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Yesterday’s Future Today

A column detailing both the surprising prescience and laughable misses of science fiction throughout history.

Will there be Leftovers?


By Nate Posey

With the election season well and truly over, Americans can now focus their full attention on the looming national crisis: the potential disappearance of Hostess Twinkies. Yes, the fate of the world’s food supply has never seemed bleaker, but the gathering storm goes well beyond the possible loss of the greatest cream-filled concoctions of all time. According to the World Health Organization, the global population is expected to surpass nine billion by the year 2050 before finally leveling off, and those additional hungry mouths will require an over thirty percent increase in total food production. Of course, you are quite right to be skeptical of any doomsayers on the topic of global starvation; the record of failed predictions of an impending and catastrophic food shortage dates all the way back to antiquity. Even as recently as 1968, Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich predicted that the world’s burgeoning population would result in massive starvation and widespread loss of life throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, a disaster whose conspicuous failure to materialize coincided with a rather nasty decline in Ehrlich’s book sales.

Ehrlich, like most other would-be prognosticators of the last few centuries, based his estimates on the reasoning of British demographer Thomas Malthus, who claimed that the geometric growth of human population would inevitably overtake the comparatively linear growth of agricultural production. As hindsight has abundantly shown, such naïve modeling has failed to sufficiently account for the expanding role of technology in agriculture as well as the various socioeconomic forces that have substantially mitigated population growth. However, the concern this time around stems from a new factor in the equation: climate change. A study organized by the United Kingdom’s Government Office of Science concluded that the depletion of aquifers and other freshwater reserves coupled with the increasing volatility of climate and weather conditions poses a very real threat to the world’s food production capacity in the coming decades. The current drought in the United States, the most widespread in twenty-five years which has impacted nearly 70% of both crop and livestock production, serves as a rather poignant harbinger for the coming difficulties.

The film poster for Fleischer’s Soylent
Green
. Hopefully we won’t have to

resort to such drastic measures to feed
the world’s growing population (source).
So, what is the solution? Unfortunately, the answers to be found in science fiction are none too inspiring. The citizens of the last remaining human city in The Matrix by the Wachowskis overcome the complete lack of arable land in their post-apocalyptic hellscape by concocting a fabricated brew of “single cell protein combined with synthetic aminos, vitamins, and minerals.” The Mycogenians in Isaac Asimov’s Prelude to Foundation turn to an equally stomach-churning dependence on cultivated yeasts and algae laced with synthesized flavors. But the grand prize for the least appetizing future cuisine goes handily to Soylent Green from Richard Fleischer’s 1973 movie of the same name. Faced with an eerily similar scenario of a runaway greenhouse effect and an exploding population, the citizens of Fleischer’s dystopia subsist almost entirely on the processed green squares from the colossal Soylent corporation. What at first brush appears a pathetically bland menu becomes positively horrifying when the truth about the squares’ ingredients comes out, a revelation which shall be forever immortalized by the frantic shouts of Charlton Heston in the film’s closing minutes: “Soylent Green is people!!” (I would apologize for the spoiler, but I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations has expired for this classic sci-fi thriller).

While industrially-scaled cannibalism seems like a stretch for 2022 (the date in Fleischer’s movie), the next several decades will assuredly lead to surprising developments in the human race’s long history with food. For example, a team of biologists at the University of Maastricht is currently attempting to grow enough beef for a hamburger in vitro, an enterprise with tremendous implications in the ethical debates on animal consumption. Such an endeavor reflects the growing significance of genetic modification in agriculture that, while certainly no cure-all for the multifarious challenges of the coming century, holds considerable promise for improving both yield and efficiency. As for me, I’m actually quite excited to see what’s cooked up in our lab-kitchens of the future; I just hope I’ll never have to give up the Jenny Craig program…



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