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.

Our movement’s newest asset: big money

“We have science, logic and morality on our side. It’s only a matter of time before we win.” 

The above quote is by Bruce Friedrich, long time and much appreciated activist, now working at Farm Sanctuary. I share Bruce’s belief that someday, we will win. I share his belief in the power of science, logic and morality. But I’m happy to see that lately, we’ve seen another factor at our side: money.

Not that the vegan movement didn’t have any money at all before, but today it’s kind of a whole new ballgame. For the first time, big money is being bet on vegan products. Companies like Hampton Creek, Beyond Beef and Impossible foods have raised literally hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital. Check out some others here.

For the first time, investors can see a big future for meat, dairy and egg alternatives. Given that the production of animal products will become more and more problematic on environmental grounds, and more and more unacceptable to people on ethical grounds, people like Bill Gates and Twitter’s Biz Stone have been opening their wallets. Google’s Sergey Brinn has invested in the research for in vitro meat by Mark Post in the Netherlands, and Google has recently made an offer to buy Impossible Foods.

The perception value of investors like these betting on meat alternatives is important: these guys are not stupid. If they see something in meat substitutes… well, it must mean there might really be something in it.

But other than mere symbolic or perception value, the millions of dollars these venture capitalists are making available, allow entrepreneurs to put together dream teams and acquire the best researchers, tech people and marketeers to develop and then market their new products.

developing alternatives

If you read some of the media coverage these new ventures are getting, you can see that the entrepreneurs are looking to imitate (and improve) meat (or other animal products) like never before. They want to make a product that is at least indistinguishable from the original animal product, but hopefully even better. And now they have the money, the brains, the technology to do so. Read about Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, Hampton Creek (egg substitutes) or Muufri (real milk, but not from animals). It’s fascinating stuff.

I think the importance of developing good alternatives for animal products cannot be overestimated. Meat still has a symbolic value (especially in emerging ecomomies), but as far as people choose to eat meat for culinary reasons, almost no one, I am sure, insists on putting pieces of a dead animal in their mouth. Rather, people are looking for a certain taste and texture. If you can imitate that taste and texture exactly (or improve upon it), and make the products healthier, more sustainable and cruelty free while you’re at it… there is no reason why we couldn’t get every omnivore to eat these “alternatives” rather than the “animal originals”.

There is no doubt that all of these developments happen within the classical capitalist framework, which is probably not the ideal solution. However, to call all of this nothing more than “vegan consumerism” which has nothing to do with ethics, is misguided. Making our society less dependent on the use of animals by developping alternatives (in food, research, clothing) is high priority. It is crucial for people to have good alternatives if we want them to be able to let their compassion flow.