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Brave New Food

The TV series which I most want to watch at the moment is Portlandia. Set in Portland, Oregon, it satirises and celebrates the city which originated the ur-hipster. It includes a scene in a restaurant – which I’ve watched only on youtube, alas – in which a couple questions their waitress about the provenance of the chicken on the menu. Assured that it’s free range, local, and organic – partly because their waitress provides them with its papers and name – they leave the restaurant to have a look at it:

This is hilarious because it so closely mimics reality: the menus which list the provenance of all the produce used in the restaurant; the farmers’ market stalls with photographs of happy animals pre-slaughter; the recipes which insist upon free-range, organic ingredients.

I laugh, but I’m as implicated in this hyper-sensitivity about where my food comes from, and how it was treated before it arrived on my plate. I don’t want to eat animals that suffered so that I can continue being an omnivore. I eat relatively little meat and am prepared to pay for free-range chicken, pork, and beef. (I’m not terribly fussed about it being ‘organic’ – whatever we may mean by that.)

It is a scandal how animals are treated in factory farms, and increasing demand for red meat is environmentally unsustainable. So how should we eat meat, without causing harm? If vegetarianism is as implicated in the meat economy – veal is a by-product of the dairy industry, for example – and veganism seems far too difficult, then one way out of this impasse is to consider synthetic alternatives.

I’ve been amused by the overwhelming response to reports about the apparent viability of lab-grown meat. ‘Eeew’ and ‘yuk’ seem to sum up how people feel about it. But lab-grown meat is only the most recent panacea to the world’s crisis produced by scientists – and our views on it say a great deal about our changing feelings about the relationship between food and technology.

The meat in question is being grown by Dr Mark Post at Maastricht University. He’s being funded by an anonymous donor who’s concerned about the greenhouse gas emissions produced by cattle farming. Using stem cells from cows, Post’s team have grown sheets of muscle between pieces of Velcro, which are shocked with an electric current to develop their texture and density:

Post said he could theoretically increase the number of burgers made from a single cow from 100 to 100m. ‘That means we could reduce the number of livestock we use by 1m,’ he said.

Meat grown in the laboratory could have several advantages, because its manufacture is controlled at each step. The tissue could be grown to produce high levels of healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids, or to have a particular texture.

He believes it will be a relatively simple matter to scale up the operation, since most of the technical obstacles have already been overcome. ‘I’d estimate that we could see mass production in another 10 to 20 years,’ he said.

Post hopes to produce a burger by October.

When I read the earliest reports about Post’s work, I thought immediately of a scene in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, where the protagonist visits a lab which grows chicken breasts out of stem cells. This is a dystopian novel which plays on our suspicion of food grown in laboratories. It seems strange, now, for us to consider synthetic, artificial, man-made food to be superior to all that is ‘fresh’, ‘natural’ and ‘authentic’. But this is a relatively new way of thinking about food.

During the 1950s, a decade when science seemed to offer the possibility of a cleaner, healthier, and better organised world, there was a brief, but intense enthusiasm for Chlorella pyrenoidosa, a high-protein algae which grew rapidly and abundantly and was fed by sunlight and carbon dioxide.

The post-war baby boom gave rise to anxieties in the 1950s that the world would be unable to feed its growing population. Of course, we now know that innovations in agriculture during this period – including the wholesale mechanisation of farming, the increased use of pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics, and breeding high-yielding livestock – and the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s produced the crops and farming methods which, at enormous environmental cost, still feed seven billion of us. But at the time, politicians worried that hungry nations would create a politically unstable world.

Algae looked like a sensible solution to the problem. Easy and cheap to grow, and apparently highly nutritious, this seemed to be the Brave New World of food production. Warren Belasco writes:

The alluring news came from pilot projects sponsored by the Carnegie Institution and conducted by the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park and by Arthur D. Little, Inc. in Cambridge. Initial results suggested that chlorella algae was an astounding photosynthetic superstar. When grown in optimal conditions – sunny, warm, shallow ponds fed by simple carbon dioxide – chlorella converted upwards of 20 per cent of solar energy…into a plant containing 50 per cent protein when dried. Unlike most plants, chlorella’s protein was ‘complete’, for it had the ten amino acids then considered essential, and it was also packed with calories, fat, and vitamins.

In today’s terms, chlorella was a superfood. Scientists fell over themselves in excitement: Scientific American and Science reported on it in glowing terms; the Rockefeller Foundation funded research into it; and some calculated that a plantation the size of Rhode Island was would be able to supply half the world’s daily protein requirements.

In the context of a mid-century enthusiasm for all that was efficient, systematic, and man-made, algae’s appeal was immediate: it was entirely usable and produced little or no waste; its farming was not dependent on variable weather and rainfall; it was clean and could be transformed into something that was optimally nutritious.

So why didn’t I have a chlorella burrito for supper?

Unfortunately, chlorella didn’t live up to the hype. Not only did the production of grains and soybeans increase exponentially during the 1950s, meaning that farmers were loath to switch to a new and untested crop, but further research revealed that chlorella production would be more complicated and expensive than initially envisaged. Growing chlorella in the quantities needed to be financially viable required expensive equipment, and it proved to be susceptible to changes in temperature. Harvesting and drying it was even more of headache.

On top of this, chlorella tasted terrible. There were some hopes that the American food industry might be able to transform bitter green chlorella into an enticing foodstuff – in much the same way they used additives and preservatives to manufacture the range of processed foods which bedecked the groaning supermarket shelves of 1950s America. Edible chlorella was not a world away from primula cheese.

Those who were less impressed by the food industry suggested that chlorella could be used to fortify bread and pasta – or even transformed into animal feed. But research demonstrated that heating chlorella destroyed most of its nutrients. Even one of its supporters called it ‘a nasty little green vegetable.’ By the 1960s, it was obvious that at $1,000 a ton, and inedible, chlorella was not going to be the food of the future.

All was not lost for chlorella, though. It proved to be surprisingly popular in Japan, where it is still sold as a nutritional supplement. The West’s enthusiasm for algae also hasn’t dimmed:

The discovery in the 1960s of the blue-green algae spirulina in the Saharan Lake Chad and in Mexico’s Lake Texcoco gave another boost to the health food uses of algae. Spirulina has a high-nutrient profile similar to chlorella’s but without…production problems….

Ironically, the food that was supposed to feed the world is now the preserve of the wealthy, health-conscious middle classes – those who suffer most from the diseases of affluence – who can afford to buy small jars of powdered algae.

I hope that Post’s project manages to create a viable product which can be used to supplement people’s diets. I’m not particularly revolted by the idea of lab-grown meat, and if means that it reduces the numbers of factory farms, then that can only be a good thing.

What concerns me more are the potential motives of the businesses which would produce lab-grown meat. If it is taken up by the global food industry – which has patchy records on environmental sustainability and social responsibility – will we be able to trust them to provide us with meat which is healthy for us, and ethically produced?

Source

Warren Belasco, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. You will have to be careful; cf. http://www.salon.com/2012/02/23/stop_comparing_everything_to_portlandia/

    February 24, 2012
  2. Fascinating as always. I often think of Oryx and Crake these days – it doesn’t seem so far-fetched any more. Soon we’ll all be eating chicken nobbies!

    February 25, 2012
  3. Sejal #

    Interesting post – incidentally I read it when I was in the middle of researching and writing about ‘meat substitutes’. I didn’t know about chlorella (which sounds unappetisingly similar to cholera!), but there seem to be parallels with mycoprotein, more commonly known by its brand name Quorn. Apparently it, too, was developed to combat anticipated world hunger crisis and, despite being derived from a type of fungus (again, far from appetising!), has somehow managed to be a hugely successful product, at least here in the UK.

    February 28, 2012
    • Thanks so much! You know, I could have written this post about Quorn too. Chlorella came to mind because it’s part of a course I’m teaching at the moment. I think that Quorn’s selling point is that it actually tastes ok (they used to serve it at my university), whereas chlorella is just irredeemably revolting.

      What’s your article on?

      February 28, 2012
  4. Sejal #

    My (very short and basic) article for a food website is about ‘meat substitutes’ or ‘analogue meats’, and I’ve written about tofu, tempeh, different forms of wheat gluten (seitan, mock duck, fu), TVP and mycoprotein.

    February 28, 2012
  5. Steve #

    Just catching up on your ever-fascinating posts. Find time if you possibly can to watch Portlandia – it’s consistently laugh-out-loud funny. That first episode features not only the provenance of Colin the Chicken, but Steve Buscemi getting trapped in the Women and Women First Bookstore. (A running gag and tongue-in-cheek feminist landmark that even has its own real-life Facebook page).

    Oh, and almost forgot: Unbridled Adoration.

    March 11, 2012
    • Tee hee – thank you!

      I really, really want to watch it, but am finding it surprisngly difficult to get hold of in Cape Town. None of the DVD shops have it. I’m going to have to order online, I think. I had no idea that Steve Buscemi was in it. I think he’s amazing.

      March 11, 2012

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