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Food & Drink: Futurology - An alien at my table

Forget the butcher and the baker, the scientist already plays the greatest single role in shaping what we eat and that involvement will increase. Charles Arthur looks for foods that are out of this world
Would you like some more processed blue-green algae on your toast? Perhaps a drop more soya milk in your tea? And don't forget to follow it up with some breakfast yogurt - enriched with bacteria and proteins to leave you brimming with health. Oh, and have some poached eggs - they're from genetically-engineered chickens so they contain special fatty acids which actually lower your cholesterol.

That's not such a leap into the future; you could have a diet like that today (assuming you can bear the taste of soya milk). If it sounds dire, just bear in mind that it encapsulates the future of food - heading simultaneously in two directions, to haute cuisine and junk. It will feed the best of tastes, it will feed the worst of tastes.

Your food future might be organically-farmed foods, with full-fibre high- vitamin booster supplements; there will be many more varieties and flavours, exotic combinations of foods which are extra healthy and which even the supermarket chains haven't dreamt of, because scientists haven't devised them yet.

Or it could very well consist of latter-day Pot Noodles, made from a blue-green algae farmed on huge reservoirs and then flavoured and textured beyond recognition (which won't be such a bad thing, since it tasted foul originally). There'll be more processed junk, cheap packages of edible rubbish that the supermarkets don't offer because scientists haven't devised them yet.

Which may lead you to wonder who let the scientists in. And the answer is: everyone. Food has long ceased to be the province of kindly ruddy- cheeked farmers and dirndled damsels plucking strawberries and apples (if it ever was). Just think of BSE, and the industrial processes in the farms, abattoirs, rendering plants and food manufacturers that all had to be in place for that killer disease to run briefly out of control. Don't forget the 700 million broiler chickens living in battery farms either, harvested for their eggs and flesh. Talk about food nowadays and you're discussing something so commercialised and cost-shaved that it could show the military-industrial complex a trick or two.

But we have lost out in the process. Post-war, you would have to visit a row of shops to pick from perhaps a few hundred foods; though many of those would be freshly-prepared. Now, any supermarket will offer thousands of choices - but fewer that are freshly-made. Instead you are offered processed this, microwaveable that, and freeze-dried other. You see a supermarket shelf with a Ready To Cook Wild Mushroom Risotto For One; the agribusiness analyst sees an unbroken chain of growers, pickers (soon to be replaced by machines), supply chains, just-in-time delivery systems.

But let's deal with the good news about our food's future first, because it's linked inextricably to the bad side. The real advances being made in food are understanding what makes one thing taste as it does - and that means understanding genes.

Why genes? Because they are the blueprint of any organism. Genes tell plants and animals how to grow, what shape to be and what to be made of - what proteins to build themselves from, how much and what sort of fat to lay down, plus a myriad of chemicals that evolution in its blind wisdom has determined are useful, one way or another. And in the end that translates into whether the food on your plate is a delight or a bore.

Unsure? Imagine two apples, a Cox's Orange Pippin and a Golden Delicious: what determines that one has a sharp, sweet, firm taste and texture, while the other tastes like wet cardboard? It's the plant's genes.

Graham King at Horticulture Research International can tell you which genes, too. Well, nearly. "There's more acid in a Cox's than a Golden Delicious," he explains. "But it's the same gene that eventually produces that acid." The clue is that another gene in the plant modifies the action of the acid-making gene. "Maybe we could, if we wanted, make Golden Delicious more acid, and so more tasty."

Then again, maybe not for a while. An apple's DNA contains about 50,000 genes, and while scientists have laid down a few milestones, Dr King reckons it'll be another ten years at least before they have them all mapped out - including their function. Once that's done, you'll be able to make designer apples, with tweaked tastes and scents. We can already turn off genes - Zeneca managed that in the 1980s, snipping out a gene that creates a crucial plant hormone from a tomato's DNA. The result: it takes 40 per cent longer before it rots. Superstores were delighted.

Though of course just because you can make such a "tweaked" food doesn't mean you'll be any good at it. Fiddling with organisms to alter their flavour and texture means playing with a complex mixture. The aroma of apples, for example, is a subtle mixture of more than 200 organic compounds. How many recipes have you made recently which had that many individual ingredients? And what did it taste like?

No surprise therefore that scientists are looking at simpler ways of messing around with genes to make food cheaper and more abundant. That means putting in characteristics that will make something grow bigger, or faster, or more prolifically; or in some cases, easier to farm.

Take the case of cattle. The BSE debacle hasn't stopped us wanting to keep playing God with them. The present favoured notion is to make them bigger - not by injecting them full of artificial hormones - but by identifying the genes that naturally make big cattle.

There are breeds - Belgian Blue and Charolais - which occasionally throw up enormous cows, weighing up to a fifth more than usual. Sometimes the calves are too large to be born in the womb. A team at Johns Hopkins University in the US stumbled across the reason why earlier this year, when they knocked out a gene called GDF-8 (it stands for Growth Differentiation Factor) in mice while investigating stunting diseases. To their surprise, the mice were huge, squeaking Schwarzeneggers. GDF-8 is also found in those huge cattle. Ironically, cattle breeders want to identify it so they can get rid of those cattle which have a double dose of the gene, to avoid the calving troubles. See how long that resolve lasts when the food companies roll up. It's also easier to add genes than tweak them: sheep are now being bred which secrete useful human proteins in their milk.

The trouble with genetic engineering is that despite its widespread availability it doesn't come cheap. Every genetically-modified organism has to go through years of tests to make sure it will not have a harmful effect. And there's a related problem: genetic engineering can't meet all our needs. Professor Malcolm Elliott, founder of the Institute of Plant Science Research at De Montfort University, works on breeding more prolific crops. He describes organic farming as "an ornament of rich countries' agricultural systems". Fifteen million people die of starvation every year. Rice is the most widely-eaten food; but to meet need, yields would have to increase by 70 per cent annually. Genetic engineering can promise only 30 per cent.

For both those reasons, genetic engineering isn't going to answer the really big demands for more food. It will generate foods that tickle our palates, but filling bellies is a trickier task. What would be really good would be some food source that's already widespread; something we could take and turn into a staple food. Enter the blue-green algae spirulina, which is now being touted as a nutritional saviour. That's because it's very good at turning sunlight into plant material, contains more protein by weight than red meat (about 70 per cent compared to 22 per cent), low fats, and contains vitamin B12 (unusual for vegetarian foods) and all the essential amino acids that the body can't make for itself.

Yet it's not all good news about spirulina. The American author Suzanne Rostler wrote, "Its fans call it `brain food,' claiming it has powers to boost energy, stimulate the immune system, heighten mental clarity and increase sexual stamina. Its detractors say it is nothing more than pricey pond scum and the latest bit of nutrition quackery. Eating it can cause nausea and vomiting. Some strains have been found to cause paralysis in laboratory animals."

And what's more, it's blue. Truth be told, it tastes pretty foul too: the most popular versions are sold as drinks sweetened with fructose, the sugar found in fruits. (Some find spirulina too tame and prefer grasses. How do they taste? "Like you just mowed the lawn," said one taster.)

But wait for agribusiness to get its hands on spirulina. Acre for acre, it produces far more protein than animals or even soya. We want more snack food but won't give up the land; they'll find the answer.

Scum of the earth? No, of the oceans. You won't recognise spirulina after it has been superfarmed, genetically spruced up and turned into snack food. There's already an Internet page offering spirulina recipes - where the first three are spirulina dip ("goes with celery and carrot sticks"), spirulina popcorn, and spirulina potato chips. We'll snack our way through the new millennium.

Those films depicting eating in future as a dreary business, filled with labelled plastic packages so you don't mistake the chicken chasseur for the strawberry pie (think of Star Trek, or 2001: A Space Odyssey) weren't so far wrong. The brave new world is almost on your plate. More helpings of blue pond scum, anyone?.