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Space-age sustenance: An Impossible Burger with fries and ketchup (©Sarah Stierch (CC BY 4.0)

The US start-up Memphis Meats, which aims to produce “clean meat” cultivated from cells with no animal death involved, raised around $22 million in funding recently. I thought of J.G. Ballard: “Everything is becoming science fiction,” he wrote in a 1971 essay (originally published in Books and Bookmen). “From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century.” Memphis Meats wants to make “meat that is better for animals and that at scale uses significantly less land, water and energy” — meat that is built “from the cell up”. The process is similar to fermentation but requires the very expensive “fetal bovine serum”, although MM are working on a cheaper, possibly animal-free replacement. Would a vegetarian eat it if in fact no animals have died? (And as a colleague here put it: will it be kosher? Can it be kosher?) It currently costs $2,400 to produces a pound of it — so lab meat still lives in the future for almost all of us — but the price a few years ago was $1.2 million.

Food grown in the lab — or, as in Star Trek, “replicated” by a machine — is a staple of science fiction, because it sidesteps the issue of what humans might actually be able to eat 5,000 years from now (not to mention how they’re going to keep it fresh in the depths of space). How will it be grown? Will we have the resources to do it? You do get suggestions of some agricultural difference in the way food is grown — Luke Skywalker’s uncle and aunt are “moisture farmers” on the desert planet in Star Wars — but it doesn’t extend as far as recipes.  But a concern about meat, or really animals, does crop up: in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, animals are rare, almost extinct, and owning one is a symbol of status, a sign that you’re a good person.

The flipside of the animal-less future is in the trope that aliens are mainly interested in trying to eat us — most gruesomely, the aliens in Michel Faber’s Under the Skin, themselves from a nightmarish dystopia, who visit Earth to catch what they call “vodsel”, a delicacy on their home planet: men are captured, castrated, hobbled and fattened up, as factory-farmed animals are. A fillet of “voddissin” — vodsel meat — costs the same on their planet as “for an ordinary person, a whole month’s worth of water and oxygen”. The aliens view themselves as human and find bipeds bestial, disgusting.

But the best known food in science fiction is probably “soylent green” — which in the eponymous film, famously, “is people”, the last remaining protein resource. (Soylent, the real-life meal replacement drink, borrowed the name.)

In the novel the film is based on, Harry Harrison’s 1966 Make Room! Make Room!, set in an overpopulated then-futuristic 1999, in a world which has used up almost all its resources, soylent is what it sounds like: soybeans and lentils. “Soylent brown” made into “steaks” is the most appetising food we encounter. A teenage boy steals a boxful during a food riot and immediately devours three, marvelling at their “lovely softness”. The other food options include “ener-G”, made by compressing plankton into “little dry bricks”, margarine made from “chlorella oil”, algae, because “there’s hardly any flavour to the fats made from petrochemicals and you know there aren’t any whales left so they can’t use blubber”.  Kwashiorkor is rife across the US; people are mugged for their water rations. But Harrison’s numbers were off: the apparently untenable population in the novel is seven billion. We are now at 7.7 billion and, in 2015, there were 200 million fewer hungry people in the world than 25 years previously.

Memphis Meats is just one of several imitation-meat companies which seem remarkably well-funded. The Impossible Burger, so far available only in the US, has the most attractive website of all these companies, plus the unique selling point of the ingredient “heme”, a red, bloody-tasting molecule which, in what sounds like another visitation from fiction, is made by fermenting a genetically-modified yeast. The heme lets the Impossible Burger (based on textured wheat protein and coconut oil) actually “bleed” — ooze red juices and look pink in the middle like rare beef.

We can’t eat the “Impossible™” meat in the UK precisely because of this ingredient, which is not approved in the EU, but apparently the taste is meat-esque, or at least meat adjacent; one reviewer compared it to game. But already available in Tesco is Beyond Meat (made mostly of pea protein and vegetable oils), and the Beyond-Burger can be ordered from the chain Honest Burger. When I ordered it I decided it was convincing until about halfway through when I suddenly lost my appetite: it has a sponginess, a decided bounce and chew, which are sort of meat-reminiscent rather than meat-identical. I seemed to get a sudden whack of coconut-taste (that would be the coconut oil, the third listed ingredient). The experience reminded me of the coconut-oil vegan cheese I tried, which smelt, looked and texturally felt totally acceptable until three or four seconds into chewing it. But unlike the disappointing “cheese” the Beyond Meat is OK.

I wonder if the faux-meat obsession is because protein is, still, the one food group that hasn’t been demonised. (Carbs are Bad.  Sugar is Bad. Fat is Bad. Fibre is Good but hardly glamorous.) I begin to suspect the market is not vegetarians but people who think they should be vegetarians. All faux-meat makers emphasise the green and eco side of their products — making, or growing them takes less water, fewer resources, less land, produces less carbon dioxide, etc. But then Impossible™ have the tag “Love meat? Eat meat . . . We found a way to make meat using plants, so that we never have to use animals again. That way, we can eat all the meat we want, for as long as we want.” There is an allure in being told you can consume as much as you like of the “bad” food. I’m not convinced any of these are better, or nicer, than the traditional veggie burger — which is made from plants in a relatively direct way, not hyper-processed textured proteins. 

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