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I'm trying to figure out how a minimalist style society would work. Its secretive founders have been planning this since the 19th century, hiding in universities, influencing the young to attempt to develop the desired technologies. They hope to wait for the natural collapse of complex global society and swoop in when their time has come. Their ultimate goal is to create a civilization which could last 100000 years.

In order to do this they plan to optimize certain aspects of the human condition and transcend certain memes and schema about how basic human activities must work.

They want to transcend the schema surrounding entertainment, they want to replace it with soma (pleasure chemicals), wireheading (stimulating the brain for preferred mental states) and emotional discipline methods (e.g meditation). They want to transcend the schema where food = plants/fungi/animals. Just as vehicles use fuel to continue existing, so can humans use "body fuel" to sustain their existence.

There needs to be some way to turn raw materials into body fuel which is as cheap or cheaper than agricultural methods.

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    $\begingroup$ How about liquifying all dead humans, mixing the juice with strawberry flavour and selling it as a nutrient smoothy? $\endgroup$ – Mrkvička Jan 12 '17 at 15:34
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    $\begingroup$ IMHO, better to use a different flavor: "you mix the Lime with the corpus-ex and mix it all up..." ;-) $\endgroup$ – Catalyst Jan 12 '17 at 15:37
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    $\begingroup$ Well, that last edit took all the fun out of it... How can you ask a question about Soylent without the answer being "eat the dead people"...? $\endgroup$ – Snow Jan 12 '17 at 15:39
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    $\begingroup$ Why would anybody want to do that? Agricultural products are dirt cheap. It's very hard to make glucose cheaper than Brazilian sugar cane makes it. In Brazil sugar is so cheap that they process the stuff into ethyl alcohol and burn it as engine fuel. (Sugar is a bit more expensive in Europe and North America because of protectionist customs tariffs. If we stopped applying punishing tariffs on Brazilian and Carribbean sugar we could burn it too.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 12 '17 at 16:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Nii Why would they anticipate that? Unless they intend to settle on Mars, that anticipation is one where all life on Earth has been eradicated. If you no longer can feed from soil or sea... the Earth is dead... the biosphere has been wiped out. First it will take a lot to make that happen, something in the order of the Sun becoming hotter and cooking the surface of the planet. And second: why would they even want to live there?! That would be — almost literally — Hell on Earth. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Jan 12 '17 at 16:23
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Bacterial processing of waste matter into bioavailable nutrients.

Raw materials (sewage and refuse and yes even dead things of all types because leaving amazing piles of raw materials around is silly, as well as some small additions from the wider ecology because there are always losses in recycling no matter how much of a closed loop you intend) are dumped into vats to be digested by engineered bacteria (biological chemical factory) which break it all down into component parts. Running materials through a grinder first would speed up that process a bit by feeding in a fine mulch rather than large chunks, but generally you let the bacteria do the work. Some energy sources will of course be needed to power this process - sunlight is traditional, though artificial light is more likely (and would allow much better density of production with no downtime).

Specialized vats would be used to produce specific vitamins or fix particular nutrients, to be mixed as needed for different formulations. Fortify this with some additionally sourced materials (necessary simple inorganics like iron, magnesium, potassium, etc), and you could mix it all together at the end of the process for a single nutrient slurry.

It wouldn't be all that different from growing more traditional crops using vertical farming, essentially the vats of bacteria are the plants in agriculture, but could be more simply automated and achieve enormous economies of scale. You recycle organic (and some inorganic) waste using a continuous stream manufacturing system, for a food source requiring little labor (though high capital investment) and negligible land area compared to traditional agriculture.

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We can synthesize all the basic nutrients. Whether the results are cost effective or tasty is another matter entirely.
TL;DR: We could, but I think I'm losing my appetite.

We can already synthesize carbohydrates (sugars, starches), amino acids (building blocks of proteins) and lipids (edible oils, fats and cholesterol.)

The first key (formerly strictly biological) process automated was nitrogen fixation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haber_process

Making carbohydrates, via artificial photosynthesis is a topic of active research: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_photosynthesis

We now have programmable lab machines that can build custom proteins, just send them a file in a standard format and payment: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cell-free_protein_synthesis

or search for: "peptide synthesizer"

I'm not sure about the state of artificial synthesis for fatty acids and lipids in general, but (since we can make the enzymes that perform synthesis of fatty acids), I'm pretty sure we could, if there was a pressing reason to develop/scale up those processes.

The main reason for agriculture is that plants
(1) grow themselves and harvest the sun's energy.
(2) can be encouraged to do so in/near places we want to live,
(3) produce the nutrients we need, in forms we're well adapted to and enjoy.

Unless there are surprises, like some vitamin or trace nutrient that is impossible to synthesize, I strongly suspect that we could make 'food' using strictly chemistry, without living biochemistry involved -- no cells needed.

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Use the People, for the People*

Obligatory IMDB reference.

You recycle your people (when they die) into food - there's lots of nutrients there to be taken. You don't need land, you don't need agriculture, don't need to provide and care for animals, you don't need hydroponics...

If you start running out of people to use for food, find a way of killing more of them....

*May require some processing

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  • $\begingroup$ IS CANNIBALISM UNHEALTHY OR JUST AWFUL? $\endgroup$ – Mołot Jan 12 '17 at 15:33
  • $\begingroup$ 'If you start running out of people to use for food, find a way of killing more of them' You would never run out of people to use for food, once supplies started running low, some people would starve and die, thus creating food.. It's literally a problem that would fix itself $\endgroup$ – samuelmr Jan 12 '17 at 15:41
  • $\begingroup$ It is potentially unhealthy (see mad cow disease), but it is not awful. That is just one of your cultural taboos. $\endgroup$ – Michael Vehrs Jan 12 '17 at 15:41
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    $\begingroup$ Eventually everyone would be dead. The dead bodies would not contain enough energy to feed those that remain for any significant period of time. We would barely be able to last a generation. Even if you captured and farmed humans for food, you would still need to feed them long enough until they were adult sized. You might as well use that food to feed your population. But where would you get that food from without agriculture? $\endgroup$ – Nii Jan 12 '17 at 15:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Nii Obligatory xkcd: what-if.xkcd.com/105 $\endgroup$ – Deolater Jan 12 '17 at 19:44
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I've seen an anime ages ago talking about quite a similar topic, this case, in the case of long space explorations missions.

First thing they did was to modify the human genome, yup, good old homo sapiens is not satisfying in terms of needs, we needed something more economical. They looked at what they would have plenty in space. Light and radiations. So it was decided, humans will now do photosynthesis.

Humans became able to do a reasonable level of photosynthesis, they still needed a meal here and there, but it was in the scale of one every week.

So boom, you have already divided your needs for food supplies by about 14.

Now, for you remaining food needs, you should look into insects. Yep, these bad boys are darn healthy and provide lots of proteins, they are also way more efficient in terms of needs. Grind them into powder and add your bioengineered vitamins and you are ready to go.

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Yes; in order for us to live, we need:

  • Proteins (actually, it's enough with the raw amino acids)
  • Fat, especially omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids
  • Carbohydrates
  • Vitamins and minerals
  • Trace substances

All of which can be synthesized in a lab, then mixed in good proportions provided that we have decent precursors. However, it takes a lot of time and effort to do so manually, whereas nature is much more efficient.

Insects are not really a good way to go, partially because they might not produce enough in relation to the volume they will occupy, but mainly because they need complex food. In order to feed the insects, you need to grow and collect foods for them. That is, you still need to have agriculture and, thus, won't fulfill the question of stopping agriculture.

So a more efficient way would be to grow proteins from stem cells, to have algae farms or to bio-engineer yeast/bacteria to produce the stuff for us (no currently working tech). A benefit with this would be that we don't need to hassle with synthesis, the enzymatic building from the cells will not produce byproducts so there is no need for purification and all we need is to keep them in a vat and feed them with stock solution of liquified resources (and some UV for the algae). However, we now start to go back to borderline farming. Even though we don't do agriculture, it can be argued that you are still farming if you grow other life forms for food....

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Well, you obviously have canibalism. However, to provide enough literal 'human fuel' you'd need people farms, and ethics aside that breaches into agriculture.

My next thought was not to adapt existing methods to suits humanity, but to adapt humanity to suit existing methods. Adding chloroplasts to our skin cells could, with a bit extra genetic tweaking, allow us to phtosynthesise. This would let your populace generate energy within dayight hours, reducing the need for food. However, photosynthesis requires Carbon Dioxide to work, and although by knowledge about genetics is limited, I would expect it to be an enormous challenge getting the human body to transfer CO2 to the skin. You could try getting it to draw CO2 in from the air, but that would also present what I expect to be massive difficulties.

But carrying on the idea of adapting humans, you might be able to use, for want of a better word, 'artificial' energy to power humanity. By artificial, I mean energy we extract from fuels in power plants. Whilst this would likely be inefficient and your society wouldn't be too keen on it, having a way to hook humans up to stations and stone the enrgy inside them, possibly in batteries, would reduce the need for agriculture.

However, why do you want to stop using agriculture in the first place? Plants are excellent sources of energy and nurients, we're just having some difficulties growing enough to support Earth's bloated population. But automated farms, ones that don't need humans to grow the food, would stop your population having to do the dirty work. All you'd have to do is reduce the population by a few billion, and you'd be sorted! (And hey, maybe canibalism wouldn't be the worst thing in this situation? 3 billion corpses, what else are you gonna do with them? Biofuel?)

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  • $\begingroup$ A future is anticipated (by them) where traditional agriculture is no longer possible because of the catastrophic collapse of the climate. $\endgroup$ – Nii Jan 12 '17 at 16:21
  • $\begingroup$ That makes some sense. Would they be able to use greenhouses, or has all the soil be drained of its nutrients, etc? $\endgroup$ – Sirama Jan 12 '17 at 16:24
  • $\begingroup$ Let's assume it has. Nevertheless, they are minimalists. They might try to become independent of agriculture just because it is consistent with their principles. $\endgroup$ – Nii Jan 12 '17 at 16:38

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