Food is tradition for us. It is also an unending adventure. Homo sapiens have shown a distinct ability to create all kinds of new foods and grow to adore them, like chewing gum which we cannot digest and which is made of synthetic rubber. Even the food that is good for us we habitually refashion to an almost unrecognisable extent. We genetically modified wheat well before 8000 BC and in more recent decades we have persuaded chickens to increase their breast size by 35-85%.
Now a whole different chapter of this journey is being scripted, with the Singapore Food Agency giving the stamp of approval to an American startup’s cultured chicken, which is billed as “real, high-quality meat created directly from animal cells for safe human consumption.” This is a long way from 2013, when a burger created from cow cells was eaten at a news conference in London, because this time a commercial launch looks imminent, first in the form of nuggets then fillets.
Before science, technology and data collection, innovation is about the mindset. It is about our attitude to change. For many of us, the instinctive response is to resist change. For Indians specifically, the weakness of the welfare net makes the fear of failure and hence the investment in status quo extra intense. We assume change will be for the worse. But this is a vicious circle that we need to break out of, for change is inevitable, and the only question is whether we can make the most of it, or weakly watch from the sidelines while someone else is always taking the driving seat.
As a low-lying island state Singapore is serious in tackling sustainability as an existential challenge. Moving faster than countries like the US, Israel and the Netherlands which are leading in research in lab-grown meats reflects an exploratory spirit combined with an acute desire to strengthen food security in the longer term, where the environmental costs of current farming practices are crying for change. At the same time Singapore’s high standards of regulating food mean that prospects of cultured meats going to markets in other countries have risen dramatically now.
The “I’m lovin’ it” jingle for a fast food chain does put its finger on humanity’s meat-loving pulse. And the plant-based meats that are already on many global shelves have drawn complaints on this front, for not being juicy enough, not having quite as enjoyous a texture etc. Meats being cultured from actual animal cells promise to make up this taste shortfall.
It is true that the bioreactors in which all this cooking takes place are very energy intensive, so the greener the energy in the greener will be the meat out. Still, the ethical, economic and environmental case for such meats is unbeatable. No animal need be killed, no tree need be cut, no biodiversity loss, no zoonotic diseases, no antibiotics abuse, no air pollution. And on the other side, there is the pivotal FAO finding that total emissions from global livestock represent 14.5% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions.
As increases in population and prosperity both drive an increase in demand for meat, diverting more land, water and emission footprints to this is a fool’s game – when a much better alternative is at the doorstep. For India, there are special implications. Research suggests that overall vegetarianism is no more than 30% of the population and likely closer to 20%, but low incomes keep regular consumption of animal protein out of reach. Scaling up current farming practices isn’t a rosy option for this when they are already making parts of India unlivable.
Where there is a will there is a way, the super expedited outlay of the Covid-19 vaccine has underlined. Production costs of lab-grown meats have already come down substantially since 2013 and they are headed definitely south like renewable energy. India needs to be looking at such developments proactively. It bears underlining that the kind of petrified hesitancy it has shown with GM food crops has served the country very ill.
Only the lazy or the duplicitous blame the first Green Revolution for all the lack of environmental upgrades that should have followed it, but didn’t. The same principle applies today, except on a whoppingly bigger scale. New food technologies need a lot of smart monitoring. But running away from the job will only mean more malnourishment for our children. We have to decide whether they will be cursing us tomorrow or eating green chicken and lovin’ it.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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