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.
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.