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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

To bee, or not to bee

There's a mad rush in the world of making food to make "fake" food that claims to be just as good, or better in some ways than the real thing. A lot of venture capital is being put behind food start-ups seeking to manufacture food from some essence of the real thing. The target of these substitutes is animal-based food. Red meat. Poultry. Seafood. Dairy. Eggs. With the right line of animal tissue cells, a medium to propagate these cells into recognizable, edible stuff - a big enough bioreactor - there is growing evidence that cultivated beef, chicken, turkey, lamb, tuna, shrimp, and salmon can be made and commercialized. The chief executive of Aleph Farms, suggested recently that their 3-D bioprinted ribeye steak may be approved for sale as early as the back half of 2022.

Some food makers are only taking inspiration from what can be harvested from nature, with a few processing steps, like a beef burger. It turns out it's not so impossible to make a believable, more than palatable burger from soy and soy derivatives, coconut and sunflower oil, potato protein, and synthetic heme instead of feedlot-corn-fed ground chuck, marbled with fat and bursting with real, meaty heme. Synthetic heme is genetically modified yeast that's been fermented. The aim is for us to exchange animal-based food with plant-based food that looks like, smells like, and eats like what we've been used to eating since we started cooking food tens or even hundreds of thousands of years ago.

I just finished a project on meat substitutes. In addition to burgers, there are plant-based sausages, breakfast links and bacon. Nuggets and tenders. Deli slices. Even a veggie roast. And a range of seafood lookalikes. I've also read about cheese that's made from non-dairy protein and fat that's not fat. The list is growing.

What about bee-less honey? It's a thing. Or it might be a thing as early as next year. MeliBio is working on replicating the process of converting nectar into honey using bioengineering, precision fermentation, and plant science. The idea is to co-opt and reprogram microorganisms to do the conversion work done in a honeybee's cells. Think of how yeast turns sugars into alcohols.

This attempt to fabricate a bioengineered honey analog strikes a nerve with me. Partly because we take some responsibility for endangering the existence of bees. It feels to me like we're giving up on bees and already looking elsewhere to create fake honey as good as or better than real honeybee honey. Reliably, through a controllable production process and predictable supply chain.

Bees going away is not like the disappearances of the dodo or carrier pigeon. We rely on honey in the Honey Bunches of Oats my kids devour every morning. How many of us swirl it into, spread it on, or bake it into all sorts of things? Honey has become more important as an alternative to refined sugar in the past few years. According to Innova Insights, which tracks new products, 5% of all food and beverage launches in the US over the past five years included honey as an ingredient. That's thousands of honeyed items. About half as many as for vanilla but double raspberry and ten times fashionable açaí.

Honey is more of a staple than salmon for most of us and we're knocking down dams on the Columbia river to preserve the salmon run. What can we do for the bees? They're not charismatic megafauna, a designation given to the bald eagle, gray wolf, and otter, but honeybees play an outsized role in most ecosystems as pollinators and providers of food for us and many other species.

Which brings me to Pooh bear. Honey, the kind that's regurgitated by bees, and the bees themselves, are woven into our literature and music and art too, of course. The storybook images of Winnie's honey entanglements remain ubiquitous, delightful and relatable. If honey as we know it goes the way of the dodo these images will become less relatable. Poignant, quaint illustrations. Not observable experiences out in the world.

Maybe the story about bee-less honey got to me because of another set of childhood memories. I'll call our close family friend Mr. A. Mr. A despised honey. And okra. The unique sliminess keeps me away from okra too, but what is it about honey that riled him up every, single time? Mr. A once told me it was because of how bees expel honey out of their bodies. Bee vomit. Whatever the reason, if you uttered the word "honey" he would cuss and tickle you hard if you weren't quick enough to get away. Mr. A's aversion to honey got him and us into good trouble over the years.

One night someone slathered the car's steering wheel with a thick, rustic honey. Mr. A jumped out of the car, screaming. The joke was on us too because it was our brand new car, and the honey had had time to drip onto the upholstery while we held back our snickers over dessert.

Another time, traveling together in France, we came upon a miellerie; a honey shop, on a hilltop with a commanding view of the Alps. With a huge metallic honeybee affixed to the top of the shop. We insisted on stopping to eat. Poor Mr. A endured tastings of local honey and ribbings over the course of a long lunch on the patio.

Maybe what also gets me about the idea of manufactured honey is a paradox many of us seem to live with when choosing what to eat. We say we want to stay tethered to the earth and water from which we sprang and yet we are willing to embrace a future of synthetic foods. When you survey consumers about what factors most influence their decision when they're shopping for food, "natural," "no additives or preservatives," "made with real ingredients," and "no artificial flavors or colors" are close to the top. Also, many Americans say they want to be familiar with what's in the food they buy, or at least be able to pronounce the ingredients on the label. At the same time there is a growing appetite for these bioengineered, analog products that mimic what's readily found in nature. The processes for making these products are somewhat mysterious and the resulting product story is not going to be easy to really understand for most of us. So much for real, simple ingredients.

Those paving the way for a synthetic food future make a compelling case that the environment will be preserved by not over-stressing it producing food the way we have been for the last 50 years. Beyond Meat claims that water use should drop by over 99%, energy by almost half, and greenhouse gases by more than 90% if we eliminate cattle from meat production and distribution. We're responding. Plant-based meat sales, like Beyond Meat, were up 45% in 2020. But, meat sales also grew by double digits last year. The substitution of real meat with food that mimics meat is not happening. Not yet. The natural/synthetic conundrum lives.

Reading the almost daily news in the food press about alternative proteins and cultivated meat makes the future I've just described seem inevitable. This is where the big money is going. This sense of inevitability makes me squirm. It feels like the easier way forward in some sense, but not the only way.

Another way forward is to cut back on consumption of animal-based food in this country and adopt regenerative agriculture with a more localized supply chain. Traditional, sustainable agriculture, which is dependent on multiple crops and multiple livestock species, and the birds and the bees, is still feasible. But it does mean upending the current way we produce and distribute food.

Food makers are constructing a future with a broader array of concocted products that I feel will over time muscle out whole, much-less-adulterated, naturally conceived foods. And I think you and I are going to be ok with this. It will happen gradually. We will find the food tasty enough, affordable, and convenient. And we will live with the paradox that bugs me because we will accept a broader or revised meaning of the word "natural."

Alternative is maybe a better way than substitute to describe these synthetic, analog products. Consumerism creates choice. There's room for all tastes and price points. A jar of bee-made honey may cost a small fortune one day. Just for those who have the means, or a weak streak of nostalgia.

I wonder if humans are evolving away from feeling inextricably entwined with the DNA of all that is alive on earth. Is it a done deal that we will one day colonize another planet blessed with virgin soil and teeming with game? Or more than one planet. Enough land and resources to leave Earth behind?

A vastly less important but amusing personal question I have is how Mr. A would react to bee-less honey? Would he feign indignation? Swear at the mere mention of it or a jar of synthetic honey thrust in his face? Is there the remotest of possibilities that he would take a spoonful in his tea?

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