In food terms, most views of the future make glum reading. I am no fan of sci-fi but if I ask what it says about food, people who do read it (they tend to be people who read little else) look slightly surprised. "We'll have done away with food," they say. "Just think of the time and energy we'll save." What? No groaning tables? No dinner conversation? Just Star-Trekkies sucking at floating bottles? "Quite so," they answer with an air of satisfaction. "Won't need to read, either. Or sleep." Ahem. Or reproduce in that old-fashioned way.
This indeed, may be what's always turned me off futurology: the image offered is so pleasureless - like the games people keep predicting will shortly take over, the virtuality of which is going to allow us to kill without killing and bonk without bonking. I don't see the point of it. A virtual roast beef will be wanting a je ne sais quoi. And I have an awful fear that the virtual woman will be constructed according to the mammary fevers of Hollywood's new Japanese owners and be all Kim Basinger, and gone will be the divine quirks which make us interesting to one another, the off-centre smiles, the jolies laides, that fascinating space between two front teeth, the tic that distinguishes.
No, thank you. Asked to imagine 21st-century eating (a good thing they didn't ask me, for I would have said, "much as usual please, mate"), an Italian writer recently described his visit to Sunwarm Farm - an imaginary place where everything is produced in perfect accord with the latest trends and, in obeisance to the most recent of all Utopias, that Golden Age in which nothing will die if not of natural causes, nothing is produced that need be killed. The operating religion of this farm, its owners and its customers, is of course Nature. (Can't have Jesus, because he was killed. Can't have the Islamic God, because he kills the infidel. Can't have a Jewish God: he is wrathful and asks for living sacrifices.)
As I said, it's not real. Not yet. But it's an extension of the world to come. This is the new Land of Milk and Honey. And Fruit, Yoghurt and Juices. No Sweat, no Tears, and above all no Blood. In Sunwarm barns, where chomp amiable, guaranteed-for-life cows, the walls display giant charts - with statistics from the real world. Citrus, kg/person/year, 1980: 35.8; 1995: 50kg+. Veggies, 1980: 202.7; 1995: 212.8 ("Must do better," mumbles the manager, a Ben-and-Jerry lookalike); apples, up from 19kg to 28.1kg. And the following, in Italy at least: Beef, steady; Pork, +6.5kg; chicken, +1.3kg; fish, +5.7kg.
I tot up all the charts. Decreases in consumption amount to a mere 2.6kg, whereas increases amount to 43kg. "We are eating more, that's all," I say triumphantly. "Not in the future," says the manager sternly. "We are working on that."
And here the voice that I begin to hear in the land is not the voice of the turtle, but the voice of the bullfrog, whose stentorian tones tell me he knows what I should be doing. It is a voice, I confess, that has long worried me. Especially in matters of food. Between the astronaut and his little pill and the manager of Sunwarm with his anger about our failure to be correct, there is more than a slight philosophical and technological difference. The astronaut is living out the necessity of his space capsule (no room for a giant refrigerator, and slim chances of finding thyme on Mars); the ethically-and-ecologically correct Sunwarmer is living out his Utopia. What they have in common is that both are phenomenally expensive ways of living.
Nor is the expense just financial. The astronaut will come back down to earth - he hopes. So, after a few generations, will the Sunwarmer. The astronaut will come down out of boredom, and the Sunwarmer out of the realisation that we - the only species that sometimes eats when it's not hungry, too often drinks when it's not thirsty, and makes love when it wants to, and less and less for reproductive purposes - will have shot ourselves in our collective foot by pursuing Utopias. Some other species, somewhat better adapted, and somewhat more economical, will take over.
We have grown healthier and live longer through a combination of genetic selection, improved sanitation, better medicines and a more efficient diet. We survive thanks to amino acids which, when transformed, form proteins. Yes, these are found in greens and cheeses and milk products; they are found more economically and more effectively in meat.
We have learned over centuries to defend ourselves against Nature. It seems the height of folly to defy it when, left unkilled and unregulated, it would kill us in a trice. But that is the way of Utopias. They are imaginative but homicidal. Besides being as ethically-enforcing as the worst totalitarianism. After all, the Gulag was an enforced diet.
And then, there is the question of pleasure. Without which, even Sunwarm Farm would be Cold ComfortReuse content