Build Me A Meal

6 Jan

Food_synthesizerHuman civilization is not even close to a Star-Trek universe where food magically appears in a microwave-oven-like chamber just by inputting a card, or even by voice recognition. Writers dreamed of “protein resequencers”, “food synthesizers”, and “food replicators”, but scientists cannot realize that vision as of now. They need to, quickly, and in a way that doesn’t cause humans to treat the machines like the original backscatter scanners at airports, or nuclear power plants. Earth just cannot sustain the biomass needed to feed an entire global population that until now is already undernourished and starving. It begins with the unpalatable and the derisive.

The future feast is laid out around a cool white room at Eindhoven’s University of Technology . There is a steak tartare of in-vitro beef fibre, wittily knitted into the word “meat”. There are “fruit-meat” amuse-gueules. The green- and pink-striped sushi comes from a genetically modified vegetarian fish called the biccio that, usefully, has green- and pink-striped flesh. To wash this down, there’s a programmable red wine: with a microwave pulse you can turn it into anything from Montepulciano to a Syrah. For the kids, there are sweet fried crickets, programmable colas and “magic meatballs”. These are made from animal-friendly artificial meat grown from stem cells: packed with Omega 3 and vitamins, they “crackle in your mouth”. Yum.

I can eat anything. I’m one of those gastronomic guinea pigs, even if my guts at the start to middle age are starting to convince me to settle into a simpler diet. But what really turns my stomach is food that is not worth the cost, and food is likely to get very expensive.

Something has to give in our present food culture. It doesn’t seem possible that food can ever be as cheap again as it was circa the year 2000. In Western Europe we now spend between 10% and 15% of household income on food – 60 years ago it was 60%. Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at London’s City University, says cheap food has been unrealistic, because at the moment we don’t actually pay its real price: “We’ve externalised the costs on to the environment, far-off places and cheap labour throughout food chains.”

Population growth alone is going to push up the price of grain; the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation reckons the planet will need to produce 40% more by 2050, while climate change is already affecting the great bread-baskets of the world. Lang has told the UK government that the oil-dependent food culture is over and that trading bio-diversity for food justice “will lead to Armageddon”. When the future food arrives, most of us won’t have any choice about what we eat.

It’s Mad Max at the Buffet. But, like oil or water, it’s possible that dire need can compel humans to cooperate, to innovate. Or, more likely, groups will both compete and cooperate, and human society will adapt. The dreamworld we now live in will destroy itself, but we will still be human – even if we never eat an apple again.

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