Friday, December 17, 2010

What we lose through "efficiency"

As an engineer that works in a combustion laboratory, I am constantly surrounded by the miracles of modern machinery. Let me tell you about some of the things around my lab. There exists a vacuum pump that can pull a large volume to near vacuum, to a pressure lower than exists at the higher reaches of the atmosphere. There exist fast-acting solenoid valves that have an open-shut cycle time of 2 milliseconds to capture with high accuracy and precision small volumes of gas to understand how fuels break down. There exist computers that can solve systems of very stiff differential equations to understand chemical kinetics. There exists lasers that emit photons with high spatial and temporal coherence. All of these gadgets, gizmos and machinery are made to operate as "efficiently" as possible - use the least amount of energy to get a certain amount of work out. This seems wonderful - planes now fly on 40% less fuel per kilometre than they did 40 years ago. Efficiency can work marvels with engineering, and in some sense, "save" the environment. But it can also wreak havoc on the environment and more primal attributes of our world.

My thoughts are flowing at this moment primarily through food, but one may apply this thought process to other forms of human behaviour. In our attempt to increase output of food, we have turned to fossil fuels and chemicals and genetically modified seeds to allow increased yields (although this is completely debatable, and more likely than not false) given the size of a plot. Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan eloquently speak to the degradation of land, the waste of farming operations, and the lives of ecosystems that are ruined because of industrial agriculture. But Chef Dan Barber lends another perspective to the voices speaking out against industrial agriculture. On Being, he speaks to something food has lost over time due to excessive chemical and biological modification - flavour. Indeed, flavour, an essential quality of food, is nowhere talked about amongst large scale agribusinesses and farmers. As I have written about previously, food, when cooked with love and thought, using the right ingredients, can open up minds and hearts, and remind people of days gone by. In our quest to produce large amounts of food for increasingly lower costs to the customer (although the true costs are not billed, nor are calculable), the social aspect of food surrounding thought, smell, taste and emotion has been systematically neglected and carelessly snipped out of the DNA, both of the food and of our culture. With the loss of native species of crops, plants and animals, these things no longer survive in our collective memories. In the end, bland tasting tomatoes are shipped thousands of miles to be served as poor substitutes to the miraculous tastes of nature...generating trash along the way.


  1. Hi Darshan, interesting entry. I agree with you that a lot of produce tastes better if selected locally however (on the topic of flavor) modern agricultural industrialization has allowed North Americans to taste the cherimoya- a fruit that, prior to industrialization, was only found in south America. Efficiency has allowed a whole civilization to taste something brand new. Furthermore, efficiency has helped feed more people worldwide. Ultimately you have to ask yourself what's more important: that we sacrifice flavor in industrial grown tomatoes or that we provide a product that meets demand at a low cost. Is the environment more important than human lives? I think this post could benefit by adding some explicitly suggested solutions.

  2. This looks great, I sooo need to try this soon! Thanks!