Jon Fasman, U.S. digital editor, The Economist
Jon Fasman, U.S. digital editor, The Economist
The Economist

The Economist Delves into the Future of Food in Story Series

We caught up with Jon Fasman, U.S. digital editor for the magazine, about his reporting, what he learned about the food industry, consumers and more.

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October 12, 2021

The future of food is going to have a big impact on the safety of food. But without the benefit of a time machine (we lean DeLorean over T.A.R.D.I.S.), predicting what that future will look like, and thus preparing for it, is easier said than done. 

Jon Fasman, U.S. digital editor for The Economist, tries to unravel how food will look in the publication’s most recent Technology Quarterly: “Future Food,” which was released earlier this month. 

Through six stories, covering how technology can deliver cleaner food, why cows might not be essential for meat and milk, vertical farming, cell-cultured meat, eating insects and how microbes can help make delicious food, Fasman’s exhaustive reporting tries to answer a central question: “Can the whole first-world food system be changed?”

We caught up with him to talk about why he wanted to cover this topic, what went into his reporting and what he learned about consumers.

 

Quality Assurance & Food Safety magazine: You don’t typically cover food. Why did you want to research, write and report on this topic?

Jon Fasman: I’m really passionate about food. I like cooking. I read as much as I can about food, but I don't cover it as a journalist. I have been sort of intermittently — off and on for several years — a vegan, and I feel bad that I can’t ever stick to it. I do eat much less meat than I used to. But I have two young sons and they don't like beans or tofu, and I don't like eggs, and I'm allergic to cheese. So, the amount of vegan food we can actually make as a family is pretty small. One of the things we found that we liked are the Impossible and Beyond Burger — these burgers that are so incredibly meat-like. I was just curious, as a cook, about how they were made. I had also been reading about growing meat in a lab — sort of cell-cultured meats. Those two things together just seemed, to me, to have a tremendous amount of potential to be good quality. It was those two technologies that I got super excited about.

QA: Through six stories, you set a lot of different scenes and it feels like there’s a ton of reporting and research. How long did you work on this?

JF: I probably started researching and thinking about it around March [2021], and that’s just making some calls and starting to read and get up to speed. I went to a vertical farm that I mentioned in the piece in Brooklyn, probably around late April, early May. And then I spent a couple of weeks in California, Mexico, New York and Maine in June.

QA: Many of the new technologies and techniques you wrote about, such as cell-cultured meat, plant-based meat alternatives and vertical farms come with some caveats, right?

JF: Everything has costs. There’s nothing that has only benefits and no cost. Part of the process of reporting was not just reporting on how they could change the system, but also how they couldn’t. The hurdle in cell-cultured meat is the growth medium. Fetal bovine serum still involves these products in slaughter, and it’s expensive, and it's variable. The alternatives sort of exist, but the optimal alternative doesn't exist yet. The problem with these very high-quality meat substitute burgers is they’re heavily processed and a lot of the nutrition that you think is inherent gets stripped out. More broadly than that, what I think is the big pitfall to all of this is that it may end up being — certainly in the near and medium term —a way to give consumers in rich countries an option that makes them feel better about themselves, rather than something that's truly transformative of the food system. Maybe it’s fine to have a very high-end rich-country vanguard that then leads to a change. But I think we just have to be really aware that that's a possibility and do everything we can to stop that from happening to harness the potential for change as best we can.

QA: What were some of the most interesting things you learned about during your reporting?

JF: I guess everything about this was interesting, right? I thought how cell-cultured meat is made was super interesting. That was fascinating. I had a couple of conversations with rabbis about whether cultured meat can be kosher. I thought those conversations were fascinating. Getting to see how the Beyond Burger was made [was interesting] — just how much care and attention went in to making it taste and feel and act like beef. Also, seeing how vertical farming works and its possible growth trajectory and how cities, especially in Asia, are thinking about using vertical farms, was interesting.

QA: How much did you learn about food safety? 

JF: I talked about food safety a lot. I think that’s an unspoken advantage of cell-cultured meat. I talked to someone who's growing salmon in a lab. And when you do that, you don't have the exposure to mercury and microplastics and parasites that you do from fish taken from the ocean. In cell-culture chicken, there's no slaughter, so there's no accidental contact with feces and no Salmonella risk. And then talking to them about how they assure the quality of their cells. There’s very intense monitoring while the cells are growing. The vertical farm I went to had multiple levels of entry. You had to check your shoes. You have to go through one door and then a second door, and that is kept at a constant temperature. If a pathogen does get in, the farm has what’s called Mojave Mode, where it basically jacks up the temperature and reduce the humidity to wipe out anything that’s living there that shouldn’t be. Those steps are always present and built into what I was writing about.

QA: Why do you think these stories might be interesting for our readers? 

JF: No. 1 is there's just an awareness of where the market is going. I’m 46, and it was the case when I was in high school and college that if you went to a barbecue and asked for a veggie burger, it was an odd thing. Now you have plant-based meat in Walmart and Target, and every big meat producer has a plant-based meat line. I think there are also innovations that could filter down. What can cell-cultured meat producers and plant-based meat producers do with editing extra nutrition into their foods? I think that has really wide applications. I talked to a woman who is growing cell-cultured milk proteins. These applications are really endless. And while companies may have found out how to use them in one way, the more people know about them, the more chances of making something really innovative.

QA: How did your reporting and research change the way you view consumers?

JF: I think consumers are probably more adventurous and thoughtful than perhaps I initially gave them credit for — just seeing the enormous upswing in sales of vertically farmed foods and plant-based meats, and surveys showing a willingness to try cultured meats. People are more open-minded because of the climate crisis, because of a moral sense that we shouldn't be eating beef.

QA: In the story about more people eating insects, you shared your personal hesitation about it. After your research and reporting, are you more open to it?

JF: I’m really kind of embarrassed at having written that and feeling that way. So I'm going to start to train myself out of my bug aversion. There’s a store near here where I can get cricket flour, so I’m going to start playing with that. My brother worked in Mexican restaurants for a long time and insists there’s nothing more delicious than an ant taco and that ant egg salsa is wonderful, so I’m going to be a little more open-minded.

QA: It also seemed like eating insects had less downside than some of the other alternatives. Is that accurate?

JF: I guess I didn't bring up the downside in that because to my mind, it's fairly clear, right? The downside is that a lot of people are like me and are just averse to the idea of eating bugs and weeds and things that we overlooked. I don't think there's huge danger that we're going to scale up and find something wrong. The risk is that they just won’t find markets, which would be a shame.