Monday, November 23, 2015

FrankenFish and Cultured Chicken

Last week, the FDA stunned the anti-GMO movement by approving a genetically modified Atlantic salmon to be farmed for human consumption--the first such approval for an animal whose DNA has been scientifically modified. The new fish will have its genes altered to enable it to grow faster than un-altered salmon, thus increasing its profitability without, its makers say, making it unsafe for the public. The new salmon will not have to be labeled as a GMO product, either, according to the FDA. Activist groups have vowed to oppose the sale of these new fish, and some retailers, such as Kroger's, have said they will not carry it on their shelves.

Science is here to stay, it seems, in all aspects of our lives, to be sure--and that's not necessarily a bad thing. We accept CAT scans and airplanes and microwave ovens, cellphones and hairdryers--all products of Science, which we use with varying levels of unease throughout our daily lives. That Science rears its head in the production of our food? This, I think, trips our inner alarm bells in an even more visceral way, especially when choice--not labeling a GMO product as such, for instance--is taken away from us. It conflates into the ugliest notions about Science and scientists: that it is somehow a conspiracy of eggheads who, at best, are the helpless pawns of conciousless corporate overlords, or, at worst, a group of PhDed psychopaths determined to destroy all mankind for their own sick pleasure.

Stereotypes aside, what is Science up to with our food, and why? That things must be made cheaper, faster, last longer on the shelves, and cause no immediate, easily verifiable damage to our bodies seems to be the goal of modern food production in America. Whatever negative impacts are made on the environment in this quest seems to never be part of the equation, and, somewhere below that never, the well-being of the animals on whose flesh we feed.

But what if that were not the case? What if Science was as concerned with the environment and the animals we consume, while also trying to provide us with animal products? Enter "Cultured Chicken," the result of The Modern Agriculture Foundation (MAF) in Ramat Gan, Israel. This all volunteer, nonprofit organization was founded in March last year, and by January launched the world’s first feasibility study to determine the cost, timetable and resources to create commercial cultured chicken breast.

What is the world is a "cultured chicken breast"? Does it enjoy Proust, ponder Hegel, weep at the climax of La Traviata? Sadly, no. Let's let MFA explain in their handy infographic, below:

Says MAF cofounder Shir Friedman:
“Today, the meat, dairy and egg industries are among the major contributors to climate change. They consume huge amounts of valuable resources such as energy and fresh water, contribute to the outbreak of pandemics such as swine flu and are the cause of deaths of billions of animals every year."
About half the earth’s land area is taken up by livestock and the crops that feed them. A third of our freshwater is used for livestock and their food, and half the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from cattle headed to slaughter. Cultured meat production would require between seven and 45 percent less energy, 90% less fresh water and 99% less land, and would result in 80 to 90% less greenhouse gases emitted to the atmosphere.

One of the MAF’s biggest challenges, says the article, is to convince people that cultured meat is not “Frankenfood” and involves no genetic engineering. It is not a meat substitute, but 100% meat. When produced on a mass scale, cultured meat won’t be made in a lab but in a factory just like any other processed food from ketchup to cornflakes.

Talk about "cruelty-free!"

Now look here, you say. That's all well and good, but darn it, can't I just have a piece of chicken without Science all up in it? The kind of chicken Grandma had--is it really too much to ask?? 

It turns out, it is. Even Grandma stopped having chicken like she grew up with, if Grandma grew up in the pre-World War ll era. What am I talking about? I'm talking about the fact that Science has, for a long time now, been up in your chicken.

Let's go all the way back, about 2,000 years ago, when chickens were first domesticated. From the very start of the human-chicken relationship, we have used what we would call Science to change them for our purposes. Strange as it may seem, chickens weren't initially bred to be meals back then, but for their fighting abilities--that's right, cock fighting. 

a mosaic uncovered in Pompeii, probably from the first century AD.
Over time, however, the primary value in poultry keeping was eggs, and meat was considered a byproduct of egg production. Its supply was less than the demand, and poultry was expensive. Except in hot weather, eggs can be shipped and stored without refrigeration for some time before going bad; this was important in the days before widespread refrigeration. There was a reason Herbert Hoover's Presidential campaign slogan in 1928 was "A Chicken in Every Pot." Chicken was expensive, and a rarity, and being able to have it was indeed a sign of prosperity.

By the late 1950s, poultry production had changed dramatically. Refrigeration, the development of Vitamin D (which made it possible to keep chickens in confinement year-round), new breeding and in-cage- egg-laying techniques all helped to industrialize something that once was a niche product of small family farms. 

All this helped to make chicken the item that we perhaps most take for granted on any given menu. 

But back to your Grandma's chicken.

The other way that chicken has changed, besides becoming cheaper and more easily available to us than previous generations, is the sheer size of the things. Check it out:

Cross breeding chickens in the late '40's created the monsters we find wrapped in cellophane in our markets today: plumper thighs, meatier drumsticks, and breasts that would make Mae West blush. And, though products of breeding rather than genetic manipulation (or growth hormones, still illegal in the U.S.) they share the fast growth rate of their salmon cousins, going from chick to a five-pound bird in just six weeks. 

The downside?
These ideal chickens don’t have ideal health. The bigger, fatter chickens get sicker than the birds of yesterday. Confinement and excess weight lead to stress, reproductive issues, cardiovascular disease, and skeletal problems. Heavy antibiotics use — needed to combat disease — has led to disease-resistant bacteria, which are present in about half of all chicken in US stores.
As if that weren't bad enough, these mutant birds don't taste very good either. In my experience buying the big breasts or thighs, usually because of some irresistible sale, I'm lead to regret my thrift because the meat is tough and tasteless. Something the industry could care less about, having already got my money, I'm sure. 

For all these reasons--environmental, animal welfare, the health of us humans, and the taste of our dinners, I'm fairly interested in this cultured chicken business (and also beef).

Hebrew University Prof. Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, says that if the process becomes economically feasible, “the ecological and ethical considerations would make cultured meat irresistible. Cultured meat is one of the most important revolutions in the history of food and in the history of humankind itself.”

What do you think, Calvin?

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