Is eating a question of electronics?
"The End of Food" was the title of a May 2014 The New Yorker article which described the arrival of Soylent, a drink hailed by venture capitalists in Silicon Valley - like Y Combinator (YC) or Andreessen Horowitz - as the new flagship of synthetic food.
Its story takes us back to the mythology of the inventor working out of his or her garage... or almost. It is that of a young student in electronic engineering at Georgia Tech, Rob Rhinehart. Aged 25, he explained in a long post on his blog ("How I stopped eating food") his belief that food was an ineffective method of getting the nutrients he needed to survive. Endless tinkering with specific diets, malnutrition, and the necessity for food supplements to compensate for the cheap frozen foods he was eating, led him to state that:
"Food [is] a... large burden [and] hassle."
But what if we thought of food as an engineering problem? And what if we just focused on the chemical components? That was the challenge he faced in determining the 35 nutritional elements essential for survival. Then everything became a matter of computation, of figures for chemical elements.
What's it made of? Just ask the readers of Hacker News or Redditors who, as "hackers" and lifehackers (creators and promoters of productivity tips geared towards streamliningeveryday life), have become disciples of the Solylent "recipe", which was publicly published in order to solicit improvements. Today there is even a Soylent DIY (or Soylent Do it Yourself) tutorial on the product’s site, so that people can adapt the recipe to their own nutritional needs.
As an example, Rob Rhinehart relieson maltodextrins (which are widely used in the industry as a flavor carrier) for his carbohydrates; on oatmeal powder for fiber, proteins and lipids; and on grape seed oil for fat, potassium, and vitamin C (the complete list of ingredients can be found on the Wikipedia page). The result? A powdered mixture, or pill, to be mixed with a little water.
"I started to live on it", he said.
His goal: to change the way we produce food in order to address the planet's problems and the fight against hunger, while using less land, water and energy.
Thought his approach is uncommon, Rob Rhinehart’s is not an isolated case. According to The New Yorker, this young entrepreneur corresponds to a new genre of techno-utopian literary stereotype represented by authors like R. Buckminster Fuller, who portrays the body as a hydraulic machine. Rob Rhinehart also confesses on his website that he has become a libertarian.
Similarly startup Hampton Creek Foods offers "eggs" made of plant matter which could effectively pre-empt livestock farming. Such startups are now turning to giants like ConAgra, General Mills or Kraft, who spend billions of dollars on research and technological development.
An ideal and dystopia lacking in popular support
Silicon Valley is trying to improve our diets via new technologies; a "problem-solving" ideal designed to showcase technological solutions for many of the issues that seem to threaten the planet.
But what about food’s social aspect? And those feelings of hunger / fullness / satiety that are essential to our bodies? Is the digestion and absorption of vitamins and minerals on a diet based solely on liquids really viable? There are, indeed, some dietitians who recommend choosing foods based on their "chewing index". What’s more, replacement foods will disconnect us from the land, leaving it fallow.
This nutritional ideal certainlyhas its dystopian side, outlined in the film from which "Soylent" got its name, Richard Fleischer’s "Soylent Green".
In this science fiction movie, viewers witness New York in 2022. With 40 million more citizens, the city is overcrowded, food is scarce and natural resources have been exhausted. People are reduced to eating synthetic products made in a local factory, Soylent, whose technologically-driven nutritional solution, it is eventually revealed, turns out to contain human flesh.
Without resorting to fear-mongering, the research demonstrates the importance of reason in addressing these issues.
Perhaps we should look to today’s culture in cities from London to San Francisco to Tel Aviv, whose alternative ways of thinking about food have spread to cities worldwide. Their mandate? To emphasize the value of quality products,, of time ... and especially of the desirability of our dishes through street food which the world’s growing community of "foodies" love.
Sources for further information:
The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/05/12/the-end-of-food
Technology Review: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/527056/the-next-startup-craze-food-20/
Hampton Creek site: https://www.hamptoncreek.com/
Rob Rhinehart's blog:http://blog.soylent.com/post/51243920779/whats-in-soylent?is_related_post=1
InternetActu article: http://www.internetactu.net/2014/05/21/lavenir-de-la-nourriture-que-mangerons-nous-demain/
Allo Cine Film Trailer Soylent Green: http://movierecipes.net/2012/12/03/soylent-green-crackers/