He says, “The way we produce meat today is not going to last. As more people start eating meat it will become very difficult to maintain current food production systems. There are three options: we will all become vegetarian; we will eat more insects; or, perhaps, we will eat in vitro meat.”
New technologies could also lead to entirely new cultures which at first are very artificial but over time they may be perceived as entirely natural
Van Mensvoort, an artist, philosopher and scientist, has been working as part of a team led by Dr Mark Post investigating the viability of in vitro meat – i.e. meat that is grown from stem cells in a Petri dish. While Dr Post is task with working out how to do this in practice, (as Humans Invent covered last year), Van Mesvoort is exploring the ramifications of such a possibility.
He says, “I am looking at what new kinds of products, eating habits and maybe also food cultures might emerge from this new technology.”
Van Mensvoort co-wrote a book prior to embarking on this project called Next Nature, which puts forth the idea that soon technology will become so established, complicated and all encompassing that it will be perceived as natural in its own right.
He explains, “Agriculture, which is 10,000 years old, in the beginning was considered a new technology but now we see it as entirely natural. In the long term, new technologies can become natural and I think that is also relevant when considering artificial meat production.”
With exponential population growth and a manmade environmental disaster on the horizon, we need to start rethinking ‘natural’ methods of food production if we, and the planet, hope to survive. While buying organic food is all the rage, Van Mensvoort is looking at it from the opposite perspective.
As more people start eating meat it will become very difficult to maintain current food production systems
He says, “The need to always search for the naturalness in things is quite naïve. I think we also have to embrace the artificial. But currently in our society, the artificial is always seen as an inferior derivative. You may well rather eat a hamburger grown from an animal but if it gets to the point that you can’t do that anymore then maybe a lab grown hamburger, though a copy, is not such a bad thing. More generally, I think new technologies could also lead to entirely new cultures which at first are very artificial but over time they may be perceived as entirely natural.”
Of course, it was impossible not to address the horse-shaped elephant in the room, so I asked Van Mensvoort whether the recent horsemeat scandal makes in vitro meat seem more or less appealing. He observes, “I’ve asked people on the street if they would eat in vitro meat and most say, ‘No, I’m not going to eat that because it is artificial’, but then they walk into a supermarket and buy cubes made of chicken that you wouldn’t be able to recognise is chicken.”
It is a salient point. Yes, it’s true that certain food manufacturers have hoodwinked us into eating horsemeat. However, the very fact that we’ve been happily chomping away on these packaged meals of such low quality that it’s not possible to tell what meat has been used, indicates there is a disparity between what we think (and say) and what we actually do. Food for thought, indeed.