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November 9, 2021

Do technologies like GM seed and cultured meat deal with the ethical and political problems of the modern food system?

Do technologies like GM seed and cultured meat deal with the ethical and political problems of the modern food system?

Introduction

 

Cultured meat is certainly an attempt to deal with the ethical problems of the modern food system, but its success is still far away. There is no doubt that industrial livestock causes great damage to our environment and animals. But it is still difficult to prove that cultured meat is a healthy, safe, politically correct, and climate friendly alternative. GM seeds currently cause more problems than they seek to solve, particularly if certain social measures are not addressed within their development. The ethical and political issues that the agro biotech companies have created often lead to bigger problems than the products themselves. The quest for natural solutions that can get to the root of our issues should be more involved with new technologies, in order to assist with some of these ethical dilemmas. Not only do GM seed and lab meat need to find a better coexistent balance between nature and tech, the process needs to be more transparent. The promotion of health, environment, accessibility, and equality should be at the forefront, and not just profit, where it appears to currently stand. Therefore, it is not wise to leave it up to just technology and the massive corporations that run them to solve the problems within our food system, as there is too much at stake. A lot of this is down to ‘how’ these corporations are going about their administration. GM seed and cultured meat are not our best and only answers because the industries that are creating them lack integrity.

 

This essay also suggests how a shift in focus within these industries can address some of the ethical and political problems that our food system faces today. Biodiversity is being ignored by these industries. The food grown by the earth is a part of a whole interconnected system. If we caused the problem within it, then we need to work together with the earth to fix it. There is a cause and effect to altering nature, and this is where these industries have a disconnect. Therefore, it is very important to regulate activities that cause these alterations. We cannot fix a problem without first addressing how and why it is caused, and monopoly is the root. Our food system has been damaged extensively by the misuse of GM seed and the abuse of power by its developers. We need find ways to get things back to neutral which means there needs to be a mutual respect developed between the farmers, the seeds, the animals, the soil, and the agro bio tech companies. Governments need to do better work with addressing how these food companies are developing their products, if it is socially viable, and not just in both their own interests. They need to develop together with farmers so they have easy accessibility to these new technologies. Growing meat in a lab owned by a tech giant like Google could be the beginnings of another huge monopoly if we are not careful, following in the footsteps of these giant seed companies like Monsanto.

 

“Revolutions have occurred throughout history when new technologies and novel ways of perceiving the world trigger a profound change in economic systems and social structures. Given that history is used as a frame of reference, the abruptness of these changes may take years to unfold.” (Schwab, 2016, p. 5) The GM seed and lab meat technologies need to be steered in a direction that is politically and ethically beneficial to the environment and its inhabitants, as they are currently not addressing these concerns.

Farmers, GM Seeds, and Monsanto

Monsanto developed and patented a variety of seeds that was coined “terminator technology” in 1998. It was basically developed to stop farmers from “cheating”, as they phrased it. What the farmers would do after each harvest is keep some of the seeds back, reducing the amount they would need to buy from Monsanto for the next season. Monsanto decided to sterilize the seeds to stop this process, basically creating “suicide” seeds. (Brand, 2010) But farmers in most parts of the world have traditionally always saved back the best seeds from their harvests, sharing them with their neighbours. This is not cheating, it is nature. “Yet under the WTO’s TRIPS rules, these traditional agricultural practices are becoming illegal all around the world, once patented seeds are introduced to farming communities.” (Dawkins, 2003, p. 401) It is not only these corporations that are crushing the farmers, it is also certain governmental agencies working with them, and against the very farmers growing the food.

 

By the 1970’s, 96% of US corn crops were hybrid. (Brand, 2010) Hybrid seeds do not produce seeds for the next season, and they are far more expensive than heirloom (pure) seeds. They are also necessary in modern crops as they are resistant to many environmental issues, in which a majority are caused by the use of excessive mono-cropping, fertilizers, and pesticides. One could argue that the saved seeds by these farmers would weaken over time, losing yield and vigour, promoting disease, and then needing further fertilizers and pesticides. But the reason for this is not the saved seeds, it is the mono-cropping. Because of contracts with giant agro companies, the farmers are forced to grow certain crops and at certain yields. The seeds would not need genetic engineering if the crops were more bio-diverse, but the contracts do not allow this and the problems continue. Once these farmers start having issues with top soil and pests, they are forced into further contracts to fix a system that the GM seeds started. “Farmers buying Round-up ready seed (from Monsanto) had to sign a technology agreement promising to use only Roundup on the crop, under a penalty of paying 100 times more than the seed originally cost, giving Monsanto the right to send its agents onto their farms at any time to verify compliance.” (Dawkins, 2003, p. 452) There is also the additional problem of these products spreading onto organic farms and methods. “Another major project of agribusiness researchers has been to genetically engineer corn, cotton, and other basic crops with genes from natural bacteria that can kill pests. These bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, “Bt” for short, is widely used by organic farmers as a natural nontoxic pest control. But once a crop covering millions of square miles is engineered to express the Bt gene, it’s only a matter of years before the insects develop immunity to Bt. Then, the genetically engineered crops will be vulnerable to new super insects and the original organic pesticide will be useless.” (Dawkins, 2003, p. 461) Also, the benefits that the organic farmers received from not having to “pay” for pesticide is lost. The testing of these Bt crops were seemingly quite relaxed. “Researchers at Cornell University and the University of Iowa found that nearly half of the Monarch butterfly larvae feeding on the leaves of the milkweed dusted with Bt died.” (Dawkins, 2003, p. 495) Milkweed is found in the ditches of the corn fields, and is a primary source of food for the butterflies. But the biotech companies paid no heed. Apparently, “the EPA did not require tests on “non-target” butterfly larvae before approving commercial plantings of Bt, something it admitted in 1999. Nevertheless, The EPA went ahead and registered another five years of Bt crops.” (Dawkins, 2003, p. 495) There is no regard by these biotech companies to the humans it is affecting or the eco system it is destroying.

 

This also points to an additional issue that is the essential problem with GM seed. The agricultural biotech companies possess a monopoly on the technology. The genetic engineering is patented as well as the techniques. Developing countries and poorer farmers simply do not have access to these technologies. Often times, the seeds are stolen from poorer countries, and the agricultural biotech companies alter one gene, and then they own the technology and the seed. If GM seeds are to be used, then they should be transparent, shared, and developed to aid farmers based around their countries’ needs, such as drought and certain agro viral outbreaks for instance. (Brand, 2010) Not all GM seeds are made evil, but the corporations who control the technology are what makes it unethical and corrupt. “The vast majority of scientific research being undertaken today is driven more by the goal of being first in line at the patent office than that of meeting profound social goals.” (Dawkins, 2003, p. 401) Increasingly these scientists are told to work in secrecy because the institutional goal is to publish the patent for these ‘socially responsible crops’. Such constraints prohibit an array of solutions that could be already helping our food system, as well as other farmers developing their own technologies and solutions. Instead, the technology is being used for all the wrong reasons. “Scientists employed by these corporations have it even worse. No matter how much the biotechnology industry likes to claim that its goal is to feed the starving masses of the 21st century, corporate research is pretty well limited to products that will mostly benefit the company. At first, the emphasis was on developing plant varieties that can withstand massive doses of a company’s own herbicide. This means that the weeds get hardier and hardier, a field can be sprayed with ever grater doses of the stuff without killing off the crop itself- which is hardly good for the health of the farmworkers or those of who eat these foods!” (Dawkins, 2003, p. 444) What is further disturbing is to think about what is happening with GE seed, and then think about what might happen when giant technology corporations start “creating” our meat sources.

Cultured Meats

In-vitro- or cultured- meat (IVM) involves growing muscle cells to form tissue that can be eaten as meat. (Stephens, 2013) There is no doubt that this industry is exploding. “Lab food is big business, with major players including Kleiner Perkins (Amazon and Google), Vinod Khosla (co-founder of Sun Microsystems), Obvious Corp (founders of Twitter)…companies like JUST, Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat are being funded by Google, Khosla, and Gates.” (Steel, 2020, p. 9) Cultured meat is being explored as a solution to our carnivorous food crisis, which is not slowing down. “With sales of lab meat in the US already at $1.5 billion and projected to rise to $10 billion by 2023, the meat industry has been swift to react.” (Steel, 2020, p. 10)

 

Society has become increasingly aware of the disasters of industrial livestock production. A vast array of media has been released to the public, “documenting the damage, cruelty, and ecological lunacy of factory farming.” (Steel, 2020, p. 10) But we are not slowing down. “The world’s total global meat consumption stands at more than 300 million metric tonnes per year, having risen from seven million in 1960, and could rise by as much as 76% by the middle of this century. The rearing of livestock for meat, eggs and dairy products generates some 15% of total global greenhouse gas emissions and uses 70% of agricultural land.” (Stewart, 2019, p. 2) Cultured meat sounds like the perfect solution. “The problem is, what seems to be a good idea in the lab can have unforeseen consequences in the real world.” (Steel, 2020, p. 17)

 

This new meat industry is being bought up by massive technology corporations, such as Google. What we need to be on guard about and remember here is the history of the agricultural industry- how it began and where it got us to today. The planet is now dominated by giant agro and GM seed companies that are controlling much of what we grow and feed ourselves. This is how a lot of the ethical and political problems in our food system were created, including mass GMO foods and climate destruction. “It’s not your friendly local farmer or butcher that’s for sure. If lab meat succeeds- and all signs are that it will- it is sure to be patented up to its eyeballs and to make profits at least as eye-watering as the software on your smartphone.” (Steel, 2020, p. 16) Do we want tech companies to have biological control over us? We simply do not know what kind of catastrophes that could involve. “The ability to edit biology can be applied to practically any cell type, enabling the creation of genetically modified plants or animals…this differs from genetic engineering practiced in the 1980’s in that it is much more precise, efficient, and easier to use than previous methods. In fact, science is progressing so fast that the limitations are now less technical than they are legal, regulatory, or ethical.” (Schwab, 2016, p. 22)

 

Michel Hanson, a senior scientist in the advocacy division of the non-profit organisation Consumer Reports, expresses concern about transparency within these developers and the possibilities for bioreactor contamination. “How are they dealing with cells that spontaneously mutate? And what are the implications of the fact that immortal cells could, with their uncontrolled growth, be defined as cancer cell lines?” (Corbyn, 2020) What about information containing the nutrition and composition with real meat? He says, “You would think they would put samples out for somebody to test…but all we have are assertions.” (Corbyn, 2020) When looking at the ingredients of something like the Impossible Whopper, for instance: “Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavours, Potato Protein, Methylcellulose, Yeast Extract, Cultural Dextrose, Food Starch Modified, Mixed Tocopherals, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Soy Leghemoglobin, Soy Protein isolate…” (Steel, 2020, p. 16) This needs much further research to ensure it is even safe for us to eat long term. The ingredients that it takes to make up these lab meats into an edible product are also mostly GMO based foods. Then we have one problem creating another.

 

Mass production of the meat is also an issue, affecting the prices of the products. It is still far from being as cheap as a McDonald’s hamburger, which is the apparent goal. “Yet while establishing cell lines is one thing, scaling them up for mass production at a competitive price is another. The problem is that the culture medium- needed for the cells to grow-is expensive and animal cells can take time to proliferate. And there is no guarantee that a small operation will work at a large scale.” (Corbyn, 2020) The modern dilemma with meat consumption is that it is cheap and readily available. Therefore, in theory, lab meat is not solving the main problem because it can only be accessible to the wealthy classes. It is creating an expensive band-aid for affluent meat lovers.

 

There are still a lot of challenges to make the cultured meat animal friendly. To grow the meat in an ethical way, it is not possible to use Foetal bovine serum (FBS), which come from the blood of cow foetuses. “It is often added to the culture media where the growth factors it contains work their magic.” (Corbyn, 2020) An interview taken with a P.E.T.A. Campaign leader says, “One approach that’s being taken is growing embryos from animal stem cells in order to harvest meat…an embryo is very different from a sheet of cells…I’m not a scientist, but if your causing embryos to grow, it’s not clear to me whether there’s any nervous system, circulatory system, what the status is…One of the possible growth mediums was the blood of foetal calves. It has all the horrors of the slaughterhouse.” (Stephens, 2013, p. 178) Jumping to quickly into cultured meat also stops our process of trying to first focus on the mess behind us. We need to simply address the fact that we eat entirely too much meat. The western diet cannot be supported long term, and cultured meat is an obvious development to create another option. Most of the cultured meat developers say their market is for meat eaters that don’t want to give up meat, but don’t like the idea of tofu, or being a vegetarian. But this does not address what this meat will do to a person long term if used as a replacement, and it does nothing to change the western diet. This new industry is being promoted by these giant tech companies because they see the wealth that food monopoly can create, which is where the problems started.

 

Some studies have found that cultured meat could actually lead to higher global temperatures. “With current uncertainties around how cultured meat would be produced at scale, they concluded that the availability of low-carbon energy sources to fuel production will be key if lab grown meat is to help in the drive to reduce carbon emissions.” (Stewart, 2019, p. 5) Hence, it would appear that lab meat is a very minor solution at this point, and much more research needs to be developed. The level of scale needed to compete with the meat industry is unfathomable, and we don’t have measurements of what type of CO2 emissions this would then create. The problems are still not being solved. As Professor Charles Godfrey of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food explains, “Achieving a sustainable food system will require changes in agricultural production, changes in diet so people eat less meat and waste less food, and regulatory changes to improve the efficiency and resilience of the food system.” (Goddfrey, 2013)

 

Ethical and Political Alternatives

Environmental and health benefits can greatly be affected if we simply change which proteins we choose to eat, which is far more politically correct. There are a vast amount of solutions being researched, such as mycoprotein (from mushrooms), algae, peas, and even insects. There is even “electric flour” being developed as a protein source. It is made by taking microbes from soil and feeding it a diet of carbon, water, and hydrogen-dioxide. “A recent study by the World Economic Forum found that CO2 emissions between beef (23.9kg emissions per 200kcal) and alternative sources such as beans, insects, wheat, and nuts (1kg per 200kcal) had a striking difference.” (Stewart, 2019, p. 5)

 

 

A project called MSP (Main Street Project) in the US is a poultry–centered regenerative agroforestry system that aims to equip farmers to solve the country’s food crisis. (Hyman, 2020) Regi Haslett- Marroquin, the architect behind the project, says “We are not food producers, we are energy managers…it’s not enough to just blame Big Ag. We need to create new ways of thinking and doing when it comes to food production.” (Hyman, 2020, p. 298) The philosophy is based around indigenous knowledge, supplemented by the farmers’ own knowledge. It is a regenerative farming model that is ecologically, economically, and socially viable. MSP aims to raise the chickens in trees or forests, or what is called “silvopasture”. Originally, chickens came from the jungle, living under canopies of trees. Therefore, the idea is to mimic this system. Hazelnut trees are used to provide protection and shelter and the nuts are used as food. Additional grains are also grown on the tree farm, and legumes and manure create nitrogen for a healthy soil. The chickens eat all the insects as well. It is a living eco system. Regi says, “it’s easier to work with nature than to fight it.” Because chickens grow so rapidly, and produce so many eggs, it creates a positive revenue stream for the farmers for a very low cost. “They are a one-stop weed-eating, bug-killing, soil-enhancing replacement for the counter-productive synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers destroying conventional farms and their communities.” (Hyman, 2020, p. 299) This type of farming and agriculture focused on biodiversity and working with growing our food as a whole by “integrating animals, trees, and plants in a natural ecological restorative cycle…it is resilient and low impact, protects and builds soils, conserves water, and draws down carbon from the atmosphere, all while producing healthy nutrient-dense food.” (Hyman, 2020, p. 299) These are solutions that address all our ethical and political problems, as well as addressing our past mistakes. Forests are an ethical answer to bringing back diversity needed for a healthy growing environment, and farmers benefit rather than suffer.

 

Ecosystem engineering is an ancient art, and another more democratic answer. “It has been practiced and mal-practiced by every human society since the mastery of fire…We would be fools to repeat their mistakes and just as foolish to ignore some of the brilliant practices that worked for them.” (Brand, 2010) Native Americans cultivated their gardens by letting their crops grow onto each other, like letting the beans be supported by the corn stalks, for example. They used beavers and worms as their ecosystem engineers. Ancient Amazonians used bio-char, which is manmade charcoal from waste like peanut shells and husks. This would enrich their soils by adding nitrate, which in turn offsets carbon and nitric oxide emissions. (Brand, 2010) The need for GM seed and cultured meat is not addressing the core problems we face because it is not being developed to benefit what we already have to work with- our soil, plants, farmers, and animals. Our current mentality of reshaping environments against nature obviously has not worked. Changing the DNA of a seed to fix a broken environment does not solve the problem, because everything is intertwined. Things like re-wilding and bio-control are much more effective, simply because they are far more ethical and politically correct alternatives with no repercussions.

Conclusion

The modern food system is destroying the world we live in, and it seems to be insatiable. It is quite obvious that we must change how we grow our food. But GM seed and cultured meat have a long way to go. GM Seed development needs to change its priorities to work ‘with’ nature and the farmers who grow it. The agro biotech companies are not behaving ethically nor politically correct. “The more we think about how to harness the technological revolution, the more we will examine ourselves and the underlying social models that these technologies embody and enable, and the more we will have an opportunity to shape the revolution in a manner that improves the state of the world.” (Schwab, 2016, p. 4) Technology in and of itself is not the problem. 

 

There is still much to be explored in the world of lab meat. We must pay strong attention to ensure these tech companies do not behave the way agro biotech companies have, and without close scrutiny, they are on their way. It is still not completely clear if it can be ethically grown. There is not enough transparency available. The nutritional value and effects on the human body are still not determined, and profits have the potential to overpower these concerns. It has the potential to save entire populations of livestock from abuse, torcher, and death. This is a wonderful thing. But until it is fully developed responsibly, we need to think about our own personal ethics and food choices, such as simply not eating meat or as much, and supporting bio-diversified farms growing happy healthy animals with organic crops. At this point in time, they are the more conscientious solution. For the future, we can only hope that cultured meat and GM seed will be developed with better ethical and democratic principles, so it can solve some of the problems we face.

 

Introduction

 

Cultured meat is certainly an attempt to deal with the ethical problems of the modern food system, but its success is still far away. There is no doubt that industrial livestock causes great damage to our environment and animals. But it is still difficult to prove that cultured meat is a healthy, safe, politically correct, and climate friendly alternative. GM seeds currently cause more problems than they seek to solve, particularly if certain social measures are not addressed within their development. The ethical and political issues that the agro biotech companies have created often lead to bigger problems than the products themselves. The quest for natural solutions that can get to the root of our issues should be more involved with new technologies, in order to assist with some of these ethical dilemmas. Not only do GM seed and lab meat need to find a better coexistent balance between nature and tech, the process needs to be more transparent. The promotion of health, environment, accessibility, and equality should be at the forefront, and not just profit, where it appears to currently stand. Therefore, it is not wise to leave it up to just technology and the massive corporations that run them to solve the problems within our food system, as there is too much at stake. A lot of this is down to ‘how’ these corporations are going about their administration. GM seed and cultured meat are not our best and only answers because the industries that are creating them lack integrity.

 

This essay also suggests how a shift in focus within these industries can address some of the ethical and political problems that our food system faces today. Biodiversity is being ignored by these industries. The food grown by the earth is a part of a whole interconnected system. If we caused the problem within it, then we need to work together with the earth to fix it. There is a cause and effect to altering nature, and this is where these industries have a disconnect. Therefore, it is very important to regulate activities that cause these alterations. We cannot fix a problem without first addressing how and why it is caused, and monopoly is the root. Our food system has been damaged extensively by the misuse of GM seed and the abuse of power by its developers. We need find ways to get things back to neutral which means there needs to be a mutual respect developed between the farmers, the seeds, the animals, the soil, and the agro bio tech companies. Governments need to do better work with addressing how these food companies are developing their products, if it is socially viable, and not just in both their own interests. They need to develop together with farmers so they have easy accessibility to these new technologies. Growing meat in a lab owned by a tech giant like Google could be the beginnings of another huge monopoly if we are not careful, following in the footsteps of these giant seed companies like Monsanto.

 

“Revolutions have occurred throughout history when new technologies and novel ways of perceiving the world trigger a profound change in economic systems and social structures. Given that history is used as a frame of reference, the abruptness of these changes may take years to unfold.” (Schwab, 2016, p. 5) The GM seed and lab meat technologies need to be steered in a direction that is politically and ethically beneficial to the environment and its inhabitants, as they are currently not addressing these concerns.

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