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:

  • Would an abundance of cheap protein improve our wellbeing? For most of us, no. Most people on Western-based diets do not need more protein in their diets – we already eat too much, when we should be eating more vegetables and whole grains. For too long now, we have equated a high-protein diet with affluence; in developing countries such as China, a rise in the standard of living has led to greater consumption of meat, in spite of evidence that a Mediterranean or largely plant-based diet can be better for us. Fresh fruit and vegetables already look relatively expensive, particularly when compared to highly-processed sugars, fats and carbohydrates; a big drop in the relative cost of protein might make fruits, vegetables and whole grains look even less affordable. Although there are undoubtedly poor areas of the world where additional protein would improve overall diets, for most of us, a ready supply of cheap protein could result in a less diverse and healthy diet.
  • Would a different technology lead us to a more decentralised, open-source, public-benefit food system? Not necessarily. Food production certainly used to be a highly-decentralised and localised activity where seeds, breeds and farming know-how were shared more openly. But the forces of corporate capitalism seem to have pushed us towards ever greater concentration of power, and companies have been adept at protecting their interests through intellectual property law and international trade agreements. Countries such as the United States have used their trade-negotiating power to dump their excess grain reserves on poorer countries, for example, undercutting local markets and driving local food producers into bankruptcy. A production technology that requires less capital may partially offset this trend, but it’s unlikely to slow it down for long. I’d agree with RethinkX that an IP regime that protected processes, but not specific proteins, would be preferable; but achieving such a regime would run counter to the IP trends of the last several decades.
  • Do we need a new technology to solve the environmental problems of our food system? Not necessarily. Much of the high environmental cost of our food system could be eliminated without any new technology at all. The benefits proposed by RethinkX – a rebuilding of fish stocks, less use of antibiotics and growth hormones, lower rates of food-based illness, a drop in our use of petrol-based products, a reduction in animal suffering – could all be ours now, if we were willing to shift towards more plant-based diets and eat “less but better” meat.
  • Perhaps most importantly: Do we need a new technology to feed the world’s billions? No. Technology can certainly help, but we could feed everyone now if we wanted to — perhaps not a Western high-protein diet, but a perfectly adequate and reasonably varied one, and arguably a healthier one. The problem of world hunger, or even UK hunger, is not a problem of production; it’s a problem of poor distribution, and the prioritising of private profit over public goods.

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