Slow Reading

A look at internet stuff



Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future

Maryn McKenna



The End of Food

Lizzie Widdicombe
The New Yorker


A world where a scraped knee could kill, where going to hospital is more dangerous than the reason you need to be there, where farmed animals are riddled with disease from overcrowding... You’d expect to hear these ominous scenarios in the voiceover of a disaster movie trailer, but with antibiotic resistance on the rise, this could be a reality.

After decades of antibiotic misuse, inappropriate prescriptions and antibiotic “micro-dosage” in our food sources, the future isn’t looking, well, healthy. While drug resistant strains of bacteria are already taking lives, the worst is yet to come. Unless we radically change how we use antibiotics, bacterial resistance will get more severe and whole categories of medical treatment—everything from intensive care medicine to kidney dialysis or even simple surgery—might have to be reconsidered.

And it’s not just the medical industry. Currently 80% of all antibiotics are used in agriculture. The food we eat, our way of life, is under threat.

With antibiotics losing usefulness so quickly—and thus not making back the estimated $1 billion per drug it costs to create them—the pharmaceutical industry lost enthusiasm for making more. In 2004, there were only five new antibiotics in development, compared to more than 500 chronic-disease drugs for which resistance is not an issue—and which, unlike antibiotics, are taken for years, not days. Since then, resistant bugs have grown more numerous and by sharing DNA with each other, have become even tougher to treat with the few drugs that remain. In 2009, and again this year, researchers in Europe and the United States sounded the alarm over an ominous form of resistance known as CRE, for which only one antibiotic still works.

Reading this you can’t help but be slightly alarmed—we don’t have many options and it would appear we’re running out of time. 

Health authorities have struggled to convince the public that this is a crisis... [But we’re potentially heading] for a world where infection is so dangerous that anyone with even minor symptoms would be locked in confinement until they recover or die. It is a dark vision, meant to disturb. But it may actually underplay what the loss of antibiotics would mean.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve peered into a depressingly bare pantry searching in vain for something to eat. But where I might have once cried into a bowl of stale cereal, there will soon be an alternative. Soylent is a powdered, cheap, quick, and by most accounts pretty tasty, blended meal replacement. The developer, Rob Rhinehart, stumbled onto the recipe after living on an unhealthy, and still somewhat expensive diet of Costco quesadillas. He began to resent the fact he had to eat at all and, taking a break from his day job as a programmer, started studying the raw chemical components of food.

Rhinehart compiled a list of thirty-five nutrients required for survival. Then, instead of heading to the grocery store, he ordered them off the Internet— mostly in powder or pill form—and poured everything into a blender, with some water. The result, a slurry of chemicals, looked like gooey lemonade.

Rhinehart called the concoction Soylent (a reference to 1973 movie Soylent Green which is set in an overpopulated, dystopian future, and centres on a wafer-like product ultimately revealed to be human flesh) and published the results of his experiment and, interestingly, the recipe online. His post (‘How I Stopped Eating Food’) quickly garnered attention and following Rhinehart’s lead (and formula) a DIY community developed online. He found that not only was he saving money but he was feeling better too. He become leaner, his skin cleared up, his hair felt stronger and his teeth were whiter. One by one his housemates joined his diet and had similarly positive results.

If the hype is to believed, Rhinehart and his team may have stumbled onto something that could actually change how we live. While there’s no doubt Soylent has its benefits (“Your energy levels stay consistent: There’s no afternoon crash, no post-burrito coma.”), The New Yorker’s Lizzie Widdicombe realised the extent to which our lives revolve around food.

Meals provide punctuation to our lives... we’re constantly recovering from them, anticipating them, riding the emotional ups and downs of a good or a bad sandwich. With a bottle of Soylent on your desk, time stretches before you, featureless and a little sad.

I still can’t see myself giving up the delights of a chewable meal. The thought of having access to a nutritious, supposedly tasty, filling option when I can’t be bothered cooking certainly has its appeal. Despite being a little disturbed by the sci-fi creepiness of Soylent’s promotional video, I’ll be lining up to test it out when it’s released internationally later this year.