Albert Han: “Context’s Climate Editor Laurie Goering explains why weaning ourselves off the meat we eat would be a boon for fighting climate change. It would also address food security issues and make better use of land and water resources. And governments are paying attention: China’s latest five-year plan, which sets the agenda for the national government, includes developing alternative protein sources like lab-grown meat for the world’s most populous country.”
Food is an essential part of our lives, from our work lunch routines to how we adapt to complex global supply chain issues. Our relationship with food is wrapped in habit and tradition, as well as social and economic forces that are constantly in flux. Which means our diets are also in the crosshairs of some of the most pressing issues of our time.
What we eat is affected by global inflation, food insecurity caused by conflict, and the greenhouse gas emissions of our food systems—all of which, in turn, are being shaped by the effects of climate change.
At Context, we’re exploring how that future of food is happening right now through stories such as our “Lab-Made” video series and our collection here of articles, videos, and podcasts that help unpack some of the most complex issues. We hope this reading list is educational and, at times, fun, as we all confront how technology and progress will change what we eat, and how our food choices might create a better future.
AH: “This is a fun piece on the once ubiquitous, now nearly-extinct variety of bananas known as Gros Michel or ‘Big Mike’, and how the Cavendish bananas that most of the developed world consume are, in Natasha Frost’s words, ‘the McDonald’s hamburger of the banana world.’ The fate of the Big Mike banana (it was nearly wiped out by disease in the 1950s) is a reminder of how fragile our food system is as a result of monoculture farming and commercial interests, and the threats of disease and extinction that bananas face once again.”
AH: “If life is like a box of chocolates, would you mind if it came from a lab rather than a cocoa plant? In the growing list of lab-grown foods, add chocolate: several companies are trying to produce lab-grown chocolate, doing so in the name of solving the chocolate industry’s problem with deforestation and labor abuse. The kicker in the article, for me, sums up the thought-provoking nature of the lab-grown world: ‘If we live in a world populated with analogues perfected in a lab, based on decisions made by a few, where is the joy of eating something unpredictable in a way that only nature can provide?’”
AH: “You’ve probably read or heard of ‘lab-grown’ meat. But what about ‘cultured,’ ‘cultivated,’ ‘animal-free,’ or ‘frankenmeat?’ Since I began producing the ‘Lab-Made’ series, I noticed that there hasn’t really been an agreement on what to call this new food.
Names can have a big impact on how lab-grown meat will be received by consumers, and it has become a legal issue that makes us question our understanding of what ‘meat’ means to us all.”
AH: “The arrival of lab-grown meat raises all sorts of wild scenarios—is lab-grown bacon acceptable to people who follow kosher or halal dietary laws? It’s tricky, because most religious laws about how meat should be obtained, prepared, and consumed rests on the fact that meat comes from an animal.
What happens when it doesn’t? While producing this piece, I reminded myself that this is a fascinating way to look at how technology can intersect with centuries-old religious tradition.”
AH: “Lab-grown meat gets most of the attention—it’s hard not to think about that sizzling steak that didn’t come from an animal which grazed grass or walked this earth. Here’s a look at an adjacent lab-grown product, animal-free dairy, and if it can also help fight climate change.
Plus, the added benefit is that you can already purchase and enjoy tubs of yogurt or ice cream made from animal-free dairy in the US and several other countries.”
AH: “Sewage is pretty much as far as it gets from what you might think of as that refreshingly cold brew on a sweltering hot day. But one of the world’s most water-stressed countries shows us how waste can be reused to make a popular beverage.
Fun fact: Singapore’s Public Utilities Board, which manages the country’s water resources, created a children’s TV series featuring Water Wally, a mascot who fights littering frogs and mud villains.”
AH: “Lab-grown meat is a technology that the average person is just starting to understand. This article from the BBC’s Science Focus helped me as a handy explainer that addresses how lab-grown meat is made, the arguments on why it should be made, and when (if ever) you can expect a McCultivated at your favorite fast-food joint.”
AH: “Joe Fassler at The Counter made waves in the industry with this piece taking a deep-dive into one of the deciding factors of whether lab-grown meat will really become a reality on our plates: scalability. Fassler cited the work of a chemical engineer named David Humbird, who examined the technical challenges of growing enough lab-grown meat at an affordable price point.
This piece challenges the excitement of lab-grown meat’s proponents by highlighting the skeptics of the industry, who say: hold your (lab-grown) horses if you think lab-grown meat is inevitable.”
AH: "A swanky members’ club in Singapore is leading the world right now in offering cultivated chicken dishes, but more may follow soon: the US took its first step last November towards commercial approval, and California-based Upside Foods is leading the flock that’s vying to go commercial, even as independent academic studies on the impact of lab-grown meat are still catching up. The one referenced in this NPR piece is by Joe Lynch at the University of Oxford, who takes a deep look at whether lab-grown meat can meaningfully reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that the meat industry is producing right now.”
AH: “What we eat is often a matter of preference and habit: why do we prefer fried chicken over fried cockroaches, if both provide us the nutrients we need? This NYT Opinion video makes the case for incorporating insects into our diet to help fight climate change.
The video drew my attention to the case of the lobster, a once reviled dish that is now a pricey delicacy, thanks to 19th century American urbanites who vacationed on the coasts of New England. The takeaway: if the cool kids do it, others might follow.”
AH: “For Star Trek fans, the replicator will be familiar: it’s what Captain Picard uses to order his favorite beverage: ‘Tea, Earl Grey, hot.’ The machine can produce almost anything (mostly food), instantly and on-demand.
The replicator is one of so many examples I think of in books, movies, TV shows that try to depict the future of effortless food production—how close, and still how far, we are compared to this imagined future.”
AH: “Like whether lab-grown meat can be kosher or halal, the development of lab-grown meat—and the future of food—has forced us to think of the wildest of possibilities: can you grow lab-grown meat from human cells?
Technically, yes. This piece covered a museum exhibition that featured pieces of steak grown from human cells that sparked conversation and outrage. It made me really think about the limits of lab-grown technology and how far we want it to go.”
Albert Han is a London-based video journalist with Context, a news platform powered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. He produces short documentaries and explainers on climate change, technology, and inclusive economies. Albert has worked previously for Reuters TV in New York and the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.