Thinking about Next Nature can sometimes result in a feeling of vertigo. Normal standards are eroded and slowly replaced by next natural ones. A bewildering example can be found in a letter the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent to a manufacturer of walnuts.
“Based on claims made on your firm’s website, we have determined that your walnut products are promoted for conditions that cause them to be drugs because these products are intended for use in the prevention, mitigation, and treatment of disease. The following are examples of the claaims made on your firm’s website under the heading of a web page stating “OMEGA-3s … Every time you munch a few walnuts, you’re doing your body a big favor.”
Every time we eat a piece of food, we take a bite out of the world. All these small bites tell a dozen stories. A carton of eggs presents the story of contented hens, a bottle of olive oil the tale of Italian grandmothers. Yet these pastoral scenes barely hide the realities of a food system that leaves one billion people starving and another billion overweight. Moving beyond food-based fictions, how should we react to the truth?
By Maartje Somers
It happened in a trendy restaurant. A breadbasket and a small bowl of olives had just been brought to the table. Our hands reached out to take some, when the waitress stopped us. “Wait,” she interrupted, “I have to explain the bread.” Explain the bread? Yes, that one variety of bread had been baked with hard durum wheat from a village just south of Tuscany, the other one came from a bakery slightly north of Amsterdam. The olives were kalamata olives, imported from Thessaloniki, and olivas violadas (olives ‘raped’ by an almond) from Basque Country in Spain. It took the waitress about five minutes to finish her lecture. Then, finally we could dig in.
All our food comes with a story to tell, and usually it is the story we want to hear. In the supermarket the story is about the price of the food, in a restaurant it is about the taste and the origin.
These days all our food comes with a story to tell. Usually it is the story we want to hear. In the supermarket the story is about the price of food, in a restaurant or delicatessen it is about taste and origin. Very often stories about food focus on authenticity. That is the way food would like to be – authentic and natural – like in the old days when people harvested their own crops. And this is exactly what we want to believe. The jam in my fridge has ‘a natural taste’ and the milk is ‘pure and honest.’ Eat colour, it says on the posters in the street, displaying juicy red peppers. And these shiny vegetables almost jump from the page in the cookbooks by Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson, bestsellers the world over. But at the same time we are buying more and more ready-made meals.
Industrial-scale in vitro meat may be a long way off, but for meat-lovers looking for a cheap, eco-friendly source of protein, there’s no need to wait. We just have to swear off creatures with four legs and a backbone and look to tasty livestock with an exoskeleton and six, eight, or a hundred legs.
Bugs Originals, based near Amsterdam, is trying to introduce arthropods as the food of the future. Originally associated with primitive lifestyles or times of famine, entomophagy- the eating of insects- may be an ideal solution for growing world with an appetite for protein. Crickets are five times as efficient as cattle when it comes to turning feed into edible mass, while mealworms produce 10 to 100 times less greenhouse gases as pigs.
Bugs Originals has already produced nuggets, muesli and meatballs infused with mealworms. The company’s only barrier to mainstream entry is figuring out how to produce purified bug protein, since the bug’s innards are proving difficult to separate from their inedible exoskeletons. They have had some success grinding up the live insects and centrifuging the resulting mixture. It might sound icky, but meat slurry and grinding live animals are already accepted practices in the production of “conventional” meat. Call me species-ist, but I’d eat a cricket over a chicken any day.
The American Chemical Society has announced a new method of producing gelatin that sounds like good news for cannibals and the canni-curious. Researchers are able to create human-derived gelatin by inserting human genes for gelatin production into a strain of yeast. This new method would produce hypoallergenic, standard-sized molecules, two traits especially important for medical applications. Since the traditional method of producing gelatin from animal sources can very from batch to batch, provoke immune responses, and potentially carry diseases like Mad Cow, human gelatin is a step up in quality. We’ll admit that the human-yeast hybrid doesn’t really fall under any definition of actual cannibalism. But with the advent of lab-grown meat, there’s now less to stand in the way of adventurous eaters who want to create a real-life version of HuFu.
What do you think of lab-grown meat? “Yuck” might be your first reaction. One day, however, it could become the environmentally friendly alternative for breeding cows and pigs for meat consumption. Professor Mark Post argues in his talk at TEDxBrainport that it is relatively simple to take stem cells from an animal and grow them to produce new muscle tissue. Simply add sugar, proteins and fat and get it into shape with a bit of exercise to created edible meat. The only problem then is to find a new role for our livestock…
Growing meat in the lab, rather than slaughtering animals, could become a viable alternative for people who want to cut the environmental impact of their food consumption, but cannot bear a vegetarian lifestyle.
According to scientists from Oxford University and Amsterdam University, lab-grown meat could help feed the world, while reducing the impact on the environment. It would generate only a tiny fraction of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with conventional livestock production.
The procedure of growing meat without an animal would require between 7% and 45% less energy than the same volume of conventionally produced meat such as pork, beef, or lamb. The meat labs would use only 1% of the land and 4% of the water associated with conventional meat and Greenhouse gases would be reduced by up to 96% in comparison to raising animals.
The scientists predict that if more resources are directed towards their research, the first lab-grown burger could be available in five years. It is their plan to start with mincemeat, while hoping to be able to produce steaks in ten years time.
Presumably the only place on Earth where burkas & protein supplements coincide in jolly harmony. Peculiar image of the week. Photo by me.
The Belgian Blue is a unique cattle breed that was developed quite accidentally in the late 1800s. An chance mutation lead the cattle to develop ‘double muscling,’ which occurs when the body does not produce sufficient myostatin to regulate the growth of muscles. These body-builder animals typically have 40% more muscle mass than the typical cow or bull. Double muscling is an extremely rare occurrence. Outside of carefully selected breeds like the Belgian Blue or the Texel sheep, it has occurred only a handful of other times in animals like dogs and humans.
Animal rights activists contend that the breed is inherently cruel. Calves are usually delivered by cesarean section, as they are too large to be born naturally. Due to its massive size, the breed suffers from heart and joint problems, and can have difficulty even moving around. Both Denmark and Sweden have both attempted to ban Belgian Blues on grounds of cruelty. From turkeys that can only reproduce via artificial insemination and bulldogs that must be born by c-section, we’ve created a catalogue of organisms that could never survive outside of the human environment. Think of it as triumph of co-dependence.
The appliance company Bosch claims that its new technology keeps food so fresh that meat from the Ice Age (and presumably the Cretaceous as well) can be stored without incident for millennia. From a next nature perspective, we’re less interested in refrigerator advertisements than where we can find a freshly cloned deinonychus ’wing.’ If we doused it in enough spicy barbeque sauce, it might even taste like chicken. Peculiar image of the week.
The third principle of humane technology: It should take human values as a cornerstone of its development.
Technology doesn’t have to be expensive or electronic to be humane. Think of it as the Occam’s Razor of humane technology. The simpler the solution, the better the outcome. For instance, the Hippo Water Roller makes it significantly easier for poor, rural communities to haul water from a lake or river back to their homes. Rolling water, rather than carrying it, reduces stress on the body and frees up time for other tasks. Taking human values into consideration for technology goes beyond basic humanitarian aims. The development of humane tech should consider the fact that any new device will be nested within a rich network of social actors. Designers needs to keep an eye on the societal and environmental ramifications of novel technologies and act accordingly.
See also the LifeStraw, Adaptive Eyewear and the dubiously world-changing One Laptop Per Child. These might not be the most Next Nature-esque technologies we’re featured here, but they’re certainly worth a ponder.
Nada: ‘Did you like it?’
Manko: ‘I have to admit that if this is the starter, I’m not sure I’ll survive the main course.’
Everyone at the table laughed.
Manko: ‘Let me ask you, how is this considered dinner? I did not eat anything.’
Bessy: ‘That’s a good question. We do not really need to feed ourselves anymore. In fact, the soup you ate contained more than enough energy and body-repairing particles to keep you up and running for the next week.’
Now Manko understood why he had felt so energetic after the soup.
Our food production is much more technological than we typically realize. My appologies for disturbing your trance; I realize that sometimes you’d rather linger in the illusion. At least, next time when you’re having a salad in a hotel, you don’t have to wonder where the edges of the egg went. Peculiar image of the week.
Scientists in China have created transgenic cows that produce ‘human’ milk. The researchers boosted the fat content of the milk and added three types of proteins, unique to humans, that help to bolster the immune systems of infants. Due to hit shelves in ten year’s time, the genetically modified milk would help infants whose mothers cannot or chose not to nurse – and would perhaps put predatory formula companies out of business. As for the taste? According to the lead researcher, it’s “stronger than normal milk.”
Manko blinked. Then blinked again, and again and again. While he did, he went through various layers at once and he was dazzled and amazed, his jaw dropped at all that he saw. He started blinking faster and faster. It didn’t take a long time before he started getting dizzy.
Nada: ‘You better stop blinking, or pretty soon you’ll be throwing up. Bokor, please help him.’
As he blinked, Manko saw all kinds of layers pop out of Bokor’s head. Bokor smiled.
Bokor: ‘Close your eyes. Relax. Do not open your eyes until you feel you are ready for your maiden voyage. It will take patience and skill to navigate these layers properly. Start by exploring them one at a time and enjoy the discovery. It is a magical feeling that you can only experience once in your life. After a while it will just become part of your routine. It will become part of you, part of your nature. Now, when you open your eyes, blink fast three times and slow one time.’
Columbia professor Dickson Despommier imagines filling New Yorks skyscrapers with farms. As over 50% of the world population now lives in urban areas, this scenario could solve distribution problems and reconnect people with their food. Unsure if the pig skyscraper is also incorporated in the plan.
For most of us, obtaining food is easy. We go to the grocery store, where fruits are labeled and meats arranged by species. We go to a restaurant, sit, and wait for our food to be delivered to us. The disparities between the modern, industrialized food system and the savannah ecosystem of our ancestors is stunning – and responsible, of course, for ‘new’ diseases like obesity and diabetes. Yet modern agricultural technology is also responsible for the rise of a new tribe of hunter-gathers: Dumpster divers.
‘Freegans’ operate according to notions of seasonality and safety for food that have long since become non-issues for most of the developed world. Like foraging groups, their food is temporally bound. Fruiting trees and moving herds are replaced with bakeries’ closing times and the days when the corner store dumps its lettuce.
Shopping at the store is low-stress, but for dumpster divers, gathering dinner can be fraught with peril. There might not be lions lurking around the garbage bins, but urban foragers must learn to avoid angry store owners and suspicious cops. Real peril lies not just in spoiled food, but in injuries from actually scrambling into the dumpster. No one wants a puncture wound with their lunch.
Dumpster diving re-privileges ancient senses. Because the grocery store is a sterile zone, the eye has become the primary organ of selection. The eye perceives brands. It picks our the most vibrantly red tomato. For dumpster divers, the nose and fingers are once again put into service as vital organs of the food gathering experience, sniffing to see which meats are past date, prodding apples to find the rotten ones.
The industrialized food system divorces us from nature, but for modern foragers, it brings them closer to the tribe.
Are we creating the penicillin or the asbestos of the 21st century? Prior to the arrival of the Nano Supermarket, we share some speculative nanotech products with you. Here’s the first in the Nano Supermarket Products series: Pharmaceutical Sushi. Taking medicine becomes a social activity. And it tastes pretty good!