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ROB Magazine

What is technology doing to the food we eat?

There's something wrong with our chickens. For starters, their breasts are enormous. I'm not sure how those chickens can walk—I picture the poor birds in their cages, propelling themselves around on spindly legs, massive breasts dragging on the floor.

Then there's the taste. Or, rather, the lack of it. I remember when chicken tasted like chicken. Now it tastes like nothing at all. Same goes for strawberries, which are now cartoonishly large but have all the flavour of underripe watermelon.

What's happening to our food? As Mark Schatzker documents in his excellent book The Dorito Effect, the short answer is: science.

Chickens have been changing since 1948, when A&P sponsored the Chicken of Tomorrow event, to find the birds that grew the fastest while producing the largest, most tender breasts. Once the winner was declared, farmers realized they could selectively breed them to grow even faster, with even bigger breasts, reducing costs and launching a wave of cheap poultry that saw American consumption grow by nearly five times over the next half-century.

Since then, we've tinkered with almost every crop and animal you can buy. We've produced food that matures faster, resists disease and stores longer. Couple that progress with more efficient industrial farms and processing plants, and the result has been massive consolidation and up-heaval in the global food industry.

The upside is a startling increase in output: We've never produced so much food per hectare so cheaply. The downside is tasteless meat, sometimes cruel animal treatment, pesticide- and hormone-laden food, and environmental damage.

Here in Canada, we're at a crossroads. As we note in our cover package, " The Future of Food", Canada is the world's fifth-largest exporter of agricultural commodities, and the agriculture sector employs one out of every eight workers. But competition is fierce, and we're starting to lose ground as other countries, such as the United States and Brazil, race ahead of us to embrace large-scale farming technology.

Which path do we take? Should we continue to shelter tiny family-run farms—as we now do through supply management—or embrace factory farms, despite the damage?

Thankfully, there's a third way, one that combines bleeding-edge technology with sustainability. That's the route the Netherlands has taken, and it has been a huge success: Despite its small size and cool climate, the nation has become the world's second-largest exporter of food (measured in dollars) after the U.S. Much of its food production now takes place in computerized greenhouses. Outdoor crops are monitored by satellites and drones. Farmers have reduced water use for some crops by 90%, almost eliminated chemical pesticides in greenhouses, and cut antibiotic use in half.

The key to the Netherlands' success is researchers and farmers working together. We've been doing that in Canada, but in a more slapdash way. One area where it's worked is in B.C.'s Okanagan Valley, where scientists and local cherry farmers developed a new variety that has seen B.C.'s sweet cherry exports quadruple over 15 years.

The upshot is that if we do this right, we don't have to choose. We can continue to feed the world, but in a sustainable, ethical and more profitable way. The best part? Scientists have finally woken up to the fact that flavour matters too. So the hybrids of the future will not only be cheap—they'll also be delicious. Can't wait to find out what chickens taste like in 2028. /Duncan Hood (robmagletters@globeandmail.com)