The Fate of Food – Book Review

What’s for dinner?

The Fate of Food will give you a good overview of how tradition and technology might come together to feed the world in the future.

I guess you could say that my purchase of The Fate of Food was an impulse buy (a good one).

In early November last year, I went into a Barnes & Noble store in San Luis Obispo, CA to buy a 2020 mini wall calendar to put up on the tack board next to my desk. My plan had been to quickly find a calendar, buy it, and then move on to the next errand on my list.

The calendar with the words “Serenity quotes for a peaceful mind” superimposed over a photo of a lovely calm looking lake appealed to me. I took it off the rack and turned around intending to walk back to the checkout counter. On the way, I decided I would just pop over to the environment/nature section to scout for new books that I might want to read in the future.

Standing there clutching my calendar I avidly scanned the titles. The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World by Amanda Little caught my eye. I pulled the book off the shelf and flipped through it reading the book jacket and table of contents.

It looked interesting so I bought the book along with the calendar.

Book Review

The Fate of Food opens with Amanda Little recounting her tour of the Wise Company, a survival food maker in Salt Lake City, UT. This visit occurred after she had traveled to thirteen states in the U.S. and eleven countries pursuing an answer to the question “What will be for dinner in the future?”

I knew I was going to like the book when I read the following paragraph at the top of page 8.

“After my visit to the Wise factory, I whip up a bowl of rehydrated pot pie. In truth, I ask my kids to do it. They fire up the electric kettle, pour, stir, wait for the pebbly chunks to soften. To them, it’s a simple science experiment. To me, it’s confronting a future I don’t want to meet.”

It was heartening to discover that along with delivering facts, information, and stories about other people, Little was willing to share herself with me and you.

The Fate of Food Book Cover

Reading The Fate of Food you will learn a lot of things, sometimes fascinating things, about apple farming, robots, aeroponics and aquaculture, animal-free meat, food waste, water, cloud seeding, moringa trees, and 3-D printed food.

You will also have an opportunity to ponder ways that small-scale and industrial-scale farming could be transformed to feed the world in a way that is healthy for people and the planet.

Here are a few snapshots of what you will be reading.

Chapter 3 – Seeds of Drought

In this section, you will meet Kenyan Ruth Oniang’o the founder of Rural Outreach Program of Africa that focuses on improving agricultural productivity while protecting small farmers. GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and bioengineered food are covered here as well as the dilemma faced by countries who are struggling to grow their own food.

“I am talking about using technology—modern seeds, modern methods—to benefit humanity, to produce food that’s clean, abundant, and climate-smart, in a way that frees small-scale farmers from drudgery. We shall industrialize our food production while maintaining the core of who we are.”

Ruth Oniang’o
Chapter 7 – Tipping the Scales

Chances are you have heard the term aquaculture (think farm-raised salmon). This chapter explores the potential benefits and challenges associated with farming aquatic animals and plants in oceans, specialized ponds, and tanks. If you are not currently familiar with algal blooms, sea lice, or the resource efficiency of fish farming, you will be.

Chapter 10 – Pipe Dreams

Without water there is no food and agriculture is a thirsty business. This chapter provides a look at how Israel, a country with very little freshwater, handles its water supply. Other topics discussed here include desalination, closed-loop water recycling, and using cloud-based applications to detect leaks.

The book closes with Little’s visit to the farm of Chris and Annie Newman who are reimagining farming.

“I was taught early on that we live within the ecosystem, not on top of it.”

Chris Newman

The Bottom Line

Amanda Little is a journalist and a professor teaching investigative journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University. She is also the author of Power Trip: The Story of America’s Love Affair with Energy.

The Fate of Food is a readable book that packs in a lot of material about many different food-related subjects. I think Little’s writing style and the way she conveys information in a story-like manner will appeal to a wide audience. What makes this book special to me is that Little relates to us, her readers, as fellow human beings.

After reading The Fate of Food, I hope you will feel optimistic and motivated to learn more about one or more of the topics covered in the book.

Featured Image at Top

A place setting sits on top of a green place mat – photo iStock/kyoshino.

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Are High-Efficiency Toilets Worth It?

You can choose to conserve water.

What if conserving water was as easy as flushing a toilet? It is if you replace your old water hogging probably leaky toilet with a high-efficiency model.

A toilet replacement project may not be high on your list of priorities, but perhaps it should be.

The first day of spring is just behind us and here on the California Central Coast, a green blanket of grass covers the hillsides and the wildflowers are just beginning to show their colorful faces. It was a good rainy season for us meaning we received about the historical average rainfall for our area.

Yet, I am aware that another drought will occur in the future and that global warming will continue to make many regions like ours hotter and drier putting even more stress on already depleted water supplies.

This may sound weird but I usually have water on my mind more during the rainy season than the dry summer. Last March I wrote a series of posts about water conservation entitled Why is Now a Good Time to Implement Water Saving Ideas?, Making Water Conservation a Way of Life – Indoors, and Making Water Conservation a Way of Life – Outdoors.

This March I decided to tackle the unglamorous topic of high-efficiency toilets because toilets are notorious water wasters. Old toilet models use a whopping 3-8 gallons per flush (GPF) and they are prone to leaking. Also, in the United States, we mostly use potable water, which is water that has been treated to drinking water quality, for flushing toilets.

Toilet efficiency did get a boost when Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 1992. Most of the law relates to energy but there is a provision to establish the first-ever federal water efficiency standards for plumbing fixtures like toilets, urinals, showerheads, and faucets. Toilets manufactured after 1994 are required to use 1.6 GPF or less.

Some of the early low flow toilets had performance problems that resulted in people flushing toilets twice defeating the purpose of using a water-efficient toilet. Fortunately, toilet designers unleashed their creativity and now 25 years later, high-efficiency toilets get the job done consistently with even less water.

Residential Indoor Water End Uses Pie Chart (Percentages and Gallons)

A 2016 Water Resource Foundation study found that each person flushes the toilet on average 5 times a day at home, which represents about 24% of residential indoor water use. (Image showing percentages and gallons – DziegielewskiBA – Wikipedia.)

By replacing your old leaky toilets with high-efficiency models you can reduce the amount of drinking water your household flushes down the toilet, conserve water, and save money on your water/sewer bill.

The balance of this post covers my family’s experience with high-efficiency toilets and provides a list of things to think about before you start your own toilet replacement project.

Deciding to Invest in High-Efficiency Toilets

Our mission to conserve water in our household began shortly after we moved here from Southern California in 2007. Originally, we focused on creating a drought-resistant yard and as our aging appliances needed replacing, we purchased water and energy-efficient models.

In 2013, when our water district banned outdoor watering with potable water, my spouse and I realized we needed to ramp up our water conservation measures.

One of the things we did was to implement an “if it is yellow, let it mellow” toilet flushing policy. This saved water but it did not seem like a good long-term strategy. Putting bricks in our toilet tanks or installing retrofit kits did not seem like ideal solutions. We also discovered that our toilets were leaking (see below for instructions on how to check for leaks).

My family strongly objected to my suggestion that we consider switching to composting toilets and to be honest I was not ready to make that leap either.

After I had thoroughly researched high-efficiency toilets, we decided to replace our three old leaky toilets. It was a considerable financial investment but the water savings over the past 4 years and 4 months have been and will continue to be significant for years to come.

Our High-Efficiency Toilet Replacement Project

We opted for a Toto Connelly dual flush model with a lever versus a button. The toilet user pushes the lever one way to flush with 0.9 gallons of water and the other way to flush with 1.28 gallons of water (there is a label on top of the toilet tank). The lever design prevents over flushing.

Our cost per toilet in 2014 was $808 less a $25 rebate from our water company for a net cost of $783. This included the toilet, a toilet seat, small parts needed for installation, sales tax, installation, and disposing of the old toilet.

Performance

High-efficiency toilets use gravity-assisted technology to flush the contents down the toilet with substantially less water than older models. Our toilets perform adequately and consistently. It does help to toss toilet paper in the deepest part of the bowl but this is an easy habit to learn.

The extremely hard water our household receives is tough on plumbing fixtures including faucets and toilet guts. One of our toilets required a replacement part a few months ago. Even without hard water, you should expect that any kind of toilet might need maintenance from time to time.

Cleaning

A special material coats the toilet bowls to keep them clean with less water but skid marks do occur occasionally. Toilet cleaner manufacturers have programmed us to believe that our toilets should always be sparkling clean so if you feel uncomfortable with skid marks you can easily clean them off with toilet paper, a water spray bottle, or a sponge.

To protect the special finish in the toilet bowl manufacturers recommend that you do not use abrasive cleaners or toilet brushes (plastic is okay) and do not put automatic toilet bowl cleaning disks inside the bowl.

For cleaning the toilets, I don rubber gloves, squirt toilet bowl cleaner in the bowl, and use our designated toilet cleaning sponge to clean it. I find this is easier and quicker than using a toilet brush.

Payback Period

A payback period is the length of time it takes an investment to recover its initial cost either in profits or savings.

For reasons, I do not fully understand there seems to be an expectation of a payback period for some home improvement projects like installing solar panels or high-efficiency toilets but not for others such as remodeling a kitchen or bathroom.

I am willing to play along if it helps you with making a decision to replace your old toilets. My family of four refused to participate in a toilet flushing study so I used five flushes per day in my analysis. Here are our results for replacing three old leaky toilets with high-efficiency toilets.

The total cost of the toilet installation was $2,349 divided by an estimated annual water savings of 502 gallons = a payback period of 4.7 years.

Our toilets are dual flush models that use less water overall so we have probably already passed the payback threshold.

You can do your own analysis using the Excel spreadsheet I created for our project.

Tips for High-Efficiency Toilet Replacement Projects

Whether you have one toilet to replace or several, buying and installing a high-efficiency toilet is not an inexpensive project so you will want a toilet that works and will last for many years. Here are a few things to consider for your own project.

  • Do your homework so you can select a model that is suitable for your household. Read reviews and watch videos made by manufacturers and high-efficiency toilet fans.
  • Beware of unnecessary bells and whistles. Do you really need a toilet with a sensor that flushes the toilet when you pass your hand over it?
  • Do not buy a cheap model. In the world of toilets, you get what you pay for. There is a wide range of high-quality toilets on the market so chances are you can find one that fits in your budget.
  • Do not buy a toilet online. Toilets are made of vitreous china and are prone to getting hairline cracks during shipping. Imagine the hassle of shipping a toilet back to the manufacturer or even worse not realizing that it will leak.
  • Unless you are a plumber, hire a professional with experience installing high-efficiency toilets.
  • Contact your water company to find out if they are offering rebates (every little bit helps).

Pay It Forward

When you sell your home, include your high-efficiency toilets as a selling point.

If you live in a municipality (I do) that requires new homeowners to certify that their home is retrofitted with high-efficiency plumbing fixtures you will have saved potential buyers the inconvenience of doing it themselves while they are trying to move into their new home.

High Efficiency Dual Flush Toilet Top Flush Label
The handy label on the left side shows toilet users which way to push the vertical lever mounted on the left side of the toilet (backward for 0.9 GPF and forward for 1.28 GPF).

After reading this post, I hope you feel more informed about high-efficiency toilets and are at least considering replacing your old water guzzling and possibly leaky toilets. Once you do, you will be conserving water every time you flush your toilet.

I realize that this may not be a good time for you to embark on a high-efficiency toilet replacement project for a variety of reasons. If that is the case, there are plenty of other actions you can take to conserve water at home. The posts below in the resources section provide a variety of ideas including actions that are easy and low or no cost.

Featured Image at Top: Low water levels at Lake Mead, which is a man-made lake on the Colorado River – photo credit John Locher/Associated Press. When full, Lake Mead is the largest water reservoir in the United States. Click here to read the article that accompanies the photo.

How to Check Your Toilet for Leaks

Leaking toilets waste water and money. Here are two easy methods for determining if a toilet is leaking.

  1. Turn off the water valve behind the toilet. After an hour or so, check the level of the water in the toilet bowl. If it is lower or the bowl is empty your toilet leaks.
  2. Put 10-15 drops of food coloring in the toilet tank. After 20 or 30 minutes, if you see color in the toilet bowl your toilet leaks.

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