Gordon Smith

Future food: Picked fresh from the lab

food

Approx Reading Time-11As the world’s natural food stocks slowly dwindle to zero, it’s time we take genetically modified food seriously. Some endeavouring minds met in San Francisco to discuss the future of food.

 

 

 

Food hurts. Not in a comfort eating, cycle of sad, kind of way. But in an overall, environmental impact kind of way.

That delicious burger – meat-y, veggie, or otherwise – that runs through the fields of your mind come every lunch time, needs fuel to grow, and it needs resources to be harvested.

If you’re on the carnivorous side of the fence, you’re basically doubling your losses: your food needs its own food, too. Not to mention the notoriously gassy farts of our udder-bearing friends.

Industrial farming costs the world $3 trillion a year in environmental harm, with costs stemming from issues ranging from soil erosion and depletion of water resources, to oceanic “dead zones”, damaged by synthetic fertiliser run-off and generation of greenhouse gas emissions.

Enter genetically engineered foods; technology’s newest frontier.

Last year, the so-named “Impossible Burger” made headlines with its “bleeding” veggie patty designed to emulate the supposed advantages of a meat-based burger, but with a greatly reduced environmental footprint.

Now, more and more big names are signing up to the future food-tech vision, with big wigs from multinational food and agrochemical corporations and Silicon Valley investors alike attending the suitably-named Future Food-Tech this past week in San Francisco.

There, developers show off up and coming cultivation techniques – such as the genetic engineering of organisms like algae to produce replacements for plant and animal-based food ingredients, or engineering of DNA to “turn genes on or off”, or delete them altogether. New masticatory marvels, such as the never-will-rot-ever Arctic Apple, are also on display.

But with new food comes new questions, not the least of which being what exactly is in these lab-made delicacies?

While the Impossible Burger stands for a noble cause in its goal to reduce meat consumption – and the animal factory farming strings attached – how it achieves that cause is less than clear. The meaty flavour the burger has gained traction for it comes from the burger’s key ingredient, synbio “heme”, a hemoprotein produced by genetically engineered yeast – but don’t expect to hear that from producer Impossible Foods. We probably wouldn’t know that at all were it not for The Washington Post.

Claims of engineered foods being ultra-sustainable are held without data. Information about the environmental impact of production and storage is suspiciously scarce. Companies label their foods as non-genetically modified or natural in spite of their entire existence stemming from a laboratory – despite 89% of US consumers wanting mandatory labelling of foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients, and growing interest in just where it is our food is coming from.

Even more mysterious, the “plant blood” the burger is perhaps the unexplained foodstuff, and data on the safety and environmental impact of the “blood” is just as unknown. This ambiguity is not something unique to the Impossible Burger, either. There are currently no real regulations on the production of these engineered foods, and any proposed changes are littered with loopholes.

Indeed, the World Health Organisation has stated that it is simply not possible to make blanket safety statements about modified foods, and that any assessments need to be made on an individual basis.

As US environmental organisation Friends of the Earth puts it, “companies introducing these new GMOs to the market are essentially self-regulated, and are asking consumers to blindly trust them.”

Compounding this lack of transparency is the volume of spin surrounding these new superfoods.

Claims of engineered foods being ultra-sustainable are held up without any data to support them.

Vital information about the environmental impact of the stock involved in the production of the new ingredients, such as the feeding of genetically engineered algae, and the storage of ingredients involved, is suspiciously scarce.

More still, the science of spin has also seen companies label their foods as non-genetically modified, or natural, in spite of their entire existence stemming from a laboratory. Out of fear of anti-GMO consumer backlash, producers are leaving transparency far behind in the hopes of maximising marketing.

This is despite a massive 89% of US consumers wanting mandatory labelling of foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients, and growing interest in just where it is our food is coming from.

For all the environmental, animal-rights-benefitting warm and fuzzies that the “future food” industry brings, it’s hard to expect any real change in consumer habits under an increasingly opaque cloud of misinformation.

An “all-plant, no animals harmed in the making of, tastes just like meat without all the issues” burger? Sounds fantastic.

A “patented, gene-edited, born in a lab through a mixture of chemicals and experimentation with fungi” burger? Not so much.

Nevertheless, we need to change our eating habits for the good of our planet, and we need to do it soon.

But so long as producers seek to withhold information about just what it is we’re eating, and what that eating is doing to our planet, that change is still far beyond the horizon.

It may be called future food, but that doesn’t mean we want to wait until the future to eat it.

 

Gordon Smith

Journalist by day, cunning linguist by night. A passion for politics, hypnotically involved in human rights. An Australian born with a Japanese tongue, hoping to hold the big wigs in government to account.

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