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Article The World We Want In partnership with the UNDP

Food hacking and the future of hunger

You may have heard about Soylent. Don’t worry, it isn’t actually made of people. It’s a nutritionally balanced, total meal replacement in liquid form. And by “total meal replacement” we mean something that replaces eating. Entirely.

Its inventor, 24 year old former Software Engineer Rob Rhinehart, claims that those who use it feel better, stronger and faster. And, for the record, the real Soylent is beige, not green.

The stories we usually hear about hacked food are filled with a fear of science. Genetically modified crops with the potential to corrupt DNA. Cloned meat at thousands of pounds sterling per ounce. It’s the stuff of Daily Mail click bait.

Community based food hacking has a nobler aim. A spin off of the bio-hacking and self-quantification movements, food hackers are recalibrating nutrition. They’re measuring what quantities and types of food we need to eat, to live and thrive. Some of the advice is simple - like changing the time of day we eat. Some of it is more difficult to swallow, like putting a big blob of butter in your coffee at breakfast time.

Eating is, after all, a biochemical process with measurable inputs and outputs. And it’s a long time since any of us has eaten what we might call a “natural” diet.

Critics of biohacking dismiss the practice as the obsession of alpha geeks. But finding out how to optimise nutrition may have wider implications. It could tackle world hunger.

I haven’t eaten a bite of food in 30 days, and it’s changed my life.

Soylent was officially announced in February of 2013. Its launch was textbook Silicon Valley viral. Inventor Rob Rhinehart wrote a blog post titled How I Stopped Eating Food. It details an experiment to phase out - or at least reduce human dependency - on food.

“Food is the fossil fuel of human energy,” wrote Rhinehart, “It is an enormous market full of waste, regulation, and biased allocation with serious geo-political implications. And we’re deeply dependent on it.”

He went on to detail the thought behind the experiment:

“What if I consumed only the raw ingredients the body uses for energy? Would I be healthier or do we need all the other stuff that’s in traditional food? If it does work, what would it feel like to have a perfectly balanced diet? I just want to be in good health and spend as little time and money on food as possible.”

The “raw ingredients” Rhinehart chose were a mix of carbohydrates, fibre, protein, oil and minerals; “every substance the body needs to survive”. He posted a comprehensive list into the public domain. It reads like the ingredients of a fortified cereal, but with soy protein and olive oil. It was his first version of Soylent.

The original post and the follow up in July 2013, detailed many benefits of this miracle liquid. But the viral idea, the idea that really caught on, was that Soylent could be a substitute for food. That you could give up eating. What’s more, you could give up eating and stay healthy.

“I feel like the six million dollar man,” Rhinehart wrote after his first thirty days, “My physique has noticeably improved, my skin is clearer, my teeth whiter, my hair thicker and my dandruff gone. My resting heart rate is lower, I haven’t felt the least bit sickly, rare for me this time of year.”

The DIY community of Soylent testers and formulators have reported similar results. Nutritionists have struggled to criticise the initiative, beyond the observation that a Soylent-only diet would be pretty boring.

“It may still be more nutritionally complete than some people’s diets,” nutritionist Orla Walsh told Ireland’s The Journal

Soylent’s green light

Soylent caught the attention of the twittersphere and Rhinehart set up a site for discussion of his idea. A crowdfunding campaign to launch the food replacement as a commercial product raised $800,000. It triggered a steady stream of reviews and interviews with the mainstream tech press.

Initial coverage concentrated on Soylent’s lack of palatability. In this age of me-first journalism, a typical article would focus on the writer receiving a supply of Soylent. A procession of bloggers trialled it, describing its disgusting colour (Formica beige, for the record), its horrible taste (plasticky, chemically or like gruel) and nasty mouth-feel. Gawker said that it looked like semen…

Journalists from Vice, Popular Science and Forbes all trod this same, predictable path.

But since those early days Soylent has been through a process of tweaking and testing - akin to open source software. Its inventor claims, that it’s now an optimum balanced food source.

And one aspect of Rhinehart’s original introduction to Soylent remains ignored.

“In some countries people are dying of obesity, others starvation,” said Rhinehart.

It was an understatement - and one that most reporting of Soylent failed to follow up on. Next to that, people whining about a taste like the “liquid run off from oatmeal” seems a little churlish.

The state of hunger

According to the World Food Programme, 842 million people in the world are classed as “hungry”. These people are undernourished, eating fewer calories a day than the basic physiological minimum required to survive. 98% of these live in developing countries. The majority - 553 million - live in Asia, though hunger is more prevalent in Africa with 24.8% of the population in the continent going hungry. Yet more suffer from issues related to malnutrition. Caloric intake may be acceptable, but their diets lack essential minerals and proteins.

Children are significantly affected. 45% of infant deaths under five years old are caused by poor nutrition. Almost half of all deaths worldwide. 3.1 million children last year.

The causes of world hunger are myriad, but most are prey to poverty in many of its forms. These are people who live in situations where either growing food or affording to buy enough food has become untenable. The World Food Programme cites lack of investment in agriculture, climate and volatile food markets as factors. A cycle of poverty grips these communities, unable to afford seed or the equipment required to cultivate crops.

We already have enough food in the world to feed our hungry. A third of the world’s food - 1.3 billion tons - is wasted every year. But, the logistics of getting that surplus to the people who need it are unfathomable and impossible to overcome.

There are programmes aimed at enabling food production growth in developing countries, notably Oxfam’s GROW campaign, aimed at encouraging governments to take action in their own countries. The campaign helps to build new infrastructures that enable hungry people to grow their own food. It gives them tools to escape traps caused by poverty, climate change or war.

The World Food Programme’s “Food for Assets” initiative provides sustenance to farmers and others. Paid in food, the people on the programme are able to become self-reliant over time, feeding themselves and their communities.

And in the last 25 years, world hunger has fallen by 17%, thanks to the work of organisations like these.

Optimising nutrition

Still, there are millions who remain hungry, frozen out by unstable food markets and poverty. Could Soylent - or something like it - help out?

The final, shipping version of Soylent retails in multiples of 21 meals. A bulk subscription of 84 meals, enough to cover 28 days with 3 meals a day, would cost $255 - or $9 or £5.40 per day. That’s close to £1.80 per meal.

But Rhinehart’s official Soylent isn’t the only Soylent… Rhinehart open sourced the idea, hosting a database for Soylent recipes at diy.soylent.me) so that other food hackers can make their own versions.

Of the stable, complete versions, the popular “Hacker School” version works out at $1.50 per meal. That’s 90p a serving using off-the-shelf ingredients. The majority of the recipe uses real foods rather than difficult to obtain chemical analogues.

If we can assume a further saving of 15% for wholesale purchase, we might get the cost of some version of Soylent closer to 75p per meal.

On a western budget, an outlay of £2.25 a day for food would seem far from extravagant. But for a starving family in Africa, it’s more than many can afford.

“Absolute poverty” is a global benchmark of financial subsistence defined by the world bank. Anyone whose income is between £1.50 and 75p per day falls into this category.

According to the charity SOS children, 20% of the world population live in absolute poverty. In sub-Saharan Africa, the figure rises to 40%.

This seems like a brick wall until we consider this; staple foods in these areas already cost more than people in absolute poverty can afford. The prices of rice and millet are continuing to rise sharply in the developing world due to “food insecurity”.

Bottom line: Soylent is cheaper than indigenous foods.

Secure Food

Food insecurity is one of the key causes of hunger. While the developed world enjoys a surplus of food, the developing world struggles to secure enough. And, as extreme climate change manifests in Africa and Asia, food insecurity is becoming a fact of life. For example, a 2013 Guardian report details how Gambia is entering a third year of diminishing crop yields due to drought. Returns are diminishing. Crops fail to produce enough food, seeds are scarce, then next year there are even fewer crops.

And as food becomes scarce, the cost rises - aided by the rising cost of transport and oil. While the western world has struggled with global recession, Africa has seen the cost of staple foods double year on year. Between 2007 and 2008 the cost of vegetable oil rose 97%. In East Africa the price of maize has risen 90% over the last five years.. In 2005 a 100Kg bag of millet cost $13 in Niger, Chad or Mali. Now it costs over $50.

One the arguments Rob Rhinehart has made about Soylent is that it’s already a secure food. Firstly, the DIY community has demonstrated that the recipe doesn’t have to be written in stone. For example, some food hackers use soy as the main protein in the mix. Others have used pea or rice protein. If any ingredient is in short supply or becomes too costly it can be replaced.

It also doesn’t suffer from the issues with the food excess we produce in the West, because it transports well. It can be shipped as powder and reconstituted where needed.

“The problem with hunger is not under-production, it’s waste,” Rob Rhinehart told Forbes in June 2013, “50% is lost because of spoilage. It’s also very difficult to transport - there are all sorts of logistics problems (…) By basing (Soylent) on key nutrients, it keeps for years. Not spoiling could be a huge factor in and of itself for food security.”

A nutritionally complete, artificial food-source may yet have a place in fighting world hunger. It could be part of the arsenal of initiatives used by charities, the WHO and governments.

The future of hunger

And it would seem that in order to get Soylent to where it’s needed, it would take adoption by a food charity or a government. As critics point out, there are distribution problems to solve. There are issues with acceptability to overcome and problems with scaling production. But these are not insurmountable.

Perhaps, Soylent can start the ball rolling by itself. Soylent’s founder worked with Y Combinator, a tech business incubator that has worked on humanitarian projects. Soylent’s communitarian approach to funding means it has much in common with charitable projects.

One that comes to mind is One Laptop Per Child (one.laptop.org). In this example, funding to provide laptops to children in Africa came through a “Give One, Get One” campaign. Customers were able to buy the organisation’s specially designed, low cost laptop and pay for another at the same time. The second was donated to a needy child.

As of January 2014, Soylent had attracted $2 million in pre-orders from 20,000 customers. It was double the number reported in August, with numbers still rising. If every customer donated a week of meals to those in absolute poverty, it would be a drop in the ocean towards tackling world hunger. But it would be a start.

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