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Imagine that humanity made a mining colony at some planet. This planet has its own biosphere.

One of the retired workers decides not to go back to Earth, but instead wants to open up a bistro, so that miners don't need to eat the same stuff every day.

Question is: how does he tell what local delicacies are safe to eat?

  • biosphere is protein-oriented, and at least some of it is edible for earthlings - local plant is used to feed chickens, which are than fed to workers, and also as fertilizer for some crops.

  • our hero is not in a survival situation (so answers from here don't really work). If he needs to take a year or two and use some reasonable money to confirm edibility - he will do so. This also means he is interested in long-term health effects of space food.

  • if such research requires some fancy scientific equipment, he probably can get access to it - after all, someone already figured out how to feed chickens with local flora. But what would such equipment need to be?

First obvious answer would be to feed chickens with whatever he finds, and see how they do, but chickens aren't even mammals, so what's safe form them isn't necessarily safe for us.

Edit:

I read the question that mine is supposed to be duplicate of before posting, and in fact I even pointed to it myself. I do not agree that answers there are useful for me. Universal Edibility Test, thorough cooking and sticking to parts of plant that are likely to be edible are all methods you are going to use in a survival situation - that is, when you are very likely to die of hunger if you don't. All of them are still very risky.

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  • $\begingroup$ For inspiration watch the cooking channel on cable. There are a lot of shows that showcase unusual, regional foods and equipment. In addition to looking for things that simply aren't edible, look for things that need to be prepared in a certain way, and if not, may be deadly to consume. $\endgroup$ – Jesse Cohoon Nov 25 '16 at 1:33
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    $\begingroup$ Wouldn't you just submit a novel food application and be done with it? Same tests as for GMOs and exotic plants. $\endgroup$ – zzz Nov 25 '16 at 1:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Zxu Sending every bit of food to earth is probably too expensive, but I suppose I can google up what tests are used when submitting such application. Thank you. $\endgroup$ – Borsunho Nov 25 '16 at 9:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Philipp I though about that, but there is no access to those species on the planet. A lot of workers are Muslim, so mining company didn't bother to bring pigs, and obviously you don't easily let mice on your spaceship. I guess that bistro owner could "order" some mice from Earth. $\endgroup$ – Borsunho Nov 25 '16 at 9:45
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding your edit, your question still states 'how does he tell what local delicacies are safe to eat?' That, to me, is answered well by the survival question linked as a duplicate. What is it you really want to know? Is your question: 'given that the protagonist has identified hundreds of safe things to eat, how does he go about making good tasting food?' That is a different, and as far as I can tell excellent, question that maybe you should ask. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Nov 28 '16 at 15:49
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The answers to this question explain the process to test for edibility.


Alternatively, try an easier approach: Pocket Spectrometers

We already have the technology to scan any object and see its contents without needing a lab (see here, here, here). No need for future development - we can actually assess, down to the percentages of invidivual molecules, what a potential food item contains.

All this worker has to do is obtain one of these devices (Which aren't super expensive or hard to manufacture), scan everything he wishes to prepare for toxins, and keep what works.

Note that microbial toxins may be a problem if the food is not cooked first; if the worker does not wish to cook then he can use known antibiotics that have been proven to work in the mines (if people get alien infections) or he can simply wait and see what causes problems.

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    $\begingroup$ Without reference proteins which you probably don't have, how would you know whether something is a toxin or not? $\endgroup$ – zzz Nov 25 '16 at 14:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Zxu It can either be cataloged as "healthy", "safe", "safe with little use", "toxic over time" "toxic" etc after analysis using methods on the linked answer ----- or the database can be expanded to include proteins based on the biologies observed $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Nov 25 '16 at 14:43
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Animal testing

Just do what we do on Earth when we want to find out if some new food additive is harmful. Import some animals from Earth and feed it to them. Just as on Earth, the first choice will likely be rats and mice. They don't take much space and mass on the supply transport and they breed very fast. They are mammals so their metabolism isn't too different from ours.

Warning: should it turn out that the test animals can stomach the local flora, you need to be very, very careful that they don't escape into the wild. Introducing some of our most annoying pests to this planet's ecosystem might cause far more irreparable damage to it than the mining.

Alternatives to animal testing

There are also purely lab-based toxicology tests which do not require animals. They work on human cell cultures, making them more ethical and in some cases more reliable. It might also be logistically easier for you to import the necessary lab hardware than importing live animals.

But this test method requires skills which the average miner might not possess. Breeding rodents isn't difficult, but preparing human cell cultures under lab conditions is something different. Your miner will either require some background in biochemistry or teach himself that knowledge somehow in order to perform such tests. Also, these tests only tell you if it a substance is harmful, not much about if it is nutritious. You can't find out if a substance can be digested without a complete digestive system. So you won't get around doing some testing on living subjects eventually. Whether to skip animal testing or not is a matter of how brave you (or your customers) are.

By the way, it might not be too hard to get funding for this project. Whoever pays for the food supply to the colony will be more than eager to throw money at you hoping to reduce the amount of food which needs to be imported. Scientific organizations might also support you because you will collect very valuable data about the planet's ecosystem in the course of your testing.

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