The Soylent Revolution: Eliminating Food with Science

by Benjamin Studebaker

There’s a fellow named Rob Rhinehart who has a fascinating idea–he wants to eliminate food. Rhinehart takes our modern nutritional knowledge and puts it to work, synthesising a cocktail of nutrients he calls “Soylent” that he eats in place of his daily meals (for those readers who count themselves among the foodies, he does still eat and drink socially at say, restaurants, or for special occasions–it’s having to do the cooking himself on a day to day basis that irks Rhinehart). Assuming that this, or something like it, one day proves safe, I would like to speculate as to the potential social changes and ethical obligations brought on by this kind of scientific food minimalism.

In Rhinehart’s own research, he notices several advantages to Soylent:

  • It increased his physical and cognitive performance.
  • It reduced his weight.
  • He felt more energetic.
  • He reduced the amount of time he spent each day preparing food from around 2 hours daily to around 5 minutes.
  • It stays good for a very long time.
  • It does not require refrigeration.
  • He knows exactly what is in his diet and can adjust it to achieve specific objectives (weight loss, muscle gain, correcting deficiencies, etc.)
  • It costs less than $2 per day.
  • He does not need to go to the bathroom nearly as often.
  • The amount of garbage he produces has dramatically fallen.

This sounds like a series of pretty solid advantages, not merely for Rhinehart, but potentially for the world at large. It suggests that not only is artificial food healthier, it is potentially cheaper, longer-lasting, and more sustainable.

Something like this could prove miraculous for the world’s poor and famished. It would also be environmentally friendly, reducing our waste, our emissions, and freeing up more of our incomes to pursue other goals. In the developed world, where busy people increasingly find themselves without sufficient time to invest in eating healthily, it could both improve our health and reduce our healthcare costs.

Of course, it has to be bottled and branded. It’s a tall order to ask every one of us to do Rhinehart’s diligence by finding and sourcing all of the nutrients he uses. Soylent won’t truly be feasible for everyone until it’s tested, verified as healthy, and commodified so as to be easily obtained by the average consumer. But what happens if and when it is?

I predict resistance from several groups:

  1. The Foodies–these are people who take tremendous joy and pleasure from eating from the vast cornucopia of available foods. They might resent Soylent insofar as it takes away this joy from them or reduces their selection.
  2. Organic Environmentalists/Old Style Conservatives–perversely, despite the positive environmental impact of Soylent, those with a Rousseau-style love for natural man or a Burkean reverence for the old idea of the small rural community might see Soylent as a threat to a way of life they miss or would like to restore.
  3. Habitual Conventionalists–people who respond negatively to new stuff or ways of doing things for no other reason than because it’s foreign to them.

Given that the potential benefits of Soylent are quite large, I think an argument should be put to these groups as to why, if we one day have a world in which Soylent is a viable mass market option, these groups should consider trying it.

I should note that Rhinehart himself sees Soylent purely as a means of convenience. It would give you a healthy, inexpensive choice that reduces your preparation time, but it’s not something you’d be ethically encouraged or required to eat. Rhinehart suggests that conventional food remain a choice for personal consumption, with cooking a popular hobby, and that traditional food remain a mainstay of holidays and nights out. I suspect however that our obligations in a Soylent world might go further.

I subscribe to Mill’s harm principle. That means that I don’t think we should restrict liberty unless failing to do so results in others being harmed. I don’t think people are morally requried to eat Soylent if it is an option purely for their own health purposes. There are, however, several reasons why choosing not to eat Soylent, in a world in which it is freely available, could be considered an immoral choice even given the harm principle:

  1. Conventional farming is extremely inefficient relative to synthesising Soylent. If the global Soylent production were to in any way be limited or reduced due to the use of land for conventional farming, it might not be possible to supply the world’s poor with enough Soylent at the aforementioned low price. In this way, those who abstained from consuming Soylent could lead to the underproduction of cheap foodstuffs, much as consumers of meat presently create said underproduction. This harms poor people.
  2. Health costs of refusing to eat Soylent are passed onto the rest of society either through higher insurance premiums or higher taxes, depending on whether one’s system is private or public (or both). This harms everyone.
  3. The vegetarian and vegan arguments, in so far as one agrees with them (though personally, I do not), would apply all the more strongly in the Soylent case. One could even go further and give most plants the same ethical consideration one gives animals without being completely hypocritical.
  4. In a universe in which Soylent is freely available, choosing not to eat it so that its production is replaced with more carbon-intensive conventional food production would amount to a direct unnecessary contribution to climate change and the various harms that is likely to inflict on the young and the poor.

If any of these arguments is convincing, the state might be morally obliged not merely to make Soylent freely available, but to tax or even to outlaw conventional food. There are, however, a few outs.

If those who want to eat conventional food are sufficiently determined such that they would emigrate from countries that taxed or restricted its consumption, carbon emissions would be transferred rather than reduced, global Soylent supply would not increase nor would its price lower in poor areas, and the vegetarian/vegan argument has its own issues as I have discussed previously.

Those objections collapse if people are not willing to emigrate for their fruits, vegetables, meats, and so on. Even without those objections, however, the state still would have an interest in reducing health care costs. It is possible however that this interest interest might be countervailed by it also being in the state interest not to suffer from brain drain/net emigration and the various demographic troubles they bring.

What do you think? If Soylent (or something like it) were a commonplace consumer food choice at a price you could afford, would you consider buying it in place of what you presently buy? Do you think it would be in the state interest and/or ethical for it to be to encouraged or required by the state?