Biotechnology is still a scary word in some environmental circles, but there is quiet revolution going at the moment that may well change the connotations that the word conjures up. It’s coming of age and being applied in a whole variety of new ways. In previous posts I’ve mentioned meat without animals, milk without cows, synthetic eggs, and spider-free silk.
Not so long ago, it would have taken huge investment capital and a large team of scientists to create something like this – the ‘big biotech’ that gets people worried. Increasingly, these sorts of ideas are coming out of cellular agriculture and bio-fabrication start-ups, in some cases with just two or three people straight out of university.
Here’s another to add to that list. Modern Meadow have broken down the essential elements of leather, identified the genes to make it, and placed those genes into single celled organisms. These cells create collagen, which is grown into strands and then processed to make animal hide. Once tanned, it isn’t a new and improved artificial leather – it is leather, with all its durable, breathable properties.
Modern Meadow’s leather is just as versatile as anyone else’s, ready to make shoes or bags, or sofas I can’t afford, but it comes with all sorts of advantages. No animals were industrially farmed and then killed to make it, so it’s a win for animal welfare. When skins are cut from animals, they are naturally animal-shaped. Cutting leather into usable shapes leaves a lot of waste. None of that here.
Normally the tanning process begins with stripping the hair and fat off the skin, which uses a lot of chemicals and water. Modern Meadow skips all of that and just grows the good stuff, making its tanning process much more environmentally friendly. It’s better for people too, as a lot of leather is produced in developing countries, often with little regard for the health and safety of workers or nearby communities.
There’s a reason why we still have a market for leather, even with all our modern alternatives. It’s a great material. And of course it is – animal hide is the result of millions of years of tweaking and refining. With some smart applied science, we can borrow all that learning and build on it. Given how long the original leather took to get right, I’m happy to wait a few more years for Modern Meadow to get theirs right too.