image by imp kerr

Nicola Twilley is a researcher, designer, and writer in New York. She is co-director of Columbia University’s Studio-X, co-founder of the Foodprint Project, and still finds the time to write the fascinating blog Edible Geography. In a recent phone interview, she talked about the logic of strategic food reserves, her unusual fascination with “food piracy,” and how the infrastructure of food informs us of global, systemic issues.

Adam Rothstein: How would you describe the Edible Geography blog project?

Nicola Twilley: I had too many diverse interests in food space, culture, naturally built and virtual landscapes, and environmental issues. Rather than having a website where I write about everything that I find interesting, I force myself to go through the lens of food.

I initially resisted launching a “food blog,” because of the image of a food blog being just “pictures of cupcakes” or “what I had for lunch,” or “ten exciting new ways to prepare quinoa.” But I think of it as a frame, frequently on an entirely different perspective to a story that I might otherwise miss. It relates to stories of domestication in agriculture, bioarchaeology, culture, technology, and almost anything else. There’s not a lot of stuff you can’t address through the lens of food, so although I call it a constraint, it hardly is at all.

AR: There’s that conspicuous consumption side of it, the foodie side, and then there’s the also the scientific production side of it, and there’s the distribution, global currents of trade and economy. You been doing some work on this, with food stockpiling and strategic reserves. You’ve had some stories about when things go wrong with stockpiling, the syrup reserve going missing and so forth. How well do think that reserves work on a daily basis, when we’re not hearing about them having some sort of emergency?

NT: There are a multiplicity of types of reserves. Many reserves are all about protectionist trade policy. The maple syrup reserve came from Canada’s strategic plan to grow the maple syrup market. It was their clearheaded assessment that if you grow the market and then have a bad year, then all your hard work in trying to grow the market is going down the toilet. So it’s best to build a reserve then grow demand, and know that you can fulfill it. Certain places like the EU are famous for protecting their farmers with favorable policies that keep the prices high enough to guarantee the farmers make a certain rate per measure and result in huge wine or butter surpluses. Those kinds of reserves are one thing.

One of the things that the idea of the stockpile or the reserve introduces is some of the difficulties around food planning. Demand fluctuates, but the supply fluctuates even more. Some argue in favor of a more insurance policy type reserve. As climate change ramps up and weather events become more severe, our just-in-time distribution is not going to be able to cope with the shock. It’s a fascinating topic right now. Some countries are dealing with uncertainty by buying agricultural land in a land-grab phenomenon. China is buying a vast amount of land in Africa. Rather than build the reserve with the harvest, it is built with the land.

In some ways the land-grab phenomenon is the alternate strategy to the food-reserve phenomenon. It’s difficult to store food. Refrigeration is expensive, and increasingly so. The monitoring and pest control that has to go on in storage is incredible. And then there’s the human challenge. In the developing world, reserves are intended to provide a cushion if the market fails, to avoid a famine. But if stocks are pilfered and not managed correctly, or if there is corruption, then that strategy fails.

The architecture of food storage and preservation has not advanced much. There are innovative sensors and shipping, and the packaging level has seen improvements. A lot of the innovation has been in logistics, and fine-tuning that so that the supply arrives exactly when it’s needed and is exactly calibrated to the demand. And that’s amazing technology. But when you throw random weather, piracy, etc, against that model, maybe it’s too finely calibrated and there is no buffer. The technology of food preservation and storage is ripe for improvement. I don’t know if this is true, I’ve never been able to verify this–but it’s said that if all the trucks stopped rolling, US supermarkets would be out of food in five days. We have this very finely-adjusted just-in-time system, and I see a potential that it will not be resilient enough in the future, with a system subject to extreme weather events. But to fix this would require a truly huge shift in the way that we currently produce and distribute food.

One of the things I’m doing now is working with the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) on an exhibition on the landscape of artificial refrigeration. It’s completely fascinating to me how a vast amount of space is kept at a different temperature just to house our food. Our fruits and vegetables each have their own temperature zones–bananas will be at fifty degrees, meat at another temperature. Each of our foods have their own thermal comfort zones. And we dedicate these temples of artificial winter to our food. That geography of refrigeration is something I’m researching for this exhibition, and also expanding into a book.

AR: You mentioned piracy affecting food. Is food piracy a thing? Or just in the way that global shipping is affected by piracy?

NT: I was referring to global shipping, but yeah it’s a thing. Food crime is fascinating. There was a story just the other day of a New Jersey warehouse where all these counterfeit bottles of Heinz ketchup exploded. It’s a great story that combines two of my favorite things–exploding food, and counterfeit food. We think about counterfeit food as a tiny problem at the moment. At one point, the US had a serious food fraud problem that led to the 1906 Pure Food Act and the construction of the FDA. What that timeline tells us is about the expanding distance between the producer and the consumer. When consumers become suspicious and trust is no longer ensured by community-level person to person relationships, the government has to step in with regulation to add the trust back. This copes with the distance put into the food system.

China, with all the rapid urbanization it has undergone, is now in need of that government-enforced trust structure, which is why you get these stories about melamine milk, and so on. But though we might think about it as a Chinese problem, counterfeit food is still an issue in the US too. There are people with specialties in things like detecting honey fraud. People claim that their industrially-produced glucose syrup is actually honey from X, Y, and Z. Every so often in the tech world, you hear that RFID chips are going to be the thing to prevent this, but they’re too expensive right now to implement in terms of basic food commodities. At the high end you can use them to ensure the authenticity of food. There’s a really good book on the history of food fraud, called Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, by Bee Wilson. It looks at the conditions in which food fraud propagates.

AR: It feels like a perverse fascination to be interested in food piracy, but not as bad as some tabloid issues one could be interested in, I suppose.

NT: It is kind of funny. I was so excited about the exploding ketchup bottles. It could kill people, and it’s terrible, but also incredibly interesting. The idea of simulating food tells us so much about our food system and about our culture in general. When you’re simulating a food, what are the qualities to get right? This is how consumers relate to that particular food, and how we understand food: visual quality, textural quality, and so on. What does it take to “pass” as a fake food? The way that we simulate things tells us so much about how we evaluate things in the first place. There’s such an incredible level of ingenuity. Have you seen the fake eggs video? It’s an overblown story I’m sure–Chinese markets are not filled with carefully crafted fake eggs–but it’s the ingenuity. You have to kind of admire it in weird way.

AR: A lot of stuff that you cover on Edible Geography revolves around the more hidden sides of food production and distribution, the things we don’t normally think about. What is important about the visualization of those aspects of food?

NT: The blog is called Edible Geography, but I sometimes stray very far from what you might call visual, spatial, or cartographic representations. Still, I always return to mapping because it’s such a valuable tool. A map is a spatial diagnostic. As an example, you get public health researchers mapping things like fast-food outlets against demographics, or alcohol advertising against problem-drinking. You can’t prove causation with a map, but you can make some pretty good hypotheses out of the patterns of correlations that you find. You can also look for the best place to intervene, spatially. It allows you to see design opportunities.

I also like the way that a map will let you to see things that are distributed and disconnected as something you can understand as a whole. A really fun project here in New York is a crowd-sourced bodega mapping project. Bodegas are not part of a chain, and they are not a top-down thing. It’s rare that an owner would own even two bodegas. But mapping them and making them visible changes the way we think about bodegas as a whole. As it happens, the city has started to see that they could create initiatives around having fresh produce, etc, in bodegas and make them a health resource. But you don’t see that opportunity if you think about them as just one bodega.

AR: What other visuals do you find useful, other than mapping?

NT: I have ongoing interest in the idea of the flavor wheel as a tool giving us a framework for measuring sensory perceptions. Professor Ann Noble at UC Davis came up with the wine flavor wheel. The categories it laid out have become a huge marketing tool for the California wine industry. People argue, compellingly, that it has also actually shaped the kinds of wine that are now produced. Once you name something you can identify it and recognize it and reproduce it. The value of setting up a framework for that is important, but it also shapes what is produced via that framework.

With the Venue project I’m doing with Geoff Manaugh, we visited the Chili Pepper Institute in Las Cruces, New Mexico. They’ve recently developed a flavor wheel to try to tap into that idea of appreciation that came with the wine wheel. Various industries are creating these flavor wheels to give people a way to understand and talk about their various olfactory and flavor experiences, to create a sensory profile of what their eating. There are chocolate wheels and maple syrup wheels. It’s a way to brand and rate the value of a food by implying that it is a rich, nuanced sensory experience, like wine.

Of course, the wheel is not new. The other day I posted about urine flavor wheels, which I was introduced to by a really interesting synthetic biology blog called Oscillator. Creating a sensory profile of urine was one of the primary ways to diagnose disease in medieval and renaissance times, so a urine flavor wheel was a standard inclusion in a medical textbook.

AR: For your refrigeration project, what sort of visualizations are you working with?

NT: Definitely maps. But CLUI and I have also been talking about how we can create not just visualizations, but the actual temperature variations for these different types of foods at the exhibition. This architecture of food storage is about creating spaces for food, and it’s their physiology and form that are being considered.

When you spend a lot of time in refrigerated spaces, you slow down. In a lot of the frozen food warehouses, workers are not allowed to work alone. You don’t even realize that you are slowing down, and eventually you stop moving. We have these buildings that we maintain at extraordinary expense that we, physically, are not optimized for all. We are not optimized for spaces that slow down decay, to preserve “freshness” — whatever that means — in our fruits, vegetables and meats. On the temporal level, what refrigeration does is so weird. It is an extension that slows everything down.