Apart from a compelling dinner table topic, the ‘lab burger’ underscores and engenders the difficult conversations we soon will all have to have, as we mediate our own ethics and morals on what we consider food and indeed nature to be. It’s been a useful catalyst in this sense.
It might appear strange, at first glance, to raise question marks over what defines something as food. In many ways, we would expect it to be obvious and straightforward. At the surface, food is made up of substances that give us nutrition, what we need to sustain life. At the same time, however, it is much less clear when something becomes food. What transforms it into a product we can eat? And when does something cease to be food? We all have an inherent sense of exactly what we should eat, shaped by society, beliefs, religion and geography. What I want to examine is what happens when we start complicating our own self-imposed guidelines and norms, as technology in the 21st Century is slowly doing. The informal patterns that underpin what we eat are changing.
Take for example, Huel. You might have heard of it already, if not, it is ‘a nutritionally complete powder that contains all the protein, carbs, fats, vitamins and minerals that your body needs’. While I haven’t tried it, numerous reviews charge Huel with complaints of its tastelessness and the strangeness of filling your stomach with large volumes of liquid. By all accounts, there is not much pleasure from its consumption. Huel not only takes away the traditional notion of eating and consuming but offers several options to allow you to tailor nutrients and supplements to what you identify your body in need of. Huel markets itself as a natural alternative, yet this measured and precise approach to food and the symbolic status of regulation and adjustment of your body seems at odds with well-established notions of naturalness as uninhabited by humans.
Image one: Huel, the ‘future of food’?
Indeed, Huel it seems, is symbolic of the blending of food and technology. The Huel website argues you can ‘save time’ and ‘save money’. This has interesting implications for how we define food: other behaviours and factors have a role to play. Examining the concept of Huel complicates seemingly simple definitions.
Aquaponics is the ‘combination of traditional aquaculture and hydroponics in a symbiotic environment’. It’s cyclical and self-reliant structure can be set up anywhere. It’s a pretty clever concept, still being developed and finalized in terms of its replication in different areas and climates. But what I want to focus on is again, this confusion over what aquaponics could mean and symbolize for us. It is another example of the volatility of these boundaries and the very way in which food, nature and technology intersect, connect and yet appear at odds at each other.
A useful diagram of Aquaponics systems is here:
I went to visit an aquaponic system at The University of Sheffield, named ‘We Grow Social’. The scaffolding, purple lighting and old containers did not appear natural but instead sophisticated and technical. The name also struck me. ‘We grow social’. Again establishing food with more nuances and determinants than simply what we consume. Does social food exist? And how do we tow the line or draw distinctions between what is social food and what is not? Defining food then, and what we mean by it, is becoming unstuck in a number of ways.
I want to end as I begun, with the ‘lab burger’ and to touch on the concept of 3D printed food. This food is a new and compelling phenomenon and one that certainly hasn’t yet reached its full potential, to the extent its hard to fully predict or understand the possibilities. Although its culinary achievements so far include customised meals based on deficiencies and instant food created from a printer. Experts examining the technology warn that its getting ‘faster, cheaper and better by the minute’, reinforcing this sense of change and norms as we know them shifting. The ‘lab burger’ although not 3D printed falls under this technology and is similar in the sense that it too is a slaughterless meat. In interviews discussing how consumers would react to lab grown or printed meats one participant described it as ‘unmolested meat’. Such imagery here is deeply emphatic and incredibly loaded. More than anything it reflects the deep rootedness of these issues and the way they provoke important debates and emotions. Could we argue lab grown meat is molested? Probably, in the sense it’s the disturbing of animal cells and disruption of tradition. The point is not to flag what’s right or wrong here but illuminate the grey spectrum in front of us. Where for example does the 3D printing of human cells as meat fall? How do we reconcile cultural values with this process, such as kosher meat?
Recently people have argued that these challenges aren’t about our capabilities with technology, but if regulations and consumers are prepared to change how they think about food and nature, and re-shape current norms. While regulations are important I consider the moral code and ethics we impose upon ourselves most significant.
These different examples demonstrate the flexibility of the concepts nature and food and the diverse ways technology has disrupted perhaps once rigid or clear interpretations. These fragile bounds are not useful or helpful in framing how we consider nature or food, largely because they refuse to shape. We shouldn’t be scared by this fluidity but embrace the coming changes and the impact technology can have on food and nature. ‘Tradition was once innovation’ a commentator reminds us, and although scary its important and exciting to think about what the future is capable of.
I’ll end with a 1920’s advert for a simple blender: once heralded a revolution in the relationship between technology and food. And I’ll say it again, tradition was once innovation.
Tradition was innovation: when a blender blurred our boundaries