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FARMING MUST CHANGE TO HELP US RE-DISCOVER THE MEANING OF FOOD

The most fascinating scientific breakthrough of the past few weeks was the announcement of three effective vaccines to protect against COVID-19. The development speed of these is startling and inspiring, but while this innovation has been happening, another scientific development has been moving at speed — and it is one that should give us all pause.

The news I refer to came from Singapore, where the US company Eat Just, finalised the development of safe-to-eat lab-grown meat, cultivated from animal cells.

Like in the case of COVID vaccines, there are dozens of companies that have been working on this innovation, and Eat Just’s is the first to pass safety reviews with its ‘chicken’ bites. I expect that there will be a similar clamour from companies working on the same process to announce their own successful production soon, just as Oxford and Moderna followed quickly in the wake of Pfizer.

Unlike a successful vaccine however, lab-grown meat is a terrifying prospect for someone like me, who believes in food at its most natural. The industrialisation of meat has already gone too far — with factory farming and steroid-injected animals to force them into growing to un-natural sizes. This is another abhorrent act in humanity’s continued quest to control nature.

According to Professor David Montgomery, this is a quest that begin in the aftermath of the Second World War, with the increased use of NPK nitrogen fertiliser. Since 1961, there has been an 800% increase in its use — allowing a more productive, but destructive food system.

The fertiliser may well provide artificial nutrients to plants, but it destroys soil and is a driver of global warming, with fertiliser from agricultural run-off entering the waterways — causing groundwater pollution and oceanic dead zones.

NPK was touted as a solution to increase farming productivity and feed the hungry following the war, but soon turned into a get-rich-quick scheme for a few conglomerates at the expense of an uneducated population.

The material for making nitrogen fertiliser, liquid ammonia, is made through the Haber-Bosch process. It also happens to be the key ingredient in explosives, and after World War II, the surplus of this ingredient was converted into chemical fertiliser.

According to Montgomery, this was a pivotal point in humans’ understanding of the universe, as it showed us how to manipulate nature, and started a domino effect that has led to the destruction of biodiversity and the rise of monocultures and artificial nutrition.

In the West especially, we take food for granted and pump out hormone and antibiotic-filled meat products to satisfy the demand of greedy humans. This approach is dangerous to our health, particularly not least because it can lead to the build up of antibiotic resistance.

By weight, 60% of all mammals on earth are livestock — just 4% are wild. Factory farming and humans’ insatiable appetite for meat are the leading causes of climate change, the destruction of global biodiversity, and the root of many viruses including COVID-19 itself.

The argument in favour of cultivated meat is that it will be healthier for people, allowing them to continue enjoying it and not having to cut beef, chicken or pork out of their diets. Lower livestock production would mean more animals can be farmed organically — not packed into cages where disease is rampant.

But this misses the point about what food is. It is not just a lifeless product to be put on a shelf and sold at a profit. Food is the nexus of everything, it is at the centre of our society, of our development, of our politics, of our families, of climate change, of our health and of social justice. It is around a table that we make the most important decisions of our lives — when we propose to our partners, where families discuss how their days were and where you discover true friendships.

But we seem to have forgotten that. We have forgotten that food is first and foremost, important medicine: that what we eat, what we buy, and where we buy it, impacts on our health, on our economy and on our planet.

When did we decide food had to become a commodity on a shelf and not our primary source of energy and wellbeing? You cannot imitate the true joy of food in a laboratory. Those who think this is a venture worth pursuing simply do not understand what food is for. They have no hearts.

While I believe it is important we each look to reduce our meat consumption for the benefits of our own health and that of the planet, I believe you can achieve similar positive health outcomes from a balanced diet, which includes meat, so long as it is farmed in a way that is positive for the planet.

Farming means jobs for millions of people. To destroy an entire industry would be to destroy livelihoods and lives. We can protect agriculture and our planet together — the two are not mutually exclusive — and the rise of plant-based diets will play a crucial role in doing this. But if you wish to cut meat out of your diet, the answer is definitely not some false imitation built in a laboratory, purely for the benefit of corporations.

Photo by Alex Green from Pexels

To regain an understanding of what food really means, is not just about how we consume meat — our damaging approach runs through the whole food chain. By forgetting what it means to eat well, we have forgotten food’s versatility, the joy it can bring and the damage misusing it does to our environment.

Globally, 40% of our farmed food is wasted. 7.2 million tonnes of food and drink are thrown away each year. Much of this is down to products being considered imperfect and unsellable, despite the fact — as American chef Dan Barber points out — many of the world’s most famous dishes; from ‘Bouillabaisse’ to ‘Coq au vin’, were created out of pieces of imperfect meat and fish that would otherwise have gone to waste.

Even rice, he says — the staple of diets in Asia and Japan especially — can only be grown with buckwheat as a rotation crop. The Japanese use it to create another of their most famous staples — the soba noodle. Americans put it in their dog food.

Almost two-thirds of our food is creating from corn, rice and wheat alone, 90% of plant and livestock varieties are now extinct because they were not desirable for farming, and the majority of our food comes from just 12 plant and five animal species. I ask you now, why?

Because the demand on these few species of crops and livestock is such, farmers are economically pressured into producing food that is unsustainable, unethical and unhealthy. The culture we live in today is one that condones breeding meat or perfect vegetables or grains at all costs. We inject our animals with hormones and cover our plants in fertilisers that make them last longer or grow to larger sizes. In the process, removing all that is good and healthy within them.

And if you think we have few remaining livestock and grain species today, just wait until soulless, lab-grown meat hits the mainstream. The price we will pay for that is more destruction to biodiversity and animal species. Animals will still be farmed, but they will be treated worse, not better, as farmers look to mimic genetically perfect, cultivated meat.

But there is another way — a ‘third plate’ as Dan Barber calls it. The future should not be one of no farms, but one of whole farms. A future that embraces all the natural crops and ingredients that go into farming.

Mr Barber is one of the most high-profile examples of a chef who understands how we should be using food. He calls it a “whole farm approach”, not letting ingredients go to waste simply because they are undesirable or not as culturally significant. His dish, Rotation Risotto for example, uses rotation grains such as buckwheat, rye, barley and millet.

The food chain is a precious line developed in hundreds of millions of years of evolution. Humanity has done more to destroy that in the past 100 years than in any period of history. But we can course correct, we can embrace all elements of the food chain. And with this, we can remind ourselves what food is for — to live better.

That’s why in Mercato Metropolitano, we advocate authentic, nutritious and straightforward food. We hold food to the highest standard from seed to plate, resulting in truly good food. Our standards are safeguarded through our provenance and traceability practices which respect food as it should be: natural, seasonal and as locally — sourced as possible whilst upholding farming and livestock standards. We believe in every human being has the right to access food, but that food should taste good, make you feel good and should be also good for the world.

Let’s work together to raise awareness and put food in a well-deserved place, which should be the centre of our lives.

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Andrea Rasca

Founder & Chief Executive Dreamer, Mercato Metropolitano. A global movement driving sustainable food development to tackle the world’s biggest societal issues