Industrial farming may prove inadequate for food security – Gloria Spittel

It is probably a smattering too harsh to refer to food of the future as ‘fake.’ A more polite term could be ‘impostor’ but it essentially conveys the important message that food is not what it appears to be – and its source is not what you think it is.

Certainly, alternatives to meat – known as anything from mock to fake and appetisingly as faux meat – have existed in various markets for decades including Asia, from Southeast to South Asia and beyond.

The soybean, which is used to manufacture textured vegetarian protein (TVP) and tofu among others, has been a frontrunner in the alternative meat sector. Like most popular things, the soybean has had its fair share of controversies related to nutritional value, links to disease and a role in global warming – more on that later…

A non-meat source of protein is not a revolutionary idea for those in Asia as religious and cultural reasons or the inability to afford animal protein has led to people sourcing it from vegetables, legumes and fruits.

In this context, producing food to mimic meat from traditional non-meat protein sources that are typically part of usual diets and sold to indigenous populations as healthy alternatives is not only fake food and old news but also exploitive.

“From manufacturing dairy to meat, growing food in laboratories seems to solve the two issues of climate change and authenticity “

For example, quinoa – a grain that underwent a transformation from one consumed by the poverty-stricken to a fashionable health conscious food – exploded in the global consumer market between 2005 and 2013, resulting in a price surge of about 600 percent.

This inevitably caused issues for indigenous consumers (who were poor farmers) who either could not afford the higher price or opportunity cost of consuming rather than selling their harvest.

While meat alternatives are often touted as non-cruel, there is (obviously) more to this story.

A simple scratch on its surface will reveal a shift in the cruelty, inequality, and rampant disregard of cultural rights and rites, from animals to humans and societies at large. Much of this damage is incurred on what is commonly termed the ‘Global South’ – the producers of world consumption whether perishable or not.

Indigenous human popula-tions are not the only victims of superfoods – so are land fertility, plant diversity and entire ecosystems. When the inevitable bust of the superfood in fashion occurs, the fallout will be borne by these native lands and their people.

Beyond the cruelty argument of meat consumption – and there is no doubt that industrial farming is cruel – there’s also the link between animal production, consumption and climate change.

Animal agriculture is considered the second largest contributor of greenhouse gases, which in turn affects climate change. But agriculture as a whole, whether animals or plants, is a major reason for deforestation, pollution (air, water and land) and the loss of biodiversity – all of which contribute to and affect the health of the planet.

In this rather simplified summary of meat and non-meat agriculture and consumption, it appears that the industrial methods dominating the production of animal agriculture are the defining factor in determining a non-cruel and ethical difference in the production of food.

But – and admittedly, this is a wild thought – could plants and the land on which they are grown also feel the torture of mechanised and industrial farming? Because it appears that the method to derive our food has not changed much.

Addressing these burning questions – and concerns related to devastating environmental, societal and in some instances, cultural effects of industrial farming – are those who are trying to grow our food… in laboratories.

From manufacturing dairy to meat, growing food in laboratories seems to solve the two issues of climate change and authenticity. In both cases, dairy and meat are grown in laboratories using organic material directly from the sources. As such, milk produced without cows is nutritionally identical to the real product and can even cause allergies in those who are lactose intolerant. Meat grown in laboratories is similar in nutritional profile and taste sans the need for killing animals.

But is food that is identical in nutrition and taste to the ‘real product’ fake if it’s grown in a laboratory? Would growing food in a laboratory on a massive scale be environmentally-friendly and sustainable? Will the food be affordable?

As the human population continues to grow – and climate change continues unabated – food security will become yet another priority for people. With worsening environmental conditions, growing food in laboratories may no longer seem like an option but a requirement to provide nutrition and ward off famine.

In the years to come, will we as a species look back fondly on the memories of how real food tasted, much like past generations that speak of deep taste profiles and abundant variety that have been made obsolete by GMOs and the power of yields?

Will taste matter?