Food for Thought

Industrial food production separates us from our food, increasing the distance from living thing to food product. As factories continue to import corn and export almost everything we eat, writers like Michael Pollan urge us to eat "real" food, and projects like the Slow Food movement have gained over 100,000 members who strive to preserve traditional and regional ways of growing and cooking food. At the same time, a growing number of young contemporary artists also explore the distance between us and what we eat by bringing secretions of the human body into food production.

Human secretions are not unheard of in traditional food--chicha is a Latin American corn beer made from corn that is chewed by the chicha maker. Enzymes in the brewer's saliva break down the starch in the corn into simpler sugars, which are then fermented by yeast into alcohol (after a stringent sterilization procedure). Human proteins are even involved in industrial food production--human hair treated with hydrochloric acid at 100 degrees Celsius for several hours will decompose into its constituent amino acids, a mix that can be used to fortify shampoo, or cause a minor (and difficult to verify) scandal when it was found that a Chinese soy sauce producer was making its high amino acid sauce with amino acid powder made from human hair.

Of course, animal wastes are commonly used as fertilizers, rich in the nitrogen and phosphorous that plants need to grow. Jae Rhim Lee, an artist and designer at the MIT Program in Art, Culture and Technology, explored whether her own urine could be used as a fertilizer:

In April 2006 I sent my urine to a floriculture lab to determine the availability of plant nutrients in my urine. I designed and followed a customized vegan diet designed to transform my urine into a more ideal nutrient solution for plants. I built a customized, mobile urine recycling system which contained a urinal, urine processor, foam bed, kitchen, and hydroponic napa cabbage garden. I urinated, grew napa cabbages hydroponically with my urine, made kimchi from the napa cabbage, and served the kimchi to the public.

Urine also features prominently in James Gilpin's project, Family Whisky, presented at the 2010 Design Interactions Show at the Royal College of Art in London.

Large amounts of sugar are excreted on a daily basis by type-two diabetic patients especially amongst the upper end of our aging population. Is it plausible to suggest that we start utilizing our water purification systems in order to harvest the biological resources that our elderly already process in abundance? Sugar heavy urine excreted by patients with diabetes is now being utilised for the fermentation of high-end single malt whisky for export.

There is one nutrient-rich human secretion that is meant to be eaten, at least by a certain group of people for a limited time--breast milk. Artist Miriam Simun makes cheese by mixing milk provided by human mothers with cow or goat milk (for extra casein protein needed to give cheese its texture) in order to ask questions about technological food production and the ethics of industrial dairy farming. These questions fundamentally revolve around one that Gizmodo asks in the title to a recent blog post about her work--Would you eat human cheese?:

Disturbing visions of the future (or the present) may be abstracted, rationalized, swept aside. By serving human cheese, I ask people to make a decision: to eat, or not to eat. Facing the decision to ingest materializes the technological and ethical issues at hand, going beyond our rational senses to appeal to our visceral and instinctual humanness.

In doing so, I hope to engage discourse about what we eat, who we are (evolving to be), and what kind of future we want. In serving human cheese, I pose a number of questions:

As we navigate the complex landscape of technologically modified food production, how do we understand what is natural, healthy, ethical? If we reject all technologically modified food in favor of what is 'natural,' how far back to do we go? If we are to welcome new technologies into our lives, how will we continue to redefine what is natural, normal and healthy? How will this change our relationship to each other, the natural world and ourselves? If we are determined to continue to enjoy our cheese, perhaps it is most natural, ethical and healthy to eat human cheese? And if not, what other biotechnological processes does this force us to reconsider?

Technology has helped us to feed the six billion people on earth, and will be needed to continue to feed us as our population grows, but these projects and others can help us ask questions and think deeply about how this technology will proceed. We probably won't see a large market for human cheese or urine whiskey, but can we find better ways to use our wastes? How will traditional food cultures and new technologies interact to create new cuisine? Will we continue to move further and further from the sources of our food or can food technologies be more personalized, local, ecologically and energetically sustainable?

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By Plinthy the Middling (not verified) on 23 Jan 2011 #permalink

There can be actual health risks from consuming human residues. Prions are very difficult to destroy. Rendering isn't enough. Biodiesel from prion-contaminated biomass is still infectious.

Wow. Sourcing locally indeed.