Lately, a growing battalion of largely well-intentioned, data-wielding trooth-sayers insist that we all ought to eat bugs.
Granted, many people already do and it's really nothing new, but don't let these facts dissuade the mindful eater (and who among us here is not) from jumping aboard this noble Kool-aid-stand-cum-bandwagon. There really is a lot going on with insects: The've got loads of protein, fat, and some minerals to boot. They also emit way fewer greenhouse gas emissions than livestock. They use a reduced use of water and land, and give off much less waste.
For all these reasons and more, my former colleagues and I at Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen spent the last four-plus years investigating the eating potential of insects. We tasted dozens of species in more than ten countries across six continents. There were luxurious termite queens in Kenya, palm weevil larvae in Uganda and Peru, and mortally venomous giant hornets in Japan, many of which are already nutritional and gastronomic heavy-hitters. There is clearly great potential here.
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But I wonder if we cannot and should not go further. Why stop at insects? Why be satisfied with their admittedly glowing report card of optimised efficiency when we could go all the way? The logical conclusion of this train of thought, as far as I can see, is clear: Let us engineer the perfect closed loop. Let us eat, and only eat, our own poop.
This modest pooposal is not as far-fetched as it might first sound. So let me try to nip any doubts in the bud. A common objection often involves nutritional composition. How would faeces ever be nutritive enough to sustain the life from which it came? The key lies in processing. As it turns out, faeces is quite a complex substance. In addition to the waste of digested foods, there is actually quite a bit of useful material to reclaim from it: undigested or unabsorbed proteins, fats, carbohydrates, micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, and even some enzymes. There is fibre, water, and dead cells from the body in there—such as red blood cells and cells from the intestinal lining—not to mention many of the microorganisms living in the gastrointestinal tract.
Often around 50 percent of the original energy contained in the ingested food is still left in the faecal matter, so there's quite some recon potential. Using existing sewage treatment and fractionating technologies, it is possible, in principle, to obtain safe, pure, nutritive compounds that could be recombined in new ways to meet all of our nutritional needs. And these technologies will only become more sophisticated with time.
A common rebuttal then addresses recovery rate. Let's say that faecal matter does become our entire food source: Even if we assume that 50 percent of the energy of ingested food is not absorbed by the body, then each cycle of ingestion and reclamation will reduce the total faeces-derived food supply by half—and that's not even taking into account whether there are still the right amounts of proteins and fats and other things.
There are at least a few strategies we can use to address this issue. The first and most viable solution involves microbes. As I mentioned before, our faeces is already rich with gut bacteria and fungi, and the most nutritive of these are what we will be able to mass-culture. With further research, we will likely be able to tweak their yield and even induce their production of different nutritive compounds as necessary so that we will be able to generate the remaining 50 percent of our energy and nutrition from the faeces itself.
Another possible solution involves existing animal livestock. Once there is no longer any reason to eat all these cows and their kin, we can instead release them and let them roam free, harvesting some of their faeces as necessary for similar processing.
Animal ethics—and indeed plant ethics—will become a moot point. The only organisms we will need to use for our own sustenance will be a handful of microbes, which don't even really count as "other" because they are already a part of our bodies. Ultimately, it will be a fun and by no means insurmountable design challenge to come up with a broad array of approaches to ensure reclamation stays at, or even exceeds, 100 percent. That's what #innovation and Silicon Valley are for.
Even though faecal recycling is demonstrably possible, the primary objection at this point has to do with disgust. Who would eat it? Many are skeptical we could get our entire species to start eating their own excrement, but the psychological research suggests that humans' disgust towards faeces is not innate but learned, and thus may be unlearned as well.
For a start, many animals already exhibit what is known as coprophagia, or the eating of faeces. Elephants, hippos, koalas, pandas, and others are born with sterile digestive tracts, and the young eat their mother's faeces in order to inoculate their own intestines with the right microbes. Dogs, rabbits, monkeys, and others have also been observed eating faeces, of their own and other species (God knows what for, but they do). As for human culture, it can alter designations of disgust quite quickly. Look at the recent debate around so-called "recycled water," or water reclaimed from sewage through an extensive process of filtration and sanitation. Though recycled water comes out much purer than regular tap water, at first, many people would refuse to drink it. But this response is starting to change. And if we can learn anything from the history of food processing and marketing, it is that abstracting foods into different forms can be a highly effective way to get people to eat them. Consider, say, cricket flour, or fractionated black soldier fly fat.
In short, we can poop our poop and eat it too. And we should. Auto-coprophagy is not only entirely possible, it is also the most environmentally and ethically sound option for human civilisation on this planet for the long term. Food diversity is a bother, a gross inefficiency, and a never-ending problem for both the planet and people everywhere.
The only truly responsible course of action is to take our diets fully into our own hands and directly out of our rectums. The ultimate modernist diet is not insects, or even Soylent, as certain crazed technocrats might like us to believe; the ingredients still come from somewhere, and that somewhere, sooner or later, will be destroyed as a result.
Why be reformist when we can be revolutionary? Why wait for doom when we can rise up and choose our fate? No, my friends: the dream of complete self-sufficiency is within our grasp, and it begins, ineluctably, at our anuses.
Every day this week, MUNCHIES is exploring the future of food on planet Earth, from lab-grown meat and biohacking to GMOs and the precarious state of our oceans. Find out more here.
Josh Evans is a postgraduate student at Cambridge University. He was formerly the lead researcher at the Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen and is featured in the documentary film, BUGS.