"Being right does matter - and the science tribe has a long track record of getting things right in the end. Modern society is built on things it got right" - Joel Achenbach

Friday, 3 April 2015

Lab meat and the force of public opinion

A few news articles have been recently commenting on breakthroughs in the production of "lab-grown meat" - muscular tissue grown artificially which could be consumed as a more sustainable alternative to animal husbandry.

It's a fantastic idea, as the evolution of life is essentially a constant state of compromise between needs, the bodily processes of animals and plants can sometimes be quite inefficient.
For example in cows the ratio of edible feed eaten to edible meat produced is about 9:1. This means that 1kg of beef steak requires approximately 9kg of food (be it grass or grain) to make it.
This, in terms of food production, is terribly inefficient and the feed could arguably be put to better use.

At least, that's one basis of arguments for a vegetarian or vegan diet, that a meat-free diet is more economical and sustainable.
The problem with this is, we're culturally and biologically adapted to eat meat. Australia is known for it's barbeques, and a number of nutrients found in animal sources (protein, iron, etc) are absorbed far better (more bioavailable) than their counterparts in plant sources.

The problem is, when it comes to culture food is a rather sore-spot, we're used to eating certain things and we don't like that to change.
Besides, we like eating meat. Surely if we could find a better way of making it we could continue to reap the delicious, tender rewards without compromising our sustainability?
Well, that's the idea behind lab-grown meat. Even before the recent breakthroughs which have gained some public attention, it was being hailed as a game-changer by environmentalists, nutritionists and food industries.

There's one problem which requires careful consideration: we've been here before and it went terribly.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are the centre of a great deal of heated debate. On the one hand, it is promoted as a life-saving, environmentally necessary technology which affords us greater control over the efficiency of our food production.
On the other hand, it's being regarded with fear and suspicion - how can you just add genes to a plant and expect the result to be safe for consumption?
This innate fear of technology in food is nothing new, it's a very old reaction and our survival is no doubt attributable to it.

This instinctive reaction is called food neophobia - the fear of eating new or unfamiliar foods.

In the past, we didn't have the safety of consumer protection laws or a reliable medical system to save us if we ate some poisonous berries. In order to account for this, a behavioural trait developed over time in which our ancestors were, by default, suspicious of foods they had not eaten before or seen somebody else eat safely.
This is why kids won't eat foods that aren't familiar, and also why a common tactic of dealing with such a scenario is to eat the food in front of them and expose them to it regularly and consistently.

While in the modern world we have safeguards which assure that in all but the rarest of circumstance that our food will be safe to eat, and that we have a good chance of surviving even if it isn't, this evolutionary and utterly necessary mechanism remains imprinted upon each and every one of us.

When GMOs were first being presented as a technology, a very crucial mistake was made with regards to their introduction to the public.
As the technology was being pioneered by private companies, the first thought of the company was to help themselves. There is nothing wrong with this, it isn't selfish to preserve your own business and opt not to give ground-breaking technology to the world free of charge.
It would undoubtedly be a very noble and altruistic thing to do, but not doing so is not necessarily a evil or immoral.
Thus, the first plants to be modified were made resistant to herbicides and pesticides. This enabled farmers to lose fewer crops to a coating of herbicide which resulted in more food for everyone and happier farmers.

The problem was that this had set the bar. The grand new food technology was unveiled and its first use was to supposedly line the pockets of the industry who created it.
Why, many people asked themselves, should we embrace this technology which offers us nothing? Especially when it's new, unfamiliar, and uses scary-sounding words. What the hell even is "genetic modification" and how do you know it's safe?!

Several decades down the track and I don't need to even explain to you the situation as it stands.

My point is, lab-grown meat currently exists in that crucial, once-only stage of its inception. The public is only just finding out about it, and all it's capable of.
Action needs to be taken right now to address the fears and concerns of the public.

To that end, the company who develops this technology to the point that it becomes viable needs to take one for the team - they need to make this technology a boon to the public and not to themselves if they ever want it to be accepted widely.
That doesn't mean giving it away for free, but it does mean temporarily shelving any ambitions they have of making top dollar as quickly possible, and turning this technology into a gift to the public.
Not as a Trojan horse, but as a peace offering with a crucial message; food science is not a bogeyman.

Off the top of my head, perhaps a muscle tissue which is artificially low in certain proteins, which would permit individuals with genetic protein metabolism disorders to eat the foods they've never been able to eat safely before.
I can already think of a few problems with that suggestion, but that's something for the researchers. For those of you reading, I propose one simple action which can be undertaken to help acceptance of this new and very strange technology:

Don't call it lab-grown meat.

First impressions really are everything, the phrase "lab-grown meat" doesn't sit well on the tongue and incites those nasty feelings of ickiness which characterise food neophobia.
I'm not sure which term would be universally agreeable, but the point is to call it something which doesn't immediately bring to mind images of test-tubes, syringes and an evil man in a lab-coat.

Personally, I'm going to adopt the name "cultured meat", as it suits my criteria, sounds pleasant, and is not deceptive as to the nature of the meat or the process which creates the meat.

I invite any readers to consider their own, or even adopt my own suggestion, and to tell everybody about this fantastic new technology which could solve some of the crucial sustainability issues of the food system.
Just don't call it lab-grown meat.

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