The word “processed” has become something of a slur.
Say “processed food” and most of us picture unhealthy, cheap junk. Fresh food straight from the garden or the field is good. Once we’ve put it through a processing plant or a laboratory, we’ve removed its halo qualities and added a bunch of bad ones. That means meat substitutes are no better than junk food.
But this perspective is short-sighted. We’re not going to feed billions a nutritious diet sustainably without food processing. The growing backlash against processing is one that neither people nor the planet can afford.
The benefits of processed food
Processed food is more than Coca-Cola, Dairy Milk chocolate, and ready meals. Most plant and animal products go through some form of processing to convert them into something that we can—and want to—eat. We mill grain into flour to make bread. We butcher and debone animals to get meat. We pasteurize milk.
Processed foods have brought us countless benefits, many of which we quickly forget. Iodized salt is just one example; iodine deficiencies used to be common across the world, leading to increased risks of stillbirths and miscarriages, significant reductions in IQ, and reduced cognitive development. Most of the world now consumes salt with iodine added, and many countries have eliminated this deficiency. By adding nutrients to food, we’ve been able to address a number of other micronutrient deficiencies.
We’ve been able to preserve food and increase its shelf life, reducing food waste. We’ve reduced the spread of food-borne diseases. Those with food allergies and intolerances can now eat a balanced diet. We don’t need to spend the day preparing food—this has been particularly important for the educational and career development of women. Last but not least: taste. Our shelves are now lined with great-tasting foods.
Of course, when people talk about “processed” food they’re often talking about ultra-processed food (UPF). These snacks and prepared meals are designed to have a longer shelf life and be more convenient and palatable. Corporations work hard to find the “Goldilocks” flavor profile we can’t resist by adding sugar and fat to make food as tasty as possible. Many describe these finely tuned combinations as addictive.
It’s true that increased consumption of ultra-processed food has been linked to poor health outcomes. It has been associated with lower consumption of essential nutrients, such as vitamins C, D, and B12. The more of these foods we eat, the more likely we are to be overweight or obese. This puts us at higher risk of health conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. Ultra-processed foods are easy to overconsume.
The problem with most UPFs is that they are higher in calories, sugar, and fat. And they’re lower in protein and fiber, the nutrients that keep us full.
But this isn’t inherent to food processing itself. What matters is what corporations add to our food. They can create healthier foods if they want to—or if we demand it.
The growing backlash against meat substitutes
One area where I see the biggest backlash against processing is with meat substitutes.
These products try to emulate the experience of meat and include plant proteins such as soy-based sausages; Impossible and Beyond Meat burgers; proteins made from fermentation, such as Quorn, and lab-grown meat.
Since Elon Musk took over Twitter in late October, there’s been a sense that the ship is sinking, with the platform’s users scurrying offboard to safety. Musk’s actions, from mass layoffs to impulsive feature changes, have prompted widespread (if vague) speculation that Twitter itself will soon cease to exist, due to bankruptcy, technical failure, or a combination of the two. And while the platform’s future is uncertain, its current plight is an extreme version of one of the internet’s enduring qualities: Everything is constantly changing. We are nomadic in our platform usage, moving from one platform to the next—often involuntarily. And our ongoing efforts to replace what we’ve left behind are never entirely successful. Whether we cobble together a post-Twitter existence across a series of Mastodon and Discord servers or migrate our earnest professional posting to LinkedIn, no combination will fully replace Twitter (even if we’re better off as a result).
If a longtime internet user compares their current online behavior with that going back a decade—or even a few years—significant differences will be apparent, as this animation demonstrates. New platforms are constantly emerging as others die out. TikTok only debuted in 2016, while Myspace had entered its final death spiral by 2011. Tumblr sputtered out in the mid-2010s due to a series of ownership transfers (before rising again as a symbolic relic of a bygone internet). Some platforms simply become obsolete, usurped by superior alternatives, undermined by broader technological trends like the rise of mobile, or duplicated by a competitor. And then there are platforms like Clubhouse, which enjoyed a burst of explosive popularity before fizzling out. At the individual level, we age out of certain platforms and into others or simply exhaust their possibilities and lose interest.
A few platforms, however, have remained vital for almost the entirety of the social media era: LinkedIn (launched in 2003), Facebook/Meta (2004), YouTube (2005), and Twitter (2006). Now Twitter’s relative stability is suddenly threatened. A full shutdown still seems improbable—Twitter will most likely stagger forward in some recognizable form. But for those who prove to be serious about quitting Twitter, the age-old question remains: Where to go next? Or rather, how does one reassemble all of Twitter’s benefits outside of Twitter and potentially across an array of apps and platforms? What were Twitter’s essential features, and where else can they be found? Nearly a million users are estimated to have left Twitter in the first week after Elon Musk took over, so that’s a question lots of people are already asking (of course, many will just end up returning to Twitter, assuming it still exists).
Max Read recently imagined the aftermath of a scenario in which Musk paywalls all of Twitter and irreparably degrades the platform: “Tech workers decamp to LinkedIn and Hacker News; academics set up a series of semi-functional Mastodon instances … underemployed TV writers start overlapping, poorly produced political podcasts; sports fans go back to talk radio, message boards, and maybe Twitch streams.”
Read’s list highlights the incompleteness of any single replacement for Twitter. Many options, such as message boards and talk radio, even predate Twitter, implying a regression to the past. Mastodon—a federated network of self-hosted social network services with features similar to Twitter’s—has emerged as the closest direct replacement, but it lacks the same cultural centrality and will probably not attain it anytime soon. Twitter’s greatest strength, arguably, is its perceived status as a digital public square: Everyone important seems to gather at once, and consequential things happen there. Mastodon is unlikely to replicate that.
It’s tempting to believe that the market will quickly furnish adequate replacements for tech products that decline or die out, but it’s difficult to recreate the specific bundle of features, users, and content that a major platform like Twitter offers. Google’s infamous discontinuation of Google Reader in 2013 exemplified this: Other solutions, like RSS, could do what Reader did, but they were not seamlessly integrated into Google’s platform, which was a major source of Reader’s usefulness. Nearly a decade later, people still mourn Google Reader, suggesting that no true replacement was ever created.
The essay’s strength lies in its bold, bullish copulative sentences that use “is” like an equal sign and land with absolute certainty. “The future of integrated electronics is the future of electronics itself.” Blammo. Some of the prose then sounds like a patriotic newsreel (“No American can have freedom and justice unless there is freedom and justice for all!!”) or like Johnson himself bucking up geopolitical spirits. In the very month that “Cramming” appeared, LBJ declared of Vietnam, “The only path of reasonable men is the path of peaceful settlement.”
Then there is the essay’s central claim: “With unit cost falling as the number of components per circuit rises, by 1975 economics may dictate squeezing as many as 65,000 components on a single silicon chip.” In spite of the hedge (“may dictate”), the negative slope—in which the two variables, unit cost and number of components, are inversely related—has a rousing momentum to it.
Elsewhere in the essay, Moore projects the exaggerated certitude of a pitch deck—or maybe a graduate student who’s trying to assure her doctoral supervisor that her research is coming along great. “Several approaches evolved,” Moore wrote, “including microassembly techniques for individual components, thin film structures and semiconductor integrated circuits. Each approach evolved rapidly and converged … Many researchers believe the way of the future to be a combination of the various approaches.” The profound appreciation of intellectual collaboration and convergence, which still rings through the semiconductor sector today, cannot have helped but leaven the mood of American scientists in the pre-moonwalk days, when the Soviets appeared to be winning the Space Race.
At 1,875 words, “Cramming” is concise, as befits a polemic on compression. And then there’s that word cramming, from the Old English crammian, “to press something into something else.” So palpable, greedy, and carnal. It’s not when we’re in the mood for measurement but when we’re feeling recklessly indifferent to proportion and harmony that we cram things into our suitcases, our shoes, and our mouths. While the essay is in the slide-rule idiom of engineers, it also speaks to the gut. It’s a goad to biennial home-optimizing that recommends balling up more of your shit, stuffing it into an overfull closet. This is a useful reminder that even at the scale of microns—and now nanos—scientists are still beholden to the constraints of physical space, at least until the path of all reasonable men becomes the path of quantum.
And quantum is the point. As a field of inquiry, quantum—or AI, or the metaverse—might not be so driven by the rhythm of Moore’s law. If you need another reason to read “Cramming,” consider this: Its diktat might be coming to an end.
“Moore’s law is dead,” pronounced Jensen Huang, cofounder and CEO of Nvidia, in September, a few weeks before his company released its $1,600 RTX 4090 graphics card for gamers.
For technologists like Huang who have their sights set on the wonders of GPUs, the imperative to shrink transistors and reduce costs has given way to an ambition to conduct quantum experiments and increase performance in the metaverse without regard to size or price.
What’s keeping midwives from making a larger dent in the fight against climate change? To start with, there are not enough of them. The United Nations reports that there’s a shortage of around 900,000 midwives worldwide. This shortage extends to the US, which has worse maternal mortality rates compared to other high-income countries where midwives have a central role in care.
In the US especially, multiple insurance-related hurdles stand between patients wanting to work with a midwife or doula and getting to do so. “What’s worrisome from an equity standpoint is that Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people often live in states where there are more barriers to access the midwife,” says Saraswathi Vedam, the lead investigator at the Birth Place Lab and professor of midwifery at the University of British Columbia. Vedam’s research demonstrates that integrating midwives into the American health care system positively influences equity and health outcomes.
There’s a throughline between these barriers to midwife access and the racist campaign to undermine midwifery in favor of the medicalization of childbirth and the rise of white male obstetricians and gynecologists. In the early 1900s, these doctors targeted midwives, who were often Black, by criminalizing and discrediting their work. One prominent early obstetrician, Joseph DeLee, called midwives a “relic of barbarism.” This history underlies why many Americans at worst, think of midwifery as unsafe or don’t think about it at all. “I’ve been a midwife for 37 years, and it’s still amazing to me how little the average person knows about professional midwifery and what it can offer,” says Vedam.
Connecting patients to the birth workers who can provide climate-focused care—to the people who will ask their patients whether they have air conditioning, whether they have a plan if their home floods, and whether they know how to apply for an electricity stipend—requires dismantling the stigmas that underlie and hinder structural barriers.
Supporting the workforce itself is also key: Wheeler and her colleagues at the National Birth Equity Collaborative are currently asking midwives, doulas, and other maternal care workers about what they already do to address climate impacts and what more they would like to do. The idea is that these results can help develop collaborative training between birth workers and other professionals, like epidemiologists and climate scientists. She views the work as solidarity building, observing that “the climate crisis is teaching us we need to be intersectional in how we approach health.” This type of collaboration has happened before, though through piecemeal efforts. For example, in 2018, researchers hosted a training on heat exposure and maternal health in the community room of an El Paso, Texas, birth center. After the pilot project, the attending doulas and midwives reported that they spoke more often with their clients about heat risks.
But there is room to grow. Davies also thinks there’s a need to make “sustainability literacy a core component in every midwifery curriculum”—a codification that goes beyond midwifery’s deep-rooted connection to sustainability. Her point, and her work on the subject, have already influenced midwifery in her country, New Zealand. Alison Eddy, chief executive of the New Zealand College of Midwives, says Davies’ midwifery and sustainability research was a catalyst for the profession, inspiring them to seriously consider how to serve as a climate solution.
There is a responsibility to “educate and lead midwives to become climate change champions in their work, to think and act critically in how they use resources in their practice, and to consider their role in advocacy to hold governments, hospitals, and politicians to account,” says Eddy. She’s put this belief into practice: The College has advocated for the recognition of the special needs of pregnant people and infants in New Zealand’s Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill.
In the US, there is some movement toward investing in midwives because of their connection to improved health outcomes: In June, the Biden administration released a “blueprint” for addressing the maternal health crisis that included a promise to work with states to expand access to doulas and midwives. With women particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, there needs to be a similar effort that reflects their connection to climate-related care.
So much talk about the climate crisis concerns what we need to give up. But midwife-expanded care is a rare example of something we can gain.
There is a wholly self-contained ecosystem of far-right influencers and followers on Twitter and Facebook. We know the ecosystem spreads disinformation and prejudice, but less thought is given to how it creates phantom movements—where a few motivated obsessives can make a cause appear far more popular than it really is. Time and again, research has demonstrated how easy it is to fashion these information silos and how few accounts are really required to make such an impact.
The downstream effects here are dangerous, especially when it comes to licensing the extremism of the Extremely Online. Prior to the election, notionally serious political commentators like Matthew Yglesias suggested that the Democratic Party should cater to those with “qualms” about trans rights, as he believed the issue was bound to cost the Dems crucial votes. But come Election Day, no red tsunami of anti-trans backlash materialized. The belief of men like Yglesias in this silent majority that would vote decisively on the issue is fueled by online discourse that dramatically overemphasizes it. The far-right Twitter bubble, in all its recursive fury, is partly to blame. But the extremist views also leak into mainstream sources.
Just this week, The New York Times published yet another story raising “concerns” about the puberty blockers taken by trans children. Christina Jewett, one of the two reporters with a byline on the article, was quickly revealed by LGBTQ legislative researcher Erin Reed to be following a number of major anti-trans influencers on Twitter. While it’s not unusual for reporters to follow a range of voices, it’s notable that she focused on this minority fringe while following virtually no transgender people or groups that would’ve been far more relevant to an article of such broad scope. Anti-trans extremists returned the favor by promoting and complimenting the article.
The feedback loop between loud influencers and mainstream journalists/pundits has worrisome implications. Even if the Republican Party’s ruthless attempt to weaponize trans people turned off most voters, it still created and sustained a climate of prejudice. The shattering depression caused by the steady drumbeat of demoralizing discourse debating your very right to exist is not to be underestimated. And the laws that have been passed off the back of this moral panic are affecting real people in material ways. In this way, a small minority of bigots in an echo chamber have actually managed to shape public policy and hurt innocent people.
The tight networks of anti-trans extremists we see on Twitter conspire to manufacture consent in a uniquely 21st-century way. On the cheap, no less. When they gather in person, the paucity of their numbers is plain as day. Online, they’re better able to shadowbox well above their weight class by swarming individual targets. What results is the illusion of a crowd. After all, if you’re an individual trans person being harassed by 10 or 20 different accounts spewing transphobic bile at you, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed. But even if all those accounts were authentic (hardly a guarantee), they’d look far more pathetic if they were arrayed in person at a protest.
The trick here is to convince people that these online trolls are the tip of a larger ideological iceberg, giving voice to a silent majority of citizens for whom the genital inspection of children is their top priority in a year of war, plague, and an enduring cost-of-living crisis. And the all-important second half of this pas de deux is the laundering of excruciatingly self-referential Twitter discourse amongst this pantomiming minority in mainstream outlets desperate for what media critic Jack Shafer memorably called “bogus-trend stories.”
Mercifully, we’ve all been treated to an explosive example of how badly mismatched perception and reality are here. A political environment tailor-made for Republican success at every level of government has led, instead, to one embarrassing defeat after another because their candidates were trying to win on MAGA Twitter rather than at the kitchen tables of every family not hopelessly addicted to the platform and its many sad imitators.
There’s something bleakly poetic about the fact that the Republican Party’s embrace of Twitter is slowly suffocating it; after all, they deserve each other.
Updated 11/17/2022 5:10 am ET: This story has been updated to reflect the contribution of Erin Reed.