Photo Credit: Cea

When you hear the words “FUTURE” and “FOOD” together, what do you think of? Vat-grown meat? Nutrient cubes? Soylent Green? Privatization of water? Rocketing food prices? Riots?

I have good and bad news: the future is already here. Dutch scientists successfully grew “in vitro meat” using stem cells this year. Meanwhile, according to complexity theorists in Massachusetts, we’re less than a year away from global riots over the price of food.

The future seems to arrive most often in stages. Think of smart phones: it took us over a century to get to the point where I can check my email, look at Gozamos’s twitter feed, listen to my voicemail, and text someone — all on the train to work, using my thumbs. The path technology took to this point is easily traced: wired communication in the late 19th century, telephones in the early 20th, computing machines in the 40’s and 50’s, faxes in the 60’s, personal computers in 70’s, the Internet in the 80’s, digital photography and cell phones in the 90’s.

Now, if you could travel back in time just to show someone your nifty smartphone, how far back could you go before that person was intellectually overwhelmed by what we were showing them? When would we be unable to communicate its purpose? At one point would this technology be so far beyond their comprehension that they couldn’t conceive of it?

Very little popular technology arrives in a vacuum of understanding. We have to be able to comprehend what it does before it becomes commercially viable, even if it’s only in the rough way most of us understand popular technology. (Can you explain to an eight-year-old how wi-fi works? Me neither.) The blogger Venkatesh Rao coined the term “Normalization Field” in reference to this kind of cognitive dissonance, and it’s sufficiently futuristic-sounding to make me love it. The idea of a Normalization Field is that it’s a bubble of, if not actual understanding, then at least acceptance. Too much information can disrupt the field, as can anything that is sufficiently weird enough. The field can stretch to accept things a limited amount before we’re revolted and nauseated by the new experience. Rao used the term “future nausea”.

Though Rao was writing about technology in general, this pertains to food. We don’t realize how deep our expectations and taboos about food go. How many of you got a little queasy while reading the phrase “in-vitro meat”? Anything too far out of our personal normalization fields weird triggers the gag reflex.

What we eat and the way we eat it: these things lie in an uneasy crossroads between tradition and future. Take, for example, genetically modified organisms. Whether we like it or not, most of us consume GMOs every day, usually in the form of corn- and soy-based products, sugar derived from sugar beets and canola oil.

Unless you’re foraging most of your food, all the food we eat is distinct from its wild ancestors, due to 10,000 years of selective breeding. Teosinte, the closest wild relative to domesticated corn, is about the size of your thumb.

Selective breeding, however, is a far cry from the kind of alterations that happen in labs. Most GMOs are created for specific purposes: to repel pests or make plants hardier. Some, like Golden Rice, are enriched to make them more nutritious. There are species of fish that have shorter development times and pigs that produce less methane.

GMOs are problematic for many reasons. For one thing, genetic sequences are copyrightable material. Monsanto, for example, currently owns the patents for a number of GM crops, and farmers are unable to breed their own crops or save their own seeds. Doing so makes them liable for copyright infringement, and suing is one of the things Monsanto does best, as small farmers in the Midwest have known for years.

While the FDA and the European Food Safety Authority both ruled in favor of allowing genetically modified food on the market, several groups have raised questions concerning the safety of consuming GMOs, including Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund. One group of scientists have published findings that claim that the consumption of GM corn had adverse health effects on mammals, causing cancer and the degradation of liver and kidney tissues. However, this group’s reports have faced criticism from other scientists over their methodology and objectivity. This is far from a coup, though many anti-GMO activists have been treating it as such.

The thing is, most anti-GMO activists are ideologues, who make emotion-fueled arguments that are, unfortunately, sometimes based on bad science. Thus, despite the many reasons to seek out alternatives to the genetic tinkering of our food supply, they keep coming back to the safety issue. It’s the easiest one to sell people on and goes right back to the idea of future nausea.

The quandary that humanity finds itself in, time after time, is fearing our own cleverness. Mary Shelly wasn’t the first or the last to have nightmares over the monsters it’s possible for humans to create, even with the best intentions.

What do you think? Is genetic modification a helpful technology? Or is it dangerous?

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