241 / The emergence of ‘the global standard diet’

Technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.

– Max Frisch

Featured artist: Alev Neto

Dense Discovery
Dense Discovery

Welcome to Issue 241!

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My media queue served me two excellent and highly insightful audio pieces on the topic of food last week. The first one is a spoken version of an essay on the omnipresence of ultra-processed food, which now accounts for more than half of all the calories eaten in the UK and US. Don’t worry, the essay doesn’t try to make you feel guilty, but rather explains how our food system encourages us to eat increasingly unhealthy food.

The second piece is a recording of an interview with writer and activist George Monbiot about his book Regenesis (see further below). It’s an eye-opening conversation about how we produce food in absurdly unsustainable ways and why food security is an urgent issue that needs radical solutions.

Monbiot compares the state of today’s global food system with the global financial system of 2008. According to his research, there has been an incredible corporate consolidation that massively increased the vulnerability of the system, stating that, for example, just four companies control 90% of the global grain trade.

In recent decades, we’ve witnessed the convergence of ‘the global standard farm’, which led to ‘the global standard diet’. Whereas in the past, almost every region had its own distinct diet, nowadays people in similar socioeconomic groups from different parts of the world share almost the same diet.

“Diets have become globally less diverse, but locally more diverse. There is a lot more to choose from in your local supermarket, but it’s the same range of choices as in the local supermarket 5000 miles away.”

The interview covers fascinating details about soil and how little we actually know about the complex ecosystem that exists under ground. We do know, however, that we’re rapidly destroying soil through overfarming, overfertilising, and the use of pesticides and herbicides.

Livestock agriculture – and specifically pasture-fed (‘free range’) cattle – is by far the biggest cause of soil degradation. Monbiot quotes a study that estimated the potential impacts of all US Americans eating pasture-fed instead of industrially farmed beef:

“They found that you would need to increase the area used for keeping cattle in the United States by 270%. That meant you’d have to fell all the forests, drain all the wetlands, demolish all the cities and you’d still be importing a lot of your beef from Brazil. The only reason some people can eat pasture-fed beef is because other people don’t.”

Monbiot points out that only 1% of human land use is attributable to our cities, industries and infrastructure. Farming occupies 38% of all land on the planet, but of those 38%, only 6% is used to feed people directly. The rest is used by pasture-fed livestock or for crops to feed livestock. He calls this ‘agricultural sprawl’: vast areas of land used to produce small amounts of food.

He’s also sceptical of the ‘eat local’ movement. While local (food) economies are great in theory, there is extreme inequality in the numbers: only around a quarter of the world’s people can be fed within 100 km of where they live. Global food security can not be solved by ‘going local’. He urges people to become ‘food numerate’.

Given that the maths point to a future of extreme food inequality, he believes we should talk more about biotechnology’s potential. Specifically, he sees the idea of microbial, single-cell organisms as a possible way to securing the protein needs of a growing global population and to drastically reduce the impact of livestock.

So, what can we do now? Well, our diet matters – the demand for meat robs our planet of the few remaining wild ecosystems. But more than anything, Monbiot implores us to remember our power as citizens:

“One of the biggest transformations in the past fifty years was to persuade us that we’re consumers, not citizens. To persuade us that our power lies in what we might buy or sell, rather than in the way we act democratically.”Kai


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Apps & Sites

Mathigon →

Interactive maths classes

As a more playful, interactive alternative to classic maths education, Mathigon “is part interactive textbook and part virtual personal tutor. Using cutting-edge technology and an innovative new curriculum, we want to make learning mathematics more active, personalised and fun.”

Mimestream →

Native Gmail macOS app

If you’re on Gmail but don’t enjoy the laggy experience of Apple Mail, Mimestream offers a more zippy upgrade. The app has matured into an official v1 release since I last mentioned it. Developed with Gmail’s API and for Apple’s new silicon, it comes close to being the missing official Gmail app for Mac.

Select Green Hotels →

Sustainable EU hotels

Select Green Hotels is a booking platform for ‘green’ hotel accommodation in Europe. Each hotel has gone through a sustainability assessment based on eight criteria, including community, water, energy, materials and food. Sustainability and travel are, in my view, largely contradictory concepts, so take the idea of ‘sustainable hotels’ with a grain of salt.

Chronotrains →

EU train time heatmaps

Another lovely mapping project visualising the question: ‘Where can you go by train in x hours?’ You can narrow your search from 8 down to 1 hour. As a great example of what high speed train travel enables: my otherwise rather dull German hometown of Saarbrücken has a direct connection to Paris, taking just under 2 hours.


Worthy Five: Andrew J Tagg

Five recommendations by doctor and mental health advocate Andrew J Tagg

A concept worth understanding:

Accepting duality: if you have flaws (and we all have flaws), then it is okay for other people to have flaws too. Nobody is perfect.

A book worth reading:

The Practice of Groundedness by Brad Stulberg is a rallying cry against the practice of heroic individualism – the idea that we are constantly striving for the finishing line that is perfection, even though we will never make it. It has taught me how to damp down the voice in my head that is always urging me to do something, anything, to make my life better.

A piece of advice worth passing on:

My children love to play on their iPads but hate to tidy their room. If we both want to win then I might let them play on their devices only after they have put away their clothes. This is known as the Premack’s Principle: more probable behaviours reinforce less probable ones.

A quote worth repeating:

“Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.” – Annie Lamott in Bird by Bird

An activity worth doing:

Go for a walk in nature every day, if you can. Switching off devices and just being present in the moment makes you realise just how insignificant you (and your problems) are.

(Did you know? Friends of DD can respond to and engage with guest contributors like Andrew J Tagg in one click.)


Books & Accessories

There Are No Accidents →

The surprising history of ‘accidents’

We’re conditioned to see certain mishaps and their negative consequences as ‘accidents’. But as journalist Jessie Singer shows in this book, many such incidents are quite predictable and preventable, and have systemic shortcomings at their root. “Drawing connections between traffic accidents, accidental opioid overdoses, and accidental oil spills, Singer proves that what we call accidents are hardly random. Rather, who lives and dies by an accident in America is defined by money and power.”

Regenesis →

A new future for food and humanity

I talk about the author in my intro: a bold new book on the opportunities to transform not only our food system but our entire relationship to the living world. “Farming is the world’s greatest cause of environmental destruction – and the one we are least prepared to talk about. Drawing on astonishing advances in soil ecology, Monbiot reveals how our changing understanding of the world beneath our feet could allow us to grow more food with less farming.”


Overheard on Mastodon

Please contribute to my gofundme to help me achieve my lifelong dream of people just giving me money.



Food for Thought

George Monbiot’s Regenesis – you won’t think about dinner the same way again →


I learned a lot about food security and the potential of our soil in this hugely insightful interview of the author George Monbiot (his book further up). “‘What would happen if we did what the foodies tell us to do and switched from corn-fed beef, which is bad enough, to pasture-fed beef?’ They found that you would need to increase the area used for keeping cattle in the United States by 270%. That meant you’d have to fell all the forests, drain all the wetlands, demolish all the cities and you’d still be importing a lot of your beef from Brazil. The only reason some people can eat pasture-fed beef is because other people don’t.”

Can we make bicycles sustainable again? →


An in-depth essay about the carbon footprints of bicycles (production & use) and why modern bikes become increasingly unsustainable. To be clear, the author does not suggest we should stop transitioning away from cars to more cycling. However, with (e)bikes booming, it’s worth investigating their environmental impact. “The largest Chinese bike manufacturer, which builds one-fifth of the world’s bicycles, has 42 bicycle assembly lines making 55,000 bicycles a day – almost as much as the US in a year.”

You can’t reach the brain through the ears →


An equally fun and insightful piece with a whole range of theories about why passing on lived experience to others and affecting their decision making is often such a futile exercise. “Unfortunately, when we want to transmit wisdom, words are often all we have. How else can you convince someone that, for example, it’s better to have loved and lost, than never loved at all? An interpretive dance? A sculpture made out of chewing gum? A breakup-themed escape room? If you’re sitting there with a broken heart, what are you going to believe: a string of phonemes, or the ache in your chest?”


Aesthetically Pleasing

Belgium-based Alev Neto (the artist featured in this issue’s header) has a wonderful collection of sleep, coffee and relationship-themed drawings she sells on Etsy. Friends of DD enjoy a 20% discount. Become a Friend to access specials like this.

Wow! What an absolutely stunning transformation of a ruined vernacular agricultural building into a unique country home – with 50% outdoor spaces and micro climates that require no active heating or cooling. The original French project page of Hourré here, and the English translation here.

Artist Darel Carey focuses on optical and spatial perception, often using tape to shape and bend the perceived dimensions of a surface or a space.

The decorative Afronaut was in inspired by vernacular Arabic scripts; futuristic, space travel inspired typography; and unique lettering found in Africa.


Notable Numbers


A new UK study found that road humps and changes in relative road width on 20mph (30 km/h) roads reduced the rate of casualties by 40%.


Under Elon Musk, Twitter has approved 83% of censorship requests by authoritarian governments. In the year prior to Musk taking control, Twitter agreed to 50% of such requests, in line with the compliance rate indicated in the company’s last transparency report (none have been published since October 2022).


The latest instalment of The Legend of Zelda has become the franchise’s fastest selling game. According to Nintendo, the game sold 10 million copies worldwide in the three days after it launched on May 12th.



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The Week in a GIF

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