Technology is meant to make our lives easier and presumably more enjoyable. It’s not just things like smartphones and GPS. For instance, advances in machinery and ag sciences have made it easier and quicker for farmers to plant, grow and harvest foods. We can feed more people more efficiently than ever.
But what happens when foods themselves become technologized? That’s the stuff of a fascinating New York Times article we recently ran across – an approach to food that goes beyond conventional concerns like climates, temperatures, growing periods; beyond traditional crossbreeding and even non-traditional GMOs.
In short, writes Times contributor Kate Murphy, it’s the quest for “more efficient, algorithmically derived food. Call it Food 2.0.”
A handful of high-tech start-ups are out to revolutionize the food system by engineering “meat” and “eggs” from pulverized plant compounds or cultured snippets of animal tissue. One company imagines doing away with grocery shopping, cooking and even chewing, with a liquid meal made from algae byproducts.
That’s a far cry from your typical veggie burger.
Such protein substitutes are where most of the action seems to be, due to rising demand and the need to find more sustainable ways of providing it. (Reducing consumption doesn’t appear to be an option in the world of Food 2.0.)
Instead of the go-to ingredients previously used in animal protein substitutes — soy, wheat gluten, vegetable starches—Food 2.0 companies are using computer algorithms to analyze hundreds of thousands of plant species to find out what compounds can be stripped out and recombined to create what they say are more delicious and sustainable sources of protein.
But can scientists really build better food than what the Earth and its farmers can grow?
The human body is evolved to use food in its natural form. No one quite knows how it will actually respond to Food 2.0. As with GMOs, the public is turned into a mass of human guinea pigs – and we’ve already got some clue that GMOs are hardly the body’s ideal food, let alone healthy for the environment. (In fact, they are the opposite of sustainable.)
As the Institute for Responsible Technology notes,
The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) urges doctors to prescribe non-GMO diets for all patients. They cite animal studies showing organ damage, gastrointestinal and immune system disorders, accelerated aging, and infertility. Human studies show how genetically modified (GM) food can leave material behind inside us, possibly causing long-term problems. Genes inserted into GM soy, for example, can transfer into the DNA of bacteria living inside us, and that the toxic insecticide produced by GM corn was found in the blood of pregnant women and their unborn fetuses.
So why not stick with what we know works: a balanced diet based on whole, organic foods, including lots of fresh vegetables and minimal added sugars?
Besides, it’s about more than just giving ourselves the foods we were designed to eat. For food is about more than mere nourishment.
Food is thoroughly ingrained in our cultures, religions, relationships and identities. Of course Grandma’s turkey and homemade stuffing are delicious, but Thanksgiving is more than that. It’s a time for family and friends to reconnect. We celebrate birthdays and weddings with cake. When a loved one passes away, we reminisce over a potluck meal. We take a date to a fancy restaurant. We bond with our family over shared recipes and traditional foods.
“The shared meal,” writes Michael Pollan, “is no small thing.”
It is a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization: sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating difference, arguing without offending.
Only time can tell if Food 2.0 is able to bring people together, in similar ways, but we have a hard time imagining a pleasant gathering where the conversation goes, “How’s your liquid steak?” or reconnecting with an old friend over a pill containing protein.
Image by Christopher Peplin