Food for Thought #1 – The world of lab-grown meat, with Ira van Eelen
Can lab-grown meat be a solution for a more sustainable food system?
My childhood summer holidays revolved around the sea, first running naked around the beach, 306 - the number of our wooden beach hut - in marker on my back. But soon I was spending most of my time on my true passion: catching crabs and other small sea life in the tidal zone. I always made sure to be on the beach when the tide was out. I spent those few hours that the sea had withdrawn, between the rows of poles that protect Zeeland's beach from being washed away.
Apart from the prized crabs, these breakwaters are the habitat for many species, so hermit crabs, stampsized juvenile flatfish, pipefish, and lots and lots of shrimps ended up in my baby bath.
On a sunny day the typical child's beach bucket means sure death for the animals that suddenly find themselves in human care. So: I dutifully took a baby tub to the waterline, made sure to keep it filled with plenty of cool water, had sand on the bottom, and kept the bath in the shade. When the tide came in, I released nature’s wonders back into the sea where they belonged. My own catch as well as that of other children that planned to take their bucket back to a towel in the sun.
So why am I telling you about these blissful summer days, permeated with the smell of seaweed, that would finish with mom’s meatloaf if we were extra lucky? Well, 25 years on, I still can't help but look if the tide is out, and the sound barnacles make when they’re out of the water still fulfills me with a sense of belonging. I've since become a marine biologist - a fisheries biologist to be precise. And yes, I still catch shrimp.
The difference is that I don't throw them all back anymore, but sieve out the big ones to eat. I do exactly what little Victor would find so sad for the shrimp. My mother's stuffed meatloaf after a day on the beach used to be an absolute highlight - but now you won't see me buy a pound of mince at the butchers. Because the meat industry has the kind of environmental impact and animal suffering I struggle with much more presently.
I do still think it's sad for the shrimp, but I'm very conscious of the choices I make in my food consumption. And I believe there is a place for animal protein in our diet. So I still eat meat, but my intake is decreasing steadily. Today I often eat geese that are shot in the (hopeless) fight of Dutch farmers against an increasingly numerous population. I clean the birds myself, and this process puts me in touch with nature and the animal I am eating.
To come back to those shrimp, I know that my light trawl has little impact in a dynamic tidal zone, the by-catch goes straight back, there is no heavy ship’s engine or foreign trip for peeling involved. Even peeling a small catch will easily take me an hour, all in all a very conscious process that is a far cry from buying a box of shrimp in the supermarket. Discussions about living sustainably very often revolve around food - because it's what you buy most often, it's a key part of our social life and food production has huge environmental impacts. I try to make adjustments based on insights I get along the way. I’d like to think I am an increasingly conscious and better consumer.
Eating is about taste as much as it is about feeling or emotion. And thus a lot of nonsense is sold around it as well. I would like to take you with me in my considerations and reflections. And hopefully these pieces will inspire you in how you relate to food and the world around us.
I am very consciously in this transition, and by the time I've finished writing these few articles - I am sure I will have become a better consumer than I am now.