Space Tofu


I’m a bit obsessed with food.

The first thing we see in Universe Gun is people having dinner. The first science fiction idea to be introduced is Red Orgone, a food additive that bestows super-intelligence. Several scenes show Princess Amtora making food with her DrexBox. The latest chapter features a scene in a “mega-farm” where giant vegetables are grown with nutrient pipes of some kind feeding them. And I’ve just written and drawn a scene that revolves around food differences between the 21st and 37th C. I’ve put a bit of thought into what people eat in my science fiction universe.

I’ve been following a number of high tech food stories with interest in real life.

Soylent aims to replace the whole meal thing with a single drink that provides the human body with every nutrient it needs. Its critics have understandably pointed out that there’s a lot more to food than just the nutrients. Food is a sensual experience, and has great cultural and social importance, and getting rid of meals altogether looks pretty strange outside the workaholic Silicon Valley culture that spawned Soylent.

Beyond Meat is a US company that has been attempting to make a perfect meat substitutes from vegetable matter, including synthesising a blood substitute from soya and pea protein to give their burgers the right kind of juiciness.  Here the focus is on replicating both the nutritional and sensual side of eating meat, and according to many reviewers they’ve succeeded.

These two products still rely on traditionally grown ingredients, vegetables, pulses, etc., which are then processed into their desired forms. The next step is growing food at a cellular level.

I’ve been vegetarian before, but currently eat meat, and thought to myself that once these things get mass produced I’d definitely make the switch. I’ve experimented with textured vegetable protein before, and its alright in its own right. In the past couple of months I’ve been re-introduced to Quorn, a myco-protein that’s available down my local supermarket as mince, meatballs and chicken chunks, and have realised that the future of food and “space tofu” is in fact already with us. Quorn is a yeast-like microfungus that can be grown to have varying fibre lengths to give the right texture. The final product involves some other traditionally farmed products, including free range eggs as a binding agent.

100% lab-grown Stem Cell Burgers are now a real thing, although nowhere near being mass-produced or economically viable yet. I’m sure technology in this area will advance though – it always does, and during my lifetime hope to see marvels like stem-cell giant prawns that can be grown to any size. Delicacies like lobsters and Moreton Bay Bugs (an Australian seafood) aren’t magical after all, they’re just atoms. Carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen with the odd bit of iron, sulphur and other elements, arranged in complex molecules to give them flavour and texture. The only reason we can’t make them by snapping our fingers is a lack of engineering.

As for growing plants to make space tofu, Vertical Farming has become an active area of research. I’ve been incorporating vertical farm looking structures into my cityscapes from the start. Indoor farming using LEDs has become a viable option already.

I’ve been talking like traditional meat is a bad thing. Well, that’s because it is. Its incredibly inefficient in terms of land use, water use and energy, and our population isn’t getting any smaller. Its also inhumane to have to slaughter animals for food. I still eat meat and eggs only through some mental contortions and selective amnesia.

Think about food from a physics/energy point of view. We need about 10,000 kJ per day to power an active adult body. This energy comes from stored chemical energy in our food. Plants are effectively machines that take sunlight and turn it into chemical energy. We can introduce extra steps by eating animals that have eaten plants, with each extra step in the food chain introducing more inefficiency and thus greater resource use. Sunlight at the equator gives us about 1.4kJ per second per square metre. Assuming 12 hours of sunlight, a square metre absorbs 600kJ per day. So all each of us needs for our energy requirements in theory is a 4m by 4m patch of equatorial land. This assumes perfect 100% efficient solar panels and a 100% efficient Drex assembler making pellets from atmospheric oxygen, carbon, hydrogen etc.

This sunlight is not of course doing nothing currently. Harnessing it all  to run our bodies would lead to catastrophic global cooling, even if we re-emit most of that energy as heat. So lets not give up on the parallel research track of uploading our minds into something more efficient, right?

When I’m talking sci-fi science and invoke nanotechnology, it always makes me think of little metal flies. Real nanotech is far more likely to be bacterial or at least biological in nature.  The engineering is complicated, and basically requires plants of custom bacteria/organic nanotech, but that’s basically what Quorn is. That’s what I had for lunch and dinner today.

That’s why it makes sense to me then, that by the 37th Century, traditional meat production will have died out. Eating meat would be as foreign to the residents of the future as killing and skinning our own dinner is to us.

See you soon, seekers of strange soyburgers! Dr Mike 2000, 10 Jan 2016

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