History of a Mutant Strain

As a vegetarian, I’ve recently been enjoying a delicious non-soy meat alternative I affectionately refer to as a “biowarfare burger.”  My interest in this industrial delicacy coincides with many of the concerns that compel me to maintain my vegetarian diet.  The more I learn about the industrial production of meat — in terms of animal welfare, energy consumption, the environmental impact of chemical runoff, the dangers of monoculture, the socio-economic impact of certain subsidies, etc. — the more I feel inclined to introduce more rigor into my vegetarian diet.  Yet, the more I learn about the industrial practices that have made soy so easy to purchase in the past decade, the more I find my vegetarian perspective problematized.

Many soy products are manufactured and distributed by industrial farming conglomerates that in the recent past put many smaller farms out of business, and are made from genetically modified crops that present many of their own social problems.  Among the more common genetic modifications of such crops is a system called Roundup Ready, which combines a highly toxic herbicide called glyphosate with a patented gene that makes certain crops immune to the toxin.  This system is today used with 90% of the US soybean crop.  When Monsanto’s patent for Roundup Ready expires in 2014, and the company’s ability to enforce strict licensing restrictions on the use of its product no longer apply, there is a reasonable likelihood that the system will become more widespread as generic versions appear.

While in certain quarters the propagation of Monsanto’s gene will likely be heralded as a valuable tool in the fight against global hunger (nevermind that the US throws away enough food every year to feed millions of people, or that a fraction of the US military budget could in itself end world hunger).  Generic versions of the gene will be sold or subsidized or given away under the banners of increased yield, reduced risk of cop failure, and simplified cultivation.  Such advocacy is, however short-sighted: predictions of increased yield discount the potential impact of recent non-chemical innovations in farming techniques; predictions of reduced risk do not take into account climate change or pollution or the relative inflexibility of industrial farming practices; and simpler cultivation comes at the cost of a greater reliance on complex (and precariously interrelated) industrial processes.

The optimistic scenario is that poor communities around the world will become an industrial laboratory to study ways of reducing the environmental impact of modern farming practices; the worst-case scenario will be the elimination not only of independent economies, but also the methodological diversity and cultural wisdom entwined with non-industrial farming practices.

The non-soy biowarfare burgers I’ve recently been enjoying were originally marketed in the UK as “mushroom-based.”  Apparently, the product soon became the target of an impromptu soy industry trade group’s lobbying efforts, insisting with accusations of false advertising that the product was not “mushroom-based” but rather made from a type of edible mold.  The manufacturers of this soy alternative seem to have settled on the term “myco-protein” to describe the source of their product — yet even the adoption of this taxonomically-accurate descriptive term failed to pacify opponents.  In 2002, the Executive Director of a group called the Centre for Science in the Public Interest complained in an official capacity to the Chair of the UK Food Standards Agency:

“Sainsbury’s brand Quorn Tikka Masala states on the front of the label ‘pieces of Quorn myco-protein in a Tikka Masala sauce,’ but nowhere does the label inform consumers of the source of the mycoprotein.”

In general, this and many other complaints seem more motivated by profits and politics than by the strict interests of science.  Similar arguments could be levied against the soy industry with respect to the genetically-modified source of most soybean plants.

A quick survey of soy products at the nearest grocer revealed manufacturers to be quite inconsistent about identifying the source of their soy proteins.  Some packages stated directly that the manufacturer’s soy crops were not genetically-modified, others made claims about non-genetically-modified oils while making no such disclaimer about their soy, and others still were entirely non-specific in this regard.  The Centre’s complaints are at least scientific about delineating the specific brands, manufacturers, distributors and corporate owners concerned.

Where on scientific grounds the Centre cautions against allowing commercial interests to introduce “new proteins into the human food supply” they discuss the dangers of genetically modified foods.  The purpose of this discussion is largely rhetorical, however: the Centre is very specific about the genus, species, and phylum of the fungus in question which, in the end, appears not to be a genetically modified organism after all (although it may be considered to have been selectively bred very rapidly).  There are many new substances introduced into the food supply regularly, ranging from artificial flavors and colors to high fructose corn syrup, and dating back beyond the post-Columbian introduction of corn and tomatoes and potatoes to the Old World.

The biological source of the “myco-protein” in the biowarfare burgers is an organism called Fusarium.  This organism has been involved in various scientific research projects dating back to the 1940′s.  In 1945, the journal Science (volume 101) published an article entitled “The Nutritive Value of Fusaria,” and by 1976, two British researchers received a US patent describing how to use Fusaria in the “Production of Edible Protein Substances.”

Although Fusaria come in many varieties, the organism is most well-known as a blight: a strain of Fusarium presently threatens worldwide banana crops (which have been bred asexually for genetic homogeneity).  Varieties of Fusaria can infect important staples like corn, potato, and cotton; Fusaria can be harmful to humans; because Fusaria mutate readily, strains have been bred for use as a herbicide that targets specific crops like marijuana or coca or poppy.  Fusaria have been weaponized by a company called Ag/Bio Con, which aggressively lobbied the USDA to attack Colombia.  Ag/Bio Con holds a patent on the weaponized organism, involving the aerial dispersion of seeds coated with Fusarium spores that push the fungus deep into the soil when the seeds sprout roots.  Ag/Bio Con operated in the late 1990′s with an estimated $10 million budget, but today operates with no web page, no telephone number and no publications in trade journals.

Are biowarfare burgers MI6′s gift to the world, like NASA gave us the microwave oven and DARPA gave us the Internet?  Increasingly, consumer goods and weapon systems bear a symbiotic relationship.  The consumer demand for commercial GPS transponders in cellphones and navigation devices has brought down the wholesale cost of transponder chips to about $5 each.  This has enabled the military to retrofit older bombs with GPS guidance systems.  By 2002, the cost of such precision guided munitions, called JDAMs, had been brought down to a “relatively inexpensive” $20-35,000 per bomb; by comparison, the Tomahawk Cruise Missiles Bill Clinton shot at Afghanistan cost about $1 million each in the late 1990′s.  Similarly, the consumer demand for computing equipment has brought down the cost of military supercomputing, while corporations like Microsoft and Apple routinely work with organizations like the US National Security Agency on commercial products, including consumer encryption software.

Ag/Bio Con is connected to another phantom company called Nutri-biotech, which makes me wonder sometimes whether biowarfare burgers help fund any unsavory research.  Do weapons researchers get cheaper vats for incubating Fusaria if food demand brings down equipment costs?  Do weapons researchers use other researchers’ research about the most effective nutrients for cultivating Fusaria?  Do manufacturers of Fusaria-based protein foods pay any Fusaria-related licensing fees to corporate or governmental patent holders engaged in defense contracting? Are vegetarians being used to recoup military research and development costs?

Scant though any direct evidence may be linking biowarfare burgers to weapons research, the history of the 20th Century is inseparable from the opening of supermarket shelves to the fruits of military research.  The dire predictions of protein shortages made between the 1920′s and 1950′s — which whetted many a researcher’s appetite for Fusaria — pushed to market the use of technologies like synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, invented by the same German scientists who weaponized chlorine gas [original link mirror on archive.org].

There are alternatives to the industrial farming system.  Many of these alternatives, to be effective, require changes in social, cultural, and individual behavior, rather than technological innovation.  Techniques like crop rotation and no-till farming can preserve soil quality and reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers that, among other difficulties, produce large quantities of chemical runoff that threaten aquatic life in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Brazil, and elsewhere.  Community-sponsored agriculture and farmer’s markets provide active and viable alternatives to the industrial food distribution system.  A modest reduction in meat consumption can save large amounts of energy, considering that it takes 10 times as much energy to produce a pound of beef compared to a pound of corn.  Organizations that work to connect small farmers with institutional buyers such as school lunch programs promote agriculture adapted to specific climates and regions, diminishing the need for many industrial farming and distribution practices that have negative impacts on society and the environment.

Recently, a “mystery” blight began attacking Afghan poppy crops.  Dispatches from the UN and wire news services are remarkably vague about the specifics of this blight: they’re not saying much about what the symptoms are, whether any other crops are affected, whether the blight is spreading or localized, or whether any human illness is associated with the outbreak.

As I do my best to steer clear of industrial meat products and genetically modified crops, I think I’ll keep away from the biowarfare burgers as well.  The new food politics are rapidly becoming as disorienting as the political debates elsewhere: vegetarianism may be an adequate response to animal cruelty, but many of the novel vegetarian products now available on store shelves are as problematic as any other processed food.  Meat makes methane, high-fructose corn syrup makes diabetes and obesity, and while biowarfare burgers might make my taste buds happy, it’s hard to enjoy a meal that makes me think about these things.