It is a troubling business. The simple act of lifting a morsel to your mouth is now fraught with dilemma. To eat is to run an ethical gauntlet.
Wherever you are on the carnivore-herbivore spectrum a hasty tribunal of inner angels can be prone to pipe up whenever hand reaches mouth. Where did the food come from? Is it sustainable? How many others, less fortunate, in the world don’t have the chance to do the same?
And that is right… those voices should be heard. Let’s not dance around it – on the ever growing list of existential challenges faced by our race, how we feed ourselves has to be close to the top. We are legion, by 2050 we’ll need to feed 10 billion people. What's more – there go those voices again – we’ll need to do so while avoiding the destruction of the planet in the process.
This is, of course, hardly news. And scientists from many fields have been working on this for a long time. To my mind their findings can be broken down as follows: Eat different things (and yes, that inevitably mean insects), eat things that have been genetically tinkered with, eat things grown in novel ways.
It’s proving to be damned tricky to produce muscle cells on a large enough scale for even the humblest of burgers
That last one has thrown up something that, I think, really will change the way we eat. Lab grown meat has been on the horizon since the turn of the millennium, but there have been a few barriers to its widescale adoption. Firstly, it’s proving to be damned tricky to produce muscle cells on a large enough scale for even the humblest of burgers. Secondly, the public do seem irrevocably squeamish about anything edible grown in an agar dish. Despite this, US company Just has announced that its chicken nuggets – grown from cells taken from the feather of chicken that is still alive – will soon be in a few restaurants.
But if that fails to silence those voices, how about food grown whilst digesting the current ecological scurge de rigueur – waste plastics?
Food designers Julia Kaisinger and Katharina Unger from Austria, in collaboration with microbiologist Professor Han Wösten from Utrecht University, think that toxic waste products, such as plastics, can be converted into food by the mushroom-forming fungi Pestalotiopsis microspora. After sterilising the plastic, the fungus breaks down the toxic waste creating what they call ‘a healthy food product’.
While this all sounds absolutely delicious – is it really going to scratch the surface of the problem? Unlikely I think. There is a solution, though shrowded in controversy, that could be something of a magic bullet. Gene edited food crops could boost yield whilst reducing the impact of large-scale agriculture. Why then has a recent European Court of Justice ruling placed this delicate, scalpel-esque, technique in with the lump hammer of genetically modified foods? The answer is unclear, but one thing is certain – these extra regulatory hoops will make the application of gene edited crops all but impossible. The issue has already attracted the attention of a recent House of Commons Science & Technology Committee who invited synthetic biologist Dr Nicola Patron to give evidence. Her article takes us through the argument… let’s hope it hits home with policy makers.