1776 New food for an old planet

Dinner on Mars: The Technologies that will Feed the Red Planet and Transform Agriculture on Earth
by Lenore Newman and Evan D.G. Fraser

Toronto: ECW Press, 2022
$24.95 / 9781770416628

Reviewed by Eleanor Boyle


Dinner on Mars: A Delicious Thought Experiment

I’ve never thought that high-tech inventions would solve the complex problems that bedevil the global food-system. The world produces plenty of edible calories, yet hundreds of millions of citizens are hungry. Our agriculture and diets are so focused on livestock and meat that they crank out unmanageable amounts of greenhouse gases and manure pollution. Crops worldwide rely heavily on chemicals, and our meals are deficient in plant-based fibre. Maybe what we need are food systems run more by citizens and less by tech-happy corporations.

So I was intrigued to expand my views by reading Dinner on Mars: The Technologies that will Feed the Red Planet and Transform Agriculture on Earth. Besides, the first author is Sechelt native Dr. Lenore Newman, Director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley. Ever since she inspired me years ago, declaring that for sustainable food systems we must learn to “love the land,” I have considered Newman visionary. And her co-author, Dr. Evan Fraser, is a legendary Canadian researcher, commentator, and author at Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph.

C0-author Lenore Newman at Wellington, New Zealand

The book shows many potential technological approaches to food problems. As well, it’s a fun read, as I discovered on the very first page and continued to enjoy throughout. A fascinating thought experiment, the book explores the exotic topic of what we might eat on Mars. It’s a lens through which Newman and Fraser help us think about food systems in fresh ways. The book is a guided tour from experts, introducing us to emerging technologies.

Dinner on Mars is real storytelling

Far from an opaque academic report, this book is wonderful storytelling. Newman and Fraser introduce readers to complex problems and possible solutions in ways that are creative and entertaining. They weave anecdotes with science and keep the tone light but fresh and informative. They invite us into their world where they celebrate food, text each other at all hours, enjoy ballroom dancing, and play Irish music until the wee hours. I felt included in a conversation among smart and witty friends.

Cher Mereweather. Courtesy CBC

I loved the stories, like the one about Cher Mereweather, a “consummate connector and dealmaker, a broker of relationships, and a force of good in her home community” of Guelph, Ontario. Cher sounded so interesting that I looked her up. As outlined by Newman and Fraser, Mereweather’s Re(Purpose) project showed what is possible with eco-industrial networking, in which someone connects the dots among producers and helps them create a more win-win loop in which wastes of one producer become feedstock for another. The result? Brewery waste feeds fly larvae production, which supplies aquaculture, whose waste fertilizes growing potatoes. Together these operations produce locally sourced meals, whether pub fare or gourmet.

From tiny greenhouses to geodesic domes, innovation abounds in this book. There are plant factories in Japan that are far ahead of greenhouses in our part of the world. I enjoyed learning about precision plant-care by robots and about cultured meat for pets, especially given that cats and dogs consume a quarter of meat calories in the United States. I’m still thinking about the authors’ insights on “keystone” technologies, in which one pivotal idea unlocks the potential of many others.

Co-author Evan Fraser

The planet Mars was an inspired locale for this exploration. Who doesn’t love imagining the future, especially on a faraway planet? And I enjoyed the lush descriptions of the severe conditions for life on the red planet.

Our food systems have big challenges

As a researcher on food systems, I appreciate that these authors laid out the challenging evidence. There’s more than enough food on the planet, yet hunger persists. Much of the food we take pains to produce is then wasted. The biomass of farmed animals on Earth far exceeds that of wild animals, and even of humans! Our food and farming system is the biggest planetary contributor to species loss, and may emit as much as a third of human-produced greenhouse gases (GHGs). Most world citizens are lactose-intolerant, therefore genetically ill-equipped to digest milk. The majority of the world’s fish stocks are fished to capacity or beyond. Production of plant-protein is far better for climate than production of animal proteins, yet cattle, chickens, and pigs dominate our food systems.

Greenhouses on Mars by Les Bossinas / NASA

What’s the place of tech?

Greenhouses on Mars. Image courtesy artstation.com

The authors’ focus is definitely on technology. But Dinner on Mars stops short of implying that we can invent our way out of situations while kicking the tough governance decisions down the road. Newman and Fraser understand that technologies alone will not create fair and sustainable food systems. While enthusiastic about science-based innovation, they nevertheless acknowledge that social policy will be crucial. After all, ideas that are profit-driven do not necessarily get developed in socially beneficial ways, so we’ll need to clarify values and develop policy on how tech will be used and who will own and control it. As Newman and Fraser note, “science provides tools, but social, political, and economic factors determine whether these tools become solutions.”

Newman and Fraser sketch an absorbing picture of how future Mars residents might eat. But, futuristic as production methods would be, those may still yield a diet that puts dairy, meat, and/or seafood in starring roles. I’m all for technologies that move us away from the environmental, climate, and ethical miseries of industrial animal agriculture, but wonder whether diets focussed on animal-like products are desirable. It’s true that cellular agriculture promises a giant leap forward by reducing resource inputs, GHGs, and industrialized animal suffering. But high levels of animal-ish foods still aren’t the healthiest.

Much is yet to unfold, to ensure that new technologies work for as many global citizens as possible. Ultimately, according to the authors, “We should not put all our faith in technology. Humility and collaboration are key ingredients in success, and we must strive to work within the constraints of existing systems rather than imposing an alien system on an indigenous one.” A fun and fascinating read, Dinner on Mars is a book I highly recommend to anyone asking questions about how we should eat for a healthier, cooler, and happier Earth.


Eleanor Boyle

Eleanor Boyle is a Vancouver-based writer on food policy. She authored High Steaks: Why and How to Eat Less Meat (New Society, 2012), and Mobilize Food! Wartime Inspiration for Environmental Victory Today (mobilizefood.org) (FriesenPress, 2022), reviewed here by Mary Gale Smith. She holds degrees in Behavioural Sciences (BSc), Neuroscience (PhD) and more recently, Food Policy (MSc). Visit her website here.


The British Columbia Review

Publisher and editor: Richard Mackie

Musk on Mars

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

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