Cutting-edge Food Technology is our best defence against another Wuhan
The threat humanity faces from the transmission of infectious diseases from the food we eat isn’t unique to China’s wet markets. Our search for truly ‘clean meat’ can only be delivered through the embrace of cutting-edge food science, says Paul Cuatrecasas, Founder and CEO of Aquaa Partners and author of Go Tech or Go Extinct.
It’s still hard to fathom the Coronavirus world in which we continue to live. More bewildering is how we got here.
The prevailing theory is that the pandemic was triggered by the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 into the human population after the virus first spread from its native host, bats, to an intermediary animal, possibly a pangolin. Ground zero for the transmission is thought to have been the Wuhan wet market.
The idea is given credence by the fact a previous outbreak of another coronavirus, dubbed SARS, began at a similar market in 2002, after that virus spread from bats to civets.
Chinese wet markets specialise in selling exotic, often endangered and highly trafficked animals, such as pangolins to satisfy demand among wealthy and middle-class customers. The animals are consumed both for their prized meat as well as perceived medicinal benefits. Conditions in the markers are often poor. Animals are stacked atop one another, typically in small cages with biological matter and waste spreading easily between the animals.
Know the problem to know the solution
In response, Chinese authorities have moved to introduce a strict ban on the consumption and farming of wild animals. It’s easy to take comfort in the misplaced belief that, provided the ban is properly enforced, the threat of a repeat event will dissipate.
While the sale of mammals and fowl blamed for past diseases may have reduced, trade in other wildlife, such as turtles and frogs appears to be ongoing. More importantly, though, the threat we face isn’t unique to China.
The H1N1 swine flu outbreak in 2009, for example, appears to have originated in a pig confinement operation in North Carolina. And while the H5N1 bird flu outbreak in 1997 originated in Chinese chicken farms, a similar bird flu in the United States more recently prompted American poultry farmers to kill tens of millions of their birds to contain the outbreak, which, fortunately, never made the leap into the human population.
From the late 1980s to the mid 1990s the UK grappled with an epidemic of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) or ‘Mad Cow Disease’ thought to have been caused by the feeding of infected cattle remains to herds. The disease decimated the British cattle farming industry and spread to humans killing hundreds.
A common thread linking these outbreaks of disease is the breeding and cultivation of animals for food. Often, as populations grow and living standards improve, so too does the consumption of meat as a source of protein. ‘Factory farms’ and the mass-raising and slaughtering of animals allows for increased production, while also reducing unit costs. This sometimes leads to a fall in welfare standards and the increased prevalence of disease.
The common solution often championed by animal welfare activists and other groups is the reduced reliance on meat-based protein. Advances in food technology, including ‘lab grown meat’, however, offer alternatives.
Last year astronauts on the International Space Station captured the world’s attention by 3D-printing and eating a steak. The spectacle was made possible thanks to lab-grown, or ‘cultivated’, meat. The pioneering field is led by start-ups, sometimes backed by major meat companies, who are growing real animal meat from animal cells rather than animal slaughter.
A joint study by the Universities of Oxford and Amsterdam estimate the technology uses 99 per cent less land, emits 96 per cent fewer greenhouse gases, consumes 96 per cent less water and demands 45 per cent less energy. Crucially, it also eliminates many of the dangers to public health posed by some forms of intensive farming.
It promises consumers cheaper, longer lasting, nutritionally enriched, and environmentally friendlier meat. Its versatility also means that it can be used to cultivate different types of meat, including exotic meats, for example, to satisfy some foreign markets and ultimately reducing demand for the illegal cultivation of animals from the wild.
Industry leaders Memphis Meats and Mosa Meat both intend to achieve cost parity with grocery store meat and mass market their product in the near future. The former is tipped to bring their product to market next year, while Mosa is slightly longer – in the next three to four years.
Another pioneering food technology already showing promise as a viable contender to reduce dependency on reared animals for slaughter are plant-based meat alternatives. Already popular and readily available on several fast food chain menus in both the US and elsewhere, the food simulates the taste and texture of meat.
Improved quality and demand have seen some forward-thinking meat companies release their own plant-based meat alternative offerings, too. Meanwhile, other ‘smart meat’ companies are beginning to blend plant proteins into their traditional animal proteins offering hybrid products that are better for both the planet and public health.
The food is already reducing consumer demand for traditional meat. Last month, the Financial Times reported that sales in the United States for plant-based meat substitutes jumped 265 per cent over an eight-week period up to 18 April.
Interestingly, a separate report published joint report published by the World Economic Forum and Reuters last month found that suppliers are seeing surging demand for plant-based protein foods in Asia as Covid-19 raises concerns among consumers over links between meat and viral diseases.
Diversification is the key to pandemic risk
By diversifying our methods of meat production not only will we reduce the risk for future pandemics by cutting down the number of live animals we raise for food, but it can also help to mitigate numerous other risks as well. Whether the concern is climate change, antibiotic resistance, deforestation, animal welfare, improved diet and public health, the benefits of broadening our protein portfolio are significant and shine light on the path to improved public health.
As we continue to live through lockdown it’s time for us to consider how we can prevent the next pandemic. Yes, we should undoubtedly curb wildlife markets, but it would be foolish to see that as a magic bullet. If we have the will to shut down our entire society for weeks on end, surely we have the will to embrace technology and change our diets?
Paul Cuatrecasas is Founder and CEO of Aquaa Partners and author of Go Tech or Go Extinct.
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