Author’s note: I wrote the below essay over the summer, while consulting with an organization devoted to fighting corporate food dominance and working to increase transparency in the food industry. But I have been holding it for the right moment (if ever there was one). Then, this past week, we discussed A Small Farm Future in our monthly book discussion. The hope and premise of the book is that we’ll intentionally move to a small-scale, low-input, and regenerative agricultural system that’ll better care for people and the planet. But as the discussion leader (and farmer) pointed out, farming is hard work, especially without fossil fuel support. And without skill, knowledge, experience, and a willingness to work really hard, farming isn’t going to draw many (until they have no other choice—but by then, what farmer will want hungry, reluctant, and unskilled workers to join them?). Instead, as we see in many developing countries today, it is more likely that people will continue to remain in cities (and slums), and most likely try to survive there rather than head for the metaphorical hills (and valleys). So in the context of that, I share this essay on Soylent Green, which, sadly, may be a more realistic vision of the future of food than we care to think.
Many of you have seen or are at least familiar with the classic 1973 eco-dystopian film, Soylent Green—one of my favorite movies ever. (And if you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and watch it. But the short of it is a New York police detective, Thorn, discovers, and then tells the world, that the popular food product, Soylent Green, “is made out of people…,” specifically from people who go to euthanasia (or Home) facilities to die in the highly overpopulated world of 2022!) I wondered, recently, what would have happened to the Soylent Corporation after the film ended. Sadly, probably not much. This letter from the CEO of Soylent to his shareholders says it all.
A Letter to Soylent Shareholders
To the esteemed shareholders of the Soylent Corporation,
It is unfortunate that it was external sources rather than our own disclosures that were credited with revealing to the public from where we source our ingredients for our award-winning product, Soylent Green™. As our reports (which I do want to note for the record were and continue to be available at a number of libraries in major cities in our operating markets) clearly state, inputs are recycled from Home™ facilities and are rendered into high-quality protein, fats, carbohydrates, and micronutrients for our discerning customers.
We stand by our product; Soylent Green is nutritious and delicious and that is why we sell it at a premium. Soylent Red and Yellow do come from other sources—rendered animals and plankton, respectively (as our reports also detail). However, plankton sources have been under increasing stress due to climate change and oceanic plastic contamination and therefore, in order to continue to sustainably harvest these resources, we had to reformulate our Soylent Green product three years ago. (Note: in the medium-term, Soylent Yellow may also shrink in availability or undergo recipe adjustments due to supply chain limitations and thus could become a premium product as well.) We do recognize that our marketing department did not make this transition clear enough in packaging and promotional materials and we promise to correct that moving forward.
Two important notes as we move beyond this public relations challenge.
First: inputs for Soylent Green are always screened thoroughly for disease, and only healthy sources are utilized. Rigorous quality inspection and testing are part of our brand promise. Plus, it is important to note that through our patented processing procedures, it is impossible to transmit any disease agents from source ingredients to the final product.
Second: people willingly enter Home facilities and in every service agreement, which all users of Home services are required to fill out and sign, there is a disclosure of what happens to their remains and an option to opt-out of this process for a fee. As you know, Home facilities are a subsidiary of the Soylent Corporation and it is only through this harvesting of nutrients that we can provide Home services free to customers. As with the source of Soylent ingredients, we have been transparent in this since the beginning.
As part of the agreement with the Department of Agriculture and Recycling, we have agreed to pay an annual fee to cover an additional government inspector at each of our manufacturing facilities as well as offer a coupon for one of our other fine products for those customers who write to our headquarters and send in a proof of purchase for Soylent Green (limit one per household). We will also now include clearer labeling on our food packaging and provide ingredient lists to all of our vendors (available for review by their customers upon request).
While this information may have taken the public by surprise, government officials were aware of our practices and understood the necessity of these actions and the relationship between Home services and Soylent Green production. Therefore, larger legal consequences are not expected, nor are significant consumer preference shifts.* We are confident that Soylent’s share price will remain robust and will continue its growth in future quarters.
We thank you for your continuing support and trust, and look forward to what appears to be a profitable year.
J. B. Tyson, CEO of Soylent Inc.
*In the immediate aftermath of this information release, purchases of Soylent Green did fall 35 percent. However, sales are now back up to 93 percent of pre-release. Our share price, contracting briefly, is now 15 percent higher than pre-release, reflecting the resilience of and trust in the Soylent Corporation, as well as expectations for increased demand in our line of quality products.
On Cannibalism and Corporate Malfeasance
Considering corporations’ role in so many aspects of the sustainability crisis, I think about corporate malfeasance often (and have done so for more than 15 years). And recently, I’ve been having fun applying this to the fictional realm, as with Onceler’s Inc. some months back.
While researching the food industry over the summer, I got to wondering about the Soylent Corporation. Detective Thorn gave his life to warn people that “Soylent Green is made out of people.” But what would his self-sacrificing act of whistleblowing have accomplished? If there really were few other food sources, would anything change? Would it even be considered wrong to feed people to other people, assuming it wasn’t causing terrible diseases? Your gut, like mine, probably screams, ‘Of course it’s wrong!’
But is the wrong part the feeding people to people or the lack of transparency? I agree, viscerally, that it’s both. Cannibalism is a deep cultural taboo, though not in all cultures (and perhaps less so in famine or siege times when cannibalism is often a means of survival). So, assuming people know their bodies are going to feeding others when they die, and consumers know what they are eating (and there really are no negative health consequences1), is it still wrong?
I still want to say, yes, though like the Soylent board member in Soylent Green explains—as he accepts death willingly from his assassin—perhaps it’ll one day be “necessary” because we failed to make the sacrifices needed today to live within nature’s limits when we still had the agency to do so. I do worry this fictional dilemma one day could become a real one—even more expediently solved than in this film (perhaps through a new fast food chain called “SecretBurgers,” as Margaret Atwood muses in her MaddAddam trilogy). A warning, certainly, for all of us. And while disturbing, I have to admit I had fun putting myself in the mind of the Soylent CEO justifying and spinning the exposure of dirty secrets into a net win for the company—a regular rite of CEOs that isn’t very fictional at all!
1) Of course, how could you trust these findings in a world where there is no transparency? So that complicates things further.