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Bioculture is an emerging technology for producing food products from cultures of the cells from plants, animals, fungi and microbes. It is the commercial realisation of the tissue cultures which have been used in agricultural, biological and medical research since the technique was discovered by Wilhelm Roux in 1885. 

     Among the eyecatching advances under way are cowless meat and milk products, chickenless eggs and meat, pigless bacon and fishless fish. These are not substitutes made from vegetable material like soy—they are indeed true meat cultivated by carefully feeding embryo stem cells with the right nutrients to turn them into muscle fibre. The only thing missing is the animal in the middle of the process—which goes direct from living embryo to meat product at a speed and with an efficiency no animal can match. 

     The technique was demonstrated by Professor Mark Post at Maastricht University when, in 2011 he produced the world’s first ‘test-tube sausage’ followed a couple of years later by the first hamburger. This breakthrough in food production has since been followed by biotech and food startups around the planet, in what some experts consider may become a technology boom to rival or exceed solar energy. The UN Global Environment Facility explains why: ‘Analyses show that producing 1,000 kg of cultured meat requires approximately 99% less land, 82–96% less water, 78–96% less greenhouse gas emissions, and 7–45% less energy compared to conventionally produced European livestock. Research is [also] focusing on: creating meat substitutes from plant-based protein; engineering microbes to produce dairy products like milk; and making other products such as leather, fur, and wood.’

What are the chances of our planet’s being able to feed growing numbers of us without the environmental impact of doing so wiping us out and, with us, the rest of the natural world? Julian Cribb has been exceptionally concerned about the price we pay for food, existentially, for many years. In his latest book, he looks at historical challenges—including the horrors of war and famine—and explores modern opportunities

The first cultured hamburger, a research product, cost $325,000 to produce in Professor Post’s university laboratory. Two years later a company called Future Meat Technologies said it had the cost down to $325 a pound and was aiming for $2–3 a pound by the early 2020s.

    Cultured meat is controversial. On the one hand it offers meat which is free from cruelty (to either animals or humans) and meets contemporary ethical standards with a much lower environmental footprint than conventional meat from animals. On the other hand, its critics claim it is ‘not real meat’ and that its climate credentials may not be as good as natural grazing of animals (which, if done sustainably, can lock up large amounts of carbon). However, since the cultures are raised in bioreactors, they are immune to the impacts of weather and climate that afflict livestock systems. On the dietary side, it is likely they can offer a meat alternative that is designer-profiled to the needs of consumers with particular health problems, at an affordable price. 

     Meat is far from the only new food product that can be produced from biocultures. There is also milk made from yeast cells, vegetarian ‘meat’ and eggs made from plant cells. With gene editing, it become possible for bio-factories to make new medical drugs, biofuels, bioplastics and green chemicals, even insulation, textiles and construction materials. 

     Carolyn Mattick of the American Association for the Advancement of Science assesses it as ‘a technology that presents opportunities to improve animal welfare, enhance human health, and decrease the environmental footprint of meat production. At the same time, it is not without challenges. In particular, because the technology largely replaces biological systems with chemical and mechanical ones, it has the potential to increase industrial energy consumption and, consequently, greenhouse gas emissions’.

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The big question is: will consumers eat biocultured food? The answer, it appears, is that today’s consumers do not know what is in a sausage, a pie, a chicken nugget, a dim sum or a crab stick anyway—and will probably eat it provided the price is right and the food is tasty and safe. In support of this view is the fact that in the 1950s nobody on Earth wore synthetic fabrics made from petroleum—and today almost everybody does, suggesting that novel technologies can be universally embraced provided they meet consumer needs, wishes and budgets.

     A major challenge facing this very new technology is how it will be received by the highly complex system of food law and regulation, institutions, commercial networks, healthcare policies, technical factors and social mores that influence the modern food supply. These have posed no real obstacle to the introduction of genetically modified foods, and so may be expected not to do so for biocultured foods. However, the issue will be decided, in the end, by consumer preferences. 

     Another big question is: what effect will cultured meat have on the 60 billion animals which are slaughtered every year to feed humanity—and on the hundreds of millions of people who raise and process them? Since livestock now represents 65 per cent by weight of all the vertebrate land animals on Earth, clearly an alternative way to grow meat could potentially replace many of these—and so help to restore the ecosystems which humans have destroyed or damaged in trying to raise and feed so many livestock, allowing wild animal numbers to recover. However, it is likely that many consumers will still prefer their meat ‘natural’, in the same way that many people still choose to wear cotton, linen or wool over synthetic textiles. This means there will still be a large market for meat from livestock reared sustainably on eco-farms or grazed sustainably in the rangelands—and that animal meat, as an up-market product, will command a premium price. 

Julian Cribb writes about science, agriculture, mining, energy and the environment. He has been scientific editor for The Australian newspaper, director of national awareness for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (an Australian federal government agency), and president of various professional bodies that report on agriculture and science. He has received numerous awards for his journalism

Coupled with biocultures, potentially, is 3D printing of food from raw ingredients, or even from basic nutrient materials produced in biocultures. Food printers have a range of possible applications, from printing out hamburgers, pizza, donuts and snackfoods in fast food outlets and vending machines, to automated production of airline meals, to the sculpting of unique and beautiful designer desserts in elite restaurants. In the home they can be used to print out novel processed foods from raw, heathy ingredients, thus sidestepping the unhealthy chemical dyes, additives and preservatives and excess salt, sugar and fat of the industrial food chain. Dozens of different food printers are already on the market, and hundreds of tech startups and major corporate players are forecast to be distributing them by the 2020s.

 

Exploring an Unexplored Planet 

Today the average consumer eats fewer than 200 different plants as food. Yet there are, according to Australian agronomist Dr Bruce French, no fewer than 29,500 edible plants on the Earth. 

     Dr French gained the first inkling to this stunning insight in the 1970s, when he was working in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, teaching the locals about modern farming methods. Instead the locals—who had been farming for around 12,000 years—taught him a thing or two about the richness, variety and nutritional value of a diet still substantially based upon a wild harvest and native crops. In 2005 Bruce gave a talk to his local Devonport Rotary Club about what he’d observed in PNG, and how he thought this hidden indigenous knowledge could help ease world hunger. In less than two years he had teamed up with Rotary International to compile a world catalogue of plants that are good to eat, drawing heavily on the rapidly eroding store of knowledge of native peoples still living on their land around the globe. This, plus an accompanying education program called Learn*Grow, has since been shared with over 35 partner countries.

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The aim of the Food Plant Solutions project was to produce an online database of useful edible plants from all continents, how to grow and prepare them as food, for countries struggling with hunger and poverty—but, in the event, Dr French should probably also be cast in bronze by the World Chefs Association for identifying tens of thousands of novel ingredients their members, the best chefs on the planet, had never even heard of. Thanks to an observant eye and a flash of insight, Bruce French has reshaped the human culinary destiny, the future of food and of farming. 

     The take-home message from the life’s work of Bruce French is that modern humans, while dreaming of settling the Moon or Mars, have yet to explore the Earth. At least, in terms of what is good and healthy to eat. We have, for generations, ignored what is under our very noses—especially in the modern age, whose oppressively narrow food boundaries are defined for us by a handful of gigantic food and supermarket corporations.    

     In Australia, where the European (and, latterly, American and Asian) diet has reigned for 250 years, Dr French has identified no fewer than 6,100 edible native plants used by the continent’s Aboriginal peoples for food and medicine for tens of thousands of years. So far, only about five of these foods have found their way into even the regular Australian diet, let alone the world diet—the macadamia nut being the best-known example.

     With the recycling of urban nutrients—especially micronutrients—this prodigious diversity offers great potential for preventing lifestyle diseases through diet, a general improvement in human health and reduction of healthcare costs. To take one example, the bitter melon or bitter gourd, grown throughout Asia, India, Africa and Latin America but still unfamiliar in the western diet, has been scientifically shown to lower blood sugar levels and reduce the appetite of diabetics as effectively as any medical drug, and there are many similar plants with medicinal qualities in ethnic diets around the world that are presently neglected by a western medicine driven chiefly by the profitability of drug companies. The Food Plant Solutions database unfolds the prospect of thousands of new diet-based preventatives and health enhancers, subject to scientific proof that they work ... 

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