Ready for a scrumptious Christmas feast? The availability of such a holiday meal, or any meal for that matter, is much more attainable for us here at home as opposed to troops away in combat zones or remote locations. But never fear! The Defense Department has unveiled a research project called Cornucopia which aims to reduce the time, cost, and complexity of delivering meals to such locations by finding ways to make nutritious foodstuffs on site. And it is to be accomplished by making things to eat out of thin air, water, and electricity.
Perhaps I am overly cautious when it comes to government plans, but I am a bit suspicious of this goal. Being a writer, I pay close attention to the words which are used. To my way of thinking, “foodstuffs” and “food” aren’t necessarily the same thing. And, after doing some digging on this topic, I am definitely on to something.
The government agency overseeing Project Cornucopia is DARPA, the Defense Advance Research Project Agency, a research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense. DARPA’s idea is to serve deployed troops meals made on site by microorganisms using water, air, electricity and little else. So far, this plan sounds less than appetizing to me. In fact, it sounds icky.
Why would anyone want to resort to using local microorganisms to provide a delicious and nutritious meal? (“Delicious,” of course, would be in the eyes of the consumer.) It’s easy for DARPA employees to call something “delicious” when they aren’t the ones having to eat it day after day. But I digress.) Producing “foodstuffs” onsite reduces the burden on the military to transport food to troops in far-off and remote locations and frees up space to ship other necessities and equipment. Ability to produce “foodstuffs” on site would also protect against supply chain issues assuming an adequate supply of water and electricity is available for this transportable system.
A formal announcement of the Cornucopia program was made on December 10, 2021. DARPA is looking for potential research partners who are interested in helping to design and test mobile systems for converting oxygen, carbon dioxide, water, and electricity into microbes that would in turn produce “food molecules,” including proteins, fats, carbs, and dietary fiber. Mmm, mmm. Is your mouth watering? Mine isn’t.
And just what microorganisms would be utilized to produce “palatable” food? Bacteria, microalgae, protzoa, and fungi would be the pantry staples. Anyone else losing their appetite reading about these food sources? But having the product taste good isn’t the only concern. What is given as a meal to troops must provide complete nutrition as well. The fighting machine has to be fueled for carrying out its duties. An army travels on its stomach, you know.
While such a scientific endeavor by DARPA may seem like a science fiction project, the idea of producing food made with microbes isn’t new. In recent years a number of companies have started up to develop microbe-produced foods for environmental reasons because traditional food production is energy-intensive. Using microbes instead results in reduced land use and less greenhouse gas emissions than conventional farming and cattle raising.
One such company which offers an alternative to meat and plant based meat replacements is Nature’s Fynd. This Chicago-based business makes a product called Fy Protein using a microorganism found in a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park. I may be a fan of the great outdoors, but protein derived from a microorganism in water found in a national park just doesn’t catch my fancy at meal time.
But mouth-watering meals haven’t been what the military has offered troops for decades anyway. For approximately four decades, a “Meal, Ready to Eat,” or MRE, provided those in the field or remote locations with sustenance. Let’s just say that the recipients of these supplies which didn’t require refrigeration were less than impressed.
How do we know that? The conclusion is easily reached from the nicknames given these self-contained individual food rations distributed when organized food facilities were not available. Calling them “Meals Rejected by Everyone” and “Meals Rarely Edible” can in no way be seen as positive feedback (no pun intended) by the consumers. On the bright side, the military has no where to go but up. Maybe “food molecules” produced from microorganisms are tastier than rations with a required shelf life of some three years.
The use of MRE’s, and thus presumably “foodstuffs” made from microorganisms, reaches beyond simply feeding troops in spartan conditions and/or at remote locations. These rations have been put to use to provide humanitarian aid and to assist in times of natural disasters. For example, the National Guard distributed them in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
While the actual food which might be produced based on the research and development done for Project Cornucopia might not be five star quality, finding a way to ensure sustenance in an environmentally friendly way during difficult conditions such as a natural disaster or combat is a laudatory goal. Thinking outside the box to address issues is often called for. But for now, I’ll take my holiday meal the old-fashioned way with food produced from traditional farming and give the microorganisms the day off. And I hope and pray the troops representing us abroad receive the same kind of meal no matter where they are serving.
Have you ever eaten an MRE? If so, how palatable was it? Is coming up with a system to make “foodstuffs” from microorganisms a good idea? Why or why not? Does knowing the origin of something you are asked to eat lead to preconceived ideas about what it will taste like?