Corn, science fiction and the future of food
What do people eat in science fiction stories?
My husband is Mexican, and every time we speak about food, I learn that another vegetable or grain didn’t exist in Europe before the discovery of the Americas.
‘Did you know that peppers came from Mexico?’ he says.
‘How would you season your food without your paprika powder?’
‘Did you know that cacao beans come from Mexico? What would you do without your chocolate?’
‘Did you know that beans came from Mexico? Or corn? Tomatoes? Pumpkins? And the potatoes from Peru?’
Sometimes I wonder what people ate before they discovered the New World.
‘Meat and carrots’, he would say. ‘You do have an awful lot of carrots in Europe.’
Growing up in Romania, I often spent summers in the countryside at my grandparents’ farm tucked on top of a hill. A single earthen road that got knee-deep muddy during rainy times led to the village on the hill. It was accessible only by foot, horse carriage, tractor, and the occasional car that would risk taking the bumpy ride. But, by the time they got up on the steep hill, it wasn't uncommon for those cars to break down.
My grandparents were farmers, and this was pure and unadulterated countryside with fields of corn, sunflowers, potatoes and gardens packed with tomatoes, pumpkins, eggplants and peppers. One summer, the village even had an attempt at growing tobacco leaves. My grandmother was quite skeptical about this new business trend.
As a child, I ran through the cornfields and munched on sunflower seeds all summer. I could not imagine the Romanian countryside without corn and sunflower fields.
I also could not imagine Romanian cuisine without potatoes—long before McDonald's came to Romania in 1995, we loved eating homemade fries. And without the signature eggplant bread spread that we made in summer. These were my favorite foods growing up!
But one of the Romanian countryside staple foods is polenta. There wasn’t a single meal preparation in my grandparents’ summer kitchen that didn't end with making a fresh polenta and tossing it over a wooden board in the middle of the table. My grandfather used a thread to cut it into slices before we dug in.
The polenta was yellow.
Corn was yellow. 🌽
Many times, in our talks about tortillas—an important topic in our household—my husband would point out that European corn is yellow. And I would think, yeah, and the sky is blue. But even after traveling to Mexico several times and eating different types of corn, it still didn't click in my head that the yellow corn cultivated in Europe was probably not the norm when it came to corn. Sometimes I have a thick skull. 💀
And then, during my research on seeds for the short story ‘The Seed grower’ for my upcoming short stories collection ‘There Is Hope’, I started reading ‘Seeds of Resistance: The Fight to Save our Food Supply’ written by Mark Schapiro, and I learned that there are 22,000 types of corn.
And this brought me to the topic of seeds and their importance for the future of food. I also started to wonder about what people ate in science fiction stories.
What do people eat in science fiction stories?
When I shared some of the writing for my upcoming short story collection ‘There Is Hope’ with friends and family, there was one question that every single one of them asked: so what did they eat?
‘So what did they eat?’ they said.
I will be honest with you. My first reaction was: who cares what the people in the science fiction story ate?
‘They ate canned protein,’ I answered.
‘From what was the protein made?’ they said.
‘It's a synthetic protein,’ I said.
‘So how was it made?’ they said.
And so it went back and forth until my brother-in-law gave me an idea: they ate seaweed.
I jumped on the seaweed train, which was a brilliant idea because I used it to develop the background world for one of my short stories, ‘Human Island’. The story takes place in a colony of Japanese climate refugees who settled on the European Atlantic Coast and grew seaweed.
It was a win-win situation, and I was proud of myself for solving the pesky questions about what people ate in my fictional world. But when I started researching for my second short story, ‘The Seed Grower’, which I already wrote two years ago as a screenplay for my MA studies, I realized I was doing it all wrong.
Some years ago, I watched a movie with Jim Carrey called ‘I Love You Philip Morris’ about a con artist. In this film, Jim Carrey poses as a lawyer to get his boyfriend out of prison, becomes the CFO of a large medical management company without any education, and successfully fakes his death to escape prison.
To wrap it up, the plot of this movie was laid quite thick, even for a Jim Carrey comedy. And then I read it was based on a true story. Jaw drop.
Ever since I watched this movie, I have been convinced that what happens in the real world is far more extraordinary and mind-blowing than anything concocted by the imagination of a single human being. That's why I read about the real world every time I need to do research for a new story.
Reading about seeds and how we grow food in the modern world exceeded my expectations regarding material for worldbuilding.
I thought there could be more to the question about what people ate in my story world, and I started thinking about the food details in some of my favorite dystopian films.
When I was about 9 or 10 years old, I remember watching ‘Soylent Green’, and the most vivid memory of this film is that the food was made from dead human bodies. Food is a vital part of our lives, and it’s no wonder the food detail stuck with me for many years, even though I forgot most of the plot.
In ‘Interstellar’ people could only grow corn crops because all other plants had disappeared together with the bees and insects who helped pollinate them. And in ‘The Matrix’, the people who took the red pill ate some canned gelly protein.
I started looking beyond dystopian worlds.
In ‘The Expanse’ series, the crew of the Rocinante ate mostly a flavored food paste during interstellar missions. And the Star Trek series introduced the Replicator, a technology that could synthesize meals on demand, which is quite a clever way of ‘solving’ the food issue.
As I was reading about the situation of seeds in our modern world, I wondered why none of these series used food as a plot device. Instead, when we think about the future, we think about technology, space travel, and AI taking over the world. We imagine totalitarian governments cloning humans and creating a perfectly submissive workforce. But why not food?
Growing up in a communist regime, I know how food can be used to control people.
But this doesn’t happen only in totalitarian states.
It happens today under our eyes in the capitalist western world, and the real-world situation of how we deal with seeds puts any dystopian story to shame.
The future of food
Imagine a world where three giant chemical conglomerates control and engineer all the seeds used to grow our food. These companies use germplasm from unrelated organisms, such as salmon, to genetically modify the seeds and make them resistant to pesticides or enhance/remove certain plant traits. These crack-baby seeds cannot survive without the agrochemicals developed for them, and the seeds and chemicals needed to grow them must be bought in tandem by the farmers.
These seeds, together with the biochemical mechanism by which a plant takes on desired characteristics, like resistance to heat or frost, are patented by the chemical companies. The farmers are not allowed to reuse the seeds in the following season, as it would be a breach of contract with the seed company from which they purchased them. So instead, the farmer 'rents' the patented seeds against a price for a single season.
The farmers are also not allowed to use natural seeds that result from cross-pollination with the engineered seeds, as this would mean stealing the intellectual property of the chemical companies. In addition, the farmers are limited in their ability to naturally develop certain traits in seeds—such as heat resistance—by cross-pollinating different seed variations, as the chemical companies might already have a patent on these traits.
Imagine that these conglomerates bought and controlled all the independent seed banks and seed production companies, thus removing all competitors from the market. And the seeds that they produce and sell are perfect copies of each other, never allowed to cross-pollinate with other seeds variations and naturally evolve to changing climate conditions or develop resistance against pests.
The power these companies yield is so high that governments cannot control whether the engineered and genetically modified seeds are harmful to the health and well-being of humans, as this would breach the secrecy of the company’s intellectual property.
Even when it is proven that some of the substances injected in the seeds to make them resistant to pesticides are harmful to the health of humans, the three agrochemical companies can stop governments from passing laws that forbid the use of such substances in our food.
When concerned citizens try to stop these companies from destroying the environment by testing genetically engineered crops and new types of pesticides in precious natural habitats, such as Hawaii, the governments have no power to stop them.
Guess what? The world you imagined is already here.
‘The seed oligopoly1 we see today was built upon the conversion of freely grown and exchanged seeds into seeds as intellectual property.’
Even though nature did 90% of the work of creating the seeds, indigenous farmers did 8% of the work in developing and diversifying the seeds over thousands of years, these companies can patent a whole plant by doing only 2% of the work.
That's why my grandparents cultivated a single type of corn, the yellow corn, which must've been an F1 hybrid. The ‘F1’ stands for ‘first filial’ or single-cross hybrid, indicating that the seed was produced by hybridizing two genetically distinct parent lines that are inbreds.
But like inbred humans, inbred plants grow genetically weaker and cannot adapt to changing growth conditions.
In 1970-1971, a corn blight in the USA—caused by a fungus discovered in the Philippines in 1961 that entered the Corn Belt2 in 1969—resulted in a 10-15% crop loss for farmers and 1 billion dollars in financial losses paid by the insurance with taxpayer money. The main issue was that 85% of the corn crops in the USA were cultivated with cms-T or cytoplasmic Texas male sterile, a line of corn seeds engineered to have only a male population to reduce work on the fields. The female corn requires manual detasseling to avoid unwanted pollination and maintain a pure hybrid seed.
It was the first time the world realized that engineered monocultures put our food production at risk.
But this didn’t stop the trend.
Today, three large corporates sell 60% of the world's seeds: DowDuPont, Bayer-Monsanto, and ChemChina-Syngenta. In the past three decades, these companies eliminated thousands of locally evolved seeds and favored the ones reliant on their chemicals.
So far, these three companies have relied on their financial power and public ignorance to sell us a story that the engineered seeds and the potent pesticides are needed to produce enough food for our growing world population.
Even though I’ve been mainly eating organically grown food for over a decade, I also bought this story.
But studies show that crops from seeds engineered to resist pests and weeds, with the help of agrochemicals, do not yield more production than ‘historical cultivars’—locally grown seeds—that are better equipped to resist familiar and unfamiliar threats than modern cultivars. So nature is much better at engineering seeds.
Seeds are the new currency and the world's most fundamental resource, and seed variety is a must with the changing climate conditions if we want to safeguard the future of food and humanity.
A glimpse into the topic of seeds gave me fantastic ideas for developing my world. But it also made me reflect on how callous corporate greed and government ignorance put life on this planet at risk.
What is the future of food if we continue down this road?
It's something I want to explore in my upcoming short story, ‘The Seed Grower’, which I will rewrite entirely in the upcoming months. In the meantime, I continue with my research and worldbuilding for this story.
In the next week’s newsletter, you can read what people eat in my fiction world.
If you would like to read more about importance of seeds for the future of food I’ve added some resources.
Oligopoly - An oligopoly is a market characterized by a small number of firms who realize they are interdependent in their pricing and output policies.
Corn Belt - The Corn Belt is a region in the Midwestern United States that has dominated the corn production of the USA since 1850.