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Sewage burgers and the human future

Science

Are Japanese sewage burgers the future of food? As the Asian continents grow more prosperous and consume more beef, and as beef cattle release volumes of greenhouse gasses that dwarf the interstate highway system in climatological significance, scientists are looking for a dinner table alternative to hoofs on the ground.

Enter Japanese scientist Mitsuyuki Ikeda, who is reported to have developed a way to turn (brace yourself) human feces into simulated beef. He takes "sewage mud," which is high in protein on account of its bacteria content, adds soy proteins and food coloring, puts it through his machine, and out comes chuck.

Now, there is reason to believe that this story might be a hoax, but Douglas Powell, a food safety expert at Kansas State University, views it as technologically plausible. So it's worth considering the idea.

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Though it appears to be mad science, it is actually the natural trajectory of our modern conquest of nature. You see, this story is not fundamentally about beef-it's about Bacon … Francis Bacon, the 17th century philosopher of science.

Bacon made the original argument for what we call experimental "science" in his 1620 book The New Organon: "Nature to be commanded must be obeyed." He meant that the more of nature's invisible operations we can discover, the more we will be able to command our world by harnessing those operations for our own purposes.

And he warned us not to be snobbish about our investigations into nature. Things that the well-born consider beneath one's attention-grubs and stool samples-must be a researcher's nosy occupation. "The sun enters the sewer no less than the palace, yet takes no pollution," Bacon wrote.

But science is not only about knowledge, Bacon pointed out: "Human knowledge and human power meet in one." And so from musk we get perfume, and we turn black sludge into casing for iPads. Why then should we recoil at the thought of turning human waste into lunch?

There is certainly a lot to be said for modern science, most of it obvious. But science becomes scientism-not freeing, but constraining-when it demands that we restrict all our judgments to its ways of knowing. So in this case, though harvesting scat for food would be efficient, there is this problem: It's beneath human dignity. Dignity is not a "scientific" concept. You can't isolate dignity in a Petri dish, but empirical science is not our only window onto reality.

Is what we leave behind after evacuating only so much protein, carbohydrates, lipids, and minerals? Are we? If we are, then God is dead and all is permitted. But no one lives that way. That summary of life does not account for life as we know it. In that respect, it's bad science. C.S. Lewis argues that seeing man through only this lens means "the abolition of man."

Powell, the food safety professor, is fine with this new fare, so long as we cook it thoroughly. We eat plants that grow in soil fertilized with dung, don't we? But we don't eat the dung. And we don't return to our own vomit or to anything of that sort.

Where will such inhumanly pragmatic research lead when we're fine with this? Soylent Green comes to mind. ("Soylent Green is made out of people! They're making our food out of people!") If we eat dead cows, why waste all those dead human beings? Full of protein! Think of hungry people in Africa … and inexpensive, nutritious meals in public schools! Let's not be squeamish. Let's be scientific about this. Or we could be more fully human about our science, whether or not these tales of sewage burgers are true.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.

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