In grammar school, a lot of children would shamelessly eat paste. I knew about two or three kids in my grade who would routinely deplete the classroom’s paste reserves in the course of a month. Unlike Play-Doh, which did at least smell like pastry dough, paste held very little appeal for me. Still, the viscous wheat paste (intended for an assortment of craft activities) satisfied a few children’s need for vegetable starch. Go figure.
I was reminded of this odd fact when I came upon a report about the use of wood, bushes and grasses to solve our growing global food insecurity problem. Percival Zhang, an associate professor of biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech, took a hard look at the nonfood biomass that makes up our grasslands and forests, and he had a thought:
“What if we could convert the cellulose in this plentiful biomass to edible starch, which makes up 50 to 60 percent of the human diet? Maybe a technology like that could feed people while reducing the environmental impact of agriculture.”
The result of such a thought was the pioneering of a process that transforms solid cellulose — which could come from wood, grass or crop residue (like corn husks) — into a carbohydrate called amylose that would be edible (like paste) as well as nutritious (unlike paste). It is an entirely synthetic process, that is far too labor intensive right now to justify the economics of the endeavor, that would create a low-calorie, easily digestible form of cellulose to fill the belies of the masses. If this sounds far fetched, there are already plenty of companies churning out an array of processed foods that employ cellulose in various forms (cellulose gum, etc) but this is done more for the sake of texture than nutrition. What Zhang proposes is something that finds the sweet spot between filler and a solution to global food insecurity.
It is difficult to imagine ever wanting such a thing, but if an innovation like this is able to nourish an ever growing, and hungry, population, should we outright dismiss it?
Are You Hungry for Lab-Grown Meat?