There was a time when food aid meant skeletal Africans, sacks of grain thrown out of airplanes, and Bob Geldof swearing on the telly. There are still plenty of deprived people to help, but we’ve made enough technological progress that we can now send all kinds of interesting things to the Third World. The rich harvest of Silicon Valley is spreading around the globe: Last year it was laptops and wifi balloons, and now we can add DIY Soylent to that mix.
That’s the idea of Hank Pellissier, previously managing director of technoprogressive think tank Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and now head of BrighterBrains.org, which he calls a “think and do tank” focussing on improving mental and neurological health.
“There’s one billion people in the world with intestinal parasites that damage the brain, there’s 850 million people in extreme poverty that are malnourished,” Pellissier explained. “That’s a lot of unnecessary brain damage going on.” His plan is to send two tonnes of DIY Soylent—the nutrient-rich goo taking Silicon Valley by storm—to 140 children of the Alangan Mangyan tribe, who live in the upper reaches of the Mindoro island in the Philippines.
Pellissier has been involved with the Mangyan villagers for over 10 years. He bought seven hectares of land that the village in Mindoro sits on, and previously tried to establish chicken farming so that the villagers would have a reliable source of protein. He was inspired in his latest plan by a New Yorker interview with Soylent creator Rob Rhinehart, and when Soylent turned down Pellissier’s request to donate food to the Philippines, he sought out those involved in the do-it-yourself scene at powderedfoods.com. A crowdfunding campaign was launched to raise the $5,000 needed for materials and shipping.
"I find it appalling that people want to go to Mars but they neglect the fact that there are millions of people in the world who are starving."
Pellissier isn’t advocating Soylent as a complete food replacement for the islanders, but a supplement. “The kids’ diet is very starchy, based on cassava and tubers, sweet potatoes and lacks protein. Everyone there has TB, which spreads amongst people with a weakened diet, particularly one low in protein. I think the powdered foods will give them this protein,” he said.
Whether the Mangyan villagers will take to a food that’s been described as tasting like uncooked pancake batter is a point of concern. “Maybe they’ll be a little resistant,” conceded Pellissier. “I had a hard time getting them to take the de-worming medicine.”
They’re not the only ones to view shipping three million calories of experimental food substitute to starving children with suspicion. Mariette Abrahams, a registered dietitian and media spokesperson for the Association of UK Dietitians, was alarmed by the proposition. “What they are currently planning to do could have serious implications,” she said. “Children have different nutritional requirements to adults, and you have to add malnutrition and a lack of sanitation to that problem. The water wouldn’t be safe so you’d be worsening the situation by increasing the risk of diarrhoea”.
Chief among her concerns are refeeding syndrome, a dangerous and counterintuitive reaction to food that people on the verge of starvation face. “When you’ve not had sufficient nutrition for a long time, and you get something like this shake which is very nutritionally concentrated, you can get biochemical shifts that can be fatal. This is the case even in mild malnutrition,” Abrahams warned.
"If anything goes wrong, who is going to take responsibility?"
She’s also critical of the short time span of the DIY Soylent programme. Although two tonnes sounds like a lot, it’s really only enough to feed the children for two weeks. “Ethically, what are they going to do after the two weeks, leave the children to go back to their usual diet?” she asked.
I put it to Pellissier that the project raises serious ethical issues. Living on unproven food substitute might be an informed choice for an engineer in California to take, but what choice do starving children have? “Who is giving consent?” echoed Abrahams. “The children can’t give consent themselves. Are there any doctors involved? Is the government involved? Are the local feeding agencies involved in supervising them? If anything goes wrong, who is going to take responsibility?”
Pellissier admitted that he hadn’t thought much about consent. But, he added, “People have all kinds of reasons for not giving to charity. To me this sounds like another reason.”
There’s no doubting Pellissier’s devotion to helping the Alangan Mangyan. Raised a Catholic and reformed as a transhumanist, he now sees himself as an atheist missionary, with technology replacing God as the source of man’s salvation. “Technology has done everything for all of us; it’s hopefully going to solve more diseases and maybe death itself, and space travel, and all kinds of things” he enthused. “I find it appalling that people want to go to Mars but they neglect the fact that there are millions of people in the world who are starving.”
Indigenous groups of the world be warned: Silicon Valley’s technological utopia is coming for you too.