Synthetic Food? A sustainable alternative??

Synthetic Food could be the solution to famine and world hunger, however, some are dubious about the consequences of using synthetic food. Many already know that Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) production has damaged ecosystems and contributed to antibiotic-resistant bacteria (see my previous post on Superbugs). So why would synthetic food be any different?

Before researching synthetic food, I was dubious about it. I found it particularly weird that one day we could be eating a burger grown in a lab and I obviously was not convinced of how healthy it was for our bodies. My concerns stemmed from the advertisement of “sugar free drinks” because they still contain sugar substitutes that do not decrease the risk of developing diabetes. Although companies will advertise healthier foods, the sugar is still there just in a different form. The same goes for synthetic food, as I thought.

Photo Credit: The Matthews Blog

How synthetic food is made, is different for every type of food. But the basics is that synthetic biologists will identify the gene sequence that gives the food its qualities, such as the texture of meat. It is often a protein which is responsible for this. The gene sequence for this protein is produced chemically in a lab and then it is inserted into either yeast cells or bacterium. These organisms can ferment and replicate the protein. Essentially, they are turned into factories to mass produce the desired protein. However, meat is grown by multiplying stem cells, taken from an animal, in a nutrient broth. The stem cells then differentiate into muscle cells and form stripes of tissue, like real muscle tissue does. In Vitro meat has come a long way to the point that in 2013, the first ever lab grown burger was tasted.

The advantages of this process, is that a ton of meat can be derived from a few stem cells, because they can replicate quickly in nutrient broths or inside bacterium/yeast. Quick and fast production of food is needed in order to reduce famines across the world. Additionally, there are environmental advantages. Currently, dairy production accounts for 3% of greenhouse gase emission and livestock account for 14% of emissions. Milk and cheese proteins can be replicated to make synthetic dairy which retains its taste and also has nutritional value. Beef can be lab grown so that cows do not have to be bred in mass quantities which results in high level of methane gas released from the digestive system of cows. There are also animal cruelty concerns with cattle farming, as livestock can be treated poorly. This ethical concern would be eliminated.

Photo Credit: BBC

I was massively surprised when I found out how much of our food is already synthetic. Medical needs mean that a lot more people need different food. For example artificial milk is produced for infants with a genetic disease that results in them not being able to tolerate a specific amino acid in natural milk. Dietary preferences also result in synthetic food production. Vegetarian food substitutes imitate the taste and texture of meat yet contain no meat. We do use a form of cellular agriculture to make the food we eat already. Yet many are still sceptical about it. Natural foods maintain the right amount of nutrients for our bodies, so why would we try to alter these.

I feel as though we are trying to tackle the man-made problem of cattle farming and deforestation with more artificial processes, and further down the line we will see the consequences of it. Surely, we have learnt the lesson to leave Mother Nature to its own devices.

However, some have an alternative view:

“Chemistry has already shaped our cooking utensils and cuisine – now, all that remains is for it to provide the food itself” Marcellin Berthelot (a French chemist)

What are your thoughts?

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