Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Burgering around with our food

In the news today is a “lab grown” burger (BBC News Website 5 August 2013 World’s first lab-grown burger is eaten in London). It raises some interesting questions.

Leaving aside the current cost of this “prototype burger” you wonder if this offers a way forward.

Pros:

  • “No animals were harmed in the making of this burger”. This has to be an ethical benefit – although of course without conventional livestock farming those animals would never have a life. Do animals that are reared to ethical standards and are unaware of their end have a “good life”?
  • Land use and CO2 cost is low. Current livestock farming is inefficient requiring large amounts of land to grow animal feed, which those animals then inefficiently convert to meat (cows releasing methane in their burps). Shipping livestock around (on hoof or hook) is also inefficient.
  • If meat can be manufactured it can be manufactured to high nutritional criteria and the best hygiene standards.

Cons:

  • Is there a “yuck” factor to manufactured food? There is a wide dislike of “chemicals in our food” and isn’t this the ultimate form of chemical food? There seems to be a lack of understanding about chemicals – I suspect that a good TV documentary could persuade vast numbers that Hydrogen Hydroxide is dangerous (it probably is responsible for more child deaths than many other chemicals). Likewise many are frightened of the idea of E330 (citric acid) – despite it naturally occurring in citrus fruits.
  • It potentially puts more control of our food into the hands of the (big) food manufacturers. This is a problem with any sort of food technology, whether it is genetic modification, zombie seeds, processed meat, or ready meals.

I don’t see a particular danger in this technology – unlike feeding rendered meat to herbivores, or trans-species genetic modification. If we did not understand prions until we started to see BSE and vCJD, do we really have the means of understanding the potential impact of putting say fish genes into tomatoes? By comparison this burger seems very “pure” consisting of clean-room grown animal cells “coloured red with beetroot juice. The researchers have also added breadcrumbs, caramel and saffron, which will add to the taste.”

Most of us do not ask too many questions about our food. We don’t want it to be rotten and most of us probably avoid the really dodgy outlets. But we do not worry about sustainability, food miles, or the finer points of standards of animal welfare and husbandry. Very few of us wonder about the equality issues – the developed world consumes far more resources in feeding itself than the developing world. Perhaps we ought to.

Then we either have to face changing our eating habits (most notably finding sources of protein other than meat), and being prepared to pay more for quality and sustainability. That is the low-tech way.

Lab-grown food is probably the acceptable face of the high-tech solutions.

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