The rapid development of what is being called “cellular agriculture” represents a potential breakthrough along the lines of the discovery of antibiotics, the transmission of radio signals or maybe the internal combustion engine: an invention that could revolutionize one of humanity’s basic activities, in this case securing a food supply.
Yet at the same time, it’s a development that creates as many problems as it solves.
More on that in a moment.
The technology is so new that there really isn’t an accepted definition of the process, but perhaps the best explanation is that cellular agriculture involves the production of food products from cell cultures, using either organic molecules, such as proteins and fats, or materials derived from living or once-living cells.
Now, as would be imagined, this technology has been concentrated on producing animal foods in a test tube — actually, a “bioreactor” that contains a culture of cells, nutrient substrate and a growth medium. We’ve all heard about “meatless” meat prototypes, edible substances cultured from beef tissue that produced a ground meat-type substance that’s been greeted by enormous media fanfare and lots of excitement among the cadre of activists who decry virtually everything about modern animal agriculture.
As is true with any potentially revolutionary new technology, its supporters envision a glorious future for cellular agriculture, one in which livestock no longer graze in open fields, pigs or chickens are no longer found on farms, and the sounds of a summer barbecue are permanently silenced.
To be replaced by the swish of a hermetically sealed bag of meatless protein tissue product, I guess.
Aesthetics aside, if — perhaps “when” — the stales of our food supply are largely derived from actual factories, as opposed to what anti-industry activists have labeled factory farms, whatever benefits might be gained will exist in the shadows of a couple potentially problematic co-developments.
Deepening the divide
First of all, there are serious downsides associated with the application of any sophisticated technology, and the selective outrage that’s applied to new developments in food production is disconcerting, to say the least. When it’s a new iPhone, an expansion of on-demand entertainment or the latest electronic gadgetry we convince ourselves we have to have, that’s a wonderful outgrowth of 21st century science and engineering and we should celebrate its arrival.
However, when it’s genetic engineering, to cite but one example, it’s a horrible specter of corporate greed run amuck and a terrible imposition of a heartless technology that dehumanizes us all.
No to mention the (alleged) threat GMOs pose to our health and well-being.
You might argue that such an argument is merely a dispute over the optics of how scientific innovation is developed and applied, but there’s the larger problem with a futuristic world of manufactured foods.
If cellular agriculture advances to the point where cultured cow-free milk and animal-free meat are the dominant sources of nutrition, and beef and pork from actual animals become specialty items reserved only for those who can afford it, that’s a problem.
Such a future scenario strikes at the heart of what virtually every consumer activist I’ve ever interviewed claims is their priority No. 1: The welfare of both animals and the people who no longer should be exploiting them.
Unfortunately, when high tech drives the availability of basic human fundamentals, whether it’s the food supply, healthcare or transportation, it creates a divide that exacerbates, not diminishes, human suffering.
Already the world is divided into North and South (think, the Rio Olympics), developed and developing nations, educated and less educated populations, however you want to slice it.
If you care about equity and inclusion, then you ought to be concerned about the larger, longer-term consequences of a widespread application of cellular agriculture.
If the staples of the global food supply become primarily derived from expensive, sophisticated technology, then huge numbers of people are going to be left behind in terms of nutrition, availability, and even food-safety protections.
More than a billion people are currently dependent of animal husbandry for their very survival. Their continued existence is tied to herding animals that supply their food, that serve as work animals and for multi-millions of people in dozens of countries around the world, their sole source of income.
So here’s the question: Do we simply accept the existence of two parallel worlds? One in which the residents of developed countries can feel self-satisfied that they’ve evolved beyond the obsolete practice of raising livestock, and have the means and the option of consuming test-tube proteins, and another in which the world’s industrialized nations simply ignore billions of their fellow humans who continue to breed, feed and slaughter food animals?
That would be the height of hypocrisy.
Or do we work to ensure that corporate control of our most important commodity — food — is not just substantial, but absolute? Because the R&D needed to develop efficient, replicable cellular ag technologies, and the capital needed to finance a worldwide scale-up will be relegated to the biggest of the already massive mega-companies that dominate global commerce.
Right now, if you have a backyard, you can raise a few chickens or some rabbits. If you have more space, you could build a fish pond. If you have a few acres, you could raise some cattle or pigs, and know that you have a measure of control over where and how your food supply originates.
Embrace the future envisioned by the advocates of cellular agriculture as the ultimate replacement for animal agriculture and we will all be at the mercy of business interests that already control so many other facets of life.
Do the people uttering hosannas for the promise of test-tube food production really believe that in their utopian version of a livestock-free future there are going to be mom ’n pop shops producing test-tube proteins at affordable prices, so that instead of a local butcher shop you could stroll down to the corner bioreactor outlet, like it was some kind of brewpub, and pick up a canister of manufactured protein substance for a couple-three bucks a pound?
Animal-free beef-like techno-food: It’s what’s for dinner?
God willing, not in my lifetime.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator