Biotech’s influence on food production is a hot topic right now. It is so hot that some futurists are predicting that traditional agriculture and husbandry will eventually give way to food produced exclusively by the biotech sector. Agricultural jobs will be replaced by biotech jobs. Farms will give way to labs and mass production facilities. But before you get excited, understand that biotech has a long history with food production.
We humans have a tendency of viewing history within the framework of our own lifespans. We know our own personal experiences well. We are familiar with some of the experiences our parents and grandparents had. But that’s about as far as our historical understanding goes. That’s why so many people think that the marriage between biotech and food production is a relatively new thing. It is not.
1. Biotech in Ancient Times
What throws us off is the term itself. ‘Biotech’ sounds new and innovative because of its association with technology. Yet the principles behind biotech are as old as humanity itself. For instance, consider genetic engineering. Biotech companies have been engineering crops to make them more pest resistant for a few decades. Yet farmers were doing the same thing millennia ago.
History demonstrates that ancient farmers crossbred crops as a regular practice. Crossbreeding is done to achieve a crop that is more resistant to whatever could harm it. You might crossbreed to make crops pest resistant or more amenable to a dryer environment.
Likewise, livestock producers and shepherds have been selectively breeding animals for as long as farmers have crossbred crops. Selective breeding in husbandry allows one to isolate and promote certain genetic traits. The practice is responsible for creating the different breeds throughout husbandry.
2. Biotech and Your Beer
If you are still not convinced that biotech is an ancient practice, consider your favorite beer. Do you know how the manufacturer turned grain and yeast into an alcohol-infused beverage? They did it through fermentation which, according to the UC Davis Center for Consumer Research, is an ancient form of biotechnology.
Fermentation occurs when bacteria feed on sugars and convert them to alcohol. It is considered biotech because you are introducing substances that don’t naturally occur together in order to produce another substance. You are biologically manipulating bacteria, sugar, and grain to produce alcohol in volumes that do not occur in nature.
3. Modern Biotech and Food Production
If biotech has such a long history with food production, what is new these days? The lab. The Pharma Diversity job board lists thousands of biotech jobs around the country. Many of those jobs involve daily lab work. That’s where biotech and food production are headed.
Instead of continuing to crossbreed crops and selectively breed animals, the biotech industry wants to bring food production into the lab. A good example is ‘growing’ meat from a small number of cells taken from a mother sample. The cells are grown in a tightly controlled lab setting to produce various cuts of meat.
In theory, biotech engineers can grow T-bone and porterhouse stakes without having to raise actual cows. They can grow chicken wings and breasts instead of breeding chickens and then slaughtering them. One of the purported benefits of this sort of food production is the ability to eliminate growth hormones and antibiotics. But at what cost? Are we just replacing those unwanted substances with others that are necessary to achieve lab grown food?
At any rate, biotech and food production have a long history together. Their marriage only seems like a modern phenomenon because our grasp of history is so limited.