SXSW Eco Biotechnology

Biotechnology: A Taste of the Future

What exploits a third of the Earth’s land area, sucks up 8 percent of the fresh water supply, and is responsible for 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions?  Here’s a hint – it’s probably for dinner.

Addressing her audience during Day 2 of SXSW Eco, New Harvest CEO Isha Datar discussed the past, present, and future of commercial meat and dairy production.  Dispelling the fantasy that animal products are still produced on idyllic farms, Datar pulled the curtain on many of the ethical and logistical problems currently facing animal agriculture.  A ravenous consumer of already limited resources, Datar called the current animal agriculture model an “extremely inefficient way to be using our land.”

Beyond employing immense amounts of surface area, the fallout from mass production of animal products includes hypereutrophic waterways, increased prevalence of disease, and innumerable questions regarding agricultural ethics.  Bringing the issues home, Datar described the ways in which the animal industry could affect our future.  “Eighty percent of all antibiotics are given to animals, not humans,” says Datar. “We’re using them in prophylactic, preventative ways.”  As Datar explained, this can lead to a myriad of risks for people, including the mutation and resistance of various pathogens.  But while she suggested the consumption of red meat in the United States has leveled off, Datar cautioned her audience that the global demand for animal products continues to rise.  In the face of an issue with such a tremendous impact, complacency is simply not an option.

New Harvest, a nonprofit research and development organization, seeks to eliminate the animal in animal products.  Through advances in cellular agriculture, New Harvest desires to find ways to engineer our foods in ways we might never have thought possible.  The technology researched by Datar and her team quite literally enables biologists to “farm” meat.  Starting with a small tissue sample, New Harvest is able to propagate real, living cells that are safe for human consumption and drastically reduce the amount of resources required to rear livestock.

Speaking on the history of biotechnology as an industry, Datar said that “biotech began with food.”  Datar cited the cultivation of modern corn from teosinte, a wild species of plant belonging to the grass family. “Biotechnology opens up this whole world of food we didn’t have before.”  While not nearly as sophisticated as the methods in use today, crossbreeding and artificial selection have allowed for food production tailored to the demands of society.  Coupled with commercial meat production, the agricultural industry has managed to keep up with the world’s increasing demand for protein.  Yet such practices as far from sustainable.  Datar says that just as the environmental movement has swept the energy industry, so too must it extend its reach to the production of food.  “Before, a lot of our energy came from coal … from that, we came to think ‘what are our other sources of energy?’”  Datar believes it is time to re-engineer the future of food.

Meat/Culture from Derek Lau on Vimeo.

As for the current costs of such technology?  At first, it might seem tough to swallow.  “It cost $300,000 to make that hamburger,” said Datar, referring to a hamburger produced and taste-tested by New Harvest in 2013.  “But how much did the first computer cost?”  Datar is confident that as production moves out of the lab and scales itself to accommodate mass production, we can expect to see vast reductions in the cost to produce.  Meanwhile, animal-free meat and dairy remains a thing of the future.

Yet when faced with reworking age-old methodologies, the future is a blank canvas.  Today, engagement within the movement toward sustainability can make all the difference when prioritizing which issues to address.  According to Datar?  “I think that animal agriculture should be at the top of the list.”

Check out New Harvest’s website for more information about post-animal economics, biotechnology, and the future of feeding our planet.


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