by Stephen Leckie
Whatever your viewpoint on biotechnology, no one can deny it has the power to completely transform agriculture in ways never thought possible. Scientists have already mapped all the genes for yeast and this year they will crack the code for the multi-celled ringworm. By 2005, the Human Genome Project will have mapped the entire genetic code for humans. The day is soon coming when we will know the architecture for all commonly eaten plants and animals.
With any revolution of this magnitude there are inherent dangers. Rogue new organisms may escape into the environment with unpredictable and potentially disastrous consequences. Look what has happened since zebra mussels and purple loosestrife invaded Canada from Europe. Pesticide companies are creating plants resistant to stronger pesticides. People may develop food allergies to new proteins. We obviously need strict regulations and much more public knowledge and input. We need to fight for careful and safe experimental methods and longer timelines to better analyze all the variables. But should we fight to stop everything?
I'm not going to put all my eggplants in one basket
A look into the future reveals some tantalizing new organisms that could
render the vegetarian movement obsolete. Development of novel genetically engineered
crops may lead to the creation of new realistic meat, dairy and egg analogs
optimized for human nutrition. How about a plant that grows a pod with an egg-like
filling or an altered coconut with dairy-like milk ideal for making cheese,
or new ingredients for textured vegetable protein that can be combined to make
a much more realistic meat analog. Scientists may even find a way to make a
plant that produces a large nut with a meat-like interior surrounding a long
seed that mimics a bone. Perhaps future Canadians will be cracking open 'chicken
legs'. The will is there; the Japanese have already crossbred a mushroom that
apparently tastes like steak. Such plant 'meats' and plant 'animal products'
would be much more efficient to produce and therefore cheaper.
Scary? Maybe, but just think of the monumental scale of such a change in agriculture. The unseen terror faced by millions of animals subject to confinement while awaiting slaughter would disappear. There would be a huge reduction in the amount of farmland needed as feed crops to fatten inefficient farm animals. And the new plant 'meats' could be better optimized for nutrition raising the overall health of all Canadians. Overnight we may become a nation of vegans. Now that is a revolution!
Don't get me wrong: a biotech future is certainly not my first choice - I would much rather that everyone became a true vegetarian eating only organic foods. I am committed to working on that kind of future but at the same time I'm not going to put all my eggplants in one basket. If there emerges a silver vegetarian lining to the biotechnology revolution then it may be worth watching with an intent to steer it toward an outcome that is best for the planet and our health.