"Frankenfoods" is one of those words designed to be frightening - a combination of food and Frankenstein, the name of a 19th century novel about a monster created by a scientist. Frankenfoods are normally assumed to be genetically modified foods that have been improved from the standpoint of disease and insect resistance, drought tolerance or fast growth. To date, there have been no scientific tests indicating a basis for fear, but there are numerous fearsome claims spread. Hence, the word Frankenfoods serves a purpose for detractors.
Genetically modified foods have been produced for centuries. Man would breed his prize bull to many cows, he would grow seeds of the most productive plants, and he learned how to splice the limbs of the best trees onto new trees. The opposition to genetically modified foods really began when scientists were able to split genes, normally using a particle gun, and then replace or substitute for other genes to improve on the original.
Gene splicing in plants began in the 1940s in the tobacco industry, but not in foods until 1994, starting with the Flavr Savr tomato that was bred to delay ripening until after picking. Today, less than 20 years after the first successful food product was spliced, it is estimated that more than 75 percent of all packaged foods have some genetically modified ingredients, and almost 90 percent of corn, soybeans, cotton and other staple grains are modified. Like it or not, it is a fact of life today, and removing GMO (genetically modified organism) foods would probably result in world famine, since output per acre often doubles when genetically modified seed is planted.
Nonetheless, GMO food is still a hotly debated subject, and just this month, Whole Foods Market announced that all suppliers must label their products if they contain modified ingredients. A large majority of Americans believe that genetically modified foods should be labeled, but they are unaware of what this does to cost. We believe it is only a matter of time before all foods will be labeled when containing such ingredients, and it will eventually be a ho-hum issue.
Yet another "Frankenfood" is now on the horizon - in-vitro meat. That sounds even less inviting than GMO grains, vegetables and fruits. It is meat grown first in a laboratory petri dish, bathed in collagen and nutrients. Today it is impossibly expensive and sounds repulsive. But it may eventually become commonplace.
In-vitro meat got its start in 2005 with work by NASA to develop meat for astronauts. Seventy-five years before that, Winston Churchill made a predictive statement when he said, "Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or the wing." Although he missed by 25 years, he was on target.
One might ask, "With the impossible expense of in-vitro meat today, why bother?"
However, when looking at the potential savings (not for cattle ranchers), scientists and companies will work hard to commercialize the idea. Most research indicates that in-vitro meat production will use 45 percent less energy than meat from livestock and 99 percent less land. If that's true, there will be huge savings on water, fertilizer and other farm chemicals, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions, etc. It will simply be too important for any country to avoid.
Being in the farming business ourselves, we don't like this prospect one bit. Nonetheless, we believe that "being forewarned is forearmed."
The climate is becoming warmer and water more precious. There will be more mouths to feed in the future, more middle-class people demanding meat and less acreage devoted to agriculture. We are facing a monumental problem, and in-vitro meat might be one solution.
Ugh! Frankenfoods is an apt description today, but tomorrow?