Interview: Amanda Little
Amanda Little is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University. Her reporting on energy, technology, and the environment has appeared in publications including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Wired, Rolling Stone, and Bloomberg Businessweek. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and children.
She has just published a new book: The Fate of Food: What We'll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World. In a nutshell: "Amanda Little tells the defining story of the sustainable food revolution as she weaves together stories from the world's most creative and controversial innovators on the front lines of food science, agriculture, and climate change."
I couldn't wait to talk to Amanda about happiness, habits, and productivity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Amanda: Breaking a sweat. My friend wears a t-shirt that says “I sweat glitter,” which pretty much sums up how I feel about the act of perspiring. I love a good sweaty run (if my left hamstring is up for it), and I probably overindulge in hot yoga. At the risk of sounding even more like a Lululemon shopping bag, I’m also a junkie for the metaphorical kind of sweat-breaking—the challenge of doing stuff that scares me, that raises my game, because that relief and happiness you feel on the other side makes it all, disproportionately, worth it.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
I’ve gotten better at learning how to interrupt the fear of what if and the desire for what could be with the acceptance—and occasionally the rampant joy—of what is.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
It stunned me to realize that main way most people on earth will experience climate change is through its impact on food. We’re going to see radical changes in what we grow and how we eat in the coming decades—as environmental and population pressures intensify.
I spent four years investigating what these changes will look like. My central question seemed simple enough: How will we feed a hotter, more crowded world? But the more I researched, the more complex the answers became, and they led me to many other inquiries: Are we facing the end of animal meat? Can GMOs actually be good for the environment—and for us? What will it take to eliminate harmful chemicals from farming? To build a drought-proof water supply? How can clean, sustainable food become accessible to everyone, not just the elite?
My reporting took me to a dozen countries and as many states—from apple orchards in Wisconsin and tiny cornfields in Kenya to massive Norwegian fish farms and computerized foodscapes in Shanghai. I investigated new and old ideas, from robotics, CRISPR, and vertical farms to edible insects, permaculture, and ancient plants.
I learned, through interviews and adventures with farmers, scientists, activists, and engineers, that human innovation, which marries new and old approaches to food production, can redefine sustainable food on a grand scale.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I’ve been semi-successful at giving up things that I love to drink and eat. I’ve phased out sugar, coffee, and alcohol for long periods—mostly without missing them. I did this by convincing myself that I’d sleep better, feel better, look better, and experience a kind of deeper vital energy without temporary stimulants. I’ve since phased these pleasures back into my life, but I relate to them differently than I once did—as occasional luxuries, things to savor.
The vice I haven’t been able to kick is meat. Burgers, brisket, fried chicken, roast turkey, every kind of breakfast meat—I crave ‘em all. I’ve spent years researching the environmental impacts of largescale meat production, and I know full well how serious they are. I know the importance of eating only local, humanely raised meats… but I work fulltime, cook last minute, mostly shop at Kroger, and often resort to take-out. Living as I do in Nashville, TN, home of BBQ and hot chicken, I’m a shark in chummed waters. The longest I’ve gone is sixty-four days without meat—until someone offered me a plate of carne asada tacos with pickled onions, jicama slaw, and a to-die-for creamy dill sauce. I devoured them like a starved hyena. I also, it must be said, have a weakness for out-of-season fruits and processed snack foods.
This is part of why I wrote The Fate of Food—I began to wonder how on earth we’re going to solve the problems with our food system if we can’t necessarily rely on a critical mass of virtuous, backyard-farming vegetarians to do it from the ground up.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
I’m pretty sure I’m a Quebel—a Questioner-Rebel hybrid.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
I belong to the legions of people—many of them fellow working moms—who are chronically sleep deprived. While I’ve had some success with letting go of bad habits, I’ve been less successful at adding in good ones. I know that getting solid, consistent sleep is the best habit I could ever hope to acquire, that it’ll improve my happiness and performance as a writer, teacher, mother, partner, friend, citizen etc.—but most nights, I can’t fall asleep before midnight, and my kids are early risers.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
Eleanor Roosevelt, paraphrased: She who gives light must endure the burning.
In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?
The topic of food is riddled with misperceptions—in particular, about how we’ll produce an enduring supply of it. Climate models show that crop production worldwide will decline every decade for the rest of this century due to drought, heat and flooding. Meanwhile, global population is soaring. “Food is ripe for reinvention,” Bill Gates has proclaimed. Huge flows of public and private investment—including billions from companies inside the conventional agriculture industry and outside of it, like Microsoft, Google, and IBM—are now funding new methods of high-tech, “climate-smart” food production.
Yet, most sustainable food advocates bristle at the idea of reinventing food—they want it deinvented, thank you very much. They advocate for a return to preindustrial, pre–Green Revolution, organic, and biodynamic farming practices to which skeptics inevitably respond, “Yes, that’s nice. But does it scale?” Sure, a return to traditional methods might produce better food, but can it produce enough food?
The rift between the reinvention camp and the deinvention camp has existed for decades, but has grown in recent years into a raging battle of hyperbole, reactionism, and platitudes. One side views technology as corrosive, the other sees it as a panacea. One side covets the past, the other the future.
As someone observing this debate for years, I’ve come to see it’s not serving us well at all, and to wonder: Why must it be so binary? Why can’t we do some version of both? There can—there must—be a synthesis of the two approaches. Our challenge is to borrow from the wisdom of the past and from our most advanced technologies to forge a kind of “third way” to food production. Such an approach would allow us to grow more and higher-quality food while restoring, rather than degrading, the underlying web of life.
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