The Future of Sustenance Isn't Actually Food, Says Futurist
If you think the chefs of today are creative, the cooks of the dystopia will blow your palate away.
It’s no secret that feeding our massive, hungry, ever-growing planet is going to present a series of difficult challenges. Greenhouse gases from livestock already make raising cows for meat unsustainable. If climate change continues escalating at the same rate, swaths of farmland will be rendered useless. Innovation will play a role in helping to stretch our precious reserves farther, for example by unearthing ways to turn wastewater and human poop into sustenance. But billionaire entrepreneur and futurist Naveen Jain tells Inverse humans will have to figure out how to gain energy and nutrients without the use of food.
“Growing food is not the answer, it’s a symptom of how we live now,” he explains. “What we really need to solve is how do we provide nutrients and energy.”
Jain recently published a book titled Moonshots where he explores how people can bring about an abundance of energy and clean water, power the spacecraft of the future, and, eventually, eliminate the need to raise animals and grow crops for food.
One theory about how we might one day be able to do this is by tapping nuclear waste, which exists in abundance. Nuclear power plants produce an annual estimate of 34,000 cubic meters of “high-level nuclear waste,” according to a 2007 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The European Nuclear Society tallied a total of 450 large-scale nuclear power plants in 2016, which would mean 15,300,000 cubic meters of nuclear is created every year. That’s enough to fill 6,120 Olympic swimming pools annually.
Jain believes we may one day be able to harness the power of nuclear waste-eating bacteria by using the gene-editing technology CRISPR.
“We’ve found bacterial organisms thriving in radioactive nuclear waste,” he explains. “Nature has figured out how to protect its DNA from very high radiation. That means we could take the genes from those bacteria, use CRISPR in vivo to modify our own genes to become radiation resistant and even make radiation a source of energy.”
It’s perhaps a less farfetched idea than it sounds. Researchers at the University of Manchester recently discovered waste-eating bacteria that can survive in conditions similar to radioactive waste dumping sites. And the bacteria Deinococcus radiodurans is one of the most radiation-resistant organisms ever discovered.
These molecules may provide a starting point for developing nutrient and energy-bestowing radiation, Jain says. CRISPR allows scientists to change gene function, remove a gene, or make a gene more active. In theory, this could be used to alter human genes to match that of this kind of microbial life. But we’re still a long ways away from large-scale CRISPR editing on living human subjects.
Therapeutic use of the technology is still in its early stages, and Northwestern University neuroscience Ph.D., student Nalini Rao believes Jain’s idea could be far better suited to help make our current crops more resistant for the time being.
“Using CRISPR to harness the ability of those bacteria to investigate how they are able to use radiation as food is fascinating,” she says. “Doing this on plants, crops, or smaller organisms to help us understand how it works is far more feasible than sticking it into humans though. We still don’t exactly know what could happen if we do that.”
In other words, there might me more promising — and more near-term — applications for CRISPR that can keep human beings fed. But a future where we don’t need to be fed at all isn’t completely impossible, either, it’s more of a moonshot.