Fear of science & change will be weapons for animal industries trying to save their rump roasts
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts––“Do not assume that doing the best science possible will insulate you from criticism,” AquaBounty Technologies chief executive Ronald L. Stotish warned the New Harvest 2018 conference on “cellular agriculture,” toward the end of two days of intensive discussion of meat production without the use of animals.
“What you have to understand,” Stotish emphasized, conveying a message that could as easily extend to promoting veganism as to promoting lab-grown or “clean” meat, “is that you are introducing new technology.
“When groups that have vested economic interests in opposing new technology, for whatever reason,” Stotish cautioned the audience assembled at the Massachsuetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, “or groups that are philosophically and culturally opposed to the introduction of new technology become involved,” the new technology can easily be delayed or even driven out of the marketplace altogether.
Mobilization builds on fear
This can happen, Stotish explained, not through any fault in the technology itself, but by effective political mobilization building upon fear of change.
Examples outside the food realm include also continuing opposition to contraceptive use in hoofed animals, which could potentially put much of the hunting and horsemeat industries out of business, and to vaccination, the most effective technology in disease prevention that goes beyond simple hand-washing.
Had Stotish been a cultural historian, rather than president of a biotechnology company, he might have noted the rise more than 500 years ago of an entire literary genre based on fear of the possible consequences of human meddling with nature.
Faust & Frankenstein
Emerging during the late Renaissance, in response to the work of the early 16th century alchemist Johann Georg Faust, this fear-of-science-and-the-future genre had by 1823 taken on contemporary form in the novel Frankenstein, by the anti-vivisectionist and vegetarian advocate Mary Shelley.
The Frankenstein theme, by now updated and given new plot twists countless thousands of times, remains sufficiently compelling that the latest major Hollywood film version of it, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, grossed $372 million in just the two weeks preceding the New Harvest 2018 conference.
Stotish, however, is a lawyer and businessman, who joined AquaBounty Technologies in 2006 as vice president for regulatory affairs.
Big fish, little fish
Stotish was hired to win Food & Drug Administration approval for the company to market an Atlantic salmon variety with an extra growth gene. Developed in 1992, the genetically modified salmon can reach market weight, meaning the age at which the fish will be killed, in only 18 to 24 months, compared to three years––at the time––for farmed Atlantic salmon.
Introduction of the AquaBounty salmon to the marketplace had been stuck in a regulatory quagmire.
After several years of discussion with regulatory agencies, “AquaBounty Technologies, based in Maynard, Massachusetts, filed its first application to the FDA for approval of the salmon in 1995,” summarized Nature writer Heidi Ledford after FDA approval finally came through in November 2015.
“The agency completed its food-safety assessment in 2010, and released its environmental-impact statement at the end of 2012,” Ledford recounted. “The long delay between the completion of those steps and a final decision led to rumors of political interference.”
Environmental & economic advantages
If one accepts that humans are going to eat animal flesh, at least until such time as cellular agriculture displaces animal agribusiness in the commercial marketplace, the AquaBounty salmon offered––and still offers––considerable environmental and economic advantages over other modes of salmon production.
“Salmon production in closed systems silences complaints that salmon farms pollute surrounding waters,” observed veteran Alaskan environmental journalist Craig Medred.
This also eliminates conflict between marine mammals and either salmon fishers or salmon ranchers protecting fish in sea pens. Because fish from closed systems can be raised much closer to the end markets, far less energy is expended in producing and selling them.
Vaccines & antibiotics
Because disease is more easily excluded from closed systems, Stotish argues that production can be accomplished without the use of vaccines or antibiotics, though this has not been accomplished in producing pigs, poultry, and cattle in closed systems.
On the contrary, pigs, poultry, and cattle raised in closed systems conventionally are treated with more vaccines and antibiotics because the confinement environment makes them more vulnerable to any infections that creep in.
To those who fear the possibility that escaped genetically engineered AquaBounty salmon might cross-breed or compete with endangered wild salmon runs, the pro-science web site FactCheck.org explains, “GE salmon have been rendered sterile — meaning they can’t interbreed with wild salmon stocks. Geographic and physical confinement measures also limit the likelihood that the GE fish will escape and survive.”
Initially the AquaBounty salmon also offered some advantages from a humane perspective. Specifically, the same amount of meat currently obtained from wild-caught salmon might be obtained from just a quarter as many fish, amounting––potentially––to a 75% reduction in associated animal suffering.
Since AquaBounty first sought FDA approval, Atlantic salmon producers have used conventional selective breeding to get salmon to grow as large, as fast.
Meanwhile, even the name “Frankenfish” hung on the AquaBounty salmon by opponents of the genetic technology used to produce it might have backfired and helped to sell it. Of note, during the same years in the early 21st century that the “Frankenfish” battle was most politically heated, the “Monster” beverage brand rose from obscurity to capture, at peak, 35% of the total U.S. energy drink market.
“Old” & new biotech
But before realizing any of the potential advantages of raising AquaBounty salmon, including the potential profits to be earned from it, Stotish et al had to get it to market.
This is why Stotish was invited to address the New Harvest 2018 conference, sharing his experience as a leading representative of “old” biotechnology with the exponents of a new biotechnology that promises to replace it.
Stotish attributed the rise of opposition to the AquaBounty salmon to the combination of what he termed misleading allegations amplified by two nonprofit organizations in particular, the Center for Food Safety and Food & Water Watch, with opposition from the Alaskan wild-caught salmon industry, influentially represented in Congress by U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski.
Stotish during the course of his New Harvest 2018 presentation exempted other advocacy organizations who voiced criticisms of the AquaBounty salmon. Stotish praised the Center for Science in the Public Interest in particular for focusing on the science of the matter and eventually opposing labeling that might inhibit the eventual success of bio-engineered products––of any sort––if they meet the same safety and quality standards as those produced in traditional ways.
Stotish warned the New Harvest 2018 attendees, in particular, about the tendency of opponents of new technology to try to regulate how something is made, rather than what it is.
So-called “process standards” contravene international trade agreements for the most part, because they typically give an artificial economic advantage to producing goods in traditional but inefficient and often harmful ways. Tariffs protecting the U.S. cotton industry before the U.S. Civil War, for instance, propped up and helped to perpetuate the use of slave labor.
Tariffs recently imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump on foreign-made vehicles and steel, as a more recent example, protect the fossil fuel industry––especially coal-burning steel refiners––at cost to air quality, as well as to U.S. consumers, and might eventually be found to be in violation of trade agreements.
Whaling, sealing, & beef
The World Trade Organization and the European Union, among other trade alliances, do recognize that “process standards” may at times be appropriate, including to protect animal welfare. Thus the European Union forbids the import of products and byproducts derived from commercial sealing, and the International Whaling Commission has since 1986 maintained a ban on commercial whaling, openly defied only by Japan, Norway, and Iceland.
The European Union also maintains prohibitions on the import or sale of beef grown with the use of steroids, much to the frustration of cattle ranchers in the U.S. and other nations where the use of growth-promoting hormones has long been standard practice.
Currently, 26 of the 28 European Union nations prohibit the import or use of genetic technology in food production, but most allow exemptions for products that meet EU risk assessment standards. Among the first 49 genetically modified organisms to qualify were 28 varieties of corn, eight varieties of cotton, seven varieties of soy bean, four other food plants, and two varieties of yeast and bacteria.
As cellular agriculture production processes are scaled up to become viable for market introduction, Stotish suggested, attempts by threatened conventional livestock producers to forestall competition through the imposition of process standards will inevitably intensify.
In that context, Stotish said, government agencies claiming to be using the “best science available” are likely to instead use the “best science that is politically convenient,” using nonprofit organizations purporting to represent public health, safety, environmental, and animal welfare concerns as a Trojan horse.
AquaBounty Technologies in August 2017 quietly announced in an annual earnings report that after “receiving regulatory approval from Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency last year,” five tons of salmon fillets from the genetically modified salmon strain had been sold “at market price to customers in Canada.”
Bigger foe & more at risk
Commented Craig Medred, “While genetically engineered salmon is not a threat to wild salmon, it is clearly an economic threat to Alaska salmon producers. AquaBounty in July 2017 announced it had paid $14 million in cash to the Bell Fish Company to buy a fish farm in Albany, Indiana. Bell was running Indiana’s largest recirculating aquaculture system. AquaBounty is expecting to have fish ready for [the U.S.] market by 2019.”
The Alaskan wild-caught salmon industry at last appears to have lost a bruising 26-year legal and political fight. But conventional animal agribusiness is many times bigger, with vastly more resources to draw upon in trying to suppress competition from cellular producers.
The equalizing factor may be that food producers and marketers mostly have no inherent allegiance to conventional animal agribusiness, if cellular producers can supply comparable materials at less expense, with equal or greater product safety for consumers.
If cellular producers of meat, eggs, dairy goods, and leather can pass the consumer taste test, in other words, conventional animal agribusiness may be, well, manure out of luck.
Many major food producers and marketers are already hedging their bets by making substantial investments in cellular agriculture development.
The prospect that “clean meat” may soon compete successfully in the consumer marketplace with the meat from actual cattle, pigs, poultry, and other farmed species terrifies conventional producers, not least because they cumulatively owe $239 billion in real estate debt, plus around $100 billion in debt incurred to buy equipment.
Should this sum be defaulted, even over many years as conventional producers slide into bankruptcy, financial institutions and the U.S. economy as a whole would suffer ripple shocks. But, reaping longterm gains from selling foreclosed land, the financial sector would prosper in the long run.
Animal farmers would be the net losers––if they choose to remain in the business to the end.
Since the average age of individual U.S. livestock farm owners is reportedly now 65-plus, a transition toward cellular agriculture might occur chiefly through conventional producers voluntarily selling out and retiring.
Meanwhile, those still in animal agribusiness, holding the debt load, can be expected to resort to name-calling as scientific advances gradually erode their present marketplace advantage.
This, as Stotish hinted, will likely occur mostly in the rapidly escalating fight over how cellular products are to be labeled.
Animal agriculturalists have already pushed legislation to passage in France and the state of Missouri that forbid using terms traditionally used to describe animal products and byproducts to describe even chemically identical items produced by other means.
France has a history dating back to 1635 of trying to restrict the use of language, which has gradually eroded French from the status of being the “lingua franca” for facilitating communications worldwide to 14th place. The Missouri legislation may well fail a constitutional challenge, both on First Amendment grounds and for overstepping federal legislation.
But the Food & Drug Administration has indicated that it will favor labeling which distinguishes the products of cellular agriculture from those of actual animal agriculture, even if there is no difference at the molecular level.
Not clear is whether the public will really care, especially if the cellular products taste the same, smell the same, feel the same, and are cost-competitive.
“Lab-grown” vs. “clean” meat
“Consumers Union in a recent poll asked, ‘If you were to see a package containing food produced in a laboratory from animal cells to look and taste like meat, how do you think the package should be labeled?’ recently wrote Bruce Friedrich.
For nearly 13 years an executive for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and for four years senior policy director for Farm Sanctuary, Friedrich is now executive director of the Good Food Institute and founding trustee of the $25 million New Crop Capital investment fund.
“Unsurprisingly, ‘lab-grown meat’ was the top reply,” Friedrich continued. “But even asking people if ‘food produced in a laboratory’ should be called ‘lab-grown,’ only 35% of respondents chose that option. Only 18% said the meat’s label shouldn’t use the words meat, beef, or pork.”