Food Science: Why We Shouldn’t Fear Lab Burgers and GMO’s
A few months ago, it was announced by scientists at Maastricht University in the Netherlands that they had successfully built hamburger from animal tissue grown in a lab. As technology improves and costs come down, the Maastricht cultured meat could potentially reduce land, water and energy use.
Around the same time, NASA announced it had begun funding a 3D Printer that could feed astronauts on long-term missions. The base materials for these printers can potentially remain stable for up to 30 years, reducing the volume of spoiled food and lessening the costs of preservation.
Even before 3D printers and lab burgers, genetically modified crops began to hit the commercial market with promises of higher yields, faster growth, and resistance to certain pests and diseases. GMOs follow in the footsteps of selective breeding, one of the basic principles of farming stretching back tens of thousands of years.
And yet there are many who are understandably cautious about this emerging science of food engineering– perhaps too cautious. Nonprofits like the Non-GMO Project and the Natural News, as well as numerous blogs of all shapes and sizes, will all tell you that GMOs and other general advancements in food science are very, very bad. They question food safety and healthiness, even when there is no strong evidence that genetically altered food is any less safe to eat than conventional foods.
That bears repeating: there is no strong scientific evidence that engineered food is in any way dangerous to eat. While there have been numerous studies investigating genetically modified crops and the animals that eat them, the results most often quoted by anti-engineering groups have been scientifically unsound and warrant further study with better controlled conditions. But inconclusive results seem to be enough: there are protests to identify, segregate, and eradicate genetically altered food all under the premise that it might be harmful over a long period of time, if it’s harmful at all. But this sentiment comes from an emotional response, not a rational one. The late Norman Borlaug had words to say about this view of food:
They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. They have never produced a ton of food.
If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 60 years, they’d be crying out for fertilizer, herbicides, irrigation canals and tractors and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.
Borlaug spent over sixty years developing more viable strains of wheat and rice, and his work is estimated to have saved over a billion people worldwide. That’s not hyperbole or exaggeration; that is the number quoted by Public Law Number 109–395, honoring Borlaug for his work and passed by unanimous vote by the Senate in 2006. He was given a Nobel Prize in 1970 for his breakthroughs, and in 2006 was presented with a Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor the United States can give to a civilian. Clearly he knew what he was doing, and still his work comes under fire for using non-Organic practices and trumpeting advancement in food science by use of current technologies.
“Organic” is a word consumers see around the grocery store that can make them feel good about what they’re eating. But the cost of Organic farming is far higher than slight price increases.
Organic farming practices require much more land, more cattle for nitrogen production, and produces 66%-80% yield versus conventional methods. It is at best a niche for those lucky enough to be given the choice.
Consumers must come to the realization that it is indeed a choice, not a necessity. Blind taste tests even show that conventionally grown food might actually be better in quality and taste, despite claims to the contrary.
It’s going to be very important in the near future that we explore every avenue in the pursuit of feeding the world. There is a rightful place for caution, but it needs to be tempered with reason and rational thought. There are important questions that need to be asked about the impact on the ecology and economy in which these foods are produced, but we cannot afford to take the abstinence view on applying technology and innovative approaches to food production. Future generations depend on us.