Yesterday I wrote about the latest development in food technology, the advent of synthetic meat. My general view is that it is good news, though too far from practical application to make any difference right now. But I am aware that I’m an optimist and my views aren’t necessarily shared.
In one more extreme example, Joanna Blythman damns “frankenburgers” as “a poor imitation of meat” in the Daily Mail. “Every feature of it is bogus”. She goes on to predict it will be tough and tasteless, and questions its nutritional properties. She says the arguments for it are Malthusian and misguided, and that it will “probably turn out to be another cynical, profit-driven piece of marketing.”
Most reports were more balanced, but it’s interesting to see how a news item can yield such divergence of opinion. I thought it might be worth pausing on reflect on perspective, because there are at least two different approaches to a new technological development like this one.
The first is to measure the distance between The New Thing and the ideal we have in our head, and take our guidance from there. So in this case, the ideal is that everybody eats a balanced diet and enjoys organic and local grass-fed beef on special occasions. The gap between this vision and pressed patties of lab-grown meat cells is indeed capacious.
The other way to look at it is to look at what we have today, and see how The New Thing compares. The current global beef industry is huge and distant, mass producing feedlot cattle so cheaply that beef can be used in catfood. Against a backdrop of high ecological footprints and low animal welfare, cultured beef looks like an ethical no-brainer.
So where’s the balance? I think there are a number of questions to ask when considering a new breakthrough technology, whatever it might be. Here are some of them, and there are plenty of others:
- Who will control this technology? Who is served? Who is empowered and who is dis-empowered?
- No technology is neutral. What’s the trade-off? What freedoms are gained and what is surrendered in return?
- Will this new technology make things simpler or more complicated?
- Will there be more or less violence, in the full sense of environmental and social damage?
- What forces of ‘creative destruction’ will this trigger? Ie which businesses will be negatively affected, where will jobs be lost?
- Will I be able to choose differently for myself, according to my conscience, or is the application of the technology out of my hands?