Problems and Solutions

As a reaction to the industrialization of agriculture, particularly the disproportionate land use for livestock, there is growing interest in plant-based meat alternatives. However, even these innovations may have unforeseen consequences, such as deforestation due to increased soy demand. Scientific advancements often solve problems while simultaneously creating new ones, challenging ethical norms and leading to continuous cycles of innovation and adaptation.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari made the somewhat controversial statement that human beings have been domesticated by wheat. While this might be hard for us to swallow, given our anthropocentric sense of self-importance, the argument itself is hard to dismiss. After all, it was not long after we learnt to farm wheat, that the entire species pretty much gave up the hunter-gatherer life it was physiologically suited to — for the much harder farmer’s life.

Agricultural Innovation

Agriculture not only altered human existence, it transformed the planet. Having learned to create stable, easily accessible sources of food, human beings gave up their nomadic way of life so that they could sit in one place and farm. But as small towns grew into cities, the demands of providing enough food for burgeoning human populations far exceeded the capacity of the land to sustain it.

This is where science stepped in. Through a series of innovations: the Haber-Bosch process - that allowed us to artificially enrich the soil using nitrogen-based fertilise; agricultural automation - as a result of which large machines could do the work of many men; and genetic engineering - that improved crops yields by making them resistant to pests and disease - we managed to extract more out of the land than was previously possible.

And yet every science-driven improvement in agriculture came at a price. Take fertilisers for example. While our ability to artificially infuse nitrogen into the soil improved yields to the point where it helped stave off a global hunger crisis, today this has resulted in more artificial nitrogen being used in farming than the plants we grow have the ability to absorb. As a result nitrogen is washing off the soil, entering our waterways and eventually rising up into the atmosphere in the form of nitrous oxide that destroys the ozone layer and contributes to the greenhouse effect. In a similar vein, even though genetic engineering has significantly improved plant yields, concerns remain around the allergic reactions these modifications cause, the toxins they produce and the reduced nutritional value of GMO foods.

The Cost of Feeding the Planet

The enormous demands of feeding 8 billion people has transformed agriculture into an industrial activity. 50% of the worlds habitable land area is now farmland - but if we combine the pastures used for grazing with land used to grow crops for animal feed, livestock accounts for as much as 77% of global farming land. Given that only 18% of global calorie supply and 37% of global protein supply comes from meat and dairy, this disproportionate land utilisation is highly questionable.

All this has lead, in recent times, to increased interest in developing plant-based alternatives to meat. In a previous article I wrote about how these technologies have advanced to the point where they not only have the nutritional equivalent of animal meat but also the taste and mouth feel.

To the naked eye, it was impossible to tell them apart, and when I first bit in, there was literally no difference in terms of mouth-feel, texture or taste. Given all that I had read, I knew I was not going to be served some bland, meat flavoured tofu, but even so, I was pleasantly surprised by how authentic it felt. As I made my way through the burgers, I began to pick up a few subtle differences: just the tiniest hint of a stronger Maillard reaction on one over the other that made the caramelisation on the burnt ends just a tad more authentic.

It goes without saying that if these plant based alternatives will enable us to wean ourselves off our current dependence on animal meat we will be able to address the inefficiencies, disproportionate land use as well as ethical cruelties implicit in the animal farming industry.

But even this next scientific evolution in agriculture is not likely to take place without serious consequence. While the leading companies in the space have claimed that their products offer significant environmental benefits over the meat they seek to substitute, skeptics argue that we will only know for sure once these products become mainstream. One of their concerns is around soy — a plant that most artificial meats depend on for their flavour. Increased interest in meat substitutes has lead to such a surge in the demand for soybean that it has already begun to cause deforestation and displacement around the globe - consequences that will only increase as plant-based meats are more widely consumed.

New Problems

Science has made it possible for mankind to overcome many of the challenges we faced as a species. Had we not industrialised our agricultural processes we would not have been able to avoid the threat of global hunger - but the consequences of that industrialisation are evident for all to see today. Most technological innovations that made our life better, also made it worse in new and different ways - to the point where, the problems that science is solving for us today were largely caused by technology in the first place.

Current research at the bleeding edge of science is evidence of this - in ways that will seem disturbing to many. For instance there is work underway right now on how to ease the process of death - research that is only relevant because we now live twice as long as we used to and the very notion of ageing is so terrifying that many are keen to avoid it. The science of ectogenesis - the process of bringing babies to term in a plastic bag where they can be monitored in ways impossible within a mother’s body - is only relevant because medical knowledge has advanced to the point where we know just how risky gestation of an embryo within the human body can be. ((For a much deeper discussion on issues at the bleeding edge of technology I cannot recommend highly enough Jenny Kleeman’s excellent book about whats happening at the frontiers of science - Sex Robots & Vegan Meat.))

If these areas of research seem disturbing, it is only because scientific progress always challenges our notions of what is right - right upto the point when their benefits are acknowledged widely enough to be ethically and legally acceptable. Which, itself will last until the problems that these new technologies will inevitably throw up have to be solved by yet another new and morally disturbing scientific advancement.