Ramble: The Future of Food

This is an article I submitted to an online magazine many, many years ago. I can’t even remember the name of the magazine, but they liked it, posted it and paid me a whopping great ten dollars. I’d like to say I saved the ten bucks, framed it. I didn’t. I’m sentimental, but not about money.

The future of food: Will everything be synthesized?

Last night was a typical scene in my apartment.  My roommate and I in our respective positions on the couch, getting our daily dose of Star Trek.  We sit there for several long minutes, each of us apparently enthralled, until one must dispel this illusion, either by comment or question.  These queries are usually phrased in either of the following methods:

“You know what I hate about this series?” or “Why is it that….?”

Of course the comment is only related in context to the theme of the show by virtue of the fact that we are actually watching it. It’s part of a subtle jostling for position; we both sit there, night after night, but must pretend to the other that it’s through morbid fascination rather than actual interest or sheer enjoyment of the series.

Last night’s little gem?  Whilst the crew of Voyager valiantly fought to save their captain from the ‘persistence of vision’, roommate and I were completely focussed on a different issue entirely: how the replicators work.  We started postulating theories from the point a simple cup was brought from storage for the captain’s use.  Voyager has storage facilities?  I guess that’s what the cargo bays are for. Maybe those barrels clustered about Seven of Nine’s regeneration pod are not nuclear waste after all (sorry, should that be warp core refuse?), but cups, saucers and fine English bone china, with assorted matching millinery of course.  But I digress.

What I really want to know, the question that is going to be at the forefront of my mind until I properly research it like the good little internet junkie I am, is this: Does food from the replicators have any nutritional value?

Theoretically, it must.  Star Trek crews have been surviving quite nicely on rations from these little marvels of modern science for generations.  But how is it accomplished?  Are they merely producing synthesized food, or as the name suggests, is the food a full replication of the original?

Consider this: They cannot replicate a human being.  Whether this is a convenient moral restraint by our show’s producers—we’ll call them ‘Starfleet Command’—or an actual limitation of replicator technology is not clear.  This very consideration alone has produced many lively and enlightened debates among the residents of the couch, namely the roommate and myself… the cats’ opinions being discounted as uninformed, or course.

I suspect the former theory.  Surely it would be in direct violation of the Prime Directive to replicate people merely upon a whim?  The doctor would be rendered impotent, and he’s my favorite character (not that I’m a raving fan…).  Plots would fall flat and story lines would wander erratically, bordering on irrelevance, if our heroes never really had to fear for their lives.  In fact, the very use of replicators for the reproduction of human beings poses the same moral issues and constraints as the cloning debate… a discussion for another article, to be sure.

So I have established there are limitations to the function of replicators.  If they cannot produce people, then how on earth do they go about replicating any basic, but complete biological being?  Last night’s ‘test subject’ was a turkey.  Of course there was no reference to turkeys in the episode that we were watching; in fact, I think the poor animal was selected for discussion merely because we’d been distracted by Christmas advertising and our minds had inevitably turned to festive fare. Succulent fowl, to be precise.

The proposed scenario was to order a plate of turkey.  Of course we would expect this to be delivered neatly sliced on a plate, with a selection of appropriate vegetables and the proper condiments, gravy and cranberry sauce.  Presentation aside, this seems a relatively uncomplicated task until you actually extrapolate the entire process of production.

A favourite theory, suggested by myself, is that there is a ‘little guy’ in there.  He cooks the bird to mouth watering perfection, slices it, procures a plate, artfully arranges your meal complete with sides and cutlery, then with a wave of his magic wand (that button secreted in a side panel inside the unit), has it appear as if from vapour on the dispenser shelf of your personal unit.  Excuse me while I salivate…

But where did the turkey come from?  One of those storage crates in cargo bay three?  I think not.  After all, a primary function of the replicator units, beyond sustenance of our fearless crew, would be to minimize the need for storing vast amounts of perishable items.  Beyond archives of data, that is.

Perhaps my roommate’s theory is more sound.  The replicators work on the same notion as the transporters.  Patterns are stored then reproduced at command. We would assume that the bird was replicated in its entirety, a complete and biological being.  But surely the inability to yield humans precludes such beings as animals, including our feathered friends.

The glaring error in both of these theories is their complete violation of our own ‘prime directive’.  The replicators cannot produce complete biological beings.  What’s the difference between a turkey and a human?  Apart from the wings, of course.  Really very little when you’re at this level.  They are both highly complex organisms, both even have a little brain function!

At this juncture, my roommate harks back to his posit that the replicators merely store data.  And again I argue back that a whole being simply can’t be reproduced.  We are at a stalemate.  Momentarily.  If the confounded machine can produce nutritional meals made from meat—biological matte—why can’t it replicate people?

So how does the darned turkey get in there?  Perhaps they are only replicated ‘slices’ after all and I am worrying unnecessarily over the bigger issues, like where the slices actually come from.  Of course this always brings me back to my original point, my question: if a biological being can’t be replicated, is there any nutritional value in those no doubt succulent turkey slices?

A mystery of the ages?  Perhaps not.  Merely another point of discussion to keep my roommate and I enthralled, hanging on the edge of our couch night after night.  One mustn’t delve too deeply beneath the surface of these things or try to pick too many holes in the fabric of illusion that each episode weaves for our enjoyment.  The show is meant to be entertainment, after all.

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