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Save the Planet; Eat Wood

Save the Planet; Eat Wood

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?

Related:
Are You Hungry for Lab-Grown Meat?

Read more: Blogs, Conservation, Eating for Health, Environment, Following Food, Food, Green, Nature, Reduce, Recycle & Reuse, Technology, , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

90 comments

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3:17PM PDT on Oct 30, 2014

Live long and prosper

8:50PM PDT on Jun 21, 2013

Interesting. Different. Unappetizing. Unenvironmental if chopping down the trees we are all trying to save. Who knows what the future may bring - facemasks and wood food?

10:28AM PDT on Jun 14, 2013

Never say never, the day may come when you have to eat what ever you can get your hands on. Even Monsanto trees.

10:07AM PDT on Jun 14, 2013

?

8:22AM PDT on Jun 14, 2013

ty

8:12AM PDT on Jun 14, 2013

If your Play-Doh smelled like pastry dough, you must have been eating some nasty pastry.

5:38AM PDT on Jun 14, 2013

well i have heard that a certain amount of wood is already in high grain breads ( probably splintered wood off of broken pallets)

3:10AM PDT on Jun 14, 2013

ty

1:21AM PDT on Jun 14, 2013

Yeah, and then we go chopping down forests for this! No thanks!
I don't think the solution for this overpopulated world is to play with chemistry and change the cellulose so we can have synthetic starch that's coming out of the lab. It would be a much better approach to try and reduce the food waste and distribute the food we have equally between everyone.

12:13AM PDT on Jun 14, 2013

Tyvm...

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