Research has begin into my first Temporary Expert topic, plankton. One new fact I quickly learned was that plankton are not taxonomically classified, they are ecologically classified. Plankton can be animals, protists, archaea, algae, or bacteria that inhait the pelagic zone, a zone that is neither near the bottom or shore of any body of water (plankton inhabit salt and freshwater). They live in the water column, but have no control over their horizontal movement. While some can move themselves vertically, like jellyfish, they are completely at the mercy of the current.
In doing some thought exercises, I realized plankton itself is a metonymy. People say plankton meaning any number of things, but typically thinking of something like krill or corepods (zooplankton) – tiny, aimless drifters in the sea. But there are phytoplankton, single celled organisms turning light and oxygen into energy, for zooplankton to eat. Small but irreplaceable links in an incredible food chain. There are also organisms like salp, which chain tens to hundreds of themselves together to form long floating strings in the open ocean.
Plankton are everything – single celled, complex, plant, bacteria, animal, drifters, propulsionists, carnivores, cannibals, vegetarian, autotrophs, microscopic, extremophile… it almost doesn’t seem like a scientific classification at all.
While plankton make up a crucial link in the food chain, providing sustenance for everything from fish larvae to the largest mammals in the world, they are a relatively unexplored food source for humans. Plankton exist in the same model as insects, but even less popular: an easily producible source of food, low on required resources, where hundreds or thousands of organisms are consumed instead of a part of a larger, extremely resource intensive food. I’ve been interested in the idea of bugs as a source of food for humans for a while now, so it’s not wholly surprising I’m going in that direction. But one finding in particular drove home this desire.
In 1940s era England, in the throngs of WWII, plans were made and trials conducted by several academics to feed the population on plankton harvested from the Scottish sea lochs should food supplies be cut off. Most people scoff and the notion of eating plankton in good times, but we all know it would get eaten under more dire circumstances. It’s a viable food – can we convince people to eat it now? Do we need to? Meal, Ready to Eat, or “MREs” are individual food packets used by the military to feed soldiers in environments where regular cooking isn’t possible. What happens if, due to human action, traditional cooking and eating habits are no longer possible? Us land dwellers are in the minority on Earth, and for all of our supposed familiarity, the sea is a mostly unexplored resource. More dire circumstances may force us to turn to resources we currently shy away from. Maybe this near-dystopian future requires we survive on an MRE based heavily around plankton, harvested from our seas by government-manned trawlers. It’s a topic I intend on exploring. Contact Geoffrey Moore, British scientist who discovered those long-lost plans, is a great first step. I also need to contact people well-versed in the nutrition content of plankton, as well as current MREs.
Experiments may include but are not limited to: Modeling and printing larg(er) scale plankton, buying growing dried plankton, crafting a meal out of plankton, making my own MRE to try to live off, making baleen to filter plankton from water, etc. Some note pages and sketches are below. I’m really excited about this project.