Dinner’s in the lab, dear
Whether you know it or not, cow farts are a big problem. According to latest estimations, they produce at least 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. That means, for every 10 breaths we take, two of them are full of bovine bottom pops*. That can’t be good. And that’s just one of the food supply issues we face as the population of the world continues to expand. As a writer imagining what a future world might look like, I have to think about what we might like to eat, and what will be available. It’s worth considering that the food we enjoy today – our organic, GM-free, locally grown, ethnically sound produce – is probably not anything much like our grandchildren’s grandchildren are likely to serve up.
Why would this be the case though? Despite the best efforts of Gordon Ramsay, Nigella Lawson et al to truss it up in order to sell books and make them millions, food and drink have looked pretty much the same since fire was invented and someone left some grapes sitting around in an oak barrel for a bit longer than intended. (An exception to this would be chicken nuggets. I’m pretty sure no ancient greek in their right mind would believe that anything involving neon pink slime being churned, moulded, breadcrumbed, pre-frozen and deep fried could possibly be related to a chicken). But the bottom line is that population growth and strain on our planet’s natural resources mean we could be facing food supply/demand problems by mid-century, when it is estimated there will be around nine billion mouths to feed. It’s time for a change.
Progress to create coping mechanisms is predictably slow, although there are signs we may be moving forward. This week, Mark Post of Maastricht University announced the creation of the first stem cell burger. Costing $300,000 and described, if I may summarise, as ‘meh’ by the two lucky tasters, it’s not going to give McDonald’s a run for their money any time soon. The lack of fat (and for one fussy food author, the omission of onions, ketchup and bacon), meant the disc of prime cultured cow muscle showed definite room for improvement in taste, although the texture seemed to meet with vague approval. It’s safe to say it will be a long time before Mum goes for Iceland for these particular BBQ delights. The creator of the patty predicts that his product is 10-20 years away from our supermarket shelves.
Interesting to me though, was time time and effort that the scientists had spent creating the right aesthetics. Five years of research have gone into the making of the burger that was described rather unenthusiastically as ‘like an animal protein cake’. (their marketing campaign still needs a little work). But part of the considerations in producing the finished product was to take the insipid looking stem cell culture and turn it into something that actually resembled minced beef.
‘Why bother?’ was my instinctive reaction. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, surely, only what it tastes like. But, culturally, psychologically, we tend to like our food to look good. Even the local pub throws a garnish and a slice of lemon on a plate to dress it up a little. We all love a nice bit of food porn in our Sunday supplements. Top chefs spend hours creating dishes that don’t just tantalise our taste buds, but that arrive poised on our plates like edible sculptures.
So it stands to reason that if we’re not all slapping a patch on and drinking three glasses of vertically-farmed algae sludge per day, maybe, in a hundred years or so, we will see the emergence of a new type of chef slaving away on our built in kitchen worktop holo-screens. The guy that gets to show us how to ‘colour in’ our manufactured meat, grind our nutritionally-sound insect pasta sauce into a suitable texture, and figure a way to make mopane worms and quinoa look more attractive than bangers and mash. An artist who will help us believe the food we put into our mouths is a little less synthesised and a little more ‘real’. An illusionist, a painter, a designer – and preferably more talented than the guy who invented the pink chicken nugget sludge. Because that’s fooling no one.
*Actually it’s slightly worse in New Zealand and slightly better in the USA, but you get the idea.