Health Hotline Magazine | February 2023
Lab-Grown Animal Products Are Not the Environmental Saviors Proponents Would Have Us Believe Should the meat, milk, and eggs of the (near) future be created in a lab? The biotech companies producing these new foods fly the bold banner of “kinder, greener protein,” but could their proof of these claims be a mirage? We have three questions we hope every eater asks about the new wave of “animal-free” proteins claiming to be the solution to “climate-positive” diets. By Charity Isely
But first, an explanation of synthetic biology (syn-bio), the process by which many of them are created. Synthetic biology uses genetic engineering techniques to alter the DNA of microorganisms, like algae, bacteria, and yeast, to produce entirely new compounds through fermentation—including milk and egg proteins, collagen, fat, flavorings, and more. Yet the FDA’s National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard doesn’t require these products to be labeled GMO because they aren’t considered transgenic (they don’t incorporate DNA from another species) so they are often marketed as non-GMO and “made with precision fermentation”—terms that appeal to natural and organic consumers. However, the Non-GMO Project prohibits syn-bio ingredients in their standards. Transparency or mirage? In a recent article published in SAGE Journals , scientists note that while companies producing these alternative proteins claim transparency, they’re also protecting their pending patents with great secrecy. They wrote, “…Silicon Valley food tech entrepreneurs aspire to bring a new food system into being and convince their audiences that this food future is both better and achievable. …their representational practices make it di cult, if not impossible, for the public—or anyone really—to meaningfully assess the promises and their potential consequences …” How will family farms and global food systems be impacted? Errol Schweizer, an industry expert, writes in Forbes magazine that "the investor model here is very Silicon Valley … compete aggressively with the goal of cornering this market as a monopoly or a duopoly." He also points out in the seminar “How Do You Milk A Microbe?” that the current titans of industrialized meat and poultry production, including Tyson and Cargill, are invested in these animal-free ingredients as well. And the non-profit advocacy organization, ETC Group, in its Who Will Feed Us? report, finds that globally "more than 190 million people… rely on pastoralism as an important source of protein and income." They warn this lab-made-protein trend could destabilize hundreds of millions of people's lives.
Is it really better for the planet? The microbes generating syn-bio ingredients require a growth medium, typically corn or soy. In the U.S., more than 90 percent of these crops are grown with genetically modified (GM) seed in systems reliant on environmentally destructive practices. So how are the companies making big sustainability claims sourcing the feedstock for their operations? And as production scales up, will it increase the acreage of GM crops in the U.S and globally? Also, what kind of waste and fossil fuel emissions do these fermentation factories generate? What we DO know One point often missing from the buzz around lab-grown “animal” products is the climate-positive benefits of animals raised in a regenerative organic model. Albert Straus points to data showing that by 2023 Straus Organic Milk will achieve a similar “climate positive” footprint to alternative plant-based milk. The Straus Family Creamery™ is committed to creating a “carbon-neutral dairy farming model” rooted in organic agriculture by 2023 as well. Practices including carbon farming (creating healthy soil to sequester CO2), electric farm equipment, and feed supplements for reducing cows’ enteric methane emissions will contribute to this success. The evidence is in the soil at Alexandre Family Farm™, the first certified regenerative dairy in the country. As reported by Civil Eats, Alexandre Farm’s soil samples have gone from 2 to 3 percent organic matter to 8 to 15 percent since they've transitioned to regenerative practices. And research from the University of Wisconsin finds that the carbon sequestration benefits of organic practices and pasture grazing result in 24 percent lower emissions for small organic dairy farms compared to conventional ones. Perhaps the most critical question then is this:
How is our food—plant or animal—produced?
Because, as this column has said before, "It's not the cow, it's the ‘HOW’!"
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