Bite Me

51 thoughts on “Bite Me”

  1. Some GMO’s are horrible like putting toxins in the food to keep bugs from eating it while some are good possibly like the heme. It’s not a black and white issue as some make it out to be.

    I personally welcome it because factory farming is really gross. Not that I don’t partake but it is gross. I have trouble eating chicken these days. I used to love chicken but a lot of it makes me gag now a days.

    Here’s another group that’s making protein from electricity and air. I expect to see a lot of this in the years to come. The real improvement is that photosynthesis is only about 2 or 3% efficient, add to that about 10 to 1 weight to mass from crops to meat and you could see massive efficiencies. A factor of ten efficiency is big news. With this sort of tech you could grow food in the desert with solar power for very cheap. Even junky solar cells at 18% could be a big increase in efficiency.

    I expect over time the vat grown stuff will be better quality and taste better than the stuff on the hoof but of course the foodies will refuse to believe it.

  2. This, truly, is one of the few things that gives me hope for the future. Fermentation for fat and protein, vertical farming for greens, fruits, vegetables. A bigger step is growing wheat, rice, corn kernels directly, without the plant. All that land could go back to nature and carbon sequestration.

    But given how we’re handling covid, I don’t have much hope in thoughtful, concerted action.

    1. I have the opposite interpretation of current events. The primary reason Americans are so bad at dealing with the Covid situation is that we’re a few generations away from the last really big societal crisis (Great Depression and WWII) that required focused group action. My grandparents’ generation had no choice but to pull together and deal with external reality. I anticipate something larger and more powerfully destructive coming in the not-too-distant future that will make Covid seem small in comparison. We will have no choice but to get our shit together and come out the other side more unified and productive.

      1. I would guess proximity to production has something to do with it. Usually, food manufacturers try to locate near the key source ingredients – i.e. most frozen pizza are made in Wisconsin because cheese is the biggest input. Corn flakes are made in Battle Creek, MI etc. If the key ingredient is getting fermented, I would guess St. Louis has a relatively huge industry that way with it’s connection to brewing. But that’s conjecture.

  3. Just has impossible burger mark 2, two weeks ago at work. Was definitely a different experience from previous meat-replacement burgers I’ve had (some of which I enjoy but they don’t actually manage to taste and feel like their target). I have to say it perfectly nailed the taste and texture of cheap, mass produced burger texture. If I went and bought a microwave burger at a 7-eleven it would taste the same. I completely agree with you that in general, low cost macro-nutrients can be supplied via the vat process to meet food demand which frees up land use to go back toward better tasting high-end products and overall better land use for the environment in a lot of places. It’ll be interesting to see if vatgrown combines with polyculture agriculture over the coming decades.

  4. Johnny,

    I’ll refrain from making jokes about Soylent Green and just say this is an interesting article – even if it a bit off your regular beat.

    I’ve heard talk about synthetic meat for years, but had no idea it was this close to commercialization. And how you describe it coming about seems very logical: low end products first. As you say, few people will notice or care whether their chicken nuggets contain real chicken or a vegetable substitute. And doubtless the process will get better with time, to the point it will produce filet mignon indistinguishable from the real thing.

  5. It would appear that this is the wave of the future what with seven-billion-plus (and rising – rapidly) souls to feed on the planet and not enough good ag land to accomplish this, not to mention the lack of adequate distribution. However, it brings to mind the so-called ‘green revolution’ of some years back which very likely massively helped bring about the current seven-billion-plus….

    Just sayin’.

    1. Yep. First we had Fritz Haber who solved the synthetic fertilizer crisis a century ago. (He also invented chemical weapons for Germany in WWI. Complicated guy…)

      Then Norman Borlaug created hybrid semi dwarf varieties of staple grains and the Green Revolution doubled production. Both these guys were solving immediate problems and it worked.

      Borlaug was explicit in his goal to buy civilization some time while we got our population stabilized. Instead we doubled, then doubled again.

      We had a water problem which we solved with mechanized pivot irrigation and deep wells and diesel pumps. They made marginal arid lands productive. But we’re rapidly depleting our fossil ground water. Tick tock.

      I’ve spent a lot of time on the subject of population. It looks like the global population will peak around 2050 at something shy of 9 billion before entering a relentless decline. Europe, North and South America, Australia, and most of Asia are already below replacement levels so more people die then are born. There’s just a long tail since rich people live so long.

      But the poorest countries in Africa and a few other spots in the Middle East still have very high fertility rates. So while the Earth’s overall population will level off and then decline, Africa’s population will be doubling.

      The problem we’re all going to have to deal with for the rest of this century is an ever shrinking group of old rich people who are fearful of outsiders, and a growing number of young poor people who want in on a better life. What could go wrong?

  6. I’m not against synthetic foods per se, my concern is more the unintended consequences – of making them and consuming them. The history of modern nutrition has a lot of sad dead-ends and wrong choices – every time we think we’ve got it figured out (macronutrients! NPK! Pasteurization!) some new complication comes along (we know very little about the current puzzler, the Human Microbiome…only that it’s vital.) So the long-term consequences of eating synthetic foods is TBD – there could be something missing, or something we don’t even know to look for that makes them less nutritious or harmful. But it’s fair to compare the pros and cons of synthetic meat with those of factory-farmed meat, and pick your poison.

    I personally draw a line with GMO’s tho – If it requires a genetically modified organism to make Heme(tm) I’m going to avoid it as best I can. This is one of those areas where “science” gets prostituted into marketing, the regulators are captured, and ‘real science’ is too slow and uncertain and gets in the way of the business cycle. (I won’t even claim 100% that GMO’s are unsafe, because I don’t know either.) But there is a well-established legacy of lax oversight, lack of long-term testing of the downsides, and containment is just about impossible once it’s released to the world.

    Neat topic Johnny, thanks for sharing this – it totally relates to land-use and the other themes you cover. Quick thought on the wisdom of old foodways – we just had Bockfest here in Cincinnati – somehow, without “science” or modern analytical tools, the monks of the Middle Ages figured out that brewing with certain strains of barley would make a more nutritious winter beer, and get them through the austerity of Lent. I’m convinced our forbears are more clever than we give them credit for 😀

    1. I anticipate synthetic ingredients will be incorporated in lots of everyday foods without people noticing.

      Your rejection of GMOs is an example. If anyone eats chicken, pork, turkey, or beef from he usual sources (98% of the supermarket and fast food meat supply) then they’re eating GMOs indirectly since almost all animal feed is GMO now. Anyone who drinks soft drinks is drinking sugar that’s from GMO sources. The list goes on…

      While I was at the Long Now talk I asked Jesse Ausubel about the concentration of ownership of our existing food system (economies of scale, vertical integration, patent protections, political power… of a handful of corporations that feed all of us) and how synthetic foods might make the situation ever worse. Unintended consequences.

      1. We used to call genetically-selected seed lines with successful mutations “hybrid”. There was no catchy name for selective breeding of cattle and hogs. Both have happened throughout human history.

        I’m with you: the real issue is that the US food chain is pretty well controlled by a handful of companies.

    2. Heme, like Humulin, is grown by a yeast which has been genetically modified (whether by selective breeding or transgenics) to produce it. This is not all that different from selecting certain strains of barley to maximize nutrition.

      This modification isn’t one which has any evolutionary incentive to exist. Other yeasts, which produce ethanol, will grow faster, reproduce more readily, and persist in their environment more successfully than those that produce insulin or heme.

      If you release a Corgi into a wolfpack, there’s a chance is survives and breeds. There’s a much higher chance it doesn’t. What you absolutely don’t have is a wolf population that is suddenly all Corgis just because that unnatural freak is allowed to breed, even though, you are correct, containment is just about impossible once it’s released to the world.

  7. Back in the 1960s, synthetic food and fish farming were science fiction. People would down nutrient pods, which I imagined to be a lot like those compressed laundry detergent blocks that were popular back then, rather than eating old fashioned food. It had something to do with us living in space or underwater cities. For a long time, the only real follow up was Tang and that weird shelf stable “ice cream” one could buy as a novelty at science museums.

    Now, it’s been happening. I’m guessing the vegans were in the lead, since they have major restrictions on what goes into their food. It’s like the Buddhist monks who developed a vegetarian Chinese cuisine that mimicked animal foods. I gather vegans use cultured fungi in a lot of their products. Now we have the Impossible Burger and there will be a lot of similar eat-alike products available in the near future. That science fiction stuff is becoming a reality, and I gather it tastes better than Tang or those nutrient pods.

    As you point out, some of this acceptance is because so much of our food is already massively processed. If you are used to eating a protein composite that vaguely tastes like chicken when fried, would you even notice if that protein was plant protein? Modern food processing is already a chemical and industrial process in which raw materials, like meat, are broken into their components, then processed and recombined for optimal edibility.

  8. care to elaborate on the recipe for those fried salmon … what are they, fish cakes? I’ve got a load of canned salmon about a year ago while in a prepping wave fighting a bout of depression? 10 gallons of homemade booze from the same time are ageing slowly, and even possibly getting better, but canned fish will deteriorate…

    1. Mix a can or two of salmon with a beaten egg, some version of starch (corn bread crumbles, bread crumbs, diced up day old bread, or left over rice…) salt and pepper. Add diced onions if you like. Mix it together like you would a meatloaf. Form into little patties and fry in oil. Not terrible.

  9. Just got this link from a reader. Nebraska corn is already being used as a feedstock for fermentation vats that culture essencial fatty acids used in animal feed. It’s replacing wild caught fish that used to be ground up and fed to livestock and farmed fish. I suspect there’s a long term risk associated with massive monocrops like corn and soy, but we’ll deal with those risks as they present themselves.

    1. Mostly climate risk as the heat belt moves north. But have faith that Bayer and Corteva (the new names for Monsanto and DowDuPont Agro) will develop corn and beans that resist fungus and rot and whatever else comes with a warmer climate. And Nebraska will get better at irrigation.

    2. ” long term risk associated with massive monocrops like corn and soy”

      Yes and no. No-till farming and use of glyphosate have necessitated glyphosate-tolerant varieties, but glyphosate-tolerant weeds have emerged without any human assistance.

      Two of those weeds, artichoke thistle and goosefoot, actually are related to foods we eat.

      Goosefoot is an Amaranth, as is Quinoa. Packed with protein and really difficult to kill. They grow in sidewalk cracks and at nearly 10,000 foot elevations. Amaranths developed resistance to our pesticides without any company owning that resistance.

      The second, thistles, are the family that Sunflowers (one of our most important oilseeds), as well as lettuce and artichoke come from. As anyone who’s seen dandelions sprouting up on superfund sites can attest, these are a tough family of plants.

      The most vulnerable plants are those who we clone. Like Cassava, Potatoes, and bananas. A single genetic individual may cover tens of thousands of contiguous hectares. That’s a fragile system.

      Corn and soybeans? They’re tougher, and many varieties of high production exist. Given their sequenced and well-understood genomics, we can promulgate resistance quickly. But it takes the supply chain of Monsanto, and that’s pay-to-play.

      The Goosefoot and Thistles? Those are open-source, so to speak.
      We can keep the benefits of roundup-ready without paying the license. If we’re willing to eat weeds.

      Which we already do.

  10. This was an interesting article. I’m looking forward to trying synthetic meat. Gotta’ watch the carbs, though, so I’d have to take that into account. I hope the synthetics have zero carbs just like the real thing.

    1. I wasn’t suggesting that you or anyone else should be forced to eat synthetic food. I’m just looking out at the future trying to understand where our current trajectory is taking us. We might end up going synthetic faster than we expect. Crop failures brought about by global monocrops or mass die offs of domesticated animals due to antibiotic resistant disease could force our hand.

      1. Eventually I think they will be able to culture genuine animal muscle cells that are indistinguishable from the real thing.
        The improvement in efficiency could be large and allow real factory grown meat anywhere.

        1. Animals cells are much less efficient than yeast.
          You need a whole life support system for them.

          Heme is cheaper, and will stay cheaper.

  11. This is fascinating that they’re getting this close to the real thing, but it makes me sad if this is the future necessary to feed everyone on the planet, synthetic nitrogen notwithstanding.

    I’ve been trying a little experiment based on some pseudo-science I read online: eat what your ancestors ate, 500 years ago, sourced as locally as possible. For a euro-mutt like me, that means a lot of bread, meat and hearty vegetables, washed down with unfiltered red wine…

    Though it’s probably just the wine talking, I feel great on this “diet.” It feels, dare I say, natural. But what if the whole world tried to eat like, say, a medieval English peasant (

    1. So… how “natural” is a Big Mac or a fish stick? How natural is a microwave frozen pizza? A box of bright orange mac and cheese? A jug of Sunny Delight? Diet Coke? Doritos? Most of the food most people eat is wildly engineered and five steps removed from any kind of nature already. I’m not saying this is good. I’m just saying it’s true.

      1. Yes, this. There are levels.

        My wife and I mostly prefer making fresh from real ingredients, avoiding things like gravy from packets or jars, soup and stew from cans, mac and cheese from a box, “dinner in a box” helpers. (She doesn’t like dried beans and lentils, something I love to cook with when she’s out of town.) But we eat chips, pretzels, and microwave popcorn as snacks, and use some convenience foods like bagged salads and pre-shredded cheeses. Some of our meat comes from factory farms, and some frozen from a retail-delivery operation that links local farms with local residents.

        I’m honestly not sure how she’ll feel about this kind of industrial food. Probably to replace ground beef, she’ll be okay with it. I can’t see it replacing lamb chops.

  12. It’s important to know what the “lab-grown meat” uses as feedstock. Some of the “real meat, without the animal” tissue-cultured artificial meat relies on biochemicals from the same abattoir as the steaks and chops. As reported in Slate, in 2017, “Yes, all lab-grown meat so far requires a product called fetal bovine serum.” In the long run, meat has to come from sunshine, rain, and soil, and those feeds can’t meet demand, demand will not be met.

    1. Rennet from animal stomachs was required for a long time in cheesemaking.

      It’s no longer in wide use, because Chymosin (like humulin) is instead produced by genetically modified yeast.

      Chymosin is simpler than FBS. There are a lot fewer intricacies in using lab-grown feedstocks than slaughterhouse ones/

      But I personally think that whether we get better at making meaty things without animal cells, or if we feed animal cells using an animal-ish chemical produced by yeast (as we’ve done before), the animal is an inefficient part of the production process, ripe for replacement with more vats, tubes, and industrial processes.

      1. One would hope for a reduction in inputs (water and grain) and outputs (ruminant methane discharges).

        But centralized (as opposed to widely dispersed) food production has its own peculiar “black swan” risks inherent in closely controlled manufacturing processes.

        1. Microbreweries are up and running in just about every town or city in America nowadays.

          I’m confident in yeast.

  13. A deviation from the typical GS topic…..but no less informative. I typically lean right on many topics (if only because I see where those who lurch left have brought us) but I am by no means in the “They are coming after your burgers!” camp. This is the future, and makes plenty of sense- health, financial, environmental, etc. I’ll be all-in when price points are on parity with the traditional versions.

    I even wish Finless Foods success, despite the fact I was struck with a near-fatal dose of Hipster Douche-ism from watching their video.

    1. I kinda see the synthetic food thing relating to land use patterns. When we switched to industrial agriculture it drove everyone off the land and all our small farm towns dried up and died. Almost no one lives on a working family farm anymore. If synthetic food decreases the amount of land and water required to feed the population through radical efficiency that might mean more water and land could be directed to other things in other places. Or it could mean the opposite. Perhaps the need for energy to be diverted to synthetic food might distort the market and cause all sorts of unanticipated problems. We’ll find out.

      1. You’ve touched one of my favorites. We’re diverting feedstocks, turning corn into ethanol for motor fuel. Throughout the Midwest there are giant fermentation plants in the middle of cornfields that require lots and lots of water to make the ethanol, on top of the lots and lots of water needed to irrigate the corn.

      2. If synthetic foods reduce the amount of land and water required to feed the population, I expect what we’ll see is the “surplus” land put to use in traditional food production as a boutique industry – “craft food” – for the wealthy. Same pattern has repeated itself many times, land and labor intensive beef for the nobility, cheap and easy potatoes for the peasants. And we’ll probably – as usual – discover later that the diet we put the peasants on was missing something important we didn’t know about.

        Humans, after all.

  14. Johnny,

    I’m not faulting your ambivalent attitude about this coming reality. And I don’t doubt the truth that we WILL go there. But I think it’s sad, that somehow it represents a failure. Whenever human beings try to substitute a natural product with something else, the longterm result has often been disastrous. I’ll probably eat synthetic when that’s all there is, but I don’t think it’s a good thing.

      1. Yes, synthetic insulin is manufactured in fermentation vats. The old method involved extracting it from pig pancreases. Birth control pills used to be made from the urine of female horses. Now estrogen and progesterone are synthesized in a lab.

      2. The majority of those diabetics were made diabetic by ingesting synthetic food-like items, though. Which I guess circles us back around to drewster’s point.

        1. Looking back during crisis eras (the Great Depression of the 1930s, the stagflation of the 1970s) it made sense for the federal government to heavily subsidize a handful of commodity crops and promote a hedgerow-to-hedgerow agricultural policy. It radically drove down the cost of food.

          But with so much super cheap corn, wheat, and soy on the market it was just a matter of time before it was transformed into sugary and starchy crap in brightly colored packages.

          We “could” switch and subsidize small scale family farms that produce organic fruits and vegetables instead. Not going to happen…

          1. Agreed, it’s not. Individuals, especially diabetics, need to take control of their own health to drive this change. Our current food system doesn’t make it easy, and it won’t anytime soon. People like Mark Sisson and Melissa Hartwig are making it slightly easier for those who do care about what they put in their bodies, albeit still within our current, flawed, just-in-time supply chain ($5 Whole30 approved, Wal-Mart brand dinner bowls anyone?).


            They, along with companies like Virta Health, help teach people how to choose nutritious, whole foods, which is helping to drive some consumers back to the small scale family farms that produce organic fruits and vegetables (and humanely raised animal products). More and more people are learning how important real food is for their health. Right now it’s mostly still just an inconvenience to the big food players, but still, I don’t see synthetic beef getting a stamp of approval from any of these people. We’ve been down this road before with similar pushes to use vegetable oils instead of animal fats, to eat more grains and less red meat, to make sure we eat all our vegetables but not even think about putting a drop of real butter on them (margarine is acceptable, though), and look where we are today. More diabetes, cancer, and heart disease than ever before, and my opinion based on the evidence I’ve seen is that these rates are soaring because of the claims and the widespread changes that came from them to switch from animal products. Don’t get me wrong, animal products aren’t the end all, be all, but the claims against them drove the changes away from whole foods and toward synthetic foods in the first place. Avoiding animal products can be done at an individual level through a well rounded vegan or vegetarian diet that provides plenty of essential macro- and micronutrients (difficult, but not impossible to do), but I would think those who consume synthetic meat unknowingly, as misguided attempt to prevent chronic disease, or as an easy way to be vegan/vegetarian without taking the time to learn how to do it well will be in trouble. Only time will tell.

            But I digress. This isn’t a health blog, and as you pointed out, synthetic meat will mostly be consumed as substitutes in poor excuses for food to begin with, so those people are probably already in trouble. You are right that this is going to happen. We could point out all kinds of things that could help drive the change to more sustainable food practices outside of synthesizing it, but we would have to end every one of them the same way you did. “Not going to happen…”

          2. I totally agree that switching to small scale farms – one of the oldest and most traditional ways of living – is not going to happen, but that’s what needs to happen if we’re actually going to be in sync with our environment and our bodies and everything else.

            Until then we’ll just keep building in complexity – and then fix that with something more complex when it breaks. Rinse and repeat – until one day when it all collapses back down to the original simple strategy, as you so eloquently put it Johnny.

    1. ” Whenever human beings try to substitute a natural product with something else, the longterm result has often been disastrous”

      I cannot say that of insulin.
      I cannot say that of aommonium nitrate.
      I cannot say that of replacing willow bark with aspirin.

      Something merely being natural may make it more inaccessible, but not necessarily better.

      1. True. But there seems to be a large list of failures that come from us trying to replace the natural, and the items are big. To name a few…

        –sun vs. electric lights
        –cars vs. bike/walk/horse
        –sitting vs. walking & physical work
        –processed food vs. natural
        –watching entertainment vs. providing it
        –environment control vs. self adaptation
        –face-to-face vs. electronic relationships

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