Feed Me


We all love our grub, it is fundamental. Not surprisingly SF has a take on food but what of food technology in the 'real' world? Tony Chester pauses between mouthfuls.


Science fiction has got so few things so fabulously, thankfully wrong as it has its predictions about our eating habits. By now, the SF of my youth assured me, we would all be eating little pills that provided for all our nutritional needs, either that or varicoloured pastes that represented flavours of traditional foodstuffs. To my shame I can think of little SF that deals directly with food, though I do recall the delightful short story Good Taste (1976) by Isaac Asimov in which an alien society of the future, which consumes food that is entirely synthesised from chemicals, is shocked when a youngster of its species, upon entering a gastronomic contest, prepares a dish that includes garlic! I suppose there is an oblique connection via Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! (1966) to the film Soylent Green (1973), in which the eponymous foodstuff is made from human bodies in response to the global famine caused by overpopulation. And then there's the wonderfully silly Larry Cohen movie, The Stuff (1985), in which a yoghurt-like dessert attempts to take over the world! I suppose we can forget about Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1979), much beloved of SF convention film programmes of the past, unless you think it is an early allegory for GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms)... But for the most part food and drink has tended to stay in the background of SF.

Not that the examples given above are not representative of certain recurring themes - actually they're rather good. Though the whimsical gourmand Asimov was just getting away with (another) awful pun, his story does reflect modern concerns about the amount of chemicals in our diet. Flavourings, preservatives and the omnipresent E-numbers can bring a shudder to many a consumer's spine, and I remember scares from my younger days that had certain products withdrawn from the market - cheesy-flavour Hula Hoops and scare stories about orange pee springs to mind. Cohen's work generally has a serious theme, even if handled in a blackly humorous way, and in the case of the above-mentioned film it was (partly at least) to do with the fact that we are not allowed to know how certain copyrighted foodstuffs are made up, for instance Coca-Cola, the sauce in a Big Mac or the colonel's chicken coating. Even the Federal Food and Drug Administration in the States are denied access to this knowledge, so long as some scientist somewhere has certified that it's not harmful, neatly leaving aside the fact that such scientists are often bought and paid for by the companies that manufacture the item in question. The twin topics of famine and overpopulation are quite ubiquitous in SF, but no more so than, say, people eating rats or whatever in a post-apocalyptic future, but global famine is a concern which will lead us inevitably to consider the idea of GM foods.

I suppose that, for me at least, the most science fictional development of the late 20th century in the area of food preparation is the microwave. Ever since the introduction, way back in the fifties, of the so-called TV dinner we have tried to develop the ultimate labour-saving kitchen device. And it always seemed a standard of cinema and small screen SF (even if only to save screen time) that there was this box in the kitchen that you stuffed a pre-packaged, nutritionally-balanced meal into, pressed a button and, hey presto!, instant food. Certainly the idea that time can be saved is a prevalent one, hence everything from instant Smash (with an SF advert to go with it!) to the truly horrible "Pot" snacks (more chemicals) to the entire concept of the "ready" meal, be it 'lean cuisine' or whatever.

But before you even get so far as to prepare food, you have to buy it, and this area has seen humongous changes. Like many a child I remember being dragged out on Saturdays to 'help' with the shopping. Naturally this included a trip to the supermarket, but also included bakers, butchers and fishmongers, to name but a few. Nowadays many of these have disappeared - in the last place I lived, over the course of 18 years both butchers closed down, only one out of three greengrocers survived, and the remaining baker is under threat due to falling sales. At the same time as these shops were being absorbed into supermarkets, the actual choice of goods increased exponentially. Some items in my youth that would only have been available in specialist outlets, or were purely seasonal in nature, can now be found with no effort all year round. The convenience factor goes without saying, but there are other benefits: I don't know where I picked this idea up from, SF or my own imagination, but I always thought that certain basic items (bread, flour, milk, eggs, shampoo or whatever) would be so ubiquitous that they would always be available cheaply. Now nearly every store has a range of these items; Asda has Smartprice, Somerfield has Basics, Kwik Save has No Frills, Tesco has 'value', and so on. To the poorest consumers these items are a godsend, but the downside comes in the form of the prices being paid to the producers. For instance, nearly every supermarket sells milk as a 'loss leader' (an item deliberately under-priced to attract greater custom), but the effect in the dairy farming industry has been devastating. On a more global scale the picture is worse. For the goods we enjoy in the developed world, the real price is being paid by the poor in developing countries. There are obviously some efforts being made through 'fair trade' schemes to redress the balance, but it's likely to be some considerable time before any kind of equity is achieved. More obviously in the Third World the danger comes from famine.

Enter the GM foods debate. Definitely science fiction.

SF has seen many instances of the concept of 'artificial' foods, though these are often natural products mimicking other foods, like veggie alternatives to meat, soya products and Quorn (not to mention a brief flirtation with kelp). At least it wasn't all chemicals, though you might question this when reading ingredients' lists on the packaging - and do these lists and "nutritional information" seems science fictional? Either way, the second-most common concept in SF was the prevalence of 'engineered' foods, crops in particular. The perspective is easy to understand. Long before Crick and Watson discovered the structure of DNA, even before Mendel started pfaffing around with peas, human beings have been genetically engineering the species they share this planet with. There are few, if any, plants that have not been tinkered with by humans: wheat, corn, barley, hops, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, onions, coffee beans, pulses, tubers; you name it, we've engineered it. Whether it's combining strains of wheat or forcing peppers to grow with only three or four lobes (for packaging purposes, of all considerations!) humans have always engineered their crops to all intents and purposes. And, for the most part, all of these crops have been grown 'organically', not that that's any guarantee of quality, by the way. A lot of the "better taste" of organic produce is actually as a result of our eating different strains of the item in question, and organic produce puts a strain on the environment because of the distances it commonly has to travel (and the environmental impact of food travel generally is extremely high), though current market penetration of organic foods is only about 1.5-2% of the total. However, the modern concept of genetic engineering is far less haphazard than our previous clumsy interbreeding. Now we engineer the DNA strand itself, getting it to express certain proteins that the natural product might not have done, or splicing in gene sequences from entirely different species to express entirely new traits. Some of these seem frivolous, for instance introducing bio-luminescence to crops and animals in order to be able to 'farm' them in the dark! Some seem downright dangerous. And all of this against a background where public ignorance, coupled with an irresponsible press and media, produces scare stories of 'Frankenstein foods' and similar misinformation.

There are, clearly, two main worries about GM foods. First that they are dangerous in and of themselves (meaning dangerous to human health), and the second that they will unbalance the eco-system, either by out-competing similar foods and/or by having a knock-on effect throughout the environment, perhaps ultimately disrupting the entire food chain (crop kills insects, lack of insects affects birds and other insect predators, and so on). But so far I'm not aware that this has actually happened in any significant way, not that you'd believe that if you relied on the press. But don't forget 'GM CROP WIPES OUT BUTTERFLY' is a far sexier story (and sells more papers) than 'OOOPS, SORRY, BUTTERFLY JUST MIGRATED DUE TO CHANGE IN ORGANIC CROP IN NEXT FIELD'. These were not the actual headlines, but are based on a true incident where the former headline was front page news, whereas the retraction (once all the facts were in) was buried on an internal page. This kind of irresponsible journalism fuels public hysteria and actual science gets overlooked in the whole debate. The other thing that seems to get lost in the GMO debate in the developed world is a sense of global perspective. I remember a dinner I was at in 2000 where the after-dinner conversation turned to GMOs and a Westerner there loudly claimed that 'WE don't want GM foods, WE keep telling the government they're bad, WE don't want the companies that make these crops to profit, blah blah blah...' Which of course meant 'WE in the developed, rich, well-supplied West, with our access to the produce of the entire world, at the expense of poorer populations; WE do not want them'. But what this person didn't grasp or question was whether, if the WE in question were African or Indian or South American or whatever, WE would be so against them. A lot of Third World and developing countries, especially those with large starving populations, do want GMOs (especially those whose farming practices were ruined by previous interventions by the West). But before you start thinking that I am some kind of apologist for the GM companies, I am quite happy to agree that the Monsanto's of the world often carry out poor science in the cause of making a buck.

So as far as the two main worries are concerned, what do I think is the current state of play? Well, as far as the first is concerned, that we will engineer a product that is in and of itself bad for us, I have two responses. The first is: Bollocks! Which is to say that GM companies cannot make profits from dead consumers and, besides, the gene-splicing that we're doing (e.g. adding fish genes to plants) is: (a) extremely unlikely to affect the reproductivity (fecundity) of the organism, and (b) is equally extremely unlikely to make a plant (or whatever) code for proteins that we aren't already used to consuming, not least in the fish (or whatever) the extracted gene came from in the first place. The second response is: Bollocks! (perhaps unsurprisingly). In this case the obvious counter-argument is: Are you trying to tell me that we do not already market products that are bad for us?! Products hazardous to health? Products that can have fatal consequences for large populations? Can you say cigarette? Can you say alcohol? Now I am not saying that that makes it alright to produce a product that adversely affects health; obviously that is a no-no. What I am saying is that you have to put the idea into some kind of perspective that does not leave you open to the charge of hypocrisy, and that takes into account the idea of relative risk. More to the point the engineering that is currently being done has no obvious risks (in this context) attached to it and some engineering could be for precisely the opposite effect, which is to say that we could actually engineer food organisms that are beneficial to health. The public debate on this question has to be much better informed and we need fewer scare stories and more education if we are successfully to assess the relative risks of these organisms.

The second worry, knock-on eco-damage, is somewhat more problematic. I think there are two things to bear in mind when considering this question. The first is that (a) GM detractors nearly always refer to macro-interventions in local ecologies in their prophecies of doom, by which I mean they refer to the introduction of non-GM organisms into environments where they have never lived before (then get out of hand because they have got no predators, etc.) and that you should be wary of drawing a one-to-one correspondence with the idea of GMOs, and (b) that you should not underestimate how robust the global eco-system is. The second point, conversely, is that there are things we are currently doing to the environment that are far more likely to cause catastrophic damage, e.g. global warming, than coming up with the odd GMO here and there. Again, I'm not saying that that makes it alright to ignore any risks inherent in introducing GMOs into the global commons, but I am saying that we have to get our priorities right. If agricultural belts shift due to a warmer world, GMOs might be the adaptation that allows farming practices to continue in situ. My personal feeling is that GMOs could be a good thing, but that their development and their introduction into 'the wild' should be done as responsibly as possible, using the precautionary principle.

Moving on there have been other events which might cause one to despair about the 21st century, not least (in Britain and elsewhere) the panics brought on by BSE and Foot & Mouth. You'd think that by now we would have found a better way to deal with them than wholesale slaughter! But even that has to be put into some kind of perspective; you'll see what I mean if we do some easy-peasy maths. Let's assume that the population of Great Britain is about 60 million and that on any given day of any week at least half of us are consuming beef, pork or lamb (the rest being veggies, or eating chicken or fish or whatever) and further generously assume that one beast can feed a hundred people, then you'd need to slaughter 300,000 animals per day, every day, week after week. Even if you lower the estimate to account for imported meat, you'd have to raise it again to account for our generous assumptions, but even if you got the numbers as low as 100,000 animals per week, you can see that the numbers culled because of BSE and Foot & Mouth are miniscule. At the height of the cull we were only slaughtering about an additional one tenth of the numbers that we were slaughtering anyway, which equated to about 10-15 weeks worth of food. Not that that's an insignificant figure, but compared to the impression that the papers and TV gave it's nothing. Night after night we watched the pyres and the pictures of empty fields, and the message seemed to be that we had slaughtered every animal in Britain, the only survivor being Phoenix the calf (coming to a burger near you soon!). But the real tragedy of these diseases isn't the number of beasts culled, but that they were slaughtered at all, since there was no scientifically-motivated reason for a cull. The decision(s) to cull were political; by panicking Tories in the case of BSE and panicking New Labour in the case of Foot & Mouth. This was partly because, with the usual contempt shown by politicians for the general public, they assumed we were too stupid to understand the facts, and that the only way we'd believe the problem was being addressed was to go for a nice showy cull, and it was partly because of the perceived value of unvaccinated vs. vaccinated meat. While it is true that vaccination could prove costly, especially if you have to vaccinate against a number of strains of the same disease, the argument for vaccination (in my opinion) is overwhelming and exactly mirrors the reason we vaccinate ourselves against certain diseases: the future health of the entire population. But the needless culls cost about 3 billion (that's 50 each to you and me, it being our (British) tax money that paid for it) because politicians couldn't think of a better way to go about things. In an SF-inspired 21st century the vaccination of animals would be standard procedure but, sadly, we are at the mercy of politicians and not SF writers or even scientists.

Food over all, of course, is still incredibly cheap, relatively speaking. Even if you ignore the Smartprice/Basics style of product, most goods have not gone up significantly in value for some time. A good example of this was the 1000th programme of Ready, Steady, Cook which returned the contestants and menus of the very first programme (from 7 years previously), in which one bag of food that had cost 4.10 was purchased for 4.79 and the other which had been 4.88 had only gone up to 5.12. Given economic growth, this meant that in terms of purchasing parity the price of the food had gone down, not up! And cookery programmes are a weird modern phenomenon. We always had them and the chefs that came with them: Fanny Craddock (and the long-suffering Johnny) and Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet, not to mention various bods from the daytime 'magazine' programmes, but who could have predicted the advent of chef as superstar? Certainly not SF writers. I'm sure you could name 10 chefs without even thinking - the buggers are on TV almost every night - and Delia's even made it into the dictionary! SF's 'little pills' are around, of course, but they're largely dietary supplements, not 'food' themselves. Food has become a cultural phenomenon, though separating cultural development from technological change is not always easy to do. Take drinks. I would argue that it is 'culture' that means we drink more wine, but that 'technology' drove the advent and uptake of so-called 'energy' drinks. Where did they all come from in so short a space of time? Yes, partly the change is cultural, what with our work-like-the-clappers, 24/7, fast-paced world (and we've always had products like Pro-Plus, another little pill), but as far as SF predictions go while some writers clearly foreshadowed the increasing use of stimulants in our society, they totally missed the way it would express itself. I think they probably missed the politicisation of food as well (at least I can't think of any obvious examples), failing to predict the wrangles of, say, the EU over the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy. And while a few writers spotted the burden that an ageing population would have on our health services, none to my knowledge anticipated increasing obesity and all that entails.

I'm not sure what all this means. On the whole I think I'm relieved that SF's most dire predictions haven't come true. I love eating (and cooking) and I don't think I could hack it in a world where I was expected to eat only pills and pastes. I do think we have to do something (and soon) about the exploitative relationship between the developed and third worlds, but I'm increasingly of the opinion that not only is it daily becoming more possible, but also more probable. And I don't think that any of us need suffer as a result. I can see no reason, always assuming the responsible development of GMOs, why the world can't be fed and fed well, nor any reason for us to ever have to rely on artificial foods (not even in a space-based situation, given developments in hydroponics and closed eco-system research). I do worry that mistakes will be made in the service of the almighty dollar, but I worry more that we will screw the food chain through adversely affecting climate than through genetic manipulation, but that needs to be the subject of a different column. Having worked hard, I'm off to the kitchen for a Homer Simpson moment: "Hmmmm. Microwave pudding." (drool).

Tony Chester

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