In his 1951 seminal work “The Day of the Triffids” John Whyndham-Lewis conjures up a fictional world in which bio-engineers devise a new species of alien plants offering mankind new, improved vegetable oil. The alien species escapes out of the test-tube and begins to colonise the soil. Those seeking to curtail the rapid encroachment of the triffid are blinded by a poison directed at the victim’s eyes. There is every indication to conclude that yesterday’s fiction is today’s reality. Like the triffid, the killer in our food is highly effective at blinding all those who try to identify where he can be found. We live in a chilling world where killer alien foods are colonising our landscape and invading every single industrially prepared, convenience food available on the market today – not least those labelled organic, natural, wholesome and/or “free from all artificial colourings and flavourings”.
But, what exactly is alien food? How can it be identified, defined and then curtailed?
Alien food is invented, novel, patented food. To understand this sweeping assertion once again we must briefly examine our past choices. Alongside the development of food regulations yet another area of legislation began to take shape and become codified during the course of the nineteenth century the legacy of which we live with to this day. It is a body of law that has been largely over-looked by food writers and commentators – possibly because it is a general, expansive body of law and does not relate to food per se? – but one which, nonetheless, it is crucial we scrutinise if we are to trace the source of the chronic poison infecting our contemporary food culture. Patent Law.
Patents may have been knocking around since the middle ages but they really came into their own when Europe and later North America began to industrialise. What may be good for steam-engines, power-stations or smartphones, however, is a disaster when it comes to food. The nineteenth century was a time when a second, distinctive brand of food chemists was beginning to emerge from behind the microscope: The Food Innovator.
Reporting food adulteration may suite a besuited gentleman scientist in tweed, puffing on a pipe but for those lacking a private income examining the natural make-up of food offers little reward. Inventing and patenting foods, on the other hand, which ever way one looks at it was and is a money spinner. The food innovator emerged at a timely moment – at a time when populations were begining to ignore the advice of their ancestors in favour of scientific academies.
As far as our food is concerned patented food can be compared to the alien that burst out of Executive Officer Kane’s chest in Ridley Scot’s 1979 cult movie, A L I E N.
Like the slimy, repulsive alien creature that escapes Kane’s chest our alien food has scuttled away to hide in the air-shafts of our food laboratory where it can multiply exponentially whilst our erstwhile Captain’s try to locate it and jettison it’s caustic presence from our food landscape.
It would, however, be wrong to assume that being granted a food patent is an easy step. The invention must be entirely novel before the inventor can claim their monopoly. It should be stressed that “new” food is not the same as “novel” food. Tomatoes, to recall in the classical period were new to old world populations but they were not novel. Novel is something even more polished than new. Novel is even more unique than new. New can derive from nature. Novel can only derive from man.
Novel, dare one suggest, is newer than new.
By way of example it would be legally impossible for Grandpa Joe to patent his family-favourite breakfast omelette. Adding jam and sugar might put a new spin on the omelette but it would not be novel. Were, Grandpa Joe, on the other hand, to bio-engineer an entirely new egg for his breakfast omelette by actively injecting the DNA of a hardy mountain goat in a chicken – now that would indeed be something entirely novel – so novel no one had ever deemed it possible for such a thing to ever exist. No one, anywhere, on planet earth would have ever seen, sniffed, smelled, tasted (or most important of all digested) an egg hatched by a chicken with the DNA of a goat.
Nature, could gift mankind a hardy mountain goat. Nature could gift mankind a chicken. What nature could never achieve without the fair hand of mankind’s intervention is a She-Goat-Egg. It would be impossible. Novel foods are so alien to the natural world one can only describe them as, well, alien. Like triffids.
The present nature of food
There is no nature in novel foods. Novel, patented, alien foods, as I have sought to show with Grandpa Joe’s She-Goat-Egg, are the mirror opposite of natural, traditional food. Novel foods, being newer than new, are about as alien to the human physiology as it can get – yet it has implanted itself in every food-stuff imaginable and more and more of us are consuming novel foods on a daily basis. Once ingested it wreaks havoc with our metabolisms, confusing our physiology which has been designed to digest natural, not novel, foods.
Identifying the chornic poison is a challenge. The autopsy will prove inconclusive – was it the lard that caused the heart disease or the trans-fat? Was it bad parenting that caused the kid to develop obesity or was it the high fructose corn syrup? Was it the GMO soya-oil that caused the inflammation that caused the cancer or was it the bacon? Was it the chemical factory nearby that caused the immune system to be supressed or the regular consumption of synthetic flavourings? Was it the canola that caused Grandma Joe to develop dementia or just old age? Hard to tell. Dancing a freak conga alongside this modern form of food adulteration we see a modern form of malnutrition emerging as modern societies fail to eat the correct nutrients in the correct balance.
When we turn to our pantheon of scientists sitting atop their pedestals for answers and reassurance mankind is subject to an undignified cat-fight between the demi-gods guarding our food choices.
How ironic then that when it comes to our food choices mankind faces less certainty than it did during the Classical Period before the light of reason lit up our minds. During the classical period no one second guessed Grandma Josephine’s advice. It was rock solid. Grandpa Joe’s insistence that his novel egg is safe we agonise over. In the end we place our faith, not our certainty, in his invented egg and hope that it is all it is cracked up to be.
The adulterer of yester-year dressed in a moth-eaten coat-tail, dented top-hat and a dusty waist-coat has morphed into a food innovator sporting a gleaming white coat, sterile rubber gloves and brandishing test-tubes, petri-dishes and Bunsen burners to disguise their nefarious intent. The poisons the modern adulterer uses are no longer so colourful and interesting sounding as those of early Victorian literature. Rather they are disguised in the code of a Soviet spy novel which even cryptologists may have difficulty decyphering or have names that no one can pronounce.
By shining the torch of reason directly into our eyes we are blinded to the modern food adulterers nefarious practice.
The contemporary food adulterer is the food innovator à la Grandpa Joe who is determined to push the scientists of the Royal Academies and the few surviving Gods of Classical Times off their pedestals and take centre stage where they can reap the huge financial benefits of having reached such lofty heights. This time those who represent the public good are giving the adulterer a hitch up onto the pedestal – and our alien food continues to procreate exponentially in the air-shafts.