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A giant meatball hints at a future of lab-grown exotic meat, but the reality will be much duller and full of problems


Last week, an Australian “cultured meat” company called Vow made headlines with a meatball made from the flesh of a woolly mammoth – or something very similar. Combining the technologies of lab-based cell culture and “de-extinction,,Scientists at Vow grew muscle proteins based on DNA sequences from the long-dead proboscis animals.

The meatball was not intended for human consumption, but Vow hoped the gimmick would highlight the lighter ecological footprint of lab-grown meat, using the mammoth as “a symbol of diversity loss and a symbol of climate change.” The meatball also hinted at a possible new variety and playfulness in meat consumption.

But will lab-grown meat really put mammoths, dodos and other exotics on the menu? Taking into account the safety and economic hurdles the industry will have to overcome, the result seems more likely to follow the pattern of genetically modified crops: less diversity and unforeseen social and environmental impacts.

Health and safety risks

Like Queensland scientist Ernst Wolvetang, who helped design the mammoth ball, recognized:

We haven’t seen this protein for thousands of years, so we have no idea how our immune system would react if we eat it.

Wolvetang thinks such problems can be solved quickly. But even for lab-grown meats that use conventional livestock, such as beef or chicken, the health and safety risks are far from clear.

Existing concerns include the use of growth hormones in cultured meat, the potential for new or unexpected allergensthe way lines of cultured cells change in form and function over timethe likelihood of microbial contaminationAnd uncertainty about the nutrient content.

Even changing the texture or composition of meat can affect the health of our digestive system. These problems are likely to be exacerbated for foods based on resurrected proteins from the distant past.

Think of the ‘meat systems’

But health and safety are not the only issues.

Critics of the deextinction movement have argued that reintroducing animals such as the woolly mammoth to the environment can have unpredictable and disruptive effects.

Would predators adapt? Would grasslands be forgotten? Should we instead be committed to preserving living animals such as rhinoceroses? Makes the possibility of de-extinction us less concerned than we should be about the effect of human actions on biodiversity?

What would the economic system of lab-grown meat production look like?

We should also think in similarly broad terms about the consequences of lab-grown meat. In other words, we need to think not only about meat itself, but also about the ‘meat systems’ that produce it.

What will the economic system of lab-grown meat production look like? How will lab-grown meat disrupt agriculture and farming communities? How can this affect consumption? Will we eat more or less meat if we get access to ‘ethical’ meat?

The lesson of GMOs

The development and rollout of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) over the past three decades can give us some important clues as to how such things might play out. Like lab-grown meat, GMOs initially promised the potential of various crops that would provide health benefits (such as Golden Rice) or consumer benefits (such as the Flavr Savr tomato).

Few of these possibilities were realized. Instead, most of the benefits of GMOs accrued to farms that developed and sold the seeds.

Instead of increasing the diversity of foods, GMOs have increased monocultures and reduced the variety of food. This in turn has led to negative environmental and social impacts on farming communities.

Read more: The race to protect the food of the future – why seedbanks alone are not the solution

Lab-grown meat carries a similar risk. Despite the promise of Vow’s mammoth, at least in the short term, it is likely that lab-grown meat will not become profitable for consumers until produced to scale.

This suggests that the most likely cultured meats on our menus are not alligator or dodo, but standardized versions of beef, chicken or pork. Production will also likely focus on muscle tissue, rather than offal, feet, bone marrow, or the other miscellaneous animal parts that many of us consume.

The most likely result of cultured meat is not more diversity in proteins, but considerably less.

The Italian answer

Just as the giant meatball made its debut, the Italian government stepped in ban lab-grown meat, citing health and the nation’s food legacy. According to ministers, synthetic food would undermine Italian food traditions and threaten mortadella, pancetta and guanciale.

Coldiretti, an Italian farmers’ organization that supported the ban, added that the measure would protect agriculture from “the attacks of multinational companies”.

Read more: Ultra-processed foods wreak havoc on our health – and the planet

Italy’s Proposed Ban Is Branded “anti-innovation” and a setback for animal rightsbut they are right to be careful about the disruption that lab-grown meat could cause.

The history of GMOs has also shown how turning food into a technology has not only made products less diverse, but also consolidated corporate control over the food supply. Even if lab-grown meat is shown to be physiologically safe, we must conclude that it is also economically, politically and culturally safe.

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