Lab-Grown Food: Ecological Savior or Empty Promise?

In a Guardian article entitled Lab-grown food will soon destroy farming – and save the planet, George Monbiot expresses his wonderment inspired by a visit to a lab in Helsinki, Finland, where he witnessed a churning yellow froth of soil bacteria powered by hydrogen extracted from water to produce flour. Monbiot claims that, “We are on the cusp of the biggest economic transformation of any kind for 200 years.” The process, known as ferming, brews bacteria to produce proteins, starches and fats. Monbiot predicts that ferming will solve the ills of our industrial food system and “create astonishing possibilities to save both planet and people.” 

When I worked with the late John Mohawk, a Seneca elder and professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, he told me that Indigenous people work with magic while Western reductionist science produces miracles. He defined magic as the incredible workings and wisdom of Nature and miracles as the inventions of human ingenuity. Human ingenuity can be amazing, but at times, works against or discounts Nature. The costs of the kind of miracles that exploit instead of work with nature, increasingly outweigh the benefits in human and environmental terms. I’m skeptical of the promises that come with those technologies that manipulate Nature to perform like a machine. 

Doniga Markegard of Markegard Grass Fed raises cattle on 10,000 acres on multiple ranches north and south of San Francisco using holistic management practices. She is healing ecosystems, restoring native plants, sequestering carbon and increasing biodiversity while producing healthy food. Markegard accomplishes all this by mimicking the natural patterns of the elk herds that created the fertility in the first place. Should she trade in her cowgirl hat for a lab coat and her coastal prairie for a collagen scaffold (used to engineer “meat” in the lab)?

A question rarely asked in the miracle worker’s quest for novelty is, “What are the unintended consequences?” In holistic management, in the design stage, one is compelled to explore what can go wrong and make sure that the system can accommodate course corrections.

Monbiot seems irrationally enthusiastic about the silver bullet fix that he assumes will result in the greatest opportunity for environmental restoration in human history.” Frankly, I don’t see examples of reductionist science leading to such optimistic results. Quite the contrary, the technocratic vision of viewing life in mechanistic terms has led to many of the environmental crises that seem so intractable. 

In fact, the very problems that Monbiot accurately denounces the current agricultural system as a contributor to – topsoil erosion, air pollution, water pollution, loss of biodiversity, inhumane treatment of animals and climate change – are a result of industrializing the way food is produced rather than designing the farm as a living organism embedded in and in concert with nature.

Regenerative agriculture, of which holistic management is one component, offers a real solution to addressing our climate and environmental crises while producing food by partnering with nature as opposed to lab-food, which is one more way to exploit nature. Cultivating food-producing bacteria in a lab is the same exploitive paradigm as factory farms and concentrated animal feeding operations, except in this case the life forms are microscopic.

No doubt, it takes an impressive amount of scientific ingenuity to harness microbes to produce food for humans. But the real brilliance lies in the wisdom and skill of the soil bacteria that have evolved over millennia in a community of biological cooperation with other microorganisms.  

I wonder what Rudolf Steiner would think of the life force and vitality of food produced in a lab? Steiner developed biodynamic farming, which has at its essence the harmonizing of celestial and terrestrial forces that are carried through properly grown food in a healthy environment to nourish not only the body, but the spirit as well. In the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan wrote, “The way we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world. Daily, our eating turns nature into culture, transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds.” How can food produced in a lab measure up to those standards?

I have no doubt that if there is money to be made, food produced in a lab will come to the marketplace whether it fixes a problem or not; perhaps there is an application for such stuff that serves humanity, but I’m not planning to make room for it on my plate. My optimism is based on the promise of soil microbes continuing to do their magic in the soil where their brilliance evolved rather than perform miracles isolated in the lab. 

The real promise lies not in a technocratic vision of farm-free food, but in a transformation to an agricultural system that enhances life and produces nutrient-dense food. Regenerative agriculture starts with the idea that the soil is the basis for life and that rebalancing carbon – the building block of life – will create the platform for nature’s wisdom to continue to evolve in life enhancing ways.

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