What’s for Dinner?



Tom Easton


It’s not news that the size of the human population—7.5 billion and counting (https://www.census.gov/popclock/ )–poses problems. One of the major problems is that of how to feed everyone.

Sure, the supermarkets are still full, at least in the developed world. But people are recognizing that raising the huge amounts of meat we consume is not really sustainable. For one thing, it releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the air and thus contributes to global climate change (or global warming). Perhaps more to the point, it takes an enormous amount of land to raise the grain used to feed the pigs, cattle, and chickens whose meat, milk, and eggs we relish. And both of those factors will get worse—the world’s human population is expected to hit 11 billion before the end of the century.

There are things we can do. One depends on the way food chains work.

“Food chain” is a simple concept. A chain begins with those living things that convert solar  (or sometimes chemical) energy and simple chemicals such as carbon dioxide into organic material. We’re talking plants that use sunlight to make leaves and stems and fruit.

The next step in the chain is animals that eat plants (herbivores). The step after that is animals that eat animals that eat plants (carnivores).  And then there are the animals that eat animals that eat animals that eat plants. And so on.

It’s more complicated that, of course. We humans take our food from all levels of the food chain. Even herbivorous cows have been known to stomp squirrels and eat them. Ticks suck blood from both herbivores and carnivores. A more realistic depiction of what-eats-what is called a food web (https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/food-web-concept-and-applications-84077181).

Just to keep things simple, though, let’s stick with the food chain. If you have 100 pounds of corn, that’s enough to grow about 10 pounds of cow (or cow product—milk and cheese), which in turn is enough to grow about 1 pound of cow-eater (people, for instance). The rest goes to running the cow. Some herbivores (chickens, for instance) are more efficient than that at turning feed into meat, but by and large you lose about 90 percent of the food value at each step in the food chain.

Imagine a human population that eats nothing but meat. If it shifts to eating nothing but plants such as tomatoes and potatoes and grain, that diet will support a population ten times as large.

That does not mean we can feed a population of 70 billion by just shifting to a vegetarian diet. Much of the world’s population eats very little meat (they can’t afford it). Even in the developed world, people don’t eat 100 percent meat.

Think about it. What did you have for dinner last night? Even if you had pizza, most of what was on your plate was crust and sauce, not cheese and pepperoni. A steak? It came with salad and potatoes. So dinner was less than half meat.  If that ratio holds generally, shifting to an all-plant diet only permits you to multiply half the food supply by ten. And that is only true in the developed world, which contains only about a fifth of the total world population. So cutting out meat entirely might make it possible to boost world population to 15-20 billion.

People are already developing fake meats more convincing than tofurkey (have you tried the Impossible Burger yet? See https://impossiblefoods.com/food/).  Are we going to be stuck with that? Do we really have to give up meat entirely? Surely not, for some meat will still be raised for those who can afford high prices. And then there’s lab-grown meat (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/lab-grown-meat/ )–take a few cells from an animal, convert them to muscle cells, let them multiply, harvest them, and shape the resulting mush into patties. They’re working on improving the texture and bringing the price down (waay! down). In time… And then it gets weird, for the cells can come from any animal at all, including humans.  Just think of what will happen when the celebrity marketers get ahold of this! Your grandchildren could dine on very special rumpsteaks.

What about fish? There are already projections that wild-caught fish will be gone by 2050.We’ll be almost completely dependent on farmed salmon, shrimp, tilapia, carp, and catfish. Researchers are also working on ways to farm tuna and cod, and perhaps others. Unfortunately, farmed fish need to be fed, and most of their feed is made from other, smaller fish. The vacuuming of the world’s oceans will not end when the commercial-sized tuna, cod, salmon, haddock, hake, and halibut (etc.) are gone.   It will end only when there are too few small fish left to be worth hunting for them.

At that point we will need to put the farmed fish on a vegetarian diet. That may mean that we will shift to less fussy carp and catfish. Or perhaps we’ll be putting fish cells in the vats too and churning our filets out of the meat factories.

What about eating bugs? No, I don’t mean riding a motorcycle and licking them off your teeth. People are talking seriously about how efficiently insects convert plant material to protein and how “green” a bug-based diet could be (https://www.iflscience.com/environment/will-we-all-be-eating-insects-50-years/ ).   However, you won’t be getting your meals by waving a butterfly net through the air, for there don’t seem to be as many bugs around as there used to be (see https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/as-insect-populations-decline-scientists-are-trying-to-understand-why/ ). You may have noticed this yourself, for your windshield is probably not as bug-splattered as it used to be (the English call this the “windscreen phenomenon”– https://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/stories/what-windshield-phenomenon ). So we’ll be seeing either bug-farms or bug-vats.

Anything else? Well, the Diet of Worms was a 1521 attempt to figure out what to do about Martin Luther. But people do eat worms (https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/08/10/489302134/should-we-make-room-for-worms-on-our-dinner-plate ) …

Okay. Yuck. People do just fine on a vegetarian diet. It’s healthier, more sustainable, greener… And it can be faked up to look, taste, and feel like meat. Or so they say.

So what kind of veggies will we be eating? The obvious answer is that they will be genetically engineered or modified. The very idea offends some people, for GMO crops are not what nature made. On the other hand, neither are conventional crops, which have been drastically altered from their “natural” form by centuries of selective breeding. Broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, Brussel’s sprouts, and other “cole crops” are all derived from a Mediterranean wild cabbage (https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/archives/parsons/vegetables/colecrop.html) .

People also worry that GMO foods may not be safe (though there is no evidence of problems) or that they may lead to corporate domination of the food supply (admittedly more of an issue). Proponents claim that GMO crops need less in the way of chemicals. This is true for pesticides. But herbicide-resistant crops actually mean more herbicides are used to kill weeds.  Another potential benefit is resistance to fungal and viral diseases of crops, which can greatly reduce harvests (https://geneticliteracyproject.org/2014/07/01/rust-threatening-wheat-crops-worldwide-could-be-thwarted-with-genetics-but-anti-gmo-fervor-remains-challenge/ ). Researchers are also working on giving non-leguminous crops the ability to make their own fertilizer, just as legumes already do (https://www.acsh.org/news/2017/07/30/genetically-engineered-wheat-reduces-need-fertilizer-helps-environment-11627 ).

So far the genetic engineering of crops has barely begun. Someday potatoes may taste like steak or lobster. Perhaps there will be entirely new types of veggies, or weird hybrids. Or perhaps there will come a time when tomatoes and corn (etc.) can grow on trees. That sounds far-fetched, but orchards don’t need herbicides (you just mow the weeds between the trees), soil erosion is not a problem, and deep roots may find more water.  Trees also don’t need to be replanted every year, and every year, they get bigger and bear more fruit.

What’s for dinner? For the next few years, same old, same old. But as we approach 2100, we’ll be seeing less “real” meat on our plates and more lab-grown meat and plant-based fake meat.  Insects and worms may have some niche appeal. Once we pass 2100, we’ll start seeing some weirdly different engineered fruits and vegetables.

The next question is how many hands will be reaching for the pot in the center of the table. The answer depends on how well we deal with other problems, such as global warming.

I’m a theoretical biologist. But I am also a science fiction writer, and many of my stories have dealt with the future of genetic engineering, including its applications to food. If you are interested, those stories are collected in The GMO Future (https://www.amazon.com/Thomas-Eastons-GMO-Future-MEGAPACK-ebook/dp/B01M687KMG ).

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