Eating on Other Planets

StartopiaThis could also be called Eating After the End of the World.  The general idea is basically the same: how do you feed a large group of people with limited arable land and no feasible possibility of imports?  I mentioned earlier that it kind of bugs me when post-apocalyptic societies aren’t shown producing their own food.  Where does it come from?  In most movies, it’s not important.  They just go to a grocery store.  But if you want a believable world set After the End, you need to at least have a nod to how all these people are managing to survive.  We saw the apes in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes hunting, but I have no idea what the humans were eating, unless they were still subsisting on canned goods.  I was kind of disappointed they hadn’t even apparently tried to start farming in ten years.

Basically, you need to examine which livestock and crops are most efficient, while also ensuring that they can grow well together while meeting human dietary needs.  So, unfortunately, vanilla is out.  Even today, most vanilla flowers are manually pollinated, and the flowers only open for about a day, making them extremely labor intensive, making vanilla the second most expensive spice in the world.  I admit, I’ll miss it, but it’s not really worth the effort.

One common way of examining efficiency in livestock is feed conversion ratio.  Simply put, feed conversion ratio is food you put divided by food you get out.  If you feed a cow 10 pounds of food, you get one pound of beef.  Cows are horribly inefficient, except in terms of milk production, which makes them much more attractive.  Feed conversion ratio, FCR, depends not only on the type of animal, but also what you’re feeding it.  Low quality foods are less efficient in terms of weight than high quality foods.  Interestingly enough, despite the fact that salmon is typically considered a “wealthy” food, farm-raised salmon are some of the most efficient animals, with a FCR of about 1.2, according to some studies, better than most everything else that isn’t an insect.

This chart compares the FCR of several commonly eaten animals.

Feed Conversion Ratio Bar Chart
As you can see, sheep and beef are almost prohibitively inefficient.  Luckily, they also produce wool and milk, which helps a bit.  Wool would probably be superfluous, though, assuming technology levels don’t depress too greatly, so sheep are probably out of the colony.  Milk, though, is nutritionally important.  FCR for goats isn’t listed on the chart, but it’s apparently between 4 and 8, so let’s say it’s about 5 with good feed. Goats also produce milk, which can be utilized in almost exactly the same ways as cow’s milk.  I’ve read elsewhere that goat milk is more efficient, whereas this chart suggest cow’s milk is.  Personally, I myself prefer cow’s, but it appears that either would be acceptable.  I haven’t actually tried goat milk yet, and I’ve wanted to try more goat diary products, just for the experience.  I love goat cheese, but I’m not certain whether I’d be able to eat as much of it as I can milder cow cheeses.

Fish, poultry,and pork would most likely be the primary sources of meat, then.  Farmed salmon are extremely efficient, although I’ve heard that tilapia can be used to help with water purification, as they’ll eat waste matter, so they may be a better choice for a closed system such as this.  Other animals are much less efficient, and might be slaughtered rarely for a special treat, but if food pressure gets too high, they ought to be the first to go.  One large waste product is animal blood.  If a culinary use could be found for this, all the better.  I’ve read that some Masai, when presented with the invention of the freezer, have made their own cow’s blood popsicles, so perhaps that’s one avenue to explore.

CricketsWhile on the topic of “gross” foods, insects also need to be explored for protein.  Their FCRs are extremely efficient, and better yet, not only do they eat many things that others can’t, but they can serve as an organic recycler, eating waste matter and converting it into useful protein, either directly eaten by humans, or as supplementary feed for poultry.  I myself have eaten crickets, and the taste was not offensive in the least.  Really, only taboo keeps us from eating them now.

Colonies in Space by T.A. Heppenheimer offers a great look at which crops might be best utilized in a space colony, and the specific chapter can be found here:http://www.nss.org/settlement/ColoniesInSpace/colonies_chap09.html

Essentially, you want not only efficient crops, but those that grow well together.  If land area is limited, you need a good crop cycle that helps restore nutrients to the soil.  Rice, corn, potatoes, yams, wheat, peanuts, and soy would probably be most important, followed by others.  Most likely, you’d have climate controlled greenhouses, in which you could create the optimal growing conditions for different crops, really only making extremely inefficient plants, like vanilla, an impossibility.  Potatoes, especially, would be important.  Although it takes a lot of them, man can live on potatoes and milk, and they’re extremely spatially efficient.

I assume that special room would be set aside for barley and hops, as it’s too much to imagine that after having been with us for thousands of years, beer would vanish over something as relatively minor as global thermonuclear war or leaving the planet.  Yeast would also be needed for the fermentation process and for breads, and would be a simple matter to take with us.

BeesHappily, an apiary would be relatively simple to set up, and indeed, would be a net positive, since the bees would do much difficult labor for us by pollinating flowers and crops, and their honey could be collected as a natural sweetener.  Indeed, depending on conditions, it might even replace sugar cane in our diets.  There was a time not long ago when honey was the more common, cheaper sweetener in Europe, and cane sugar was the rarer treat.

Fruits and vegetables round out the food pyramid, and under the right conditions, they can be extremely productive.  The vines and other parts that humans cannot eat can also be used for animal feed.  Hopefully, with control over the soil and no outside influence, we could even regrow the Gros Michel cultivar of banana!  Silver linings, and all that.  You’d need to ensure a good supply of vitamin C in order to prevent scurvy, as many sailors found out the hard way.

The most important thing would be to maintain a diverse genetic supply for all your food crops and livestock.  On earth, a single disease can often wipe out a large food supply because we breed our foods to be homogeneous.  If, to give one example, your entire banana supply was Gros Michel, and Panama Disease struck, you’d have nowhere else to find new bananas.  They’d all just die.  To avoid this scenario, you’d need to keep a varied group of different cultivars, so that you could cross-breed and replace weak species when needed.

Hopefully, you’d be able to produce a diverse range of foods that’s almost as broad as what we eat nowadays.  Nutrition is most important, but flavor is a close second.  Morale is extremely important, and sacrificing the simple joy of meals for efficiency is a short-sighted move.  So, if you’re planning on what characters should be eating in space stations or nuclear fallout shelters, I hope this has helped a little.  Otherwise, I hope you found it at least interesting.

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6 Responses to Eating on Other Planets

  1. When I think about food for my sci-fi and post-apocalyptic worlds I think about foods that are relatively easy to farm. I look at hobby farms for inspiration. Of course it depends on how long my civilization has been figuring out the food issue and if any farmers/hunters survived the apocalypse with their knowledge.

    I think I have a short story kicking around here where only one of my characters knew what plants were safe to eat. Not too bad except that they were post-apocalyptic and foraging for food. Needless to say there were characters who ate some very poisonous berries.

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    • johnkutensky says:

      I guess it all depends on how much planning they have to do… If the world ends tomorrow, you might not be very well prepared. I would love a post-apocalyptic game where realistic nutrition is necessary. If you’ve ever played Banished, that game has a nutrition system, and people won’t be as healthy without a mixed diet of veggies, fruit, protein, and grain.

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      • Or a game where you only know how to get certain foods until you meet someone who teaches you. You can’t get your dairy until someone shows you how to milk an animal and you need help before you can get grain.

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      • johnkutensky says:

        I like that idea a lot! Maybe you’re in charge of a bunch of unskilled losers who just happened to survive the most recent apocalypse, none of whom have especially useful skills, so you have to send out scouts to find people with knowledge. It’d be an interesting way to gain the ability to construct new buildings and get new resources… Maybe knowledge could even spread, so that if everyone who had it dies, you lose the ability again, but eventually the whole town will know it and pass it on and it’ll be more or less permanent. I like it!

        One issue I have with zombie games, like Rebuild 2, is that you don’t really feel like you’ve lost any skills from society. I feel like that would be the biggest impact. What do you do when no one knows how to repair guns?

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  2. Saurabh says:

    How is it that milk has a FCR lower than 1? That would seem to imply that you get more out than you feed the cow. Presumably the figures use liquid milk, but that is mostly water. It’d be most interesting to see the dry weight ratio.

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    • johnkutensky says:

      The feed conversion ratio is only measuring what you get out per pound of dry food and ignores their water intake, and since milk is mostly water, you can get a FCR below 1. Milk is about 87% water, but then again, raw brisket is about 71% water, so everything’s FCR would go up a lot if you included water in the input.

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