23 April 2013

The 'In Vitro' World of the 21st Century



Marguerite Finn

Yesterday I received my copy of the New World magazine from the United Nations Association.  The theme of this issue was ‘Can Technology Save the World?’  Initially, I thought the editors would answer the question in the affirmative – there being so many wonderful advancements in science and technology.  One development that was mentioned in New World was the arrival of test tube meat.  Apparently a team of Dutch scientists is very close to producing edible, lab-generated meat – with a product-launch planned for Spring 2013. If this happens, it will be at just the right time because the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that the global demand for meat will double in the next 40 years.  The global population is, after all, heading for nine billion and because of rising standards of living – especially in Asia – more and more people are demanding meat to eat. 

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), livestock already account for 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, 10% of the world’s fresh water supplies and around half of all agricultural land.  So producing meat the way we do now is unsustainable. 

How would we get on with artificial meat – also known as in vitro meat, cultured meat or test tube meat ?    In vitro meat should not be confused with vegetarian foods such as Quorn sausages and other products.  Most meat is animal muscle. The process of developing in vitro meat involves taking muscle cells from an animal and applying a protein that helps the cells to grow into large portions of meat. Once the cells have been obtained, additional animals would not be needed. As of 2012, thirty laboratories around the world have announced that they are working on research into artificial meat. Scientists have to make the product profitable for corporations in order for them to take this emerging technology into consideration and to invest in it.  The challenge will be finding an industrial process, rather than a scientific process to make in vitro meat cheaper than conventional meat.  Assuming that the proper materials are used and conditions remain ideal, two months of in vitro meat production could deliver up to 50,000 tons of meat from ten pork muscle cells.  So, is it a technological challenge worth pursuing?  Will it be enough to stave off food poverty in the coming decades as the world’s population increases relentlessly.

Another technological ‘miracle’ is the fact that on-demand organ transplants have moved a step closer. Scientists have for the first time successfully engineered a synthetic kidney - a break through that could have massive benefits those waiting for donor organs. Scientists led by Harald Ott of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston created the synthetic kidney using an existing bioengineering process that has previously been used in the manufacture of artificial windpipes and in successful human transplants.  Dr Ott is quoted as saying “ In an ideal world, such grafts could be produced on demand from a patients own cells, helping us overcome both the organ shortage and the need for chronic immunosuppression”  (Independent 14 April 2013).
It is estimated that some 100,000 people in the United States are waiting for a donor kidney. The above research will not yield a viable organ for human transplantation for a number of years yet, but the techniques used here are incredibly promising for future research and point to one day reaching the goal of being able to quickly manufacture new organs for those in need, something that could save countless lives.  Greater understanding of genetics and micro-organisms is changing the nature of medicine.
These are just two examples of wonderful developments in science and technology – but are they going to create a better world for its inhabitants?  Not necessarily so.  On issues that require far-reaching compromises, short-term and nationalistic preferences tend to dominate.  For instance, Monsanto’s development of specially coated anti-drought seeds did not really benefit those who needed the benefit most: the small farmers of India.  “It seems increasingly obvious, as the third millennium evolves, that we must adapt to the likelihood that environmental, health, security and resource problems will persist at a threatening level.  Each of these technological developments could be used to magnify the repressive power of governments to create new instruments of harm. For all the euphemistic correctness in ministries of “defence” no security system spurns the construction of offensive capability. Technology itself, in the electronic, nanotechnology and cyber fields, has become an instrument of military power.” (UNA-UK New World, Spring 2013)
In fact, the whole advance of science and technology requires a context of effective regulation and supervision, as well as good government and international co-operation – rather than a complacent feeling that we can do as we like because technology will save the planet.

One thing that will save the planet is some form of population control.  There are just too many of us on this earth and our numbers are increasing to unsustainably.  2013 is predicted to see the biggest baby boom in the UK in 40 years.  Nobody can work out the reason for this but adding an extra generation of consumers to an over-burdened planet does not seem the best way of going about things.  Earlier, I mentioned the countless lives that organ growing would save, but wouldn’t this make the overpopulation even more dire?

Martin Luther King had some wise words to say about population: "Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem."

Up to now, the subject of over-population has been the ‘elephant in the room’ – the subject that no one will discuss but that is changing – and the BBC (Radio 4) has hosted a series of talks and debates on the issue.  It is time to listen and join in.


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