Microbes and Molecular Gastronomy

In Food Systems, ITP

Barth’s piece on microbes and This’ work on molecular gastronomy touch on the common thread of scientific influence on food, both farming and cooking. However, there is a stark contrast in how the relationship with science is treated. While we’ve seen chefs embrace the arsenal of tools and techniques that science, and particular molecular biology, has provided them with, there seems to be much more resistance on the side of the farmer to evolve their process through science. I attribute that difference to a couple different things, including the personality difference between chef and farmer and the historic influence of science in their respective fields.


A big reason top chefs have welcomed scientific innovation in the culinary space is because it provides them with new mediums of expression. It gives them a completely new arsenal of tools to help tell stories to their dinners. Chefs have an inherent nature to explore, innovate and challenge, as do most artists. Farmers, on the other hand, typically follow a more procedural school of thought. Their craft, like many with many artisans, has been passed down for generations and historically carries a certain allegiance to how things were traditionally done. I don’t mean to paint the picture that all chefs are fabulous artists and that farmers are process machines. I simply mean that process yields a different kind of art when a craft is being executed at the highest level. Simply look to the Japanese shokunin (master craftsmen), where they dedicate their lives to doing the same thing everyday to ultimately achieve perfection. The evolution of their process does occur, just at a much more incremental pace. This loyalty to how things are done can create friction with those, in this case scientists, who try to implement change. These different structures that chefs and farmers operate in play a role in their willingness to explore new scientific innovations. I realize that large-scale agriculture has moved far away from the shokunin approach to master one’s craft, however, I still believe that process is a foundational framework for farmers.


I also think the scientific community’s recent influence on cuisine and agriculture is a factor on adoption within those industries. Science has given chefs new ways to stand out and has led to many achieving success, as This mentioned in his piece. The immediate positive influence of science on the individual farmer is a little less clear. It seems that the biosciences industry has almost made things harder on the individual farmer, creating a system of modern-day indentured servitude. That in itself could explain why both areas interact with scientific innovation so differently. There seems to be a much flatter hierarchy between science and chefs for some reason, which creates a much richer environment for collaboration.


I am super excited by the promises of microbes, bacteria and funghi in agriculture. Barth recognizes the importance of bridging the divide between the laboratory and the field. We need to establish a flatter hierarchy between the sciences and farmers and make it mutually beneficial for both parties involved. On an encouraging note, the studies of how microbes, bacteria and funghi can increase yield and reduce dependency on fertilizers/pesticides is empowering for the farmer. This will reduce the stronghold that the large bioscience companies have on farmers. It’s just about finding the best way to frame and communicate these advantages to farmers and start the beginning of a healthier relationship between science and individual farmers.



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