of agribusiness. Farms globally now produce 17 percent more calories per person than they did in 1990. And while some 800 million people still suffer from chronic hunger, that is almost 200 million fewer than there were thirty years ago. Meanwhile, prices have fallen. The average household in the 1950s spent about 30 percent of its budget on food. Today, we spend about 13 percent—a financial advantage for low- and middle-income households, and a boon for economies worldwide. Processed foods have also liberated men and, in particular, women from the drudgery of preparing every meal from scratch. Yet the disadvantages of abundant, low-cost food are well documented, starting with massive waste, overconsumption, poorer nutrition, and a reliance on fewer, more concentrated farms to feed the world. There’s also an increasing risk that the methods we’ve devised to feed billions more people are backfiring on the environment.
By the time I joined Jackson for the Wise tour, I’d traveled to thirteen states and eleven countries researching the changes, both subtle and radical, taking place in our food system. By “food system,” I mean the vast network of local and international growers, processors, and distributors who feed seven and a half billion people worldwide. I wanted to understand the effects of population growth and climate change on agriculture in fast-growing countries, including China, India, and throughout sub-Saharan Africa. In March 2014, the IPCC reported that droughts, flooding, invasive species, and increasing weather volatility were already hurting agricultural productivity worldwide, and that permanent drought would become the norm in large portions of most populous nations by midcentury, including throughout the American Southwest—a swath of highly populated land stretching from Kansas to California and down into Mexico. The IPCC projections are flat-out scary: they show that current warming trends could cut global crop yields 2 to 6 percent every decade going forward—that’s millions of acres of farmland phasing out worldwide every ten years—even as the global population climbs.
In October 2018, the IPCC released a sequel report concluding that at the current rate of emissions, the atmosphere will warm up by as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels by 2040, a fate that would radically transform our living conditions. “It’s like a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen,” said Erik Solheim, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). “We have to put out the fire.”
According to Jerry Hatfield, the director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, the single biggest threat of climate change is the collapse of food systems: “Other threats—flooding, storms, forest fires—may be more sudden and severe in certain regions, but disruptions in food supply will affect virtually everyone,” he tells me. Tim Gore, the head of food policy and climate change for Oxfam, puts it this way: “The main way that most people will experience climate change is through its impact on food—what they eat, how it’s grown, the price they pay for it, and the availability and choice they have.” Joyce Msuya, UNEP’s deputy executive director, cautions that the least wealthy nations are the most vulnerable: “The agriculture sector is quite dominant in most of the world’s developing countries. Here, there’s a dichotomy of huge demand—more mouths to feed—while environmental pressures are shrinking the food supply.”
Food prices, according to the IPCC, could nearly double by 2050 given current climate and population-growth trends. If they do, conflicts over limited affordable food would probably escalate and further imperil global food security—a scenario that might force my brother to tap those emergency food provisions he’s been stockpiling, if he hadn’t exhausted them already. International conflicts over food resources could interrupt trade and paralyze distribution networks, and given that the United States imports more than half of its fruit supply and about a third of its vegetables, the result would be, among other things, lots of empty shelves at your local supermarket.
Little wonder that there are other “post-food” companies betting on disruptions. The Silicon Valley–based start-up Soylent Inc., with about $70 million in funding, has produced a kind of adult baby formula—a vegan beverage designed to replace a nutritionally complete meal, saving consumers time and money while reducing their carbon footprint. Soylent has been so popular that it’s given rise to Super Body Fuel, Ample, Koia, and half a dozen other new meal-replacement brands. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s research division is developing sustenance for soldiers that can be cranked out on demand by portable 3-D printers. Sensors on the soldiers’ bodies will detect, say, a potassium or vitamin A deficit and send that data to the 3-D printer, which will then generate customized, nutrient-fortified food bars and pellets from flavored liquids and powders. The technology is expected to be in the field by 2025; it’s a future that most of us can’t imagine inhabiting.
* * *
After my visit to the Wise factory, I whip up a bowl of rehydrated pot pie. In truth, I ask my kids to do it. They fire up the electric kettle, pour, stir, wait for the pebbly chunks to soften. To them, it’s a simple science experiment. To me, it’s confronting a future I don’t want to meet.
But Jackson’s core technology is not new. The Wise Company practices a twenty-first-century version of something the Incas started back in roughly AD 1200 when they placed potatoes and ch’arki, a kind of beef jerky, on elevated stone slabs to freeze overnight and then quick-dry in the sun. It wasn’t until World War II that modern freeze-drying methods were developed to preserve blood serum for wounded soldiers. The current processes arose in the late 1970s, when concerns over the oil crisis and stagflation motivated millions of Americans to cache food. The Wise Company has tweaked this decades-old formula only a little: fresh ingredients are rapidly “blast-frozen” at temperatures as low as negative 112 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent the formation of ice crystals that could affect food texture and nutrition. The food is then placed in a heated vacuum chamber that causes the ice to “sublime,” changing directly from a solid to a gas without passing through a liquid phase. Pores left from the vanished ice quickly absorb water when the foods are rehydrated. The process takes nearly double the energy used for canning but retains about 90 percent of the food’s nutrients and preserves it for far longer. Wise products, which guarantee a shelf life of twenty-five years, can conceivably remain edible, according to Jackson, for “gosh, centuries.”
The pot pie mixture looks nothing like Stouffer’s when we serve it up. It’s a tawny gruel. I hesitate, stifle a gag reflex, channel my inner Violet Beauregarde, and swallow. The stuff goes down easy, tasting like my grandmother’s chicken casserole. But when I imagine a world in which my grown children are surviving in our basement on Mylar pouch meals as they struggle to rig Mark Watney–style indoor cropping systems, I lose my appetite and wonder: What will be on the table when I’m visiting my grandkids for Thanksgiving dinner in the year 2050? Will future historians look back on our current agricultural moment and see it as Dickens did Europe in the late eighteenth century—an age of belief and incredulity when “we had everything before us, we had nothing before us”?
There are certain passages in the IPCC report that seem to indicate we’re headed toward nothing. By the middle of this century, the report reads, the world may reach “a threshold of global warming beyond which current agricultural practices can no longer support large human civilizations.” That fate hinges on a key assumption though—that current agricultural practices won’t change. And if my travels have taught me anything, it’s that farmers, scientists, activists, and engineers the world over are radically rethinking food production.
Environmentalist Paul Hawken, editor of Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, found that eight of the top twenty most effective solutions proposed by his team of scientists were in the realm of agriculture: “Among one hundred strategies we researched across all categories of society and industry, the food solutions are the most curative and impactful.”
It’s hard to overstate how much the global food system has changed in the last thirty years, and harder still to know how and how much it will change in the decades ahead. In The Fate of Food I investigate what that change might actually look like. I, like most of us, love food too much to accept a future of freeze-dried chicken pot pie. (“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well,” wrote Virginia Woolf.) And I’ve found good reasons to expect that it’s a future we can circumvent. Innovation and ignorance got us into the mess we’ve made of our food system, and innovation combined with good judgment can get us out of it.
I’ll also explore whether and how we’ll feed a hotter, drier, more populous world sustainably and equitably—and with far more on the menu than rehydrated comfort foods. I’ll meet people like Jorge Heraud, a Peruvian-born engineer who builds robots that can weed crops, cutting the use of agricultural chemicals. I’ll visit start-ups creating lab-grown and plant-based meats. I’ll travel into the fields of Kenyan farmers planting the country’s first GMO maize, and to the world’s largest vertical farm, where vegetables are grown without soil or sun. I’ll venture inside the smart water networks of Israel and the world’s largest fish farm in Norway. And I’ll meet people renewing old ideas, like practitioners of permaculture farming and harvesters of edible insects and botanists reviving ancient plants.
Along the way, I’ll find some answers to the questions I later realized I’d been digging for in that funnel full of freeze-dried vegetable chunks—not just about all the trouble we’re in, but about how we’ll get out of it.
Reprinted with permission from The Fate of Food © 2019 by Amanda Little. Published by Harmony, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Author Photo: Lindsey Rome