As the world’s natural food stocks dwindle to zero, it’s time we take genetically modified lab-birthed food seriously.
Food hurts. Not in a comfort eating, but an overall, environmental impact kind of way. If you’re on the carnivorous side of the fence, you’re basically doubling your losses: your food needs its own food, too.
Industrial farming costs the world $3 trillion a year in environmental harm, with costs stemming from issues ranging from soil erosion and depletion of water resources, to oceanic “dead zones”, damaged by synthetic fertiliser run-off and generation of greenhouse gas emissions.
In his book “The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It”, Professor Julian Cribb warns that the world has ignored a number of facts pointing to an upcoming food crisis, one that Cribb believes “is arriving even faster than climate change”. According to Professor Cribb, shortages of water, land, and energy combined with the increased demand from population and economic growth, will create a global food shortage around 2050.
At the time of writing, it is a mere 344 months away. Yikes.
Enter genetically engineered foods; technology’s newest frontier.
In 2016, the so-named “Impossible Burger” made headlines with its “bleeding” veggie patty designed to emulate the supposed advantages of a meat-based burger, but with a greatly reduced environmental footprint.
While the Impossible Burger stands for a noble cause in its goal to reduce meat consumption – and the animal factory farming strings attached – how it achieves that cause is less than clear.
The meaty flavour the burger has gained traction for it comes from the burger’s key ingredient, synbio “heme”, a hemoprotein produced by genetically engineered yeast – but don’t expect to hear that from producer Impossible Foods. We probably wouldn’t know that at all were it not for The Washington Post.
Claims of engineered foods being ultra-sustainable are held without data. Information about the environmental impact of production and storage is suspiciously scarce. Companies label their foods as non-genetically modified or natural in spite of their entire existence stemming from a laboratory – despite 89% of US consumers wanting mandatory labelling of foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients, and growing interest in just where it is our food is coming from.
Even more mysterious, the “plant blood” the burger is perhaps the unexplained foodstuff, and data on the safety and environmental impact of the “blood” is just as unknown. This ambiguity is not something unique to the Impossible Burger, either. There are currently no real regulations on the production of these engineered foods, and any proposed changes are littered with loopholes.
Indeed, the World Health Organisation has stated that it is simply not possible to make blanket safety statements about modified foods, and that any assessments need to be made on an individual basis.
As US environmental organisation Friends of the Earth puts it, “companies introducing these new GMOs to the market are essentially self-regulated, and are asking consumers to blindly trust them.”
Compounding this lack of transparency is the volume of spin surrounding these new superfoods.
Claims of engineered foods being ultra-sustainable are held up without any data to support them.
Vital information about the environmental impact of the stock involved in the production of the new ingredients, such as the feeding of genetically engineered algae, and the storage of ingredients involved, is suspiciously scarce.
More still, the science of spin has also seen companies label their foods as non-genetically modified, or natural, in spite of their entire existence stemming from a laboratory. Out of fear of anti-GMO consumer backlash, producers are leaving transparency far behind in the hopes of maximising marketing.
This is despite a massive 89% of US consumers wanting mandatory labelling of foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients, and growing interest in just where it is our food is coming from.
For all the environmental, animal-rights-benefitting warm and fuzzies that the “future food” industry brings, it’s hard to expect any real change in consumer habits under an increasingly opaque cloud of misinformation.
An “all-plant, no animals harmed in the making of, tastes just like meat without all the issues” burger? Sounds fantastic.
A “patented, gene-edited, born in a lab through a mixture of chemicals and experimentation with fungi” burger? Not so much.
Nevertheless, we need to change our eating habits for the good of our planet, and we need to do it soon.
But so long as producers seek to withhold information about just what it is we’re eating, and what that eating is doing to our planet, that change is still far beyond the horizon.
It may be called future food, but that doesn’t mean we want to wait until the future to eat it.