Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Sustainable protein–in SPACE!

If meat is an unsustainable protein source, what could replace it?

I ask the question because, unfortunately, meat production from livestock is an extremely resource-intensive exerciseThere literally are not enough resources on Planet Earth to feed everyone in the world a protein-rich, Western-style diet. You don’t have to be vegan to look at the facts and figure that out.

One of the most pernicious myths about meat, in my opinion, is the idea that confined animal feeding operations (abbreviated CAFOs) are more efficient and less expensive than less intensive farming methods. Say what you will about pollutionantibiotic resistance, and other serious problems, its proponents argue, at the end of the day, CAFOs produce more meat, more efficiently.

Well, only if you leave out several, really important costs, and only look at market price, it appears. Kernels of truth may be embedded in those myths, but they don’t stand up well to scrutiny.

It turns out varying degrees of rather large difference could be made if we Westerners made relatively small adjustments to our diets. My April blog posts have mostly been about Spaceship Earth, but questions raised on this terrestrial ball grow more crucial on the Final Frontier.

The designers of the Bernal Sphere in the 1970s envisioned intensive agriculture as the way to feed space colonists. They didn’t know then what we know all too well now. Painting by Rick GuidiceNASA Ames Research Center.

I recently gave Ty Frank and Daniel Abraham, AKA James S. A. Coreya hard time about the diet of fungi and fermentation on their fictional Ceres, but I’ve done much of the same research they likely did. I think they didn’t “sell” their Ceres diet in a very appealing manner, possibly to make an artistic point about the desperate awfulness of life on Ceres.

Truth is, many innovative ways are being developed to use both fungi and fermentation in food production. This includes the creation of milk that is molecularly identical to cow-sourced milk, and logically leads to many other dairy products, made from yeast and sugars.

Cow-free dairy products–brought to you by fungi and fermentation–with some help from Perfect Day Foods.

When you put it that way, life on Ceres might be grim and desperate, but there’d be ice cream! (Well, there SHOULD be). Lactose-free, to boot! Such a deal! This doesn’t answer where the sugars come from, although there’s a variety of options. But the innovations don’t stop with dairy products.

Hampton Creek Foods went through quite a bit of turmoil after the video above was made. They’ve come out on the other side of controversy and scandal as JUST, a smaller company–but their products are still available, and apparently commercially viable. Their egg-less solutions depend on using plant-sourced substitutes: pea protein, for their Just Mayo, sorghum for Just Cookies and Just Dough, and mung beans for Just Scramble.

But many of the best protein sources are meat/animal muscle-basedalthough “the best” depends on how you define “best.” JUST is tackling the problem of “clean” meat, too–and so are others.

The first lab-grown meat was unveiled in 2013 by Mark Post of Maastricht University. It was made using beef stem cells, as well as vegetable-sourced ingredients.

The livestock industry, not surprisingly, has mounted a defense against calling any meatlike cultured protein “meat,” much less “clean meat” (the horror! Although apparently “pink slime” is perfectly acceptable to call “meat”?)

JUST is going for a completely non-animal-sourced clean meat, but most of the pioneering attempts in that field begin with animal stem cells. However they make it, the process won’t require the same levels of resource-use, and it won’t involve slaughtering animals. That strikes me as a win-win, even while planetbound.

Although early attempts at clean meat have turned out to be relatively dry and extremely expensive, this industry is still in its infancy–and already the taste is improving. By the time Balchu tries to take Shady’s mind off her troubles by tossing bacon strips to her, the “carneries” of Rana Station will have perfected a delicious little piece of pork-flavored heaven with nary an oink nor a squeal in its origin.

“Outredgeous” Romaine lettuce in the Veggie Plant Growth Facility: will this someday be an “heirloom varietal” for space-farers?

Whatever we end up doing in space and in artificial, space-or non-terrestrial-based habitats, we’ll have to eat. Plants are likely to be the foundation of all space-grown food. They’ve been doing plant-growing experiments on the International Space Station for years. In 2015, this resulted in the successful cultivation-to-edibility of a type of red Romaine lettuce called “Outredgeous,” which expedition crew members were officially cleared to eat. It was grown in the Veggie Plant Growth Facility onboard.

To quote Astronaut Scott Kelly, it was “One small bite for man, one giant leap for #NASAVEGGIE.” What next? Perhaps to infinity, and beyond!

IMAGES: Many thanks to The World Resources Institute, for the chart of compared resources required to produce types of food; to FranceInfo, for the photo of the US feedlot; to Medium, artist Rick Guidice, and NASA Ames Research Center for the Bernal Sphere image; to Perfect Day Foods, for the “Favorite Things” dairy lineup illustration; to Bloomberg and YouTube, for the video about the chicken-less egg substitutes; to Borgen Magazine for the photo of the pioneering meat patty; and to NASA and Space.com, via my Space Station Designs Pinterest Board, for the photo of the space-grown lettuce.

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2 Comments

  1. A very interesting read. Nice to know when we colonise space, if I’m still alive, I won’t have to change my diet.

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