In Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, a near-future speculative fiction dystopian novel in which climate change and genetic modification has run amok, engineered animals called pigoons are bred to grow human organs for transplantation in addition to being the staple food-stuff once the organs are harvested. And while this marvel may have seemed far-fetched at the time, recent advances in bioengineering are bringing this kind of technological marvel out of the realm of fiction and into everyday reality.
It is no secret among environmentalists and food security advocates that current industrial farming practices are incredibly damaging to our climate and to available arable land. Huge tracts of land are required just to grow corn and other cereal grains purely for cattle and other grazing mammals that are part of the worldwide fast-food supply chain.
And because cattle require much more nourishment per acre than a human does, water and energy supplies are inefficiently used just to bring that juicy steak to your table. As our global resources dwindle in the face of climate change (see the many recent news stories about drought conditions across the American and Canadian breadbaskets), the management of our meat supply will necessarily become one of humanity’s greatest challenges.
We as a species are up to the challenge, however. Consider Modern Meadow: They are an American biotechnology corporation who have just recently won a Breakout Labs grant to the tune of up to $350 000 for the research and development of “Engineered Comestible Meat”. You can read the full description of the process here, but the gist of it is that they will use engineered cells to artificially grow and shape tissue that is safe for human consumption. In other words, they will be designing and growing test-tube bacon and burgers. There has already been a great deal of success in the realm of tissue generation.
While I personally remain sceptical of such seemingly “silver bullet” solutions to humanity’s ills (asbestos, CFCs, lead piping, pesticide-resistant crops, etc. as just a few examples of solutions that created additional problems), Modern Meadow and companies like them are nonetheless charting the way forward for a more sustainable future of food. Whether or not you’d be willing to eat a BLT with bacon “grown” in a lab, we still need to face the fact that our current mass consumption and production of meat is unsustainable in the long term. While it’s still possible, though, I’ll take my steak medium-rare.