Sometime in the future, science is going to deliver to us desktop food fabrication equipment. These machines, which I'll call "FoodFabs," will be able to manufacture food items at the touch of a button on your desktop or countertop. It might have the size and shape of a microwave, but instead of punching in the time that you want, you punch in the food item you want. There was a glimpse of this technology in the movie The Fifth Element
, in which leading lady Milla Jovovich approaches a machine, yells, "Chicken," and gets an instant roasted chicken.
FoodFabs sound handy, but given what we know today about corporations, intellectual property and the desire of such companies to control and profit from the behavior of consumers, let's take a realistic look at what these FoodFabs would really mean for consumers.
Let's start with the most obvious point of all, which is that no FoodFab will be able to operate independently. In order to protect the public, FoodFabs will need to be prevented from spontaneously manufacturing dangerous substances such as poisons or explosives. FoodFabs will have to be networked into a central database or clearinghouse, which will keep track of what FoodFabs are manufacturing, and either approve or deny each food fabrication request. For example, if some guy sitting in his kitchen selects a recipe for C-4 explosives, the FoodFab would say, "No! I can't manufacture that."
Controlling the intellectual property
There's actually an even more fundamental reason for these devices to be networked to a central clearinghouse database: Digital Rights Management (DRM). Of course, that's a phrase borrowed from today's music industry, but here's how it applies to desktop food
fabricators: Every food item you select in the Food Fabricator will be based on a molecular recipe assembled by some corporation (Monsanto, probably, if it still exists in the future). Of course, that company will own the rights to that food item. When you want to create a batch of apples, vegetables or chicken, you're going to have to pay a fee to the company that owns the rights to that food.
"Now wait a minute," you might say. "How can a company own the rights to foods that occur in nature? How can they make me pay for that food when I can go out and get it for free?"
This is where the future gets rather messy, because we're now talking about intellectual property. Rewind to the present day, and take a look at the actions of our favorite corporate company, Monsanto. Monsanto is suing farmers for saving seeds and planting crops from those seeds. Why is Monsanto doing this? Because these are genetically modified crops that were created by Monsanto. When these farmers save seeds from one generation to the next, which of course is a practice that has taken place throughout the history of civilization, Monsanto sues these farmers and prevents them from saving those seeds.
The idea, from Monsanto's point of view, is that it wants to force farmers to buy these genetically modified seeds with each successive generation. So, now it is indeed illegal to save these seeds, and if you don't play ball with the company that claims to own them, you're going to find yourself in court, or even in jail. Tennessee farmer Ken Ralph was sued by Monsanto and was ultimately sentenced to eight months in prison for lying about a truckload of cottonseed.
Think about that. Here was a farmer who was just trying to save seeds from one crop generation to the next. This is a practice that has been carried out by generations of farmers for as long as we can remember, going back to the roots of modern civilization in the Middle East. And this farmer has been imprisoned for practicing this age-old custom. The only reason for this is because the corporation needs to protect its profits.
Can corporations really own nature?
You might say, "This is unnatural. This is exploitation of nature for corporate profits." I would respond that you are absolutely correct. That is exactly what it is. When you start assigning intellectual property ownership to things that exist in nature, you get into some rather complex ethical quagmires from which our society may never emerge unscathed.
Now fast forward back to the future, where we have desktop food fabricators. You can see that it will be companies like Monsanto who will own the molecular recipes for all the food items you want to eat. This means that if you, as a human being, want to feed your family, you're going to have to pay Monsanto or some other company that owns the rights to these items.
Frankly, big business couldn't dream up a better situation, because what it really wants to do is extract a certain percentage of productivity, or economic output, from each and every individual on the planet in one way or another. Today, the oil industry has done that quite effectively, and you can bet that even with the advent of hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles, it's going to find a way to keep people tied into the power grid.
Speaking of the power grid in a different context, power companies generally don't like people to go off the grid. There's not much incentive for power companies to encourage people to set up their own solar systems, or have residential fuel cell systems, because power companies then cannot extract monthly fees from those individuals or businesses.
You see, big business is all about extracting recurring fees from the working people. That's how we keep big business rich and working people poor. It is being done quite effectively right now, here in the United States and around the world.
One thing they know for sure is that people need food, and they need it every single day. One way to extract even more revenues from people is to control the intellectual property of the food they are consuming.
Personally, I think allowing corporations to own the rights to food creation would be a gross violation of nature and basic human rights. But then again, we live in a free enterprise society, and you can very easily argue that if there is no economic incentive for a company to create these food fabrication formulas, then who would bother doing so?
I would say that there are plenty of universities and open source communities passionate about food and nutrition who would be more than willing to create these recipes and just give them away to people. This is what I call the open source food fabrication movement, which will undoubtedly unfold someday and attempt to challenge the centralized, controlled food fabrication giants. You can bet this court battle will happen someday, because the food fabrication corporations will not want this open source system to exist. It will be similar to the battle today between Microsoft and Linux, in which the open source community has created a fantastic operating system without the promise of financial compensation. They've done it because they're a group of smart people who want to do something productive and interesting under a freely shared goodwill system.
Our broken patent laws
However, the biggest issue that I have is with the idea that our current patent system assigns intellectual ownership over things that were technically invented by nature, not man. For example, companies are granted patents on seeds created by nature. Basmati rice was briefly owned by a company in the United States, which then went out of its way to sue farmers in Southeast Asia for growing this rice, but thankfully the Indian government was successful in challenging the company's ownership over this seed.
Similarly, companies have been given patent ownership over sequences of the human genome. Imagine that! You're walking around with a genetic sequence in every cell in your body, thinking, "Hey, I own my own body." But, no! The U.S. patent office says you don't own your own genetic code; rather, all these various companies own it.
Technically speaking, if you choose to have children, you are in violation of international patent laws, because now you have replicated these gene sequences without paying royalties to the "owners" of these gene sequences. All of this may sound a bit outlandish to you, but this, in fact, is the law as it stands today. This is not conjecture. This is scientific fact. There are companies probing the human genome, finding interesting sequences, and then applying for, and being awarded, patents on them.
In fact, merely scratching your skin results in multiple patent violations because your body duplicates patented DNA sequences to repair the damage to your skin. Every one of us it a walking intellectual property pirate, guilty of crimes against U.S. corporations by merely living.
If food and the human genome can be patented, what else is up for grabs?
Returning to the food fabrication equipment, let's assume that some company patents not just the chicken recipe, but also the molecular configuration of vitamin D, for example. They say that anyone who uses the machine to create a food item containing vitamin D must pay a royalty to them.
Given the way that patent laws are written today, it probably wouldn't be very difficult for them to claim a patent on vitamin D if it were used in the food fabrication device, because they could claim a patent on not just the molecule itself, but also the process of assembling the molecule at the nano scale. All of a sudden, you've got a situation where people who can afford to be healthy, and who can afford to pay for nutrition through these various royalties, are going to get that nutrition and be healthy. But then you have economically challenged families that are not going to be able to afford the vitamin D, or vitamin B, or minerals and so on. They’re going to be eating food that's made without these vitamins because it's cheaper.
At such a point, you'll have a big company, the futuristic Monsanto if you will, saying, "If you want to be healthy, you've got to pay up." The upshot of all this is that big business is going to be telling humanity that it doesn't have the right to be healthy unless it pays for it.
This situation will stand as a heinous violation of human rights and nature. Human beings evolved in a natural environment in which they had access to fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grasses and animals. These were all available free of charge as long as a person was willing to expend the effort and time necessary to gather such items. Nature offered them freely. Nature didn't charge you for creating vitamins and minerals. The plants and soils provided these on their own, naturally.
Plants create seeds naturally, and these seeds are freely available to humans, birds, insects and any other creature that wants to use those seeds. This is the natural order of things. Through technology combined with corporate greed, we're going to see a global effort to separate human beings from nature. Humans will then be effectively charged for gaining access to these natural benefits. It's the commercialization of nature.
As I have said before in other essays, if pharmaceutical companies could figure out a way to block sunlight from reaching the planet, then bottle up some sunlight and sell it as a healing drug, I have no doubt that they would do so. It would be the most potent and profitable healing substance you could prescribe to a human being. The only reason sunlight isn't promoted today is because it is freely available and no one has figured out a way to prevent everyone from getting their own natural sunlight.
With the food fabrication scenario, however, it would be very easy to prevent people from growing their own food. In fact, it may eventually turn out that food fabricators are the only way people can get food due to destruction of the environment through radiation, depletion of soils, global dimming, the overuse of pesticides, lack of water and so on. Farming may actually become such a high-cost endeavor that it becomes cheaper to build these foods on a nanotechnology scale. At that point, the companies that own the technology and the intellectual property will control the masses. Rent the old movie, "Soylent Green" to get an interesting look at the potential social dynamics.
Intellectual property failures are here right now
In practical terms, this is nothing to be overly concerned with today. Food fabricators are in the far future. It may be a hundred years or more before such items actually exist. But what is a concern is the way our intellectual property laws are written today, and what we're already seeing in terms of patenting the human genome and genetically modified seeds by companies like Monsanto. We're seeing farmers being fined millions of dollars, or even thrown in jail, for saving seeds, which is a practice as natural as peeing in the woods.
Of course, today the FDA and the pharmaceutical industry are diligently campaigning to limit access to nutritional supplements, herbs and functional foods. This is very much an attempt to separate people from nature, so that they are forced to operate under the system of controlled and "standardized" prescription drugs and medications that generate profits for pharmaceutical companies.
The future may not be so bright after all
It's a common oversight, I think, to talk about the future in rosy terms, and talk about how all of this great, new technology is going to appear. I myself may be guilty of doing that from time to time. I am fascinated by robotics, clean energy, molecular technologies and gene therapy. But I am also a realist, which means I understand that every technology is going to have a price tag attached to it. If the company inventing and marketing that technology can find a way to make sure that you have to keep paying for it over and over again, you can bet they're going to do that, because that's how business works. That's what creates profits for corporations.
The oil companies know that, and the soft drink companies know that. Beverage manufacturers know that caffeine makes their products sell on a repeated basis to the same consumers because of its addictive qualities. In the future, food fabrication manufacturers are certainly going to try to leverage the same principles to generate recurring revenue from their technology. It may end up much like the way inkjet printers are sold today, where the food fabrication machine itself is very cheap, but it's the recipes that you pay for over and over again, just like buying overpriced inkjet cartridges for your printer.
Hopefully, we would have a situation in which two or three recipe-producing companies would compete for your business so there would be some healthy competition. One company offers you a chicken casserole recipe for $2, another company offers you chicken casserole with superfood elements and extra vitamin and mineral content, including phytonutrients and perhaps some anticancer compounds, for only $2.05. Which one would you go with? Well, I'd pay the extra nickel and get the health benefits. If we can create an environment in which we have that kind of competition, then perhaps this won't be such a long-term concern, because chances are that creating food in the FoodFab is going to be much cheaper than going out and buying it or growing it yourself.
Even if the chemical composition of foods can be fabricated, their energy cannot
One final thought on all of this, though, is that even if these food fabricators duplicate the molecular structure of natural foods with 100 percent accuracy, they will still lack a certain quality. Can you guess what that is? It's the living energy of foods.
When you consume a carrot that has been pulled out of the ground, that carrot was once a living, breathing being. Every plant is alive. Every seed is imbued with qualities of life, and when you eat raw fruits, vegetables or nuts, you ingest more than just their chemical constituents. You also ingest the homeopathy of plants, or what I also call vibrational nutrition.
I very much doubt that food fabrication is going to be able to duplicate this energetic component of foods. That means those individuals who are willing to buy food "the old fashioned way," by getting physical food from a farmers coop, bringing it home, cooking and eating it, are going to get much better nutrition than people who make food in their desktop FoodFabs. A plant, you see, is more than its chemical constituents.
For many years following the introduction of FoodFab technology, scientists won't know why FoodFab customers are suffering from various diseases and disorders. They'll be mystified, because they'll think that people are getting all the same nutrients. "It's exactly the same," they'll say. "On a molecular and chemical basis, these two foods are identical, yet one person is healthier than the other. Why is that?" It might then be another hundred years before they finally figure out that there's more to plants than just their chemicals -- that reductionism is a distortion of reality, that energy matters and that vibrational medicine is real.
There's no replacement for growing your own food
That's why if these food fabricators were invented next year, and everyone in the world bought one and began generating their food that way, I would still grow my own garden. I would still visit that garden every day and eat something from it in its raw, natural, living state. That's what I do today. Although there's plenty of produce available down the street at the grocery store, I still want the live food because I understand that there is a quality difference in live food versus manufactured food. That quality difference is not at all understood by modern scientists or even most nutritionists.
In terms of food, our collective future could be very interesting. That is, if we don't kill ourselves first with the destruction of our natural environment. If mankind is still around in a hundred years, I'm certain we'll have food fabrication machines. Just be prepared to pull out your wallet (or, should I say, your embedded radio frequency tag) in order to pay for what you're going to be eating at that time, because you can bet there's going to be some mega corporation behind the scenes demanding payment if you want to eat.