The Irish Times view on the the future of food: A scientific revolution

Opportunities abound for Ireland given its justified reputation for producing quality foods

The availability of synthetic meat will lead to dramatic changes in human diets, while being immensely challenging for the farming and agrifood industry.   Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

The availability of synthetic meat will lead to dramatic changes in human diets, while being immensely challenging for the farming and agrifood industry. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

Food production driven by science is about to enter an era of rapid innovation. Synthetic meat composed from stem cells in cattle, and made with remarkable precision, is about to hit supermarket shelves. It will lead to dramatic changes in human diets, while being immensely challenging for the farming and agrifood industry – which in Ireland is at the heart of the economy.

Separately, there is a demand that sustainability be at the core of the food industry to reduce its large carbon footprint, especially in beef production. Yet it has to gear up to be able to feed a world population of 10 billion.

Advanced gene editing and synthetic biology in food production are already happening in the laboratory. It is predicted that the €300,000 synthetic burger made in the lab will soon cost 16 cent, and ultimately will be made in the home using a bioreactor with instructions from a smartphone.

A conference in Dublin to mark the Food Safety Authority of Ireland’s 20th anniversary considered how best to respond. The immense food safety challenges are obvious; regulatory authorities have to contend with a new frontier. Risk assessment needs to innovate to determine the impact of new technologies.

All too often in the past risk analysis and regulation did not keep up with food innovation. Instances of fraud and adulteration, and delays in tackling new forms of food poisoning outbreaks often resulted. Those failings fuelled the BSE crisis and, more recently, a horse meat scandal in some EU markets.

Science Foundation Ireland director general Prof Mark Ferguson underlined the challenges which arise against a background where people want and should have access to data that is clear and transparent, so they can make informed choices on what they eat.

Often unfairly, however, they conflate scientific assessment with their personal values, according to European Food Safety Authority director Dr Bernhard Url, while demanding zero risk, which is impossible. In this new marketplace, there will be opportunities, especially for Ireland given its justified reputation for producing quality foods.

What’s more, science and innovation is ready to help address the climate crisis by producing foods in a different way and generating new foods.

Crispr technology has generated a genetically-modified plant capable of capturing 30 per cent more carbon in the soil. Ferguson asked: “Won’t it be interesting to see how society and the consumer reacts to genetic manipulation of food that is not about increasing profit but about doing good for the planet?”

This new reality means Irish society has to have a conversation about the moral case for lifting what is arguably an unduly restrictive Government policy on the use of GM organisms in food.

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