Last week, behavioural scientist Magnus Söderlund posed a controversial question at a seminar in Sweden: Can you imagine eating human flesh?
As global temperatures continue to rise, Söderlund said in a talk at the Gastro Summit in Stockholm, the consequences for agriculture could cause food to become more scarce, which might force humans to consider alternative forms of nourishment.
Those sources might include insects like grasshoppers or worms, but they could also include corpses, Söderlund said. By gradually getting accustomed to the taste of our own flesh, he added, humans might come to view cannibalism as less taboo.
Söderlund, a behavioural scientist at the Stockholm School of Economics, doesn’t research nutrition science or the economics of our global food supply. He studies psychological reactions, like the audible groan from attendees when they were asked whether they’d consider eating a corpse.
“I’d be open to at least tasting it,” Söderlund later told the State Swedish Television channel TV4.
The idea of using cannibalism to supplement our food supply isn’t new. In 2018, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins wondered if it would be possible to grow meat from harvested human cells in a laboratory.
Like Söderlund, he called the idea “an interesting test case” that might demonstrate whether humans could overcome the “yuck” factor in order to do something they considered moral, like reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
But of course, the suggestion of cannibalism is rife with problems. Genevieve Guenther, director of End Climate Silence, a nonprofit that advocates for more representation of climate change in the media, told Business Insider that “to suggest that cannibalism is a solution to climate change is about as bad as climate denial itself.”
She added: “I don’t think that it should be even entertained in any seriousness, but exposed as a kind of propaganda that only makes it harder for us to transform the world in the ways that we need to.”
‘Our whole culture would descend into barbarism’
For Dawkins and Söderlund, cannibalism could be a way to prepare for a future in which supplies of some major food staples are wiped out. As climate-related disasters like floods, droughts, and extreme heat continue to get more frequent and extreme, agricultural producers will find it more difficult to grow crops.
In less than a decade, the world could fall short of feeding every person on the planet by 214 trillion calories per year, or about 28,000 calories per person.
Söderlund’s suggestion involves removing flesh from a corpse and serving it to humans, while Dawkins raised the possibility of taking stem cells from a living human, culturing them in a lab, and allowing the mature cells to grow into meat.
But there are myriad ethical problems to consider with either of these options, of course.
“The idea that we would be able to administer this in any kind of rational, systemic way is so absurd,” Guenther said. “It would mean our whole culture would descend into barbarism.”
Plus, there are many more straightforward, less grotesque ways to ensure we have enough food in the future.
A recent report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that a quarter of all food worldwide is lost or wasted. By improving the way food is harvested, stored, packaged, and transported, the report said, producers could address food shortages.
Dramatically reducing global emissions would also help the world avoid a future of high temperatures and more extreme weather conditions that make it difficult for farmers to grow food.
The IPCC report found that the way we use land, through practices like farming, mining, logging, accounts for 23 percent of human-produced greenhouse-gas emissions. Reducing deforestation and tilling could help lower these emissions, as could reducing red meat consumption, the report found.
Climate change drove our early ancestors to cannibalism
Cannibalism has severe health risks for humans. A fatal disease linked to the practice of cooking dead bodies and eating them at funerals affected members of a tribe in Papua New Guinea until about 2009.
But climate change likely drove human ancestors to cannibalism before.
More than than 100,000 years ago, the world saw a dramatic spike in global temperatures that wiped out large mammal species like bison, reindeer, and mammoths.
Still, Guenther said, by the time modern societies ever consider resorting to cannibalism, human society might already be in shambles because of climate change.
“If we come to the point where we’re looking at human corpses for food sources, we’re going to have larger problems on our hands,” Guenther said.
“It will mean that we failed to mitigate the climate crisis.”
This article was originally published by Business Insider.
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