What about GMOs and hi-tech animal food alternatives?

We’re living in very exciting times.

We’re on the verge of making milk without the cow,
cheese without the milk,
eggs without the chickens,
burgers without the beef,
leather without the bull…

In a lot of cases we’re not talking about imitations but about actually replicating, molecule by molecule, the original product (eggs, milk, cheese, meat…), so that our “alternative” can hardly be called an alternative any longer, but is a product that is chemically (more or less) identical to the original animal product.

hi tech animal products (1)

Obviously, doing stuff like this requires new technologies (like genetic modification) and hi-tech food development environments (labs, say). This is of course a far cry from the local, natural, organic, DIY food movement that is presently quite popular.

The vegan movement too is a bit divided over this. A big part believes our food should be as “natural” as possible, while another part doesn’t mind the involvement of high tech, including GMO’s, to make things better.

To me it’s quite obvious that the label “natural” doesn’t mean much. To simplify things – as is often done in the food movement in general – to something like: natural is good, processed/engineered is bad, seems quite irrational. I find there is little reason to entertain the general idea that what has been produced by nature is necessarily better than what humans make of it. There seems to be no reason why humans, in theory, could not do better than nature. Sure, when we try to improve on what nature provided us with, we need to experiment, sometimes by trial and error, and we have made mistakes and will make more. But that doesn’t mean we can’t ever get it right.

I’m aware of the potential political and social problems in giving food companies too much power, the problem of monopolies, of only big companies being able to develop certain technologies, of patenting, etcetera… But while these issues are very important, they are practical issues that are not inherent to the “naturalness” or “unnaturalness” of foods. It seems sensible, especially in the case of GMO’s, to separate two questions: do you have fundamental problems with something, versus do you have practical problems with something. If you fundamentally disagree with something (e.g. you believe that genetic modification is “unnatural” and therefore “wrong”) there’s no real solution for you in sight. If you disagree with e.g. genetic modification on the grounds that it creates too much power for certain (obviously capitalist) multinationals, that’s a practical issue of a totally different nature.

While we shouldn’t be naive, these practical issues can in theory be solved. A nice example of a high tech initiative that seems to be doing things differently is Real Vegan Cheese, which is a group of “biohackers” (a word which does a great job in showing the “unnaturalness” of their endeavours) trying to develop… well, real vegan cheese. They are crowdfunded and work out of two open community labs in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Personally, while I can see many potential or real practical issues with hi-tech food development, I don’t have any fundamental objections against hi-tech food. I basically support science and technology in reinventing animal products and coming up with alternatives, so that we can make of animal use a thing of the past.

25 thoughts on “What about GMOs and hi-tech animal food alternatives?

  1. Interesting.
    I arrived at my vegan diet from a health based point of view and can’t see how eating GM products is going to improve my health.
    While there is a bit of momentum, a shift to a vegetarian or vegan diet, in some parts of the western world, it would seem the perfect time to increase education about the benefits of eating plants as opposed to animals…not to move to laboratory produced fake foods.

  2. Thanks as always for another post that makes me think and analyze what are the best ways of creating a more humane world for animals, Tobias.

    I’d have to say that I fundamentally disagree with GMOs because I fall into the category of those who “believe that genetic modification is “unnatural” and therefore “wrong”. I feel that the track record shows that anything not naturally created through natural means and evolution is destined to cause problems down the road.

    However, to me there is absolutely nothing more “unnatural” and “wrong” in this world than factory farming. I fundamentally oppose everything about it, and that opposition easily trumps the opposition I feel towards GMOs.

    I don’t know what category that puts me in now, but you can consider me the world’s biggest the supporter of being “practical” if it means finding alternatives to the animal cruelty of factory farming (not to mention the pollution, antibiotic resistance, etc, etc.)

    1. christine, regarding “I feel that the track record shows that anything not naturally created through natural means and evolution is destined to cause problems down the road.”

      like i said, it’s not because we have a bad track record that this has to continue forever

      secondly, it all depends what you look at and how you see things. you could consider medication, computers… and so much other stuff as “not naturally created through natural means and evolution”. And maybe these things cause problems, but not more so than letting nature run its course, i think…

      1. Yes, you’re right that it all depends on how you look at things, Tobias. I guess I’m kind of weird because in many ways I feel things would be better if homo sapiens just never evolved past the “wandering tribe” state. In the big picture it seems that things started to go downhill as far as damaging implications for the planet after farming was discovered.

        I do agree on one hand that medications and other discoveries are wonderful, but on the other hand I see that these things have enabled more humans to exist on the planet, and this in turn leads to demands on resources. Allowing a larger human population to survive in turn called for the creation of GMOs and things like factory farming in the first place.

        So, if you look at it a certain way, while medications are an advancement, they are also part of the reason why things like GMOs needed to even be thought up in the first place.

        Of course, I don’t want to see any human have to suffer when that suffering could be alleviated through medication. This is a very complicated issue and I’m only touching the tip of the iceberg here. But long story short, my personal view is that it appears the beginning of the balance of the planet going off kilter started with the discovery of farming. We may have lived much shorter and harsh lives, but we living in balance with nature and not destroying the very planet we depend on for life.

        I’m sure if I were to suddenly wake up as a cave woman somehow, after about three days I’d be screaming for a refrigerator and some band aids. 🙂

        1. let me give you my supremely idealistic, and crazy view on homo sapiens and what could happen 🙂
          Most people may not realize it, but even if there were no homo sapiens, the world is a pretty horrible place, with lots and lots of suffering going on in the wild. Homo sapiens has till now only added to it. However, we may be around for thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years more, we may evolve, and we may be one day, when we’re nice and good and have learned, the species that can make things better for all other species. So i’m not pessimistic about homo sapiens, nor would i ever press the button to eradicate them fromt he planet 🙂

      2. Crazy Tobias! You are just…supremely idealistic and crazy! lol 🙂

        Ok, all joking aside, I very much admire your outlook on things, Tobias. I find myself feeling quite jealous of your ability to stay positive. I do try hard to remain hopeful that one day humans will all be kind and good, and I try to keep that glimmer of hope alive. I have to admit it’s sometimes very hard for me, though, based on what history has shown us. Humans can’t even be kind and good to each other, let alone other species.

        You are right, however, that with or without humans, “the world is a pretty horrible place, with lots and lots of suffering going on in the wild.” Evolution is set up so that it favors survival of the fittest, not survival of the kindest. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if instead of GMOs, scientists could be working on a way to switch those around? 🙂

        I guess it goes back again to the idea of how you look at it. There is so much good in the world and much reason for hope when you look for it. But sometimes I can’t help but believe that we won’t be around for the thousands or however many years it would take to reach that point, because we’ll have destroyed the planet in the meantime. Maybe a much smaller population will be able to survive, though, and they will actually learn from what happened, because they will have no choice not to if they want to continue to survive.

        But back to the smaller picture we find ourselves in now…none of that positive evolution will happen if we keep a jaded view of humans, like I unfortunately find myself prone to do. The change has to start somewhere, and although I may feel just a glimmer of hope now, I have the choice whether to fan that spark of hope or put it out. And when I look at it that way, I want to be one of the ones who fan that spark. 🙂

        Again, it goes back to how you choose to look at it. And this is why I always seem to learn something from your blog, Tobias. 🙂

        1. hmm, i think if we are to ever change the way things work (like evolution) there will be a lot of “unnatural” things involved, just like genetic modification. i don’t think genetic engineering necessarily leads us in the wrong direction.
          Anyway i have some crazy belief or idea that one species could get so advanced that it could solve an incredible amount of suffering for all others. If we don’t make it, we lost a lot of time and that species (supposing i’m right) will have to evolve from the next in line, which will take longer.

    2. Well, whatever it takes to reduce suffering and make the world kinder (to all inhabitants of our planet, not just humans) gets my approval. Even if it takes changing evolution or GMOs, if it works, it gets two thumbs up from me. 🙂

  3. Silly Tobias! The point isn’t to reduce cruelty to animals! The point is to try to force every last thing we believe on everyone else!
    “Practical” has no place here. I am entirely right about everything; everything I dislike is equally evil; only those as pure as me are good!

  4. We are very far away from replacing “molecule by molecule” animal products, for example, infant formula is still a pretty crude replacement for human breast milk after decades of development.

    I agree that just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean its healthful and just because something is “unnatural” doesn’t mean its unhealthy. But, with that said, there are good reasons to suspect the healthfulness of heavily processed foods and the majority of “alternative” products are just that. What we’d need is actual studies, how does the health outcomes compare between plant-based diets that eat a whole-food oriented diet compare to those that eat one that has replaced meat, dairy, etc with processed alternative foods? Do these alternatives create any nutritional or health problems in general? We don’t know.

    Also these products aren’t solving any nutritional issues (if anything, creating nutritional problems), instead they are solving cultural issues….but there are other ways of solving these cultural issues that don’t involve funneling hundreds of millions to food entrepreneurs and the alternative is, I think, the superior path for the long-term. When people cook with “alternatives”, they haven’t changed the way they think about food. “Meat” is still the center-price of dishes and most people are going to notice that the “alternative” they are eating are highly processed, often lack good nutritional value, and that they are “unnatural”. Not just that, many of these foods just don’t taste as good as the “real thing” so this gives credence to the common idea that veg*n food is inferior food. As such, its very easy to convince people that they should eat the “real thing”….and the meat, etc industries will do just that. On the other hand, if you change the way the culture thinks about food you avoid these issues and, I think, get a sustainable shift in cultural practices. But there is no $$ in this….so we get the food entrepreneurs.

    In any case, I get sick of seeing “alternatives” pushed as some great revolution. There is no revolution here, these don’t solve any real problems……all they do is allow people from meat-based food cultures to preserve an outdated food culture.

  5. ‘We’re on the verge of making milk without the cow,
    cheese without the milk,
    eggs without the chickens,
    burgers without the beef,
    leather without the bull…’

    I think that’s a rather optimistic assessment. Despite the media hype, in-vitro meat is in very early stages and even its pioneers are suggesting that it is unlikely to ever become a reliable food source:

    ‘‘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.’

    “Catts should know, and quite possibly better than anyone else in the field. In 2000 he was part of a team at Harvard University that created the first petri-dish (‘‘in-vitro’’) meat.”

    http://www.smh.com.au/technology/sci-tech/invitro-meat-unlikely-to-become-reliable-food-source-

    Furthermore, in-vitro meat still involves violence against animals:

    ‘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.’’”

    (same article)

    See further:

    James McWilliams, ‘The Dubious Prospects of Lab Meat’:

    http://james-mcwilliams.com/?p=5483

    In any event, I wonder what the strategic point of promoting the prospects of lab meat could be? Either (a) lab meat will one day exist as an affordable mass consumer product or (b) it won’t. No vegan advocacy will effect whether or when (a) or (b) occur – economics and technology will be the determining variables. Therefore we gain nothing from advocating it but we do potentially run the risk of dissuading others from going vegan by being too zealous about its prospects. I have had a number of discussions with people about going vegan in which meat eaters have said things along the line of ‘there’s no point because soon there will be lab-grown meat’ etc. Of course, these could just be rationalising excuses, but nevertheless in-vitro meat does serve as an alibi for continued animal product consumption.

    Better to adopt a precautionary principle and not rely on in-vitro meat’s prospects in my option. Plant based imitations of animal products are a more promising development imo.

    1. hmm, some points of reply:
      – i would indeed not make a prediction about how near or far labmeat is (although Post believes it might only be 5 – 7 years away)
      – cruelty free: post believes they will be able to use an algae serum (if he’s not using it already)
      – it’s not just labmeat, it’s also, like i mentioned, egg products, milk products… which apparently are closer
      – the article was meant to tackle food-technofobia in general (which goes as far sometimes as to condemn the plant based imitations you mention)
      – i don’t know if i agree labmeat serves as an alibi. if nothing else, the whole labmeat story has already garnered huge media attention and serves as a cue to start talking about the problems involved in conventional meat production

  6. In the McWilliams article David Steele is cited as being sceptical of the algae claim, and not as a technophobe but as a molecular biologist:

    ‘David Steele, a molecular biologist and head of Earthsave Canada, tells me that lab meat “is extraordinarily unlikely to work.” Tens of thousands of calves, he notes, “will have their hearts punctured … to collect the liter or so of serum that can be taken from them.” The claim that lab meat might be propagated with blue algae, he says, “is patently absurd” as “no one has accomplished anything close.” He also notes something so obvious I wish I had recalled it on my own: Cultured cells lack an immune system. As a result, according to Steele, “there will be a need for at least large doses of penicillin/streptomycin.”’

    Not being a scientist with a specialism in this field I am not in a position to make an informed assessment as to whether Steele or Post’s account is more convincing. It does seem to me however that there is a general dearth of evidence in support of the in-vitro miracle and enough dissenting voices to raise a reasonable doubt about its prospects. At any rate should vegans be supporting a process that involves the brutal killing of tens of thousands of pregnant cows and their unborn children? And particularly when it may not even yield a marketable product?

    One other concern about in vitro meat: it is almost certain that the both the processes for creating it and its the products themselves will be patented. Assuming that in vitro does hit the market it will most likely be controlled by a tiny handful of biotech companies. Do we really want to bring more Monsantos into the world? I agree with you that the distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ food is mostly meaningless and that there is nothing inherently wrong with GMOs. But under capitalism biotechnologies bring with them TNC monopoly control over the food chain and that is a matter of concern imo.

  7. Yes, that is an interesting thought, what exactly is gained by promoting and talking about lab-meat? I think the argument by “Vegan Philosophy” above is good, anybody have a rebuttal or at least an explanation of why one would put any focus on lab-meat (dairy, etc)?

    1. as for myself, i think it may the most convincing concept regarding a really meatless world, and i think it’s important to slowly get that idea in the minds of people (the idea of a meatless world)

      1. I’m not sure I understand this, how does talking about lab-meat, which is still meat, get people thinking about a meatless world? It would seem to be the opposite.

        1. i don’t consider it meat in the problematic sense of the word
          Anyway, for me the focus is on the development of great alternatives, whether it’s labmeat or something else. labmeat just carries in it the potential perception of being more identical in terms of taste, texture and nutrition

  8. Your whole argument is based on an almost blind confidence in “reason” or “rationality” (maybe not of current but at least of future scientists). Do you realize how significant the “(more or less)” is in the beginning of your argument?
    It was proven within the most exact field of sciences (mathematics) that there are limits to EVERY reasoning within EVERY field of science (Gödel’s incompleteness theorems). So why not remain humble and cautious. Rather than focusing on the reliability of GMO’s, shouldn’t we question the necessity? Rather than trusting (again almost blindly) we will ‘get it right’ at some point, shouldn’t we question ‘at what cost’ we will get it?

    (Not sure about the reliability of this source but I happened to read it right before your article: http://www.independentsciencenews.org/health/growing-doubt-a-scientists-experience-of-gmos/ )

    1. My argument was mainly that we shouldn’t automatically be against and think that there is no possibility we can do better than nature. We could still be cautious, but it all depends what does cautiousness translates too. In any case, i agree that there are limits to rationality, research, science etc, but there is a LOT of irrationality going around surrounding this topic.

  9. Sorry for getting here after the battle…
    I am very curious about how you think these options would be less damageable for the planet than “the local, natural, organic, DIY food movement that is presently quite popular.”

    A fringe of the vegan population made that choice for environmental reasons : trying to reduce their consumption of energy (water, electricity, you name it) and being able to provide more food for everyone without impacting the planet too much.

    Do you believe engineering food in labs would be sustainable ? That it would require less resources of us to produce meat in a lab than cereals and veggies with permaculture ?

    I feel like Nature has a way of regulating itself that we don’t. We as a species always want more : more people, more space, more money, more time, more food, more things, when there is a finite number of everything; and it seems to me that turning to science rather than nature is a way of keeping on with this silly need of ours, leading us to our collective end.

    It seems less rational to me to want to produce food in labs rather than trying to find organic ways to feed all of ourselves.

    1. hmm, i believe in a combination of methods. i can’t for the life of me imagine that out of hi tech agriculture there could not come anything good at all. so refusing it 100% seems dogmatic to me.
      I don’t believe, moreover, that all the choices some movements made were entirely rational. many were based on what people believe is “natural” which is a very unhelpful concept. So i believe in taking the best of the different approaches, i think.

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