"It will be functional, natural, designed food," Vladimir Mironov says. "How do you want it to taste? You want a little bit of fat, you want pork, you want lamb? We design exactly what you want. We can design texture.” In a small laboratory on an upper floor of the basic science building at the Medical University of South Carolina Mironov has been working for a decade to grow meat. He envisions football field-sized buildings filled with large bioreactors which he calls carnaries[i]. And as I write this text Mark Post, sponsored by Google co-funder Sergey Brin with US$ 300,000, presents the first synthetic hamburger for the world’s media.
|The Postburger, Photo: David Parry / PA Wire|
There are many issues around these synthetic foods. With genetic engineering we certainly will see more of it in the future. There are reasons to be cautious about the health effect of eating the stuff. Some of them will probably show to be harmful, some might be perfectly safe. We will realize this by the same crude process of trial and error that humans have used all along...and sometimes, well "shit happens".
Yeast biomass was used as human food in Germany already during the First World War. The development of large-scale processes for the production of commercial protein began in earnest in the late 1960s, against the backdrop of looming food crisis. Most of the initiatives failed due to technical or economic reasons. The ICI Pruteen process for the production of bacterial Single Cell Protein for animal feed was a milestone in the development of the fermentation industry. This process utilized continuous culture on an enormous scale. BBC presented the factory like this in 1986:
“Protein is a necessary part of the diet of both man and animals. Many countries don't have enough land or a suitable climate to grow sufficient ICI has developed a single cell protein process using Methanol as a substrate. The product which is called Pruteen contains about 70% protein and has been used effectively in the diets of animals as a replacement for traditional protein sources[ii].”
However, even if the production worked it was never economically viable – it could simply not compete with soya and fish, and the site was blasted with dynamite. On the site of the Pruteen factory there is now a much smaller factory for a continuous fermentation process for the production of Fusarium venenatum biomass, marketed as Quorn, a vegetarian alternative to meat, with a price higher than meat.
Few people seem to realize that also so called lab-food needs a feedstock. Energy can't be created out of nothing, and even less can proteins etc. be that. All synthetic foods grown are using biologically derived materials as feed stock. It's not like you can take oil, nitrogen from the air, phosphorus from the soil crust and shake it and you have high quality food. I am sure that there are technical possibilities to do something like that, with massive investments (Mironov in South Carolina wants a billion dollars to develop his process). But nature already does it. And there are few signs that our labs can make it better. To grow corn for feedstock for artificial food or for the production of chicken is in a way not a big difference. Chicken production, as it looks like in many parts of the world, is already landless production, a kind of (disgusting) feed converter factory. And it is obvious that you can do a similar thing with fungi or bacteria. It is not obvious, however, that the process will be much more efficient. Perhaps more appealing for vegans; the only argument for synthetic meat that holds to date is that one wouldn’t have to kill animals[iii].
In a last data check for the book I look up if Mironov has been successful with his carnaries, and see that the University locked his laboratory in 2011. The latest recording I find of him on the internet is from September 2013, where he promised to develop 3D printing of human organs in Russia[iv] - another rabbit to be pulled out of hats.
(the text is a draft from my new book, tentatively called Global eating disorder - the true cost of cheap food)
[iii] Personally i believe there are enough natural plants to satisfy vegans, and I were a vegan I would not like to eat a product that mimics what I don’t want to eat.