Could GMO Technology Make Tomatoes More Authentic?

The LA Times ran an interesting piece a couple of days ago about Why supermarket tomatoes tend to taste bland. It turns out, according to new scientific research, that the hybridization carried out by tomato breeders over the last several decades has inadvertently introduced a mutation that interferes with sugar production within tomatoes — and hence made standard grocery-store tomatoes less tasty.

It’s important to note that this was the result of good old-fashioned hybridization, the kind of cross-breeding of plants that humans have been doing for thousands of years, the kind that has given us pretty much all of the fruits and vegetables that our species has lived on for generations.

But the LA Times mentions that the technologies of laboratory genetic engineering could be used to reverse, in a precise way, this clumsy error. In fact, scientists have done so in the lab, but such reverse-engineered tomatoes are unlikely to make it to grocery store shelves.

But what if — however unlikely, given regulatory hurdles and problems of public acceptance — tomatoes genetically engineered in a way that reversed this error made it onto grocery store shelves? What if we could buy tomatoes genetically engineered to include a gene their tasty ancestors originally had? In a sense, the result would be, far from something “unnatural,” a more authentic tomato than the ones currently available.

The concept of authenticity is a vexed one. For some it has to do with “naturalness.” For some it has to do with pedigree, with where a thing came from. In his terrific 2010 book, The Authenticity Hoax, Andrew Potter suggests that in at least some instances, people regard authenticity as having something to do with being true to some vision of what a thing ought to be. From this point of view, genetically engineering the tomato to reactivate the GLK2 gene would result in a more authentic tomato, one truer to what tomatoes used to be, truer to the tomatoes your great-grandmother used to enjoy as a child.


(A while back I interviewed Andrew Potter, about his book, The Authenticity Hoax).

Posted in agriculture, biotechnology, genes, genetic modification, GMO, natural, values

Ethics of Eating Meat

A recent Toronto Star piece on the ethics of eating meat quotes me, briefly, on the topic of lab-grown meat (something I’ve blogged about before).

The main point of the article, however, is to make an attempt to marshall a range of arguments specifically in favour of meat eating, generally. It’s a valiant effort; unfortunately none of the arguments put forward holds any water.

I’ll offer here just a few quick points of rebuttal, before offering some thoughts of my own:

1) The fact that “all animals die” anyway doesn’t count for much, when we are the ones who raise them in vast numbers just in order to kill them. Aside from wild animals killed by hunters, animals we eat only die because we raise them for that purpose.

2) The fact that animals are slaughtered more-or-less humanely is, in itself, a good thing, but does little to respond to several key arguments against eating meat.

3) No, eating meat is not just a “personal choice.” At very least, the environmental impact of meat makes it a social issue. So yes, you personally have to choose, but you have an obligation to choose well. It’s no more a mere personal choice than the choice of whether to drive a gas-guzzling car.

4) No, we don’t need meat, nutritionally. Yes, it’s still in Canada’s food guide, but as the article notes the food guide lists “meat and alternatives” as the relevant category.

5) The fact that there is some evidence some plants can communicate in some ways is not relevant. It doesn’t imply biologically that they can feel pain. Even if (if!) plants can feel pain, we would still have reason to stick to eating whatever things feel pain least, or least intensively, etc. That is, plants would likely still be the least-cruel option.

6) Chimpanzee diet isn’t relevant. Chimps do lots of things that would be considered unethical if we humans did them. Infanticide, for starters.

7) The fact that we’ve got certain physiological features that suggest we are built for hunting and/or eating meat doesn’t mean that eating meat is right. The fact that something is “natural” doesn’t make it healthy or good. Counter-examples are easy to generate.

8) The fact that meat is in certain ways highly nutritious doesn’t count for much, given that it is very well established by now that humans can eat very high-quality diets low or lacking in animal proteins. That goes for competitive athletes as well.

OK, so much for critique. Let’s move on to the arguments against meat.

There are three or four main kinds of ethical objections to meat, different reasons given by different people in advancing either philosophical or casual arguments against eating animals:

1) If animals have rights (e.g., a right to life), then it would be wrong to eat them. Rights are essentially a moral line drawn in the sand. When someone has a right to something, it is generally unethical to violate that right.

2) If animals deserve moral consideration (even in the absence of rights) then we might have an obligation to minimize their suffering. That is, if pain — all pain — is bad, then we should try to reduce it (and not to cause it). Despite efforts to render slaughter more humane, animal agriculture still causes plenty of suffering.

3) The meat industry is notoriously bad environmentally. Millions of acres are dedicated to growing crops to feed animals — and those millions of acres require gazillions of gallons of water and immense quantities of pesticides. Oh, and raising those crops requires immense petroleum inputs. From an energy point of view, meat is an incredibly inefficient way to feed people. So even if animals don’t matter, eating (much) meat might be a failure of your obligations to your fellow humans.

4) Eating large quantities of meat isn’t particularly good for you. That in itself isn’t really an ethical issue — you can do whatever you want to yourself. But how you treat your kids, for example, is certainly an ethical issue. So you might have an ethical obligation to limit your kids’ consumption of meat, just as you have an obligation to limit their consumption of sugary foods.

So, is eating meat ethical? I don’t think it can be declared categorically unethical, because I don’t think the animal rights argument works: there’s no sound philosophical foundation for attributing rights to animals. Feel free to disagree. In fact, I think the environmental argument is the most compelling. But that means that it’s not a black-or-white issue. If you think about meat as an environmental issue, then it’s a matter of degree. You should eat less, rather than more, the same as you should use less, rather than more, gasoline. Is eating any meat at all unethical? No. Are we all obligated to reduce or minimize? I think clearly yes.

Posted in agriculture, animal rights, animal welfare, choice, health, kids, meat, nutrition | 3 Comments

No Ethical Obligation to Label Pink Slime

So, unfortunately, we now all know what “pink slime” is. It’s the ‘lean finely textured beef‘ (LFTB) that is produced by mashing and sterilizing scraps of beef. It looks disgusting, and the production process is unappealing. But then the same could be said for a lot of food ingredients.

Public outrage has followed the revelation that LFTB is finding its way into school lunches and into packaged ground beef. There have been calls for a ban, and calls to require that products containing LFTB be labeled. Both ideas are unwarranted.

(I should point out I have no personal stake in this debate. I haven’t eaten beef in over 20 years. As far as I can tell, the complaint is very roughly that producers of ground beef are mixing in a little bit of what is essentially all-beef hot dog meat.)

Being against the use of LFTB in the food system is more or less equivalent to being in favour of waste. In producing LFTB, the beef industry is being efficient in harvesting every last shred of meat from a carcass. So banning pink slime could even be bad for the planet, since if you ban something used as a filler in ground beef, and if you don’t at the same time reduce the demand for ground beef, you need to raise more cattle in order to meet demand. And beef cattle, as we all know by now, are ecologically pretty bad.

And while we’re on the topic of alternatives, it’s worth reading what the Consumer Federation of America has to say. The CFA has released a statement (PDF) advocating for LFTB. The CFA notes that while LFTB may be “icky”, it is at least safe, and whatever filler hamburger makers use to replace it may well be less safe.

Still, even if LFTB is safe, and good for the planet, what about the right to choose? Why not label products containing LFTB so that consumers can choose? After all, in a free society it’s good for people to have choices, even if they are liable to make bad ones sometimes.

But as I’ve written before, there’s no blanket right to know what’s in the food you’re eating. Wanting something — including some piece of information — isn’t the same as having a right to it. If high-end food companies and retailers want proudly to label their products as “LFTB Free” or “Pink Slime Free,” they have (and should have) the right to. But that’s a far cry from forcing labelling, and even further from banning a product that is yucky, but useful.

Posted in animal welfare, choice, industrial, labeling, meat

Who Wants Test-Tube Meat?

Sonja Puzic, for CTVNews.ca, asks: Would you eat meat grown in a test tube?

When a Dutch scientist declared last month that he could have the world’s first lab-grown hamburger on the grill by October, the Internet was abuzz with “Frankenmeat” discussions….

I’m quoted in the story, noting that the effectiveness of lab-grown meat as a solution to the ethical objections to raising animals depends, naturally enough, on the specific nature of your ethical objections. If your main objection to animal agriculture has to do with animal welfare, or the environment, then lab-grown meat sounds great. If your objection is rather the consumption of animal flesh per se, or to the industrialization of food, then growing meat in a vat isn’t going to satisfy you. That much is pretty obvious.

The more interesting point, I think, has to do with in vitro (lab-grown) meat as a kind of enabling technology. That is, some people may be worried not about “plain” in vitro meat, but about the far-out creations the in vitro meat process might enable. The most obvious possibilities have to do with genetic modification. Once you can grow meat in a lab — grow a vat of meat from just a few cells — then it becomes pretty tempting to do some genetic tinkering. You can imagine lots of reasons for such tinkering: improved nutrition, improved taste, or improved growth rates. But lots of people have objections to such tinkering, either because they worry about the risk of unintended consequences, or because they think it’s some sort of violation of nature.

(Some have made the same point about in vitro fertilization in humans. The worry, they say, is not so much the technology itself, or its most basic uses, but the more controversial procedures — including human genetic modifications — it could enable in the future.)

So in other words, the ethical worries about in vitro meat aren’t all worries about producing or consuming the meat itself.

By the way, though Puzic didn’t ask me directly, my answer is “yes.” Yes, I would eat lab-grown meat, or at least try it!
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I’ve blogged about the ethics of in vitro meat before, including:

Posted in agriculture, animal welfare, biotechnology, genetic modification, GMO, industrial, meat, science, synthetic meat, values

The Complex Politics of Food Ethics

Here’s a useful short piece by James McWilliams, writing for The Atlantic: Meat: What Big Agriculture and the Ethical Butcher Have in Common

I’ve repeatedly argued that supporting alternatives to the industrial production of animal products serves the ultimate interest of industrial producers. The decision to eat animal products sourced from small, local, and sustainable farms might seem like a fundamental rejection of big business as usual. It is, however, an implicit but powerful confirmation of the single most critical behavior necessary to the perpetuation of factory farming: eating animals….

One of the most interesting points McWilliams makes here has to do with the complexity of interests in this area. The ethical pros and cons of eating meat — or of different levels or styles of meat consumption — is far from a simple matter of “us vs. them.” The key players here include:

  • regular consumers
  • self-professed foodies
  • big ag
  • The Humane Society (and other similar groups)
  • industry front groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom

And of course, there’s plenty of diversity of intentions and values within each of those groups. Each of these groups has interests that overlap with those of other groups, but that overlap is always very incomplete. And as McWilliams points out, it’s entirely possible for one group (e.g., big ag) to point to the sliver of overlap that it has with some other group as a way of promoting its own interests.

(For those who don’t know, McWilliams is author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.)

Posted in agriculture, animal rights, animal welfare, ethics, meat, values

Sources of Calories and Diet-Industry Ethics

This is interesting, and confirms my non-scientist’s suspicion. It turns out that (at least according to this one study) calories count, but not where they come from. The basic finding is that if you’re trying to lose weight, what matters is your total caloric intake (and output), rather than whether your calories come mostly from carbs, protein, fats, etc.

And if the exact source doesn’t matter much, then it doesn’t make much sense to force yourself not to eat things you enjoy just because they contain whichever nutrient (carbs, protein, fats, etc.) some supposed diet guru tells you is evil.

Of course, this study doesn’t prove that certain sources of calories don’t have a biological tendency to promote fat storage, etc. That might still be true. What the study does support is that in the lives of real people trying to lose weight, the source of calories doesn’t matter nearly as much as the total calorie count does. And surely that’s what really matters.

This finding raises interesting ethical questions, naturally, for those who promote particular diets, especially ones that have as their foundation an attempt to demonize particular sources of calories. If you’re promoting a low-carb diet, for example, this new evidence should give you pause.

Posted in calories, diets, ethics, health, nutrition | 7 Comments

Backyard Chicken Ethics

Photo credit: Trish Tervit

As far as food goes, you can’t get much more “local” than raising chickens in your own backyard. But many cities forbid the practice. Zoning laws generally prescribe where you can and cannot raise animals for food. But such laws are not uniformly enforced, and when they are enforced the reason is not always entirely clear.

See this recent story by David Rider, for the Toronto Star:
Toronto’s backyard chicken farmers wait for the sky to fall

The story explores the plight of those Torontonians who opt to raise chickens in their backyards, a practice forbidden under Section 349 of the city’s Municipal Code. The focus is on the 3 chickens raised by Trish Tervit and her daughters.

What are we to think, ethically, of this lawless behaviour? I’m sympathetic. The ban on backyard agriculture is exceedingly broad, and (as far as I can see) goes beyond whatever public-policy objectives those who drafted it could reasonably have had in mind. Limits on the number of chickens raised, or chicken “density,” perhaps, would make sense. An outright ban does not.

It’s also worth noting that this is an example of the very best kind of law-breaking, namely the rather open form of law-breaking in which the law-breaker violates what she sees as an unjust law, and does so publicly, happily risking the consequences of her behaviour. It is, in other words, a minor form of civil disobedience.

What values lie behind this bit of backyard activism? In Tervit’s words, “…it’s teaching kids a little about where their food comes from, that there are ways to sustain yourself, and that chickens can walk around and eat grass and be chickens, as opposed to other ways egg production takes place.” So the objective, here is educational — generally, a worthy kind of goal. But the bigger point, here, ethically, is that when the relevant behaviour doesn’t hurt anyone else, there shouldn’t be a law against it in the first place.

(For more on these themes, see my earlier posting on “What’s the Point of Urban Farming?”)
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Disclosure: Trish is a friend of mine. The eggs are delicious!

Posted in agriculture, kids, law, local, urban farming, values | 2 Comments