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!


Chris said...

Thought provoking comments on engineered foods. As with any new technology or technique, long-term implications are difficult to predict. The same holds true for engineered foods. They have the potential to dramatically influence how our bodies evolve over time as demonstrated in your post about gene mutations and the lactase enzyme. Granted that mutation took place over thousands of years, but could it not be possible that mutations in the future might happen at a faster rate. I am reminded of a Native American saying that advises individuals to make big decisions based on how those decisions will impacts the next seven generations.

Ramesh said...

Yes, what is, is now stretched in all directions. Th meat industry has been doing this all the time by feeding normally vegetarian cows with animal protein. You take this to a completely new level.

As with all these things, each of us might find a discomfort point somewhere in the chain and stop. What would be good policy is not to ban anything (as long as proved reasonably safe) and then label foods and let the consumer decide.

Chris's comment that long term implications are difficult to predict is absolutely true. We can only rely on the best wisdom of the regulatory authorities (not pressure groups and alarmists). Some mistakes will no doubt be made, but that's how its always been, isn't it.

Sriram Khé said...

Hey, this lab-grown beef will eliminate practices such as the one you mention--in the future, we won't have an industry including animal protein in the feed. No more "feed lots" or crampign animals in close quarters. Isn't lab (factory) grown beef then a lot kinder and gentler an approach?

I can understand the unease that foods could be bio-engineered like this. But, if your worries are about the treatment of animals, then we know for sure that we cannot continue to practice what we do now and petridish-beef is to be welcomed, right?

Thinking seven generations down the line certainly worked when the rate of change was next to nothing. The life of a Native American in about 1200 was probably no different from that of a Native American in 1400. But, that is not the change-by-the-minute world in which we live. The US in 2013 is so different even from the US of 1963, leave alone 1913 or 1813. So, in a way, when we know that the current meat production practice is not sustainable over even two more generations, wouldn't you want to welcome the petridish-beef?

BTW, such rates of change are also why I try to make students understand that they are screwed-up if they base their career choices on what they see in society today. We simply cannot extrapolate anymore as we used to in the past.

Chris said...

For the record, I am against feed lots, unregulated slaughter houses, and the meat production and distribution system as it currently operates. However, I do think new techniques/technologies that create things that potentially impact large populations throughout the world (i.e. petridish-beef) do sometimes get adopted the short-term benefits rather than considering the long-term benefits or consequences.

Sriram Khé said...

It appears that the Economist offers observations that are pretty much the same as mine:

Most read this past month