Friday, June 02, 2006

Printed in Feedstuffs Magazine

Here's food for thought (commentary)


I FEAR that those of us who have been proclaiming that we need science to rule when it comes to efficiently converting natural resources to human consumable products may have a day of reckoning down the road.

In my last column (Feedstuffs, May 29), I explained that with science paving the way for the future, even cloned mules prove that yesterday's knowledge combined with tomorrow's science will improve life today.

I want to ask you the sincerest question I have ever posed: Exactly how far do we embrace science when it comes to food production? Is it acceptable to the point that a pork chop will be produced in a lab with a Petri dish instead of in a modern livestock barn?

With the recent announcement that scientists can engineer pigs so that their meat contains more omega-3 fatty acids, those of us in animal production are praising the benefits of biotechnology. However, shouldn't the obvious question be, "How long will you actually need the pigs to make the bacon?"

Nearly a year ago, Jason Matheny, a researcher from the University of Maryland, released information that he has proven that meat can be produced without an animal. In fact, he was quoted as saying, "With a single cell, you could theoretically produce the world's annual meat supply, and you could do it in a way that's better for the environment and human health. In the long run, this is a very feasible idea."

That follows research from 2002 when Touro College biology professor Morris Benjaminson reported growing fish meat in his lab. In his publication, he stated that during a one-week time period, the fish muscle increased up to 89% in size.

I can hear the skeptics now. The buzzword of the day is "natural." Even the soft drink 7UP is advertising that it is made of "all natural" ingredients.

The overall market for natural products remains on track for double-digit growth. Natural products, in some form or another, have already penetrated 94% of U.S. households.

Why, then, would we want to feed grain to animals for the production of meat when we could be using it for the production of renewable fuels and lessen our nation's dependence on foreign oil?

Of course, whether consumers will accept the label "naturally produced" on products from a laboratory is indeed a question that will need to be answered, but maybe other variables will come into play to influence that decision.

For instance, I have to believe that public pressure will force people to consume not the type of food they want but those foods that meet their true dietary needs. This Petri-dish technique could help curb the nation's problem with obesity and even alleviate people's fears of contracting bovine spongiform encephalopathy, avian influenza or Escherichia coli.

Researchers are currently working on new flavors that could lead to such lab-produced foods as bacon-flavored, enhanced omega-3 pork chops or chicken breasts. Of course, my favorite rib eye will be generated from a single cell and cultured and flavored to my liking.

In a recent LA Times article discussing this scientific breakthrough, the author reminded me of a Winston Churchill quote. In 1932, Churchill wrote that in 50 years, people would "escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken" by growing only desired parts -- like breasts and wings -- in the lab.

The bottom line is that we are quickly learning that there is no such thing as science fiction. If someone thinks of something, someone else will create it.

Most of you think that it just won't be cost effective to produce these products for the masses. Yet, one must wonder how many people said that the first time a person drove past them in an automobile instead of a horse and buggy, or when the first telephone was made and communication became relatively instantaneous instead of waiting for a reply on the telegraph machine.

People said the first home computers would cost too much for people to have in their homes. Odds are good that you are now receiving e-mail on your mobile telephone/television/computer.

The most ironic part about this entire concept is that researchers and consumers are aware of the scientifically based fact that the consumption of animal protein benefits our level of intelligence, yet the way things are headed, one must wonder if they have consumed a little too much meat because this intelligence could eventually eliminate the need for food animals altogether.

Ponder that while chewing on some good barbeque at this year's World Pork Expo.

Trent Loos is a producer, host of the "Loos Tales" radio show, public speaker and founder of Faces of Agriculture, which puts the human element back into food production. Find out more at, or e-mail