I fear that this article will spoil the conclusion of Soylent Green for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, but the title is just too appropriate for this bit of news from The Telegraph:
Reports last week that researchers could be just six months away from producing the world’s first artificial meat, using thousands of stem cells bred in a laboratory, sent a wave of fascination around the world. Yet there is an even more ghoulish prospect ahead: the idea of eating artificial food made from humans.
This may sound like science fiction, yet a new technique for making gelatin from human DNA is attracting “increasing interest from research and industrial circles”, according to a new study by scientists from the Beijing University of Chemical Technology. The paper, published recently in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, revealed that successful experiments had been carried out in which human genes were inserted into a strain of yeast to “grow” large amounts of recombinant (genetically engineered) human gelatin.
Eating gelatin derived from human DNA, whether used in jelly babies or not, certainly makes me slightly queasy. But I suspect this development will be only the tip of a changing food iceberg. Food production is a key challenge facing the modern world. Climate change & population growth, together with socioeconomic demographic changes, are increasingly likely to cause a “food crunch” that may be even more paralysing to the global economy than the credit variety.
A typical Western diet is heavy in meat, processed foods and refined sugars. Production of all these foodstuffs is highly energy-inefficient and is resource-intensive to maintain. As a larger percentage of the world becomes wealthy, their diets will increasingly skew towards this paradigm. The cost of maintaining this diet will therefore continue to climb, requiring more technological intervention to sustain it. This is already happening in the form of new irrigation & hydroponic techniques and with genetically modified foods. In that context, growing human DNA derived gelatin in vats is an unsurprising development.
Where would you draw the line with what you’re prepared to eat, I wonder?