Technologies – applied properly – have an important role to play in sustainable food systems. However, Patti Whaley, Trustee of the Food Ethics Council, argues we should be wary of hoping that techno fixes will make our existing ethical dilemmas go away. It’s more likely that they will solve some, create some new ones, and leave some unchanged.
At first glance, the recent RethinkX report on the future of food and agriculture might sound like good news. According to their predictions, replacing intensive livestock farming with precision fermentation of protein will largely do away with a host of food sector “issues”, including poor nutrition, high or unstable food prices, food-borne disease, high environmental footprint, biodiversity loss and poor animal welfare. I’m not about to give odds on whether their predictions will come true; after all, lab-based meat has been “just over the horizon” for some time now. But it’s worth giving some thought, with our Food Ethics hat on, to why technological solutions are so seductive, and whether the lure of an easy technological fix hides some deeper ethical issues.
Some background: RethinkX is an independent thinktank that analyses and forecasts the speed and scale of technology-driven disruption and its implications across society. They have produced two reports so far – one on disruption in the transportation sector, and this latest one on the food sector. Both reports predict widespread technologically-driven disruption within the next ten years. These disruptions will cause an initial loss of jobs and economic value, but will, according to RethinkX, radically reduce both the economic and the environmental cost of food and transport. If managed properly, they say, the food sector disruption will also decentralise and redistribute power within the food sector, shifting us away from a system dominated by large corporate players, capital-intensive production, and haggling over intellectual property (‘IP’) and trade agreements. I’m not here to endorse or condemn the RethinkX report – but I am interested in the questions it raises about our approach to problems in the food system.
RethinkX’s argument is presented in a largely objective, non-judgemental way, although there is clearly an underlying view that the predicted benefits of this disruption ought to be widely distributed for the public good, rather than closely protected for corporate profit. In particular, they highlight the importance of how intellectual property will be licensed: we should “Allow companies to patent production methods but not life, genes, or molecules – IP regimes should be process-focused rather than output-focused.” They also argue that the forces of decentralisation and competition will tend to minimise barriers and maximise broad public benefit.
On the surface – so far, so good. And it’s not surprising, given the challenges of world hunger and environmental degradation, that a technological path out of our current situation looks so attractive. But if we think more deeply, there are important questions here about wellbeing, power, winners and losers, what choices we make, and why we keep hoping that technology will save us from ourselves. To list just a few of these:
The reason that laboratory protein looks so appealing is that it promises that we can continue to eat in the ways we are accustomed to, without the associated costs. By disassociating protein production from livestock farming, we can “have our [burger] and eat it too”. That promise may or may not come true, but it would still leave us with some important choices to make. As societies, we would still need to choose to share the benefits of technological innovation with our poorer neighbours, rather than using them to retain the economic upper hand; and to use the resources freed up by disruption for public good rather than private profit. We would still need to choose to treat our food producers and food servers fairly and with dignity. As individuals, we would still need to choose varied and healthy diets, not just cheap ones. And for those of us who love to cook and eat good food, and who are fortunate enough to be able to do so, we could still choose to treat food as a source of creativity, comfort and joy, rather than a cheap and convenient commodity.
The problem with future technology promises is that they can tempt us to put off urgent reforms to our food system. Maybe, just maybe, some silver bullet will come along that will resolve our dilemmas for us, but relying on that hope would be a mistake. We can make better choices right away.
Guest blog from Patti Whaley, Trustee of the Food Ethics Council