Sausages without the pig

14/11/2011

Predictions revisited

Food production by tissue engineering

This drawing by Nik Spencer shows an as-yet unrealised concept of Morris Benjaminson at Touro College, New York, It introduces the theme, rather than illustrating the work in the Netherlands noted below. The source is an article by Nicola Jones in Nature 468, 752-753 (2010) and you can see a larger and more legible version here http://www.nature.com/news/2010/101208/full/468752a/box/1.html

I’d still like to trace just where the idea originated. I know that In 1967 I was predicting “beef-steak without a cow” in The Environment Game, a book that visualized the land areas needed for agriculture being greatly reduced. In 1983, my contribution to The Future of a Troubled World, pictured “endless sausages growing by tissue culture of pork muscle”. But now I learn that Winston Churchill was talking about “chicken breast without the chicken” back in 1931. Where did he get it from? I’ll go on checking.

The Churchill quote comes in a segment in “Brave New World with Stephen Hawking” on Channel 4 (14 November). It follows up stories of the past few years about developments, most notably in the Netherlands, that are gradually making it a reality.

Here’s what I wrote in 1967:

Tissue culture itself is one of the most attractive ideas for artificial food production. It is no longer far-fetched to think that we may learn how to grow beef-steak, for example, without a cow. Tissue culture, the technique for growing cells outside the organism from which they originated, is already used for special purposes in research and also for growing viruses in the manufacture of vaccine; the advent of polio vaccine depended on the successful cultivation of kidney cells. That in turn followed the introduction of antibiotics to preserve the cultures from the ravages of stray micro-organisms.

When cells are cultured by present techniques they tend to lose their specialized character. By deliberately letting specialized cells such as kidney or muscle revert to the undifferentiated nature of a newly fertilized egg, we can use them in a quite arbitrary way for a variety of synthetic purposes. If, on the other hand, we want to grow beef-steak we must simulate the conditions governing the growth and arrangement of the cells in the live animal, otherwise we shall finish up with something like finely divided mince.

The Netherlands launched a well-funded multi-university project in 2005, and in the Hawking show, Mark Evans visits Mark Post at Maastricht University who shows him muscle fibres forming artifically. Post has some commerical backing and declares himself “reasonably confident” that next year (2012) he’ll make a hamburger. But with a price tag on the burger at 250,000 euros it’s “still in the scientific phase”.

Besides reducing the land areas for meat production, eventual success with “in-vitro meat” will mean that astronauts bound for Mars can still have their burgers, sausages and chicken breast.

Added 15 November.

Suspecting that J.B.S. Haldane might have been an early predictor of synthetic food, I’ve dug out this 1923 lecture http://www.marxists.org/archive/haldane/works/1920s/daedalus.htm But he visualizes synthesis from scratch. “Many of our foodstuffs, including the proteins, we shall probably build up from simpler sources such as coal and atmospheric nitrogen.”

A step in the extrapolation to tissue culture seems to have come from Haldane’s evolutionist chum, Julian Huxley, in fictional form in a short story, “The Tissue-Culture King” (1927). There the tissue of an African ruler was proliferated in that way – but for power, not for food. So where did Churchill get his rather precise prediction from? En route I’ve found the Churchill source. In Fifty Years Hence, In Thoughts and Adventures, Thornton Butterworth (London) 1932, Winston wrote:

“Fifty years hence we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”

References

Nicola Jones, Nature, 468, 752-753, 2010

Nigel Calder, The Environment Game, Secker & Warburg (London) 1997

Ritchie Calder (ed), The Future of a Troubled World, Heinemann (London) 1983

Channel 4 (London), “Brave New World with Stephen Hawking,” Part 4, Environment, 14 November 2011. See http://www.channel4.com/programmes/brave-new-world-with-stephen-hawking/4od#3253407


Malthus with a computer

24/06/2010

Predictions Revisited

Malthus with a Computer”

Take a model that purports to predict the future and just run it back to the past. The result are sometimes salutary. Ross McKitrick of Guelph (celebrated for his role in trashing the warmist’s Hockey Stick) has done that with a model from the Canadian Medical Association.

The model predicts a shocking loss of life from air pollution. As reported last week by Peter Shawn Taylor in Canada’s Financial Post, McKitrick put 1960s levels of air pollution into the model and found that the deaths it attributed to pollution in the Toronto area reached more than 100% of all the people who actually died. As McKitrick said, “It just doesn’t make sense.”

The story rang a bell with me, about a famous computer model of the early 1970s, which spawned the best-seller The Limits to Growth from Donella H. Meadows and her colleagues at MIT. It predicted industrial pollution growing out of control and a global population crash in the 21st Century. That may sound familiar, but four decades ago the pollution wasn’t greenhouse gases but good old-fashioned smog and poisonous wastes from industry and agriculture.

Here is the “standard” projection in The Limits to Growth 1972. It runs from 1900 to 2100. You can see the global population climbing and outstripping food production, so that food per capita falls, bringing the population down with it. Meanwhile natural resources, starting high in 1900, are being rapidly exhausted at the end of the century, and converted into steadily rising industrial output and accelerating pollution. Everything unravels in the early 21st Century, with agriculture and industry collapsing, and billions of people dying.

As I noted in my book 1984 and After, Sam Cole and Ray Curnow of SPRU (the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University) ran the Limits to Growth model backwards. It told them that, before 1880, the world’s population was infinite. Again: “It just doesn’t make sense.”

A book of essays rebutting The Limits to Growth, produced by SPRU (see the Cole reference),  pointed out that a moderate rate of discovery of new resources, combined with slow progress in pollution control, would completely avoid the predicted disasters. Chris Freeman, SPRU’s director, called his own critique ‘Malthus with a computer’.

There’s a sub-plot in this story, about the Club of Rome that funded the original Limits to Growth study. Aurelio Peccei, an Italian industrialist, and Alexander King, a British scientific civil servant, founded it in 1968. King tried hard to seduce me with the idea that international technocrats should rule the world. I’m sorry to say I can see some influence on my writings in the late 1960s. But Limits to Growth brought me to my senses. What if the technocrats’ expectations are completely wrong?

Nowadays the Club of Rome is seen by some as the spider that spun the web of authoritarian environmentalism, which then promoted the global warming scare two decades later. I leave that as a googling exercise for the readers to pursue if they wish. Better to end, perhaps, with a limerick that I learnt from Chris Freeman of SPRU.

A trend is a trend is a trend

But when and how does it bend?

Does it rise to the sky,

Or lie down and die,

Or asymptote on to the end?

References

Shawn Taylor’s article in the Financial Post is here: http://opinion.financialpost.com/2010/06/15/junk-science-week-the-missing-smog-dead/

Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L Meadows, Jørgen Randers and William W. Behrens, The Limits to Growth, New American Library, 1972

Nigel Calder, 1984 and After, Century Publishing, 1983.

H.S.D. Cole, Christopher Freeman, Marie Jahoda and K.L.R. Pavitt, Thinking About the Future: a Critique of the Limits to Growth, Chatto & Windus for Sussex University Press, 1973