Waste Not, Want Not

Photo by Fox News

If Japanese scientists can turn human waste into artificial steak — or even if the story is a complete hoax — surely we have the technology to tackle the environmental concerns piling up on us as we barrel through the 21st century. What we’re lacking isn’t technology, but solidarity of purpose and will.

Okay, this is definitely one for the “just when you think you’ve heard it all” department. I came across several internet news headlines the other day that proclaimed scientists in Japan had actually found a way to synthesize “steak” from — of all else — human feces! At first I thought it was going to turn out to be one of those “it’s not quite what it appears at first glance” sorts of stories. But to my astonishment, after following various links to the primary internet source, the story appeared at least to be legitimate. As of this writing, the story hasn’t been verified, and the fact that stories very much like this have cropped up several times over the years has led several commentators to question its legitimacy (e.g., here and here) — even while others, such as Fox News, continue to report it as legitimate.

Aside from its accuracy, however, the article from Digital Trends contained much information that — whether reliable or simply a hoax — begged for greater reflection.

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According to the story, it seems a scientist was approached by folks at the Tokyo sewage operation searching for ways to deal with waste sludge or “sewage mud” that had been heavily piling up. In an effort to find possible uses for this abundant but otherwise nuisance material, a research team found a way to extract the proteins from the sludge and process it in a way that when combined with some soy protein, colorings, and flavor and texture enhancers, produced a meat-looking concoction that is slightly more than 60 percent protein, 25 percent carbohydrate, 3 percent lipids and 9 percent minerals. The report also claimed that folks who have actually tasted the concoction say it tastes like beef. More remarkably, because of the nature of its constituents, it’s even healthier than beef. Right now, because of all the research that had to go into discovering the process, the cost to convert the waste mud to artificial steak is relatively high, but that could easily come down with mass production.

This article was impressive not so much for the shock value inherent in the thought of possibly producing what the inventors affectionately nicknamed “poop burgers” or “poop steaks,” but for the endless possibilities it suggests for dealing with our ever-increasing environmental concerns. The very suggestion that scientists might have come up with a way to turn pure waste into nutritious food — the fact that we might believe it, whether or not it is actually true — is a testament to what humankind can do when a goal is committed to resolutely. That same fact also serves as a chilling reminder about the political realities that keep us from reaching those goals.

There are many pressing environmental issues facing us all as we barrel through the 21st century. Energy demands are unrelenting, many of the world’s children are still undernourished, consumption-oriented lifestyles are impacting our planet in serious ways, and mountains of waste from a variety of sources present a formidable challenge for their ultimate disposal. But all these issues can be addressed. The problem is not so much that we don’t have sufficient knowledge or even a capable technology. The real problem is that we lack solidarity of purpose and will. We are still very divided, not only about what we really need to do to save the planet, but also whether the planet is really in peril. And the reasons for these divisions are as deeply rooted in the vested interests that perpetuate them as they are complex. But what would happen if we were to stop bickering and start really working toward solutions? I think the answer lies in the quirky little story emanating from that island in the Pacific. And yes, I’m sure there’ll be plenty of jokes circulating about the whole idea of consuming anything that was once mostly excrement. But the more serious reality is that if we have the capacity turn the slime of human waste into a tasty and nutritious steak — or could develop that capacity — we can do anything. We can even solve all our concerns about hunger, environmental preservation, and abundant, renewable energy. We simply have to put our collective mind to it. And the fact that we haven’t yet found a way to be unified and resolute on these most pressing issues of our time is no laughing matter.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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