Frankenfoods: Food produced in the laboratory might sound appealing but researchers are finding slim pickings
The Sydney Morning Herald
Fri, 04 Jul 2014 07:24 UTC
According to the narrative, we will enjoy a future in which supply is assured, greenhouse-gas-farting cows are greatly reduced in number, and supermarket shelves around the world groan beneath the weight of products born in petri dishes.
Right now, the vision of plenty is being driven by start-ups intending to use 3D-printing as the technology by which well-established in-vitro food-growing methods can be scaled up to industrial levels.
One such start-up is Modern Meadow, a US-based company aiming to 3D-print leather and meat. The business is funded by PayPal founder Peter Thiel. Its CEO, Andras Forgacs corr, aims to create ''the future of humanely sourced meat''.
In Britain a company called Dovetailed is trumpeting its ability to 3D-print edible fruit. ''We have re-invented the concept of fresh fruit on demand,'' creative director Vaiva Kalnikaite recently told a grocery trade publication.
But well-credentialled skeptics stand ready in the wings, happy to puncture the dream of a digitally made cornucopia.
''I think in-vitro meat is a fantastic way of introducing novelty foods for the rich,'' says Oron Catts, who heads a world-renowned bio-art laboratory called SymbioticA, based at the University of Western Australia.
''It's never going to be a way to feed the world - there's no way to upscale the process to that level,'' he says. ''The world will never be fed by factory-grown meat.''
''We didn't eat that sample,'' he says. ''We didn't have a licence to do so.''
Three years later he was involved in producing in-vitro frog muscle in France. That time, he did swallow. Then in 2008 he teamed with the BBC and celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal to make a meal out of lab-made flesh.
For several years now he's been the director of SymbioticA, a unit created to explore the practical, artistic, ethical and philosophical aspects of lab-generated - or as he terms it, ''semi-living'' - tissue. SymbioticA made headlines a few years ago when it created an installation of ''semi-living worry dolls''. These were small polymer dolls placed in an incubating medium and coated in live cells, which gradually grew and replaced the original structure.
Although deeply involved in in-vitro meat experiments, Catts and his crew have no commercial agenda.
''I'm not interested in trying to feed the world with it,'' he says. ''I'm more interested in it as a cultural story. In-vitro meat is a great example of trying to use technology to correct a problem that technology has created in the first place - the way meat is farmed.''
From Catts' perspective, lab-grown food forms a narrative about technological fixes taking priority over behavioural change. According to this narrative, there is no need to alter farming practices, or diet, because ''scientists will solve all our problems''.
The oft-spoken idea that lab-grown meat will find huge markets in India and China, he says, is really about altering the protein-eating traditions of those nations. It's about forcing a Western-style preference for prime cuts.
The biggest issue, however, is that a cow takes something inedible to humans - grass - and turns it into something we can eat, but in-vitro techniques do nothing of the sort. Growing meat in a lab, Catts says, is simply an exercise in translating protein from one form to another. Lab-grown tissue requires a growing medium - a nutrient-rich serum that provides the living cells with all the stuff they need to survive, thrive and reproduce.
''So this is the strange logic,'' Catts says. ''You need to produce high-quality food - the serum - in order to produce the in-vitro food in the first place. The serum contains all the nutrients needed to make cells grow, so why use a lab to do that through in-vitro meat when we could just swallow it and do it ourselves?''
The same question could be asked of 3D-printed fruit. Dovetailed keeps its methods secret, but food industry observers suggest it uses a process called spherification, which entails making teeny-tiny balls out of a mixture of fruit puree and an ingredient called sodium alginate. These are then recombined by the 3D-printer to form a bespoke fruit. It's a process more akin to using a packet mix to make a cake, rather than taking inedible elements and combining them to produce something nutritious and digestible.
The other big claim made by proponents of in-vitro meat is that it is cruelty-free - animals, after all, are manifestly not involved in its production.
Unfortunately, Catts says, that's not exactly, or even remotely, true.
It takes about 500 millilitres of serum to produce five grams of lab-grown meat, so it's an input-heavy process. The source of the essential serum causes a few unpleasant moments for ethicists and animal rights activists alike.
''It's called foetal calf serum,'' Catts says. ''You use the blood plasma from an unborn cow. When you kill a pregnant cow, you take the unborn calf - it has to be unborn - and you stick a needle in its heart and you suck out all the blood.''
Researchers have for several years been trying to formulate a less gruesome growing medium, but without success.
''I can't see in-vitro meat ever being 100 per cent cruelty-free,'' Catts says. ''But it's an extremely seductive story. The laboratory seems like a magical place. You have cells. You put them in a black box. And you get meat.''
Comment: Food is much more than just a mixture of nutrients - proteins, fats, carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins. Food is part of the living system and is produced by it to nourish and sustain its inhabitants in a finely balanced and tuned manner. The push for in-vitro meat is another plot by the big corporations to destroy our meat supply and our health.
After all, one movie comes to mind - Soylent Green ...