Virtual reality for chickens: welcome to the future of food

From cow sensors to lab burgers, it’s all on the menu at a Science Gallery exhibition

Keep on clucking in the free world: Second Livestock by Austin Stewart, a “really far-out project” that explores how chickens might plug into virtual reality to make them feel as if they are free range

Keep on clucking in the free world: Second Livestock by Austin Stewart, a “really far-out project” that explores how chickens might plug into virtual reality to make them feel as if they are free range

 

Would you tuck into a lab-grown burger? How can sensors and bugs help us grow crops more effectively? And could chickens do with some virtual reality in their lives?

A new exhibition at the Science Gallery in Dublin wants us to apply our brains, taste buds and lab skills to the future of food production.

Field Test, which is curated by the Centre of Genomic Gastronomy and Science Gallery Dublin director Lynn Scarff, features more than 30 exhibits and examines both the concerns and creativity of food production, says exhibition researcher Zack Denfeld.

“We need to have more long-term thinking about how and where we grow food due to climate change and population growth,” he says. “But also, whether it be through cooking in the kitchen or farming, there is a desire to bring food into people’s lives and make it something that is really enjoyable.”

Field Test will feature real technologies developed in Ireland that focus on precision. One, Moocall, places a sensor on a cow’s tail and sends alerts to mobile phones when the animal is about to calve. Another is a grassometer, which maps and measures grass height in order to help farmers manage their resources.

Angry pigs?

Then there are the more speculative and artistic exhibits, including a prototype of a video game played by pigs and humans and what Denfeld describes as a “really far-out project” that explores how chickens might plug into virtual reality to make them feel as if they are living free range.

Lab-grown meat will feature at the new exhibition too, says Denfeld. There is a “speculative domestic appliance” – a bioreactor to grow fly cells for meat – and a burger that was cultured from muscle cells taken from a living cow. The lab-grown meat was unveiled in 2013 in London and has been preserved with plastic for posterity.

If all that thinking about food has built up your appetite, the Centre for Genomic Gastronomy, which Denfeld directs, is running an “experimental food cart” at the exhibition. “People come in and select the values that are most important to them in the food system,” he says. “Then, based on that selection, they get a customised snack based on ingredients that are important for Ireland, such as baby formula or seaweed. It will get people thinking – and we hope talking – about perspectives on future ingredients.”

A microbial world

For anyone with green fingers, the “endophyte club” at the exhibition looks at the importance of interactions between plants and microbes.

“Working with the Botany Department in Trinity, people can take cuttings from different plants and isolate out the fungi and bacteria that are living with these plants,” says Denfeld. “We are hoping that someone who visits the show will discover a new species of microbe.”

And if you would like to take a small part of the exhibition home, a vending machine will dispense seeds that you can grow, he says. “Each of those seeds tells a story about the future of food.”

  • Field Test runs March 11th-June 5th at Science Gallery Dublin. Admission to the overall exhibition is free. Check opening times at dublin.sciencegallery.com
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