Two food cultures of the Anthropocene

Cultured-Beef-01Source: Cultured beef

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Source: Spatula, Spoon and Saturday

Think of these two foods – one synthetic meat, tasted in London last week, and the other made out of crayfish, an invasive species. Two very different food cultures: one ‘cultured beef‘ and the other invasivore diet. Both arise out of concern for the environment. The cultured beef promises to supply meat more sustainably as the world’s population – increasing in numbers and also in affluence – demands more and more meat. The invasivore diet, on the other hand, attempts to solve the problem of biodiversity loss by making dinner out of invasive species. Let’s call synthetic meat a technological response to the environmental concern and invasivore diet an ecological response.

The technological response to food was under media spotlight last week. The stem cell beef burger was manufactured in a laboratory and tasted in London on Monday, 5th August – a historical moment – as the media enthusiastically reported. There was excitement, even among the vegan community, because of the promise of synthetic meat to remove animal suffering all together. Numbers were shown to demonstrate that synthetic meat will also drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impact of cattle ranching. But there was also some skepticism about the so-called “frankenburger” and concerns that the ‘yuk’ factor in lab-made burger means it will never become popular as the inventors and funders believed it would.

Things can also be said of the ecological response, invasivore diet. ‘Biotic homogenization’ is a serious concern among ecologists and the solution proposed is the eradication of invasive species. Increasingly, the public is getting involved in identifying places where invasive species have spread and are going there to systematically remove them, usually by uprooting the weedy plants or killing animal pests that pose threat to native biodiversity. Eating invasives is a radical solution and there is now a growing movement of invasivores doing just that. There is of course no shortage of invasive species – crayfish, lionfish, Asian carps or garlic mustard, autumn olive, dandelion – all are abundant in places they have invaded. But there is also the ‘yuk’ factor in eating invasives because we are not used to eating these sorts of things, as opposed to conventional vegetables and meat.

What both these food cultures – technological and ecological – do is that they unsettle our notions of what is acceptable as food and what is not. I actually don’t mid trying either synthetic meat or invasivore diet, but must admit that this is not the sort of cuisine I find easily palatable. And I am pretty sure I am not the only one. Both food cultures demand a re-alignment of our ‘comfort zone’ of what is food and what is not. Both shake up our ideas and cognitive models of what is edible. Both are perhaps radical, even audacious, solutions to living in the Anthropocene – part of the survival kit in a brave new world?

Not to disregard the $330,000 spent on making a stem cell beef patty in the lab, personally I think invasivore diet has a lot more going for it – the idea that we can make tasty and even nutritious food out of invasive species can be a much-needed adaptation to our changing natural environment in the Anthropocene. The stem cell burger, in comparison, feels somewhat alien to taste and health. To make invasivore diet a reality, however, we will need to start a cottage industry around invasive species. George Washington Carver, a 20th-century American agronomist, said “Start where you are, with what you have. Make something of it and never be satisfied.” So while we wait for the ‘cultured beef’ to make its way into our supermarkets, we might as well start eating invasive species.