That was the voice in my head, as I was reading the article ‘Lab-grown leather is coming, but is the industry ready for it?‘ (at http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/jul/10/lab-grown-leather-modern-meadow-ceh-suzanne-lee). The voice in my head is from a forgotten gem called ‘Conquest: Frontier Wars‘ by UBI soft. It is an amazing game (but that is not what this is about), in the game, when you have mined all the resources and the planetary resources have gone to 0, you can hear the Caleron AI state ‘This planet has been drained’. So what does that have to do with growing leather?
Consider the, what I would personally regard as an incorrect quote: “the supply of leather is dwindling as fewer people eat meat, with the US cattle population dropping by 32% in the last few decades“. I feel fairly certain that the amount of people of a carnivorous nature has not dwindled down, the mere fact is that fewer and fewer people can afford a decent steak (or lamb chop for that matter). That does not dwindle stocks, there is more in play than just the mere numbers of cattle (but that is a discussion for another time).
You see, the quote that matters is “As the supply of cow hides declines, could a lab-grown alternative fill the supply gap?“, it is shown under a photo of two men going through mountains of leather. The article is an interesting read and my contemplations started in earnest when I read “The Company is experimenting with cultured animal cells and tissues to create an alternative biomaterial to traditional leather. This lab-grown leather could offer a more sustainable alternative and even a possible long-term bridge for the gap in supply and demand“. Now on the premise it seems interesting, a grown form of leather, which means that cattle need not be slaughtered for the mere need of their hides. A new substance that could imbue fashion, accessories and other leather items for whatever reason.
Yet, in there I also see a clear danger that the article does not dwell upon. Perhaps it is as I am not talking on the numbers of cattle, Stephanie Hepburn might focus on the emerging market and just look at that part, which is fair enough. Yet the dangers of this new market would potentially be staggering and as such, how relaxed should we get?
Now, I am not really considering “materials made from leather waste – as leather. That could make it a harder sell for alternative materials claiming to be leather” from UK Leather Federation director Kerry Senior. He makes a fair point as spokesperson of the leather federation. I would stand on his side as I have had my fill with junk shoes from Australia, claiming it to be a leather shoe, only to learn that they usually survive no more than 4 months. So, that part I get. That still does not invalidate the path that some are walking on, the dangers that they would possibly introduce are many times more truly dangerous. Bad shoes are not dangerous, they are a mere irritation.
No, the first danger is seen in this quote “Ben Wurgaft, a historian based at MIT who is writing a book about laboratory-grown meat, applauds Modern Meadow’s ambitions but says that, given the speed at which fashion changes, the company’s success depends on whether it can scale up quickly“. It is not the applauding that matters, it is ‘whether it can scale up quickly‘ which could end up being the killer. Now let’s be clear, there is no immediate danger. That part we get from “Lee admits that the company still has a long way to go in terms of research and development, producing the leather, and being able to provide product samples“, which means it is still in research and there is no given timeline when the danger comes to town.
The final paragraph gives us a clear indication that the dangers are of a future nature, which is stated through “Even if the technology has advanced since he last saw samples and even if it could be usable as an alternative to leather, Senior doesn’t think it will be made in sufficient quantity or at a cost to be a viable option for most brands. It is interesting work, and the technology that is being developed could very well be the future for many products, Senior says. He adds, though: “I suspect it will be a distant future.”“
So we know that even though there is a danger, there is no immediate one. Yet, what danger is there? For that part of the equation we need to look at the academic paper (at http://pub.epsilon.slu.se/1170/1/Avhandling_nr_070.2006_Tryckfil.pdf). It is titled ‘Recycled Biowaste as a Source of Infection‘, which is a 2006 PhD paper by Leena Sahlström. If the title was not unsettling, then consider the abstract which gives us “Biowaste and sewage sludge can be used as a fertiliser and soil amendment in agriculture. However if not treated efficiently before use, such products can contain microbial pathogens that pose a health risk for humans and animals“.
Here we get the first light onto the dangers we are about to expose ourselves to. You see, growing leather is one thing, which remains a lesser noble cause. Yet, the danger can be perceived in ‘whether it can scale up quickly‘, the moment this milestone is reached and True Grown Leather becomes a part of our lives, we will see an exploding need for this product, especially as we are looking at a market that might be no sooner than a decade away. What will you think will happen when the option is there? The industry will be all about upscaling product for maximised revenue and quicker return on investment, which is also a fact, because the ROI will take centre stage for producers. This also means that tweaking the process of production will be a very first issue, which will give us additional worries.
Now we add the second part from the abstract “vancomycin resistant enterococci (VRE) were frequently isolated from sewage sludge. PFGE and PhenePlate analyses showed that both VRE and Salmonella spp. were capable of persisting for some months and up to two years, respectively, in the sewage sludge. Thus sewage sludge may act as a reservoir of Salmonella spp., VRE and other pathogens“, which now implies that Biowaste could become at the core a sustaining factor for Salmonella and other pathogens is the danger that remains pushed into the shadows.
Because we have seen decades of evidence where mass production will take precedence over health and safety. For that you need look no further than the nearest Bangladeshi sweatshop, and that is just for T-Shirts, what do you think will happen when bio waste enters those premises? I know we need to shed 80% of the planets population, but can we all agree that a more humane solution needs to be found?
Still, the dangers are coming and to some extent they are already here, the additional growth from new emerging ‘solutions’ to what I perceive to be an ego based need is seen in “Antimicrobial resistant bacteria are clonally spread but a further dimension to the growing problem is horizontal gene transfer, where resistance genes may be transferred between bacteria of the same species or to other bacterial species or genera (Klare et al., 2003)“, so are we move away from the Samsonite Aluminium or the canvas duffel bag, as we look so much more ‘travelled’ with a leather duffel bag and backpack, we are pushing for a solution that gives us more and more antimicrobial resistant bacteria, yes, and we really truly need additional antimicrobial resistant bacteria in our life (add sarcastic undertone for dramatic effect).
It is that danger we see growing, not growing in the future, already growing now, which means that other bioware mass produced products will just push the events of danger forward, faster and towards more deadly niche events. So, if you read a new article next week regarding safely cleaning biowaste, remember that the academic paper I refer to is already 9 years old and so far, the countering of these dangers have been substandard. How active do you think Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar and China are in countering biowaste? That is the additional question, because Biowaste has the ability to survive for a very long time, whilst the infusion of more biowaste is going on, on a daily basis. So how does this translate to dangers?
You might consider that there is no danger where you are, if that is your mindset, then consider the following part from the paper of Leena Sahlström on page 19 “The use of avoparcin, an analogue to vancomycin, which was previously used as a growth promoter in animal husbandry and is the believed cause of the common occurrence of vancomycin resistant enterococci (VRE) in European livestock, was prohibited in Sweden in the early 1980s. Despite this, there is still a rather high frequency of VRE in Swedish sewage (Iversen et al., 2002). Because of the way WWTPs work, using bacterial adhesion to particles in their treatment process (Godfree & Farrell, 2005), it is expected that VRE are found in sewage sludge as well“, so even after a ban close to 20 years before the event, it turned out that a rather high amount of VRE was detected in Swedish sewage, simply because of the way Waste Water Treatment Plants work. The danger found another way and as such it becomes mobile and procreative. You see I am a man of reasonable goofiness’, so when I consider the option that there is creation like procreation, if successful, only me and possibly one other get to be the party that requires a working solution. However, in the case of biowaste, the creators will place a burden on hundreds and perhaps even thousands of potential victims and in a greying population, a vast growing population of Antimicrobial resistant bacteria whilst no medicinal or antibiotics will be available, we would be digging our future straight into graves and urns.
Now, the last parts are all subjective and all based on a market that is not there yet, but more importantly, we are in an age where the law has been subjugated to the need of industry and profit for such a long time, there is a need for a true overhaul of the law an regulations in dealing with biowaste. The one element ignored in all this is that biowaste should be shunned as directly and strongly as biological warfare. Because it will get out of control and the consequences might not be stopped, because that side did not get the proper funding.
So even as we consider the very first line in the abstract by Leena Sahlström “Biowaste and sewage sludge can be used as a fertiliser and soil amendment in agriculture“, what happens when the VRE has infected the crops it is growing faster? What can we at that point rely on? All fair questions and at present there is no true long term answer or solution, so adjusting the law becomes paramount, so that places remain to have a future.