Patrick G Cox

Future Food

Ever wonder what we could do to replace our present rather cruel provision for supplying meat for our ever growing populations? In order to produce 'cheap' meat for the supermarkets, we currently use industrial style farming in which pigs, chickens and other animals are born in pens, grow up in pens, and are taken from those pens to the slaughterhouse. Given what we now know about animal intelligence, how they experience pain, emotions - all the things we experience - there is a growing awareness that we have to find ways to do this more humanely.

Some readers may recall a television series "V for Visitors" or just "Visitors" in which a Saurian race arrives on Earth disguised as 'human'. They make all manner of friendly promises, eagerly accepted by the governments of various nations (super technology, offers to 'train' people, etc.) and lots of people are sent to their ships. It takes a while before people start to realise that no one stays in contact, and no one returns. Of course, in the meantime some human/alien relationships develop ... so it comes, eventually, as a shock, to discover that the aliens, these apparently benevolent "Visitors" are here for one purpose only- To harvest us as "food" for their home world. As you've probably now gathered, it made quite an impression on me back in the 1980s.It also made me think about how we see other species.

And before you ask, no, I am not a vegan or a vegetarian ...

More recently there has been a lot in the news about the loss of natural habitat as we expand our agricultural activity in pursuit of food and, of course, profit for the major food producers. Add to that the fact that meat production - or more scientifically, animal husbandry - produces enormous amounts of greenhouse gases, and very dependent on the production of food, much of which must be processed, increasing both the demand for more industry and for more agricultural land. In effect it becomes a bit of an environmental nightmare. There are, however, alternatives, and this is where I think he future lays. 

I first started thinking about it when I started writing my SciFi series, the Harry Heron adventures. In the age of sail into which Harry and his friends were born, ships carried livestock at the start of a long voyage, otherwise they were dependent on what is probably best described as 'pickled' food in casks, with most of that being barely edible at best. Now, of course, refrigeration allows freezing and chilling, so fresh and healthy food is much more readily available. But, once we venture into space - especially once we begin to venture further afield than Earth orbit or the Moon, we need to start thinking about a different approach. Coincidentally at least one solution to both the quest for a supply of meat is already under development. It may well, in the not too distant future replace the current system of intensive animal farming, and it provides the means to supply fresh meat to spacefarers without having to resort to shipping animals into space for slaughter, or to carrying large quantities of tinned, frozen or otherwise preserved food.

New technology is being developed that allows the harvesting of stem cells from the muscle tissue of an animal, which can then be developed into a replica of the tissue it was taken from. At present it is possible to produce beefsteak mince, pork mince or chicken this way. The technology still has a way to go, but it is improving and the product is, so I read, very close in taste and texture to anything from your local butcher. Nor is this the only research underway.

When writing my stories I had in mind this kind of process (3D printers were then in their infancy ...) for producing meals. In my researching the problem, I came across another idea, employing genetically modified fungi. The problem with that process was the taste, but that, in its turn, could be (and now is) being addressed by, you've guessed it, introducing some genetic modifications, to make the fungi meat-like. 

Once again, the problem for a SciFi writer who prefers to keep things "possible" and not get into the realms of "magic", is that technology is now moving so fast that you no sooner think of an idea for the future, than you discover someone is already working on it ...

Now if someone can just come up with an artificial gravity system, and a radiation screen to protect the occupants of a long range space craft ...  

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