We have manipulated food over the millennia in many ways and for many reasons. Carrots, which were yellow, white and purple up until the 18th century, are now expected to be a bright orange (allegedly inspired by William of Orange); the most commonly used bread wheat is now hexaploid – that is, with six sets of chromosomes.
Yet there is a natural suspicion of new foods which extends to the use of new technologies to make them. Scientists argue that there is little difference between directly genetically engineering a plant and the result of decades of selective breeding and evolution. But we feel this cannot be true – after all they are putting cod genes into tomatoes right?
On 14 July this year Greenpeace activists entered a field of wheat to the north of Canberra wearing Hazmat suits and carrying whippersnippers. They proceeded to destroy a field of genetically modified wheat which was part of a CSIRO field trial. The CSIRO GE wheat trial had been approved by the Office of the Gene Regulator - an agency whose suitably ominous name would work nicely in a William Gibson novel - which had strictly limited the growth and distribution of the wheat. Reports indicated that the wheat was engineered to improve overall digestive health and possibly to reduce risk factors associated with colorectal cancer.
The scientists interviewed were unanimous in their condemnation of Greenpeace’s actions, perhaps not surprisingly considering many of them are also prominent advocates of the use of genetic modification in food plants and animals. The CSIRO deplored the destruction arguing that the protesters had seriously damaged prospects for global food security - an assertion somewhat at odds with the purported strain of wheat being grown. Perhaps the harshest criticism came in the editorial of Australian science magazine COSMOS which labelled Greenpeace: “a sad, dogmatic, reactionary phalanx of anti-science zealots who care not for evidence, but for publicity."
The condemnation of Greenpeace’s actions was practically universal. However Greenpeace may have earned more public support had all the facts been known. Reports indicate that the research was progressing towards human feeding trials. While the public may in theory support the idea of genetically engineering crops to target global hunger, many become anxious at the thought of these same crops being fed to us without being identified in any way.
Currently we have wide spread deployment of Genetically Engineered crops – notably wheat and corn which are used as animal feed and directly in food products that we consume. There is no requirement in Australia to label such goods as GE despite wide scale public sentiment in favour of such a system. The repeated failure of companies to voluntarily label GE is a double edged sword: companies argue that the GE label would only serve to scare off consumers who have been fed too many scary stories about GE. But the general public interprets the companies reluctance to identify GE products as a sign they are actually hiding some deeper truth about their safety or quality.
Again and again scientists and scientific journals trumpet the possible benefits of GM food: how it will enable us to feed the world, solve nutritional difficulties, be resistant to diseases and more. On an ideological level many people would support the development of GM in pursuit of such goals – generally to feed “other people”. At the end of the day we’d prefer traditional old school potatoes next to our own chops.
It’s the chops that may turn out to be the real clincher though. Increasing global incomes are identified by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as a key driver of increased meat consumption around the world. FAO recommends consumption of meat of around 100g per day. As people grow wealthier, the demand for protein grows.
Science has helped us develop vegetarian proteins. In 1985 Quorn – Europe’s and now Australia’s favourite mycoprotein - was launched. The original research behind developing Quorn was utopically intended to avert famine by developing protein rich foods that could be produced more cheaply and efficiently than meat. Production of Quorn involves the soil mould Fusarium venenatum grown in large fermentation tanks fed on glucose and supplemented by vitamins and minerals. The resulting protein is removed, heat treated and mixed with egg albumen before being textured into practically any sort of pretend meat imaginable including fish sticks, fillets and the ever popular scotch eggs.
Mock meats have gotten better over the years - Buddhist restaurants in the Geylang area in Singapore serve a vegetarian pork rib soup with vegetarian but hyper realistic prawns. In Belgium vegetarian foie gras has become a Christmas miracle for many retailers.
An estimated 20 million people in Europe eat Quorn at least once a year, not bad for a soil mould. Most of those who eat meat substitutes in Europe, the US and increasingly in Asia do so because they are cultural or ethical vegetarians, or because it is a healthier alternative. The incredibly high take up even includes countries like France and Germany where meat is part of the national identity.
Quorn’s marketing success likely owes something to declaring itself a “mycoprotein”. It is made of mushrooms you see? Though this may be slightly stretching the truth it demystifies the process enough to still be palatable.
Still, for taste and cultural reasons, meat consumption is something we are unlikely to ever totally abolish despite vegetarian and vegan alternatives. But perhaps gene tech can help us achieve what ethics alone have not, by removing the need to kill sentient beings to satisfy our appetite for meat.
Making a meat that is humane might be done in the manner envisaged by the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: the restaurant at the end of the universe offers a large fat meaty quadruped of the bovine type which introduces itself as the Dish of the Day and which wants to be eaten. The sentient beast with a death-wish illustrates the most problematic aspect, from a humane and ethical perspective, of eating flesh – namely sentience.
Related but different to the politics of genetically modified food discussed above is an area which excites strong passions and visceral responses – lab-grown meat or in-vitro meat. Known, slightly more palatably, as “cultured meat”. I am going to present a vigorous defence of it morally, politically and gastronomically. If we approach this properly - learning the lessons from GM and Quorn - we might just change the way the world eats.
In November 2009 researchers in Holland reported the growth of cells from a live pig in a petri dish. The research was part funded by the Dutch Government which continues to invest in the development of new technologies in this area. NASA has also funded research in the hope of creating a way of producing fresh protein for astronauts. Even those vegan activists with the poor feminist credentials, PETA, have put their money where their mouth is and offered a $1 million reward to whoever brings in vitro meat to market.
As we in the West become increasingly picky about our cuts, eating only the choicest fillet, growing the entire beast might be called inefficient. Not only could we use lab growing methods to only grow the cuts of meat that we want - but theoretically we could grow any animal we want. If the continued insistence on eating whale meat truly is for deep cultural and palate reasons then why not grow it in a lab?
Meat grown in a lab would be highly regulated. Its providence would not be in question. All inputs could be assessed and cleanliness assured. It would be theoretically possible to create a system with none of the current synthetic hormones in circulation and with significantly reduced risks of disease or contamination in harvesting. Oh, and no animals would have to be killed. No waste products of the current kind would be generated.
The first meats likely to be produced this way are rumoured to be little as 6 months away. To begin with there will be those least reliant on subtleties of texture - sausages and mince meat seem likely candidates. Let’s hope they learn the lessons of GM and ensure the labelling is clear.
And as for the gross-out factor? Increasing public knowledge about intensive factory farming is very likely one of the forces that has led many people into nostalgia for food the way our great-grandmothers prepared it. In many ways there is not much that is grosser than burgers potentially infected with BSE from slaughterhouse conditions which caused cow brain matter (infected with a disease caused by eating ground up sheep flesh) to be spread through next week’s steaks.
 Prior to the eighteenth century, carrots were yellow, white and purple. http://www.nextnature.net/2009/08/why-are-carrots-orange-it-is-political/
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Written by Kym Chapple