Saturday 3 December 2016

Frightful Frankenfoods: straight from a lab onto your plate . . .

Darragh McManus wonders how far we should go in improving mother nature's diet

Published 04/01/2010 | 05:00

Library image
Library image

It sounds as disgusting as it no doubt tastes, and 'artificial meat' is unlikely to assume pride of place of any restaurant menus in the near future. But that's exactly what scientists in the Netherlands have invented.

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Or rather, 'grown': the researchers at Eindhoven University put cells from the muscle of a live pig in a broth created from the blood of animal foetuses. The cells then multiplied and created muscle tissue. It's described as being like 'soggy pork' and 'wasted muscle tissue'. Pass the ketchup.

We jest, but this is a serious project in a very serious time. Backed by the Dutch government, the scientists have also created artificial fish fillets and hope their ersatz pork will be on sale within five years.

Meat-eating is getting an increasingly bad rap these days, castigated as unhealthy, unnecessary and the product of cruelty. It's also coming to be seen as one of the greatest environmental threats: activists claim the industry, with all those flatulent animals, has a higher carbon footprint than every motor vehicle, plane and ship in the world combined.

Besides that, we can't continue to feed the world's population like this. One cow being reared for slaughter consumes grain that would nourish hundreds of people.

People like meat -- they like its tastes and textures and are used to it -- hence this effort to create a sustainable, ethically sound alternative. But the Dutch project, even if it does work, raises a host of other concerns about tampering with nature and creating so-called Frankenfoods.

The reality is that people have tampered with food for a very long time; from before they were even really people, in fact.

Our primitive forebears, Homo erectus, were the first hominids to significantly modify what nature had provided, by working out to how to control fire and thus cook their food.

Up to then our ancestors would have eaten it as they found it, whether on the ground, on a tree branch or pummelled to death with a big bloody rock.

In Neolithic times -- around 10,000 BC -- modern humans first started using salt, again altering food by changing its taste (and in the process preserving it for longer). And soon afterwards began what has been described as the key development in the rise of civilisation: agriculture.

When people started growing crops and rearing animals in the Middle East, they definitively marked the shift from hunter-gatherer society. But what we're concerned with here is how they tampered with food as it was found in nature.

Almost from the beginning we were selectively breeding animals, picking those most suited to our local environment and blending in characteristics of other beasts to make them live longer, grow fatter and yield more. From them we got meat, but also other products made from their milk, eggs or flesh.

We also began genetically modifying (yes, that's what we were doing, even back then) plants by crossing different types.

This gave us more resilient strains, which allowed the storing of surplus harvests and the growth of trade. It also gave us bread, the staple food in most places around the world.

In tandem with all this, of course, was the development of cuisine, as people took different ingredients and mixed them to create something new and man-made -- something literally artificial. Pitta breads, for example, came along circa 4,000BC, ice-cream a millennium later. Foie gras, haggis and cheesecake date from the first century after Christ.

Let's fast-forward to the Middle Ages.

Developments in crop rotation and irrigation, and the so-called Columbian Exchange -- the mass exchange of plants and animals from Old World to New -- resulted in more interbreeding and more new strains.

Meanwhile, the Islamic world had discovered an early version of pest control: further interference in the 'natural' cycle of foodstuffs.

Beginning in the 16th century, the Agricultural Revolution in Britain improved yields to previously unimaginable levels, meaning greater access and easier distribution to consumers.

The 18th and 19th centuries also saw the use of greenhouses and intensified experiments on plant genetics, while Darwin's theories of evolution kindled a fresh, though more scientific, interest in selective breeding of animals.

That's the foundation for food as we know it, and now we come to the discovery or invention of many individual foodstuffs and methods of production. In 1767, for instance, Joseph Priestly invented carbonated water in Leeds -- reportedly in a bid to kill mice in beer vats. Around the same time, mayonnaise became popular as a means of masking the taste of rotten meat.

In 1809 Napoleon's army began sealing their rations in jars and then cans to prevent spoilage, a process aided and abetted 50 years later when Louis Pasteur discovered the role of microbes in food deterioration.

In 1856 condensed milk was created to help reduce food poisoning. Seven years later a health-food fanatic called Dr James Caleb Jackson created the first breakfast cereal, which he called Granula.

Canned baked beans were introduced during the American Civil War, synthetic baby food followed in 1867, margarine in 1870, Heinz Ketchup in 1876 and the first artificial sweetener in 1897.

Seven years after that, probably the most iconic -- and artificial -- foodstuff of them all: Coca-Cola. (Yes, it originally contained cocaine. That's what I call interfering with food in a pretty comprehensive manner.)

Into the 20th century, and it was all about convenience, speed and cheapness. Artificial fertilisers made it easier and quicker to produce food.

Then in 1924 Clarence Birdseye invented a method of instantly freezing packed food, providing chips, pizza and peas on demand to those who could afford a freezer.

The '20s also saw the arrival of sliced bread, which kept fresh for much longer than the traditional kind. The '30s saw Spam and dehydrated foods like soup.

The '40s saw pre-prepared cake mix. The '50s saw microwaveable TV dinners and instant noodles. The '60s saw Smash.

More recent decades have seen the rise of GM foods: the logical conclusion to 12,000 years of mankind striving to improve on nature, though many people fear our scientific know-how has outstripped our wisdom and we're marching (on our stomachs, naturally) towards calamity. The thought of a tomato being injected with, say, fish genes is a fairly icky one.

In recent years there has been a drift away from instant, disposable, artificial food. The Slow Food Movement, demand for organic, free-range produce and protests against GM crops all signify a desire to consume something more natural, more real ... more green.

All of which ties in neatly to a burgeoning environmental awareness and the lab-grown meat mentioned at the beginning.

Soon we may be able to save the planet -- and ourselves -- by consuming the most unnatural food in history.

How's that for an ethical conundrum?

Irish Independent

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