Posts Tagged ‘The Space Merchants’

‘I’ Predicts Laboratory Produced Meat Could Be on Sale in Two Years’ Time

November 25, 2020

More news about the rapidly approaching Science Fictional society on the horizon. Last Friday’s edition of the I for 20th November 2020 carried a piece by Madeleine Cuff, ‘Biofarm to fork: Lab-grown meat on supermarket shelf in two years’, which reported that an Israeli company has had such success growing meat in a lab, that it may be sufficiently commercially viable to compete with traditionally farmed meat. The article ran

Steak grown in a laboratory could be hitting dinner plates within two years, after an Israeli food start-up this week unveiled a “commercial prototype” of its cultured steak.

Aleph Farms’ steak slices are grown in a laboratory – they prefer the term biofarm – using cells extracted from a living cow. The firm claims its “slaughter-free” product has the taste, texture, aroma, and nutritional value of meat reared the traditional way.

It is not the first firm to produce lab-grown meat that mimics traditional meat, but it is the first to say it can produce lab-grown meat cheaply enough for the average shopper. Aleph claims its production system will soon be able to produce lab-grown steak slices as cheaply as conventional meat.

“One of the big challenges of cultivated meat is the ability to produce large quantities efficiently at a cost that can complete with conventional meat industry pricing, without compromising on quality,” said Didier Toubia, co-founder and CEO of Aleph Farms. “We have developed five technological building blocks unique to Aleph Farms that are put into a large-scale production process, all patented by the company.”

The slices are being unveiled today at an innovation conference in Singapore, ahead of a pilot launch at the end of 2022. The firm has raised $12m (£9m) in funding, including backing from the multinational Cargill, Swiss supermarket Migros and Israeli food manufacturer Strauss Group to fund its plans.

Aleph Farms says its system of meat production – which will take place in specially developed “Bio-Farms” – uses a fraction of the resources needed to rear livestock for meat. Beef is one of the most carbon-intensive foods, in part because it requires large amounts of land, food and water to rear cattle.

Switching to lab-grown meat would also curb the use of antibiotics in farm animals, one of the major drivers of antibiotic resistance around the world, Aleph Farms said.

But many consumers are still uncomfortable with the idea of eating so-called cultured meat, and farmers are expected to mount stiff opposition to its roll-out. In the US the beef lobby is already pressuring the US Department of Agriculture to define meat as a product that comes from the carcass of an animal.

This looks to me like it might be another industry puff-piece, like the glowing report a week or so ago that the rapid transit vacuum tube train system had been successfully tested. I’m starting to wonder if Lebedev or whoever owns the I now has shares in these companies.

SF writers and scientists have been predicting the development of lab-grown meat for decades now. I think it’s one of the targets the SF writers Pohl and Kornbluth take solid aim at in their 1950s satire of consumerism and advertising, The Space Merchants. It also appears in one of the Gregory Benford’s ‘Galactic Centre’ cycle of novels, where he describes the endless production of cloned turkey – lurkey- to feed an interstellar expedition sent to the centre of the Galaxy to find allies against an invading civilisation of intelligent machines. Outside SF, the late botanist David Bellamy gave an interview in the Sunday supplement for the Heil way back in the 1980s, in which he looked forward to the advent of lab-grown meat. This would end the cruelty of current farming, and cattle would then be reared as pets.

It’s an inspiring vision, and many people naturally have qualms about the way animals are reared and slaughtered. And there are plenty of veggies out there, who still want to enjoy the taste of meat. Hence the growth of vegetable substitutes.

But I’ve also got strong reservations about this. Firstly there’s the health aspect. What happens if you clone endlessly from a limited set of cells? I can see the nutritional value of such meat declining over time. I also don’t think it’s a good idea to get the meat from such a limited stock. One of the causes of the Great Potato Famine in Ireland was that the strains used by the Irish were too restricted. Other varieties of spud, which could have resisted the fungus which devastated the crop, weren’t available. And so when the fungus appeared, it destroyed such a high proportion that millions either starved to death or were forced to emigrate. And the British government was so unsympathetic, that immense bitterness was left that added a further spur to the Irish nationalists. I can see a similar problem devastating clone food.

I also worry about the potentially dehumanising effect this will have on us as well. One of the complaints we hear regularly from educators and agricultural/ nature programmes like Countryfile is that many children don’t know where their food comes from. Hence the schemes to take kids, especially from the inner city, to farms. For many people meat, and other foodstuffs, is simply what comes from the shops or supermarkets. But people aren’t robots or disembodied minds. As Priss says in the film Bladerunner, ‘We’re not computers. We’re biological’. And I’m afraid if we go down this route and begin the mass consumption of lab-grown meat, we’ll contact with that biology, to our own spiritual detriment.

And I’m not sure that it will be good for the animals either. Yes, I know the arguments. Cows need much space and vegetation, and their flatulence gives off such amounts of methane that it’s a major contributor to global warming. A little while ago a vegetarian organisation appeared on the Beeb local news programme for the Bristol area, Points West, to present their argument that if everyone in the Bristol, Somerset and Gloucestershire region turned veggie, the amount of land used for farming could be drastically reduced. The vast tracts of unused land could be rewilded, thus aiding the environment. But what humanity has no use for in the environment, it destroys or allows to become extinct. The wolf is extinct in Britain, and it’s been argued that the only reason the fox has survived is because there was precious little else left to hunt after the number of deer was reduced. And despite official protection, birds of prey are also under threat because they prey on grouse and so threatened that alleged sport and its profits in Scotland. Cattle continue to be farmed, but the previous varieties bred by our ancestors have become rare as their place has been taken by more profitable animals. If lab-grown meat takes off, then I’m afraid that cattle as a species will also become rare.

Whatever the environmental advantages, this looks like another step towards the kind of overly technological, dehumanizing dystopia SF writers have been warning us about. It’s an interesting idea, but it needs much more debate and caution.