From synthetic steak to swede: back to the future

Summary

The menu of the future: pills, plankton, nitrogen bars and more. Will these rather unappetizing premonitions that, in some cases, date back to the early 20th century actually come to pass some day?

15Août.
0

 “In 2000, there will be neither agriculture nor priests nor workers in the world: cultivating the land will have been replaced by chemistry. … The day will come when we will each carry with us a nitrogen bar, a slab of fat, a piece of starch or sugar and a flask of aromatic spices for our nourishment, all of which will have been produced economically by our factories, in unlimited quantities.”[1] (at the bottom of the article) Yum… These are not the words of a science fiction novel, but rather those of an eminent chemist, Marcelin Berthelot, a member of the Academy of Sciences, Professor at the Collège de France and Minister of Public Instruction. The year was 1894, and this was only the beginning. Preceded, or followed, by science fiction literature, science has made countless attempts to free the human food supply from harsh fluctuations in the climate, harvests and pathologies that threaten food security.  

Food future

- Molecular Gastronomy. Photo from: www.kitchen-theory.com -

During the 1960s, laboratories began to work on the production of single cell “petro-proteins” made from oil and whose nutritional qualities could “make up the current global deficit in animal proteins for human nourishment, in a short period of time and at a competitive price”, as the introduction to a report published in 1963 by researchers at BP told us. The energy crisis would however dampen this enthusiasm. Today labs are attempting to perfect synthetic meat that could satisfy global needs without having to engage in livestock farming with its resulting pollution and high levels of cereal consumption. The “cultivation” of steak, which is based on the same principles as the cultivation of cells in the field of biomedicine, could become a reality within the next ten years, say researchers at Eindhoven University (Netherlands). In 2010, they successfully produced synthetic meat with the thickness of carpaccio. That rib-eye steak is still a long way off…  

 

Might the meal of the future in fact be the meal of the past?  

 

At this turn of the 21st century, humanity is not yet feeding itself with plankton, carbon or nitrogen. Sometimes science fiction inspires scientific innovation, but other times it is completely off the mark.

Despite the metamorphoses we have seen in our plates, the dinner table remains an area of conviviality and sensoriality, which makes the theory of the food pill an unlikely one,

reflects Pascal Lardellier, author of Opéra bouffe : une anthropologie gourmande de nos modes alimentaires, which focuses on the meal table as a sign of future trends. Eating is fun, even after the year 2000. Yet contradictory paths come face to face in our plates (as Westerners, we should say). “Food has never been so globalized and, at the same time, we strive for local products. The development of CSA [Editor’s Note: Community Supported Agriculture], for example, is one form of anti-globalization counter culture”. At a time when food production has never been so industrialized, we are seeing a return to traditional, local products, to the vegetables of yesteryear, swede and other roots, and to “homemade” goods. Against a backdrop of GMOs and pesticides, the popularity of organic foods is a continuation of this movement. Between the questioning of standardized food and the pursuit of the food quality we have lost, will the meal of the future turn out to be a revisited version of meals of the past? “The agro-industrial model will continue to dominate”, reckons Pascal Lardellier,

but we are seeing improvements by industrialists, driven by consumers turning toward quality alternative models.

A new and improved version of grandmother’s cooking. Research on the production of healthy food that can offset any form of deficiency by means of vitamins and micro-nutrients represents, in his view, another major trend.

 

Organic food: high technology

 

Marcelin Berthelot was right on one point: the disappearance of priests and farmers in France has been tangible. There are now, respectively, only some 14,000 (compared with 37,000 in 1970) and one million (versus 1.7 million in 1986) left in the country. He was nonetheless wrong in his idea that we could survive without agriculture, relying on chemical reactions to attain the laudable goal of feeding the planet with healthy food. The 20th century was the scene of a green revolution in the fields, based on the genetic selection of species and the artificialization of ecosystems through inputs, irrigation and the expansion of farm areas. A divide is now beginning to emerge. Will the agriculture of the future continue along the same path or will it do an about face, returning to more traditional processes? Agronomist Marc Dufumier steps in to set us straight. “Make no mistake. Organic products rely on advanced technologies used to control the nitrogen, water and carbon cycles and more, technologies that are capable of accommodating the complexity of our ecosystems. Hormones in milk, dioxin in chicken, the aphids proliferating in the fields because of the decimation of ladybirds, in short all those problems facing agriculture today, are the result of an extreme simplification of our ecosystems. I cannot see any form of real technological control of living things in all this.” In Marc Dufumier’s eyes, high-tech ecological agriculture that fosters environmental and food biodiversity is the new path we must now explore, rather than an anti-progressive attachment to the past, even if this fuels the imagination less than the ideas of synthetic meat, square tomatoes and food pills.

All this futurology exhibits a sense of dread of a dehumanized world while, at the same time, there is a sort of Faustian fantasy of achieving the perfect food, which will feed the entire planet and give us eternal youth,

concludes Pascal Lardellier. We still have a long way to go.


[1] Cited by Pierre Feillet in his book La nourriture des Français, de la maîtrise du feu… aux années 2030, which explores the future of food.

(Picture Copyright 2013 The New York Times Company – © Lou Beach)