Our relationship with food is changing fast. As new technologies and ethical considerations take hold, it’s becoming rich territory for speculative fiction.
I wrote about food a couple of times last year – one an article about how food isn’t explored much in sci-fi and the other a flash story about the effect of changing diets. Only a few months later, the news has leapt ahead from my ideas.
A couple of weeks ago, Finnish scientists announced that they had found a way to make protein out of air. It involves soil bacteria and splitting water, and the end result is a tasteless, textureless powder with all the culinary appeal of sawdust, but still, if it works then this is huge.
If you’re going to pick out a single nutrient to synthesise, then protein is surely the most important. It’s what our bodies use to build, grow, and repair themselves. In the absence of fat and carbohydrates, it provides a source of energy. It’s why meat, fish, and dairy are so valuable in a diet, and why you have to be careful to get a good balance of simpler proteins if you go vegan.
Traditional protein is also relatively land- and resource-intensive to produce. Feeding an animal up to provide meat, eggs, or milk takes a lot more space, energy, and resources than growing vegetables or grain.
As the middle class grows around the world, wealthier people seek out more protein in their diets, and those who’ve got it aren’t giving it up. Some in the west are moving over to plant protein to reduce their environmental impact, but the pressure farming puts on the ecosystem is still huge.
That’s why George Monbiot, one of Britain’s most famous commentators on green issues, thinks that the Finnish technology could save the environment. Even if it’s not all that tasty, protein flour could provide millions of people with nutrients they need and that many lack. And because it takes far less space and energy, it could be a blessing for the environment, especially if it’s powered by solar energy. Just imagine vast vats on the edges of the Sahara, turning sunlight into precious food.
Compared with what I was writing about in No More Milk, this is a radical change, both in its practical potential and in its aesthetics. Protein flour grown in bacterial vats is some real sci-fi weirdness by current food standards, far more so than just eating beetles. The transformation this could bring is staggering, and it lends itself to some weird people, places, and events, from obsessive bacteriologists to vast food-processing vats to new organisms growing from the food sludge. The possibility that this might take off makes some previously wild speculation seem more real and will encourage sci-fi writers to move away from food as we know it.
The future of food is vital to society. Now it could be dramatic too.