Singapore has approved the sale of a lab-grown meat product in an effort to secure its food supplies against disease and climate change.
Singapore faces a problem. The city-state currently imports the bulk of its food from overseas, producing only 10 percent domestically. This state of affairs leaves Singapore in a vulnerable position. An outbreak of disease, for example, could have outsized consequences on the country's food supply. So could the souring of fruitful political or economic partnerships. Looking into the future, climate change and population growth could see today's trade-friendly ports shuttered with closed signs as global food supplies become more tenuous.
In light of this reality, Singaporean leaders are doing something drastic and unprecedented for a world government—they're planning ahead.
Under the "30-by-30" Plan, Singapore aims to produce 30 percent of its food by the year 2030. But unlike the dominant food-producing countries—China, India, the U.S., and Brazil—this tiny island nation lacks the acreage to dedicate to traditional agriculture, so they've turned to modern technology. To produce more with less, the Singapore Food Agency is experimenting with rooftop gardens, high-rise hydroponic farms, and high-yield genetic crops.
Singapore is also looking at lab-grown meat as a sustainable, secure alternative to today's factory farming. In a recent step toward that future, its officials have given regulatory approval to sell lab-grown meat.
Approve for your dining pleasure
Eat Just, a company that produces animal-alternative food products, announced the news earlier this week. In what the company is calling a world first, Singapore has given it permission for a small-scale commercial launch of their GOOD Meat brand product line. For the initial run, the cultured chicken meat will be sold as an ingredient in "chicken bites."
"Singapore has long been a leader in innovation of all kinds, from information technology to biologics to now leading the world in building a healthier, safer food system. I'm sure that our regulatory approval for cultured meat will be the first of many in Singapore and in countries around the globe," Josh Tetrick, co-founder and CEO of Eat Just, said in a release.
According to the release, Eat Just underwent an extensive safety review by the Singapore Food Agency. It provided officials "details on the purity, identity and stability of chicken cells during the manufacturing process, as well as a detailed description of the manufacturing process which demonstrated that harvested cultured chicken met quality controls and a rigorous food safety monitoring system." It also demonstrated the consistency of its production by running more than 20 cycles in its 1,200-liter bioreactors.
While Eat Just did not offer details on its propriety process, it likely follows one similar to other lab-grown meats. It starts with muscle cell samples drawn from a living animal. Technicians then isolate stem cells from the sample and culture them in vitro. These cultured stem cells are then placed in a bioreactor, essentially a fermenter for fleshy cells. The bioreactor contains scaffolding materials to keep the growing tissue from falling apart as well as a growth material—the sugars, salts, and other nutrients the tissue needs to grow. As the cells grow, they begin to differentiate into the muscle, fat, and other cells of meat tissue. Once grown, the tissues are formed into a meat product to be shipped to restaurants and supermarkets.
An abattoir abatement?
A graph showing the number of animals slaughtered in the United States per year from 1961–2018.
Credit: Our World in Data
Singapore's approval is an important step in support for clean meats—so-called because they don't require animal slaughter and would likely leave a reduced carbon footprint—but hurdles remain before widespread adoption is possible.
The most glaring is the price. The first lab-grown hamburger was eaten in London in 2013. It cost roughly $330,000. As with any new technology, investment, iteration, and improved manufacturing will see the price drop substantially and quickly. For comparison, Eat Just's chicken will be priced equivalent to premium chicken.
Other hurdles include up-scaling production, the need for further research, and developing techniques to reliably produce in-demand meats such as fish and beef. Finally, not all countries may be as receptive as Singapore. Countries with large, entrenched meat industries may protect this legacy industry through a protracted and difficult regulatory process. Though, the meat industry itself is investing in lab-grown meat. Tyson Foods, for example, has invested in the food-tech startup Memphis Meats, the company that debuted the world's first beef meatball.
"I would imagine what will happen is the U.S., Western Europe and others will see what Singapore has been able to do, the rigours of the framework that they put together. And I would imagine that they will try to use it as a template to put their own framework together," Tetrick told Reuter's during an interview.
Regardless of the challenges, the demand for meat substitutes is present and growing. In 2020, plant-based substitutes like Beyond Meat and Impossible foods gained a significant foothold in supermarkets as meat-packing factories became coronavirus hotspots. The looming threat of climate change has also turned people away from meat as animal products. Livestock production is environmentally taxing and leaves a much larger carbon footprint than grain and vegetable production.
Then there's the moral concern of animal cruelty. In 2018 alone, 302 million cows, 656 million turkeys, 1.48 billion pigs, and a gob-smacking 68 billion chickens were slaughtered for meat worldwide. And those figures do not include chickens killed in dairy or egg production.
If brought to scale and widely available, clean meats could become serious competitors to traditional meat. One report has even predicted that 60 percent of the meat people eat by 2040 won't come from slaughtered animals. It could be just the thing for people looking for a meat substitute but who find tofurkey as distasteful as, well tofurkey.
An overfished planet needs a better solution. Fortunately, it's coming.
- Cell-based fish companies are getting funding and making progress in offering a new wave of seafood.
- Overfishing and rising ocean temperatures are destroying entire ecosystems.
- The reality of cell-based fish is likely five to 10 years away.
The world does not have infinite resources. Yet as humans have exploded in population, from 1 billion in 1804 to nearly 8 billion today, we've treated the planet as our perpetual garden, leading to numerous problems, including overfishing. Over one-third of fisheries worldwide are pushed beyond their limits. Tragically, we continue to decimate populations year after year.
If we remain at the current pace, in a few decades all we'll have left to eat is jellyfish—yet another consequence of climate change. Sure, some of the 200 species are edible, though there's a reason you don't see shortages of jellyfish poke. We need to be proactive and limit trawling and other environmentally damaging practices. We also need to innovate, as a few companies are doing.
Enter lab-grown fish.
Some recoil at the mere mention, yet that's what innovation entails. We've gotten ourselves into this problem through technology—giant ships that drudge up entire ecosystems in a matter of hours—and technology might just help keep one of the most nutritious food sources on the planet in our diet. In the last half-century, oceanic "dead zones" have quadrupled due to human intervention. That practice cannot last.
While in countries like America, fish are a healthy option but not a necessity, many other countries rely on seafood as a main staple in their diet—according to the UN, 3.2 billion people. Beyond trawlers, warming ocean temperatures are destroying fish populations. This trend isn't only destroying diets but entire economies as well.
Future of Food: This genetically engineered salmon may hit U.S. markets as early as 2020
While cell-based beef is getting all the press, companies like BlueNalu recently raised $24.5 million in funding. The San Diego-based start-up extracts muscle cells from an anesthetized fish, treats the cells with enzymes in a culture, places the mixture in a nutrient solution in a bioreactor, spins it all around in a centrifuge, and finally 3D-prints the new concoction into the desired shape.
The goal isn't to perfectly replicate a fish that you'd find on ice in your local market. No brain, skin, organs, or even possibility of consciousness are in this creature. In a strange twist, this makes cell-based seafood a potential food source for vegetarians and vegans, since the Adam fish can be returned to the waters unharmed.
One current solution to overfishing—fish farms—comes with it a host of problems, including the proliferation of sea lice, which have a tendency to escape the porous boundaries to infect wild fish. Bonus: with cell-based fish, you won't run into any issues with mercury or microplastics.
What you'll (hopefully) purchase is a good-tasting product, which has thus far been elusive. BlueNalu CEO, Lou Cooperhouse, is confident his company's product will eventually meet standards set by your taste buds.
"Our medallions of yellowtail can be cooked via direct heat, steamed or even fried in oil; can be marinated in an acidified solution for applications like poke, ceviche, and kimchi, or can be prepared in the raw state."
Photo: aleksandr / Shutterstock
There are barriers, of course. As with pluripotent meats, cell-based fish are expensive. A spicy salmon roll produced by the start-up, Wildtype, cost $200 to make. It's going to take a while for the price to drop and consumer demand to rise; estimates are five to ten years.
Another issue is indicative of solar power and wind energy trying to cut in on Big Oil: the seafood industry doesn't want to lose its profit margin. Of course, like oil companies, Big Seafood is betting on a finite resource. The sooner they realize that, the better.
Then there's production, which is where education comes into play. Former BlueNalu Chairman Chris Somogyi tries to demystify the laboratory process.
"We aren't using CRISPR technology. We aren't introducing new molecules into the diet. We're not introducing a new entity that doesn't exist in nature. The approval will be about whether this is safe, clean and are the manufacturing processes reliable and accountable."
If there's an ick factor to cell-based fish, remember that most processed foods are already created in laboratories. There are no Oreo trees or ketchup plants to harvest.
For now, these start-ups and others like them will have to figure out how to create non-energy-intensive and cost-prohibitive solutions for spinning up seafood inside of a petri dish. Novelty alone will create enough demand to get them going, as precedent in the lab-grown meat industry shows.
The reality is that we need to go down this path. There are too many humans and not enough resources. While we can hope (as David Attenborough does in his new Netflix documentary) that national governments will create more no-fish zones, there's no guarantee that will happen. We need science to win this one.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His new book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
Living simply now strikes many people as simply boring.
And it still has plenty of adherents. Magazines such as Real Simple call out to us from the supermarket checkout; Oprah Winfrey regularly interviews fans of simple living such as Jack Kornfield, a teacher of Buddhist mindfulness; the Slow Movement, which advocates a return to pre-industrial basics, attracts followers across continents.
Through much of human history, frugal simplicity was not a choice but a necessity – and since necessary, it was also deemed a moral virtue. But with the advent of industrial capitalism and a consumer society, a system arose that was committed to relentless growth, and with it grew a population (aka 'the market') that was enabled and encouraged to buy lots of stuff that, by traditional standards, was surplus to requirements. As a result, there's a disconnect between the traditional values we have inherited and the consumerist imperatives instilled in us by contemporary culture.
In pre-modern times, the discrepancy between what the philosophers advised and how people lived was not so great. Wealth provided security, but even for the rich wealth was flimsy protection against misfortunes such as war, famine, disease, injustice and the disfavour of tyrants. The Stoic philosopher Seneca, one of the richest men in Rome, still ended up being sentenced to death by Nero. As for the vast majority – slaves, serfs, peasants and labourers – there was virtually no prospect of accumulating even modest wealth.
Before the advent of machine-based agriculture, representative democracy, civil rights, antibiotics and aspirin, just making it through a long life without too much suffering counted as doing pretty well. Today, though, at least in prosperous societies, people want and expect (and can usually have) a good deal more. Living simply now strikes many people as simply boring.
Yet there seems to be growing interest, especially among millennials, in rediscovering the benefits of simple living. Some of this might reflect a kind of nostalgia for the pre-industrial or pre-consumerist world, and also sympathy for the moral argument that says that living in a simple manner makes you a better person, by building desirable traits such as frugality, resilience and independence – or a happier person, by promoting peace of mind and good health, and keeping you close to nature.
These are plausible arguments. Yet in spite of the official respect their teachings command, the sages have proved remarkably unpersuasive. Millions of us continue to rush around getting and spending, buying lottery tickets, working long hours, racking up debt, and striving 24/7 to climb the greasy pole. Why is this?
One obvious answer is good old-fashioned hypocrisy. We applaud the frugal philosophy while ignoring its precepts in our day-to-day lives. We praise the simple lifestyle of, say, Pope Francis, seeing it as a sign of his moral integrity, while also hoping for and cheering on economic growth driven, in large part, by a demand for bigger houses, fancier cars and other luxury goods.
But the problem isn't just that our practice conflicts with our professed beliefs. Our thinking about simplicity and luxury, frugality and extravagance, is fundamentally inconsistent. We condemn extravagance that is wasteful or tasteless and yet we tout monuments of past extravagance, such as the Forbidden City in Beijing or the palace at Versailles, as highly admirable. The truth is that much of what we call 'culture' is fuelled by forms of extravagance.
Somewhat paradoxically, then, the case for living simply was most persuasive when most people had little choice but to live that way. The traditional arguments for simple living in effect rationalise a necessity. But the same arguments have less purchase when the life of frugal simplicity is a choice, one way of living among many. Then the philosophy of frugality becomes a hard sell.
That might be about to change, under the influence of two factors: economics and environmentalism. When recession strikes, as it has done recently (revealing inherent instabilities in an economic system committed to unending growth) millions of people suddenly find themselves in circumstances where frugality once again becomes a necessity, and the value of its associated virtues is rediscovered.
In societies such as the United States, we are currently witnessing a tendency for capitalism to stretch the distance between the 'have lots' and the 'have nots'. These growing inequalities invite a fresh critique of extravagance and waste. When so many people live below the poverty line, there is something unseemly about in-your-face displays of opulence and luxury. Moreover, the lopsided distribution of wealth also represents a lost opportunity. According to Epicurus and the other sages of simplicity, one can live perfectly well, provided certain basic needs are satisfied – a view endorsed in modern times by the psychologist Abraham Maslow's 'hierarchy of needs'. If correct, it's an argument for using surplus wealth to ensure that everyone has basics such as food, housing, healthcare, education, utilities and public transport – at low cost, rather than allowing it to be funnelled into a few private pockets.
However wise the sages, it would not have occurred to Socrates or Epicurus to argue for the simple life in terms of environmentalism. Two centuries of industrialisation, population growth and frenzied economic activity has bequeathed us smog; polluted lakes, rivers and oceans; toxic waste; soil erosion; deforestation; extinction of plant and animal species, and global warming. The philosophy of frugal simplicity expresses values and advocates a lifestyle that might be our best hope for reversing these trends and preserving our planet's fragile ecosystems.
Many people are still unconvinced by this. But if our current methods of making, getting, spending and discarding prove unsustainable, then there could come a time – and it might come quite soon – when we are forced towards simplicity. In which case, a venerable tradition will turn out to contain the philosophy of the future.
The Wisdom of Frugality (2016) by Emrys Westacott is published via Princeton University Press.
Study finds that a colony's exposure to pesticides impairs offspring.
- Pesticide contamination in bee hives damages the learning capabilities of offspring, according to a recently published study.
- A key area of the affected bees' brains never correctly develops after pesticide exposure.
- Early impairment appears to be irreversible and is likely a factor in falling bee populations.
According to the U.S Department of Agriculture, some 35% of our food crops depend on bee pollination. That means about one of out every three bites of food comes to us courtesy of insects including bees, butterflies, and beetles, or from birds and bats. With the world's pollinator populations in a snowballing state of decline, scientists are racing to discover what's causing this and how it can be stopped. In the case of bees, pesticides — especially neonicotinoids — are the leading suspect, and studies find these chemicals infiltrating a significant percentage of bee hives. (Pesticides also show up in our own food and drink.)
Research prior focused on the damaging effects these neurotoxins have on adult bees. Now a study of young bee brains, led by Richard Gill of Imperial College in London and published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, shows that neonicotinoids do disastrous, irreversible damage to bees' neurological development.
The study involved introducing neonicotinoids to the nectar consumed by members of 22 Bombus terrestris audax (buff-tailed honeybee) colonies. The learning abilities of their offspring were then measured against a control group of young bees from colonies whose food supply had not been contaminated.
The test assessed the extent to which a bee could learn to associate a specific smell with a reward, which was a sucrose solution. The bees from the neonicotinoid colony consistently fared more poorly than the control population.
Image source: Mr. Meijer/Shutterstock
Tiny computed micrography (CT) scans
In hopes of identifying a structural explanation, the researchers stained the brain cells of 100 bees from the exposed colonies and took non-invasive micro-CT scans in a machine similar — albeit smaller — to those in which humans are medically imaged.
The researchers discovered a clear difference in brains of the young bees from pesticide-exposed colonies. A key brain area, the mushroom body, was found to be much smaller in these bees' brains than it was in those from control colonies. This makes sense, since this region is believed to be involved in olfactory learning and memory.
The tests and scans were performed three days after pupal hatching and again after 12 days. The substandard learning capabilities and mushroom body sizes had not been resolved by the second test, indicating to the researchers that the damage caused by the neonicotinoids was irreversible.
(A honeybee's life expectancy depends on its role. Drones live roughly 8 weeks, while sterile workers live for about 6 weeks in the summer or 5 months in the winter. A queen can live for a few years.)
Several views of the mushroom body
Image source: Gill, et al
Why this matters
The study's conclusion does not say definitively that the mushroom area is the only brain region impacted by pesticides. However, a smaller mushroom area is significant, explaining, as it does, the mechanism by which a bee's learning abilities and behavior may be impaired over the course of its life.
Gill says in a press release, "Worryingly in this case, when young bees are fed on pesticide-contaminated food, this caused parts of the brain to grow less, leading to older adult bees possessing smaller and functionally impaired brains; an effect that appeared to be permanent and irreversible."
In fact, after the young bees were returned to their colonies, researchers saw lower-than-expected colony growth two to three weeks after the subjects' reintroduction.
"If future generations of workers are predisposed to be inefficient functioning cohorts, this could lead to a density-dependent build-up of colony-level impairment increasing the risk of colony collapse." — Gill, et al
Illustration of *Bombus terrestris audax*
Image source: Duda Vasilii/Shutterstock
And then there’s the adult bees
In addition to the problems caused by the behavior of bees hatched with pesticide damage, it's not as if pesticide exposure necessarily abates later on. As lead author of the study Dylan Smith explains, "There has been growing evidence that pesticides can build up inside bee colonies. Our study reveals the risks to individuals being reared in such an environment, and that a colony's future workforce can be affected weeks after they are first exposed."
The study concludes that simply looking at the damaging effect of pesticide on adult bee population misses a significant, and more far-reaching, part of the story:
"Bees' direct exposure to pesticides through residues on flowers should not be the only consideration when determining potential harm to the colony. The amount of pesticide residue present inside colonies following exposure appears to be an important measure for assessing the impact on a colony's health in the future. " — Gill, et al
Audio recordings reveal cows have unique voices and share emotions with each other.
- New audio recordings of cows reveal rich communication and unique individual voices.
- Cows do more than vocalize to their calves — they share emotions with each other.
- A better understanding of what cows are saying and feeling can help in the formulation of humane cattle-care standards.
Previous research has demonstrated that mother cows recognize and respond to the voices of their own offspring. Their calves, too, know their moms' voices. A new study from the University of Sydney, however, reveals bovine communication goes far beyond mother and child. Each cow has a unique voice and "talks" with — sorry — her "cowlleagues" all the time, expressing a range of emotions about a variety of farmyard experiences.
The herd is heard
Image source: The Feed
Alexandra Green, a PhD student, is lead author of the study published in Scientific Reports. For her research, she recorded 333 vocalizations of 13 Holstein-Friesian heifers. She tells University of Sydney News, "We hope that through gaining knowledge of these vocalizations, farmers will be able to tune into the emotional state of their cattle, improving animal welfare."
"This study shows that cattle vocal individuality of high-frequency calls is stable across different emotionally loaded farming contexts. Individual distinctiveness is likely to attract social support from conspecifics, and knowledge of these individuality cues could assist farmers in detecting individual cattle for welfare or production purposes." — Green, et al
The study's recordings were captured across five months at an Australian farm. They were captured by Green during cows' estrus, during feed anticipation — a presumably happy moment — and during feed frustration as cattle were denied expected food. Vocalizations were also recorded when these social animals were individually isolated from their herd.
Audio analysis of a moo: Yellow arrow shows blue indicator of voices' fundamental pitch. Red arrow is where cow begins to close her mouth post-moo.
Image source: The Feed
Green traveled to Saint-Etienne, France, where she worked with co-authors psychologist David Reby and bioacoustician and animal behaviorist Livio Favaro. Together, they analyzed her field recordings using Praat phonetics software, which produced visual representations of the audio, including an indicator of each voice's fundamental pitch.
These analyses proved the uniqueness of each cow's voice. For cattle farmer Neville Catt, on whose grounds the research was conducted, there's no doubt who he's hearing when a cow begins vocalizing. "Not only do I talk to cattle, I think they talk to me," he says. One of the new insights Green's study contributes is that the sound of each heifer's voice is not limited to specific circumstances like parenting, but in fact remains constant for life. Says Green, "We found that cattle vocal individuality is relatively stable across different emotionally loaded farming contexts."
"Cows are gregarious, social animals," says Green. "In one sense it isn't surprising they assert their individual identity throughout their life and not just during mother-calf imprinting. But this is the first time we have been able to analyze voice to have conclusive evidence of this trait."
Getting to know Catt’s cows
In terms of the mechanics, says Green, cows produce calls in either of two ways. For up-close, quieter communication, their mouths remain closed, with the sound coming through their nasal passages as an "mmmmmmmm." To call out to other cows not nearby, however, they pump up the volume by opening their mouths as they vocalize.
In the end, "They've all got their very distinct personalities You've got your chatty cows, you've got your shy cows. I've got one girl who won't shut up," Green says.
Green plans to incorporate the research into her doctorate that proposes utilizing her findings in dairy-farm welfare assessments. On a personal level, she hopes one day to feel qualified as a genuine "cow whisperer" specializing in — her word here — "cowmoonication."