Veg Technology: Where non-sentient beings meet engineers

Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, gives an overview of the types of Veg Technology that are currently in development to accelerate the transition away from animal products.

I am not a technophobe.

I like science because I am a scientist myself. Although I am not an academic, I am a zoologist. My expertise is on animals, not bacteria, fungi, plants, rocks, molecules, galaxies or sub-atomic particles. But during my university studies, I specialised in ethology (the comparative study of animal behaviour in natural habitats), which means that I am a “boots” scientist, not a “white coat” scientist. I observe animals in the wild, not in labs, and one thing we can say about the wild is that it’s full of all sorts of life.

Whether you are a herbivore who eats them or a carnivore who hides behind them, most animals lives are intimately connected to plants. And in the wild, fungi, bacteria and algae are everywhere. There are about 7.77 million species of animals on Earth, but, around them, it is estimated there are at least 72,500 algal species, 391,000 species of plants, 12 million species of fungi, and two billion species of bacteria.

What is the difference between these groups of living organisms? Well, ignoring the precise definitions created by scientists to classify each organism in a particular group, in a nutshell, animals are complex multicellular moving sentient beings who eat other organisms to obtain energy. Plants are complex multicellular growing sedentary non-sentient beings that obtain energy directly from the light. Fungi are spore-producing non-sentient beings that feed on organic matter to obtain energy. Algae are simple non-flowering aquatic non-sentient beings that obtain energy directly from the light, and bacteria are very simple unicellular non-sentient beings which have cell walls but without organelles or an organized nucleus, which can use many different methods to obtain energy. And that is not all. We also have the Archaea, the Protists, and the Viruses, but I will not bother you about them.

The point I am making here is that the diversity of life on this planet — and possibly on other planets in other star systems — is huge, but we pretty much could divide everyone into two groups depending on whether the organisms are sentient and how they obtain their energy.

For instance, if you are sentient and eat other organisms, you are an animal. Here is how I define sentience in my book “Ethical Vegan”:

“At its most basic meaning, sentience is the ability to experience positive and negative sensations, which requires two things: firstly, senses to perceive the sensations from stimuli coming from the environment, and, secondly, a nervous system to process such sensations and translate them into experiences which allow the animals to react accordingly, depending on whether they are negative or positive (i.e. fleeing from an adverse environment or moving towards a source of food or a mate).” And those organisms that have sentience during a considerable proportion of their life are sentient beings.

For a vegan, that’s very important. Why? Because we vegans seek to exclude any form of exploitation of any other sentient being, which means we avoid eating any, or any of their secretions. We, as vegans, are animals who have voluntarily adopted a philosophy as the basis of our lifestyle that prevent us from consciously using other animals for food, work, clothing or any other purpose — If we have a choice, that is. We don’t avoid consuming living organisms altogether as all vegans are animals, so we obtain our energy by consuming other organisms (or their parts). But we avoid those organisms that are sentient. It is therefore essential that we vegans know the difference between a sentient being and a non-sentient being.

It doesn’t matter if they use their sentience for complex behaviours like a chimp or simple ones like an earthworm.

If we are true to the definition (and the spirit) of veganism, we avoid harming all animals.

In this regard, science has made vegans’ lives easier. It has put all sentient beings in the same “Queendom.” I call it the “Animal Queendom” (it’s actually called “Animal Kingdom”, but I thought I would switch it in this article for equality’s sake), and we avoid exploiting or consuming any member of such Queendom. Any animal. It doesn’t matter if they are big like a whale or small like a mosquito. It doesn’t matter if they move fast like a falcon or hardly move like a mussel. It doesn’t matter if they use their sentience for complex behaviours like a chimp or simple ones like an earthworm. If we are true to the definition (and the spirit) of veganism, we avoid harming all animals.

For everyone else, it’s often open season. Most vegans limit little how they exploit and consume non-sentient beings, as the definition of veganism doesn’t specifically tell us about it. However, other vegans, like myself, care about plants and the environment too, so although we still consume the former and interfere with the latter, we try to be careful and be as harmless as possible. We take the concept of ahimsa, one of the basic principles of veganism that means “do no harm”, as a limitless concept. We try to apply it to anything that can be harmed, beyond sentient beings. Ethical eco-vegans like me avoid consuming or exploiting animals and are careful in consuming and exploiting other living organisms because we want to minimise the harm we may inflict on them. But this second part may be tricky. We may need some help to get it right. We may need the assistance of scientists to tell us how we can minimise our blood and carbon footprint — and any other footprint that could be devised to measure harm. And we may need the help of engineers that devise innovative methods to obtain food, energy and materials from non-sentient organisms. Enter Veg Technology.

What is Veg Technology?

As far as I know, there is not an official definition of Veg Technology (which sometimes may be referred to as VegTech, PlantTech, Vegetable Tech or Veganic Tech). So, I thought I would create one myself:

Any emerging technology aimed to produce food, materials, pharmaceuticals or energy from non-animal biological sources.

Let’s unpack this definition a bit. In this case, the Veg is short for “Vegetable” (it is not an acronym for Virtual Environment Generator, Vapor Energy Generator, or Very Evil Grin). I took the liberty to interpret the concept of “vegetable” as meaning “part of a non-animal organism used for human consumption”. I know that the actual definition is “part of plants used for human consumption”, but I chose my meaning considering that, colloquially, people use the term plant-based as meaning non-animal-based (no plant-based person or product uses the term ‘plant’ in such labelling as only to mean coming from the plant Queendom, and not from fungi, algae, etc.).
By emergent technology, I mean technologies that are currently developing, or that are expected to be generally available within the next decades, which can create significant social or economic effects. I, therefore, exclude old technologies that humanity has been using for centuries, or any gimmicky technology unlikely to have any impact on people’s lives when properly scaled up and made available to everyone.

I should point out that a biological source is not the same as an organic source. Fossil fuels and their derivatives are organic in nature (as are based on carbon and originally come from dead living organisms which after millions of years have become oil, gas or coal) but are not biological. A biological source is a living organism or a dead organism that was recently alive.

As far as the concept of “material” in the definition is concerned, it covers anything that is a form of matter used for its physical properties other than the energy, nutrients or physiological changes they can provide when consumed, chemically digested, injected into someone or burned. So, things like fibres to make clothes or furniture, structures to make frames, solids to make receptacles, covers or packaging, etc.

Now that we have defined the “what”, let’s look at the “why”. Emerging technologies have always been with humanity since the first Homo habilis started making tools out of rocks about 2.3 million years ago. We never stopped creating new ways to manipulate the world and to get food, materials, medicines and energy to make life easier for us. So, that part of “why” is “because this is what humans do.”

It seems that “old technologies” have gotten out of hand, and we need “new technologies” to correct our errors — and to do it fast as we don’t have that much time.

But other parts are more important. We are currently experiencing a series of global crises that could be summarised as “what humans do is messing everything up”. The human-made climate crisis, the massive extinction of other species, the destruction of ecosystems, the suffering of a growing human population that distributes food unequally, the torture of trillions of sentient beings exploited for all sorts of purposes, etc. It seems that “old technologies” have gotten out of hand, and we need “new technologies” to correct our errors — and to do it fast as we don’t have that much time. We need new renewable energy sources to replace the old “burn something” technology. We need new plant-based agriculture to replace the old “kill everyone that moves” technology. We need new holistic pharmacological approaches to replace the old “take these pills every day” technology. We need new non-polluting transport to replace the old “burn to push” technology. And if any of these new technologies do not use animals as their source, we can solve many of those global crises at the same time.

And finally, another important component of the “why” of Veg Technologies is to help those ethical vegans like myself to reduce even more their carbon and blood footprint, and be able to thrive while harming less of what can be harmed. If we can obtain all the food, materials, pharmaceuticals or energy we need without harming any living organism or the environment, not just without harming any sentient being, then we should try to go for it. And if that possibility is just that, a possibility and not a reality yet, this is why we need to develop emerging technologies until they are widely available to everyone.

Knowing the “what” and the “why”, it’s time to look at specific examples of “how.”

Plant-Based Veg Technology

The term AgTech (short for Agricultural Technology) is often used meaning technologies to increase productivity and yields in agricultural systems to account for an increased demand for food. That applies both to animal and plant-based agriculture, both of which started a millennia ago. It is believed that plant-based agriculture may have developed first, around 11,500 years ago, and animal agriculture followed about 10,000 years ago. Since then, both evolved all sorts of new greed-based technologies culminating with the disastrous factory farming of animals and the destructive monocultural forest-destroying mega-crops we find today.

One solution to these problems is Regenerative Veganic Agriculture. In the 1950s, organic farming was developed from those concerned for the environment and all the pesticides and chemical fertilisers traditional agriculture was using.

However, for vegans, organic farming was an incomplete solution, as although it avoided most animal-killing pesticides, it used products from animal agriculture, such as animal manure. In 1960, we first saw the term “veganic farming” published in Rosa Dalziel O’Brien’s gardening column of the Vegan Society’s magazine. It is the organic cultivation of plants and crops with a minimal amount of exploitation or harm to any animal. For instance, no use of animal manure or bone/fish meal (using instead mulch, vegetable compost, green manure, or chipped branched wood), no pesticides of any sort, and no use of animals to plough fields either. Veganic farmers use crop rotation and polyculture, which although at the time it may have looked like Veg Technology as we defined it, was pretty much rediscovering old technology that had been forgotten.

With time, veganic farmers grew in numbers and became organized, developing different approaches and standards, and looking more at the wider environmental effects of their crops. This is what became Regenerative Veganic Agriculture, and although it was still very much inspired by old technology, the new ecological knowledge made it look for new emerging technologies too. For instance, the use of animal manure might have been an important part of traditional organic farming approaches avoiding industrialised techniques, but the ethical imperative that makes vegans avoid all animal products meant that this option was off the table. An extra effort had to be made to replace it with plant and fungi sources of soil fertility.

Veganic farmers used slightly different approaches to tackle this issue, and in different parts of the world, different terms have been used to describe them (such as Stockfree Farming, Veganics, Biocyclic Vegan Agriculture, Vegan Organic, etc.). Some international standards were created to specifically define such different approaches. For instance, in the 1950s, the German Adolf Hoops pioneered Biocyclic Vegan Agriculture (BVA), which was so named by Dr Johannes Eisenbach in the 1980s. In 2017, its official standards became international. It especially promotes biodiversity, healthy soil life, the closure of organic cycles, and systematic build-up of humus.

Pictured: Rich Hardy – Veganic Farmer

In 1996, the Vegan Organic Network was formed in the UK, and created its veganic standards called “Certified Stockfree-Organic”. Its members grow organic crops with only plant-based fertilizers, encouraging functional biodiversity so pesticides are no longer necessary. The standards show four types of practices: recommended, permitted, restricted and prohibited. Among many rules, no pesticides, no herbicides, no GMOs, and no animal by-products are permitted in any part of the chain. Farmers cannot keep animals for food production or commercial gain, must minimise their reliance on off-farm inputs and non-renewable resources, use physical barriers to deal with competing species, and do not intentionally kill any animals.

In 1996, the Vegan Organic Network was formed in the UK, and created its veganic standards called “Certified Stockfree-Organic”.

Another member of Regenerative Veganic Agriculture is Veganic Permaculture. Permaculture is a philosophical approach to land management adopting arrangements observed in stable natural ecosystems, and it was developed in the 1930s by the American Joseph Russell Smith, Japanese Toyohiko Kagawa, Australian P. A. Yeomans and Tasmanian Bill Mollison in the 1960s. When you remove the animal component in it, it becomes veganic permaculture.

Its members grow organic crops with only plant-based fertilizers, encouraging functional biodiversity so pesticides are no longer necessary.

The use of companion planting, catch crops, extensive crop rotation and the implementation of semi-natural habitats within the boundaries of and/or on the cultivating land are common practices among veganic farmers that are inspired by old farming methods, but there is also room for new tech as well.

For instance, using ultra-lightweight robots for less disruptive precision farming. Ground mobile robots, equipped with advanced GPS technologies for positioning and orientation, navigation, and sensing, are already used in the mining, forestry and farming industries. They use the concept of UGV (Unmanned Ground Vehicle), and although they might have been originally designed to work faster, they could be designed to work more carefully, and cause less disturbance in the soil and the plants harvested. They could even be designed to detect fauna and avoid accidentally crushing animals — one of the problems with traditional agriculture that many vegans ignore — and to deal more efficiently with plant pathogens without the need for chemicals.

Pictured: ‘Namib’ Beetle, which collects moisture from early morning fog “on filaments that condense mist”.

The EU has been developing projects for “Smart Agri-food Systems”, which include robotics, micro-nano-bio-systems, and GPS-EGNOS based Precision Agriculture using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). These have near real-time sensing information for precision agriculture applications such as water stress monitoring, detection of nutrient deficiencies and crop diseases.

It’s not only about high tech futuristic machinery, though. Sometimes what is innovative are the methods and procedures used. Anna Sweet is the CEO of a video games company and Nate Salpeter is a nuclear engineer with a background in climate technology. Seven years ago, they decided to move into a farm outside Silicon Valley they called Sweet Farm. They transformed it into a 20-acre animal sanctuary that keeps more than 150 rescued farmed animals, and a 2.5-acre organic farm that grows more than one hundred crops. But being engineers, they started to develop all sorts of new tech for their fields. They made Sweet Farm an AgTech non-profit researching and investing in new technology programs, supporting start-ups that are working to make our food system more sustainable and compassionate.

For instance, they use human waste processed at very high temperatures to create biochar they use to enrich their green fertiliser. This is what Nate told the L.A. vegan broadcaster Jane Velez-Mitchell in a 2021 interview for UnchainedTV:

“We do have a robust compost program out here. We integrate in the shavings from our barns, the animals have bedding, as a carbon source. And we also integrate in biochar. You take the biomass out of the wastewater treatment, you burn it at a very high temperature with very low oxygen content, and it turns 100 tones of biomass into one ton of biochar, breaking down all the pharmaceuticals, all the pathogens. All of that becomes carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, etc. Constituent elements; benign elements at that point. And the carbon source becomes a great water retention device. We integrate it into the soil. It absorbs nitrogen from the compost pile and then releases it more slowly.”

They also experimented with duckweed. They have ponds where birds defecate, which increases nitrogen and phosphorous content in the water. This leads to duckweed growing, which causes oxygen depletion in the water. But now they use it as a nitrogen source to fertilise their crops, boosting the moisture and nitrogen content (while at the same time the floating duckweed covers the surface of the pond reducing evaporation, which is a problem in California).

Another way they addressed the lack of water problem was working with a company that uses biomimicry technology, imitating a specific type of sub-Saharan African beetle called the Namib beetle. They collect water droplets on filaments that condense mist.

Regarding using Plant-Based Veg Technology for advances in the pharmaceutical industry, another Californian company seems to be leading on this. Sofia Elizondo, Jim Flatt and Lea Chae co-founded a biosciences company called Brightseed in 2017. In it, they created Forager®, the first artificial intelligence platform to map the world’s molecules and predict which of them have the greatest impact on critical health areas. Little is known about what happens when we eat plant-based foods, about what beneficial molecules in the plant, called phytonutrients, interact with what biological targets in our bodies. What Forager® does is map millions of bioactive natural compounds trying to make new connections between the natural world and human health. It has already analysed over 700,000 compounds for their health properties and is on track to surpass 10 million by 2025. The result? Potentially more plant-based effective medicines based on natural compounds.

Alga-Based Veg Technology

Similarly to plants, algae obtain energy from light, but they are much simpler non-flowering organisms that tend to grow in aquatic environments (there are some exceptions, as the symbiotic algae that live in lichens together with fungi). Although relatively rare, people have been eating algae for a long time. Seaweed is the term used for edible marine algae, and the Japanese eat lots of it (Nori, Kombu, Hijiki, and Wakame).

Pictured: Seaweed, often eaten as a
snack or used to wrap Sushi

Also, two popular forms of “algae” are used in modern cuisine: Chlorella, a freshwater alga which has been found to contain vitamin B12 (as well as iron, zinc, magnesium, vitamin B2 and Omega-3 Fatty acids) and Spirulina, which is, in fact, a cyanobacterium (a type of bacterium, incorrectly referred to as a “blue-green alga”) and therefore not a true alga itself.

Alga-based Veg technology can also be found in the fields of seaweed farming, food ingredients and food supplements. Kelp farming is the practice of cultivating and harvesting seaweed. The top seven most cultivated seaweed taxa are Eucheuma spp., Kappaphycus alvarezii, Gracilaria spp., Saccharina japonica, Undaria pinnatifida, Pyropia spp., and Sargassum fusiforme. Seaweed farming is a carbon negative crop, with a high potential for helping to address our climate emergency. The IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate recommended “further research attention” to kelp farming, making it a veg technology with great potential.

KelpCrofting is a seaweed farming business growing kelp in the Isle of Skye’s waters, on the West Coast of Scotland. Crofting is a form of land-tenure and small-scale food production that has taken place in Scotland’s Highlands and Islands for hundreds of years, but is also a social structure that was traditionally defined by its common working communities. This is what KelpCrofting says are the benefits of growing algae:

“generating income, slowing climate change, water remediation, fuelling environmental economies, and providing new habitats (seaweed farms provide seasonal habitats for fish and small invertebrates, which can attract mammals and birds, enhancing local biodiversity).”

One type of algae, agar-agar, has become one of the major replacements of animal gelatine. It can also be used as a thickener for soups, fruit preserves, ice cream, as a clarifying agent in brewing, and for paper and fabrics production.

Regarding supplements, in addition to B12, many vegans (including I) take Omega 3 supplements (although there is no scientific consensus yet, this important fatty acid may be lacking in vegans who have been vegan for many years). Pescatarians use this as their excuse to eat fishes, as they are said to be high in Omega 3. However, many people don’t know that this is because fishes eat algae, which are the organisms that produce Omega 3 acids. So, vegans now go straight to the source, getting this directly from veg technology companies such as NothingFishy that extracts it from algae. So, thanks to algae, the pescatarian excuse does not hold water anymore.

Fungus-Based Veg Technology

Plants get most of the vegans’ praise, but we should not forget fungi. Disregarding the recreation side of some of the psychotropic versions that have become popular in some circles, mushrooms (the most known form of fungi) have been part of human diets for time immemorial. Fungi are very important for vegans too, even if many don’t realise. Many of us get our precious B12 vitamin from fortified foods such as nutritional yeast or spreadable yeast extracts — Marmite and the like. Yeasts are members of the Fungi Queendom. They are single-celled microscopic fungi with at least 1,500 species identified so far. Without them, we would not have bread, cakes or beer, so they are quite important as a source of food — and merriment — for many people. We also eat fungi directly (those that are not poisonous), or even drink them (the Kombucha tea drink is made with the fungus Medusomyces gisevii).

Quorn is a meat substitute product created in the UK in 1985, which most vegetarians in this country know well as it kind of monopolised the meat substitute market for some time. What most people don’t know is that it is made of fungi. All Quorn foods contain mycoprotein (a protein made in fungi) as an ingredient, which is derived from the Fusarium venenatum fungus. In most Quorn products, the fungus culture is dried and mixed with egg albumen, but a vegan formulation has now been developed which uses potato protein as a binder instead of egg albumen. This new fungus-based veg-tech is responsible for the hugely successful Gregg’s vegan sausage roll, which in 2019 surprised everyone and turned the company around — It contributed to a year-on-year sales increase of 13.5%.

Ryan Bethencourt is the founder of Wild Earth Pet Foods and co-author of “The Clean Pet Food Revolution.” Ryan is a biologist who has been an ethical vegan for 13 years, and when in 2018 he realised that 30% of the meat consumed in the US goes to feed companion animals, he went into producing plant-based dog food. When he researched this, he decided to use fungi. The company’s first cultured protein product was from human-grade Koji, an eco-friendly and renewably sourced fungus.

But one of the most interesting Fungus-Based Veg Technology can be found in the production of new materials, not food. Eben Bayer is the CEO of Atlast Food Co and Co-Founder of Ecovative Design, a leading biomaterials company growing high-performance award-winning products from fungi. Mushrooms grow by actually taking water and pushing it into the tip of the hyphae, which is the single unit of the mycelium, the microscopic network of growing filaments that constitute most of the biomass of fungi (the mushroom is only the reproductive organ we see when the fungus spreads its spores). There are all these millions of microscopic fibres connecting, which make the mycelium mass, and they can insert incredible pressure. Some can produce very strong and hard materials, while others are very soft and supple. Eban decided to use these properties to produce biodegradable packaging. He chose hemp hurd, which is a by-product of hemp fibre, used it as the base material and then the mycelium fibres grow through and around, binding it together. This material is now used to make all sorts of fungus-based moulds to replace Styrofoam plastic moulds (which cause a great deal of pollution as they don’t degrade). He now also uses fungi to make fake meats.

Dr Matt Scullin is the CEO of the biomaterials company MycoWorks. He created Fine Mycelium, a patented material that can be grown from fungi to replicate the appearance and feel of leather. Bolt Threads, another biomaterials company, created another mushroom leather material called Mylo™, and it is developing products with Adidas. This is no longer a vegan gimmick. This is a growing industry making an impact because it’s more environmentally and animal friendly, and easier to produce. Mushroom leather can be grown in pieces to the specific size and shape required by a designer, so there is no waste and no need to cut too much. And this technology has been in development for some time. Danish product designer Jonas Edvard developed in 2013 an organic mushroom textile called MYX using mushroom spores and plant fibres. It was created using the waste material from commercial oyster mushroom production.

And fungi can also be used in all sorts of cool environmental applications. For instance, agricultural waste disposal, Mycofumigation, biomass to biofuel, and fungal degradation of plastics.

Bacterium-Based Veg Technology

If you go back at the beginning of this article to check how many bacteria there are and how they obtain energy, you will realise that mastering Veg Technology based on bacteria has a great potential to be a game-changer. Considering how easy is to grow bacteria and how many types there are that use different ways to feed themselves, we should be able to use them to replace many animal products.

In the case of food, bacteria have been used for centuries. Fermentation is the process in which the activity of microorganisms like bacteria or fungi brings about a desirable change to a foodstuff or beverage (such as making it more digestible, creating more nutrients, or breaking it down to more absorbable parts). It’s the process used to make wine from grapes, beer from barley, yoghurt from cheese, or tempeh from soya beans. It’s the bacteria that work to transform sugars into alcohol.

But not only that. The bacteria that do this is sometimes eaten with the food they fermented, helping to create a healthy microbe biome in our intestines. Popular food such as the German Sauerkraut is made of fermented cabbage still containing lactic acid bacteria. Or the Korean kimchi, which is spicy fermented cabbage and radish that still contains many bacteria (in particular, Bacillus mycoides, B. pseudomycoides, B. subtilis, Lactobacillus brevis, Lb. curvatus, Lb. kimchii, Lb. parabrevis, Lb. pentosus, Lb. plantarum, Lb. sakei, Lb. spicheri, Lactococcus carnosum, Lc. gelidum, Lc. lactis, Leuconostoc carnosum, Ln. citreum, Ln. gasicomitatum, Ln. gelidum, Ln. holzapfelii, Ln. inhae, Ln. kimchii, Ln. lactis, Ln. mesenteroides, Serratia marcescens, Weissella cibaria, W. confusa, W. kandleri, W. kimchii. W. koreensis, and W. soli). The vitamin B12 that vegans take in the form of supplements is also produced by bacteria.

Many of these fermented foods, though, are old technologies. But there is no limit in what you can try to ferment, and which end product you may want to get from it, and that’s when Bacterium-Based Veg Tech comes in. You can actually use them to create molecules that animals produce, without the use of any animal at all (not alive, not dead, not even a cell from it). You can genetically modify bacteria so they produce molecules that are normally produced by other organisms. This is called “precision fermentation”, and it uses microbial hosts as “cell factories” for producing specific functional ingredients. It can produce specific enzymes, flavouring agents, vitamins, natural pigments, fats, and proteins. For instance, it can produce whey, the protein found in mammals’ milk.

Milked is a New Zealand documentary launched in 2021 exposing the deception of the dairy industry. It is narrated and co-produced by Chris Huriwai, who belongs to the Māori community. It shows how the dairy industry has become New Zealand’s biggest water polluter, biggest greenhouse gas emitter, and is also a major stressor for biodiversity and soil health. But it also shows how such an industry, which relies mostly on exporting whey protein extracted from milk in the form of a powder that is used in many food preparations, is doomed to collapse. This is because of the new emerging fermentation veg technologies. They use bacteria to produce casein and whey by precision fermentation, from which milk without cows can be made in a much cheaper way. This is likely to disrupt the industry much more than the growth of plant-based alternatives to dairy, especially an industry that survives from exporting such proteins.

The Impossible Foods’ heme protein found in the controversial plant-based Impossible Burgers — controversial because they tested it on animals and therefore vegans like myself would not consume it — was created by precision fermentation too.

Gelatin is a form of collagen (the most abundant protein in our bodies) used in food, medicine and cosmetics after taking it from pigs, cows, and fish. In 2018, the company Geltor, a Silicon Valley-backed start-up based in San Leandro, produced gummy snacks made with collagen from mastodon (an extinct form of elephant). Yes, you read it right. Producing food from a protein of an extinct animal that does no longer exist. How? With precision fermentation. As some mastodon fossils still have some skin attached, the company extracted some cells from them, sent them to a DNA printing company to extract the DNA that encodes for mastodon collagen, got that DNA sequenced inserted into bacteria, and via precise fermentation mass-produced gelatine from it. It kind of proved the concept that, if people become too stubborn insisting on eating animal proteins — despite scientists and nutritionists advising against it — these could be created without any involvement of any animal whatsoever (not even from animal cells obtained from the animal agriculture industry).

Geltor, a Silicon Valley-backed start-up based in San Leandro, produced gummy snacks made with collagen from mastodon (an extinct form of elephant). Yes, you read it right. Producing food from a protein of an extinct animal that does no longer exist.

You can even ferment air. Dr Lisa Dyson and Dr John Reed run a Berkeley-based food tech company called Air Protein. They make alternative fake “meats” from fermentation using cultures of special microbes that transform the CO2 in the air into nutrients. When they discovered interesting research from NASA scientists in the 60s and 70s aiming to find new ways to feed astronauts in spaceships on long journeys with very little space, they discovered Hydrogenotrophs. They are bacteria that can metabolise molecular hydrogen as a source of energy. Some of these are Carbon dioxide-reducing bacteria that use CO2 and H2 to produce methane (CH4). You find them in places that are typically below the surface of the earth, like hydrothermal vents. Dr Dyson says that cultivating them to produce protein for human consumption uses significantly less land versus all the alternatives (for instance, it would take a soya farm the size of Texas to give you the same amount of protein that you get from an air protein farm the size of Disney World). This is quite significant because it means producing a non-animal protein with no arable land required, and much faster. It doesn’t matter where, you could grow this, as there is CO2 and Hydrogen everywhere. And you could do it without any of the accidental animal killings that occur during harvesting, or without having to destroy any habitat to create crops. No animal accidental deaths, no animal products, no destruction of the planet, no animal involvement of any sort. That sounds very vegan-friendly to me.

What is not Veg Technology?

Not everything that looks like veg technology is. Lab meat is not. Cultivating animal cells in a lab to reproduce a beef steak, a chicken nugget, a tuna filet, or a hen’s omelette, is not veg technology. It’s animal technology. It’s one of the ways the animal agriculture industry can slow down the progress towards the vegan world, where concepts like meat, milk or burger may no longer exist. To survive the growth of the plant-based industries that create alternatives to animal products, meat producers had to find new ways to ensure that the idea of eating animals survives — as otherwise, they would be out of business in a few decades. If most customers realise that they can easily live healthy and happy lives without animal exploitation, the animal exploitation industries will disappear, so finding “new” ways to produce animal products that look less harmful to animals and the environment is the logical direction to go for the meat and dairy industries. This is where lab meat can help them. Growing burgers out of animal flesh cells in a dish in a lab, instead of animal flesh cells in an animal body on a farm. Still animal cells, still animal flesh, still animal proteins, still high cholesterol, but now grown elsewhere with a lower carbon and blood footprint. They may hope that once people start calling this animal food “cultivated meat” rather than “lab meat”, fewer people would reject it for sounding too “artificial”. It may even sound like it is as benign as cultivating oats, or “cultivating a hobby”.

We should not confuse this type of animal cell technology with the precision fermentation to produce animal proteins discussed in the previous chapter. That one involves cultivating bacteria cells, which are non-sentient beings. This one involves cultivating animal cells, taken from sentient beings in the animal agriculture or vivisection industries — either periodically to avoid genetic degradation after extensive cell breeding, or only at the beginning when experimenting in creating specific cell lines.

we need vegan engineers. People with the right skills to shift technology away from animals. People who understand the problem of our current climate crises and know what they need to do to reverse it.

Cell-based meat (another term used to describe lab meat) is an animal product because it contains animal cells, and animals were used in its production. Therefore, I don’t think it is compatible with veganism, and I, as an ethical vegan, reject these products as I reject McDonald’s burgers. For me, they are not part of veg technology. They are part of animal technology to cater for meat-eaters, reducetarians and flexitarians, not for vegans or plant-based people. It’s a welcomed development for the meat industry which may survive because of it, but it’s not a development for the vegan industry which doesn’t need it. It’s not even a development for the plant-based industry, as animal cells are cells of sentient beings, while plant, algae, fungi or bacteria cells are not. It’s a development of the “sentient beings” industry. The animal exploitation industry.
For those who don’t believe that a vegan world is possible, and think that in the future carnists and vegans will always have to coexist on equal footing, if the carnist half of the world replaces the sources of all their meat and animal products from farms to labs, that would be a good thing, and from that point of view, the animal-cell cultivation technology is an improvement. But I do believe a vegan world is possible — or at the very least worth a try — and if that is the case this technology is likely to delay that. This is why I do not support it and support veg technology instead.

For the vegan world of the future many of us dream about, we need vegan engineers. People with the right skills to shift technology away from animals. People who understand the problem of our current climate crises and know what they need to do to reverse it. People who care about the planet, animals and human beings, and who know how to use nature respectfully. We need the expertise of cutting-edge scientists and engineers constantly pushing the envelope to reduce even further our collective carbon and blood footprint.

But we need them to be vegan too. We need them to hold the philosophy of veganism, to ensure they don’t stray away from what is ethically acceptable. Entrepreneurs who don’t cut moral corners to win the profit race. Innovators who respect what vegans need and what they don’t want. Scientists with high moral values framing what they can accomplish. Visionaries who are not scared of a world where the word ‘meat’ or ‘milk’ does not form part of human cuisine anymore, and everything people eat comes from plants, algae, fungi, or bacteria.

It’s time to push animal technology out of the way and fully embrace veg technology.

There is plenty of it.

By Jordi Casamitjana
Author of ‘Ethical Vegan: A Personal and Political Journey to Change the World