Wednesday, August 07, 2013

A brave new world where beef is not beef, and oranges are not oranges

"It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."
Unless you are way too young a reader, in which case I worry about you, that quote might have made you smile and wince at the same time.  It was the one of the most bizarre moments of political presidential theatre in recent years.  In saying that, Slick Willie, the sharp intellectual and debater that he is, underscored the importance of definitions.  

Public policy issues are increasingly about definitions.  It depends on what we mean by marriage.  It depends on what we mean as drugs.  It depends on what we mean by unborn child.  Not only will such questions not go away, but advancement in scientific understanding and technological sophistication will continue to complicate our lives by challenging a lot more of the definitions.

Even a few years ago, it would have been bizarre for anybody to state that whether eating beef in India will be ok will depend on the definition of beef.  After all, beef comes from cows that have to be slaughtered and killing cows is not usually ok in that country.  Life was simple.  But, if beef is produced without ever killing a cow, then is that really beef and, therefore, will consuming that be acceptable?

Google's Sergey Brin funded the project to grow beef in a petridish:
Sometimes a new technology comes along and it has the capability to transform how we view the world
The "sacred cow" population and animal welfare groups will be pleased with his rationale:
Brin said that he was moved to invest in the technology for animal welfare reasons. People had an erroneous image of modern meat production, he said, imagining "pristine farms" with just a few animals in them. "When you see how these cows are treated, it's certainly something I'm not comfortable with."
I am one of those people never comfortable with the thought that the animals are not only slaughtered, but are also ill-treated, in order to get the meat to the consumer.  More than any taste preference, it is this discomfort that pushes me away from meat most of the time.  Which is also why I have been fascinated with "fake meat" and even include a reading on it in the introductory course that I teach.  In this case, the "fake beef," which could be a commercially viable product in little more than a decade, is not any concoction from soybeans, but:
The cultured beef, composed of muscle cells, was grown in the lab by harvesting a sample of muscle tissue from a cow. The tissue was then cut into small pieces and separated into fat and muscle cells. The individual muscle-specific stem cells were then grown in the shape of a ring and cut so they formed strands. These strands were layered to formed sheets of tissue to get the consistency of beef.
So, no cow was killed here.  It is only a matter of time before we perfect such techniques and produce beef or other animal foods without the animals.  All the old definitions on what foods can or cannot be consumed will have to be redefined.  

If you thought that the plant world was safe from such definition issues, think again.  

A couple of months ago, I read this piece in the New Yorker on how Florida's oranges are at risk because of a bacterial disease.  It was one of the most difficult essays that I ever had to slog through in my years of reading that magazine.  The fruit trees do not immediately show signs of the disease, but slowly, over the years, begins to turn yellow and produce mis-shapen and bitter fruits.  It is a disease that threatens to wipe out Florida's oranges.  

Caption at the source:
An orange from a tree infected with citrus greening, right, is stunted compared with a normal orange
There is no known cure for it.  No way, yet, to treat it.    The possible cure for it might come via genetic engineering:
An emerging scientific consensus held that genetic engineering would be required to defeat citrus greening. “People are either going to drink transgenic orange juice or they’re going to drink apple juice,”
Yes, that GMO food issue all over again.  But, that might be the simpler of the definition issues to worry about.  Where will this DNA come from?  
of the dozen bacteria-fighting genes he had then tested on his greenhouse trees, the one that appeared effective came from a pig.
So, assuming that the pig DNA approach works, is approved, and becomes a success.  Lots of ifs, yes.  But, if so, then a new definition issue: will the pork-avoiding population of Hindus, Jews, and Muslims, consider this orange juice as "kosher"?

It is a fascinating world in which we live.  It will get even more exciting as we question more and more the various definitions on which we base our respective lives.

And Bill Clinton made it all the more exciting with his sexcapades!

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