Speaker intro: Mark Post

30 August 2016

Now that all the faculty members are back from their training and accreditation it is only right to give them a proper introduction. This week we will post an interview a day, each with one of the faculty members introducing us to their subject matter and the research area that they are so passionate about. First up in this series is Mark Post:

So tell us, who is Mark Post?

I am Mark Post, professor of physiology at Maastricht University and tissue engineer. So I make tissues for medical purposes. Recently we’ve ventured into making tissues for consumption, meat in particular.

Why did you decide to join the SingularityU Faculty and speak at the Summit?

I think the summit is going to be extremely important. It’s a unique conference in the Netherlands. Singularity University is a very interesting institute that has very interesting insights. It’s necessary to introduce a larger audience to these insights: new technologies and the idea that innovation will speed op tremendously in the coming 30 years. And of course that these technologies could produce good solutions for the pressing problems we have right now.

What can we expect from your presentation at the Summit?

My talk will be about the agricultural technologies that are required to feed 9 billion people. We’ll need to meet very specific demands, those for animal proteins being one of them. This is very costly, but consumption is going to increase and we have to come up with solutions for it.

That sounds like a tall feat, wouldn’t we need 10 earths to feed everyone quality proteins?

The technology is there! In the medical field we have been capable of making tissues for a while. Of course people realized that this technology can be used to produce meat. To me that’s an important goal, because meat consumption is inevitably going to increase. This threatens our food security. We’ll be feeding animals food that we can eat ourselves. Live animals are very poor converters of vegetable proteins into animal proteins so we lose a lot of resources in this process. Second, we realized that livestock is especially burdensome on our planet. There’s a lot of environmental consequences of meat production that we need to address.

One of our goals as SingularityU is to affect a billion people or more. We want to provide solutions for grand global challenges. Food Security is definitely a grand global challenge. The environment is a grand global challenge. So of course agriculture is at the absolute core of these grand global challenges. It requires a lot of water, requires a lot of energy, a lot of resources in general. Technology is key to provide solutions for these problems. There’s a lot of connection with other technologies that are being promoted and studied at SingularityU. There’s a lot of robotics involved in agriculture. A lot of big data coming from satelites and drones. All these things improve productivity in agriculture. So it’s clear there’s a lot of interesting connection at the technological level between these subjects.

At the societal challenge level there are a lot of connections as well. Not in the least because of the need for water, the need for shelter and the need for food security that farmers have. Many people don’t realize it, but agriculture is a very technological sector. Not just because of biotechnology, but also robotics and big data. The demand is also exponentially growing! Not only in terms of the amount of people, but especially the changing consumption patterns in developing countries. Consumers in these countries will be demanding lots of high quality proteins, animal proteins.

Sounds like a cool plan! So when will I be able to get lab-grown meat at my local supermarket?

In protein production we see a tremendous increase in technologies. In insects, plant based proteins but also in animal proteins. There are a lot of startups that are focused on products that can bypass livestock as a production factor to produce meat, but also products like milk and cheese. There is definitely momentum! Changes are not going to happen overnight. It will take at least 20 years to credibly effect consumer behavior at a global scale. But we need that global scale to make a real difference in terms of food security and environmental consequences. It is of absolute importance that consumers start to accept this and change their consumption patterns. That will take a while.

So much for disruption…

In terms of disruption: The technology is very disruptive in theory. But in practice we’ll see that consumers need 20 years to adapt. Meat is something that has very different meanings in the social and cultural sphere. It’s a product that we’ve been eating for 1 and a half million years. We also have a certain relationship with the animals that this meat comes from. We kill them for their meat, but in a way, we still have a special relationship with them. Exchanging that for something completely technological in the minds of people will be difficult. It would now be completely made in a laboratory, made by people. Your meat will still come from animal cells, but the animal no longer seems to be needed for this product. That’s a really strange idea for people. There will probably be a lot of resistance and we will have to ask ourselves the question: “Are we willing to do this?” Is this a sacrifice that we’re willing to offer if we want to keep eating this quality of protein with this many people on the planet? These questions naturally come up when you work on a technology that is alien to many people.

In other words, it’s still a question whether these technologies will be implemented?

We will have to be the catalysts; the people who introduce these technologies and can translate them into products that people like. We’ll have to understand were that resistance is really coming from. With regards to meat: is it safety? is it the fact that products can be messed with? How are we going to deal with humans making mistakes, or committing fraud. These issues highlight that introduction needs to happen with a lot of sensitivity to the people resistant to it. Governments will not play a big role in this. In general, they would have a supportive role. They will have to support it with regulation and arranging the necessary conditions so that we can develop technologies and ideas. However, they will not be initiators or motivators of the public. My big example in the food space is free range eggs:

Free range eggs were developed about 30 years ago. It was exactly the same product as a battery egg, just more expensive. It was the storytelling, about the chickens having better lives and roaming free in the fields, that made the difference. This storytelling completely converted the Western-European consumers from battery eggs to free range eggs in a period of 20 years. With no pressure from the government whatsoever! It’s only after consumers had massively changed towards a product that they saw as ethically superior, that the EU institutions banned the sales and consumption of battery eggs. Of course this is only possible if you already have a large consumer base. However, the practicalities of culturing meat force us to start with high-end, sort of fashionable products. While that seems counterintuitive with regards to the larger goal to feed the world, it will eventually become a fashionable product that will be demanded by the masses. In the beginning it will be expensive and exclusive, only high-end restaurants with star chefs. Gradually it will become a fashionable product that the regular consumer wants. By then it can also be provided at a competitive price compared to traditional meat.

Would you dare to eat one of these?

What are your goals for the Summit?

Nearly everybody in the food space, especially innovators in the food space, is aware of the concept of culturing meat. My goal for the summit is to put this technology into context with the all other technologies out there. These technologies will happen, and they will provide solutions to a number of problems we have. But we also have to be very aware of the resistance against these technologies. This goes for cultured meat, but also for robotics, medical or agricultural technologies. We need to work with that resistance and understand where it comes from. I hope that we can help to solve this, maybe taking away some of that resistance. Every interaction with the public is a two-way street. I speak to many different audiences: students, retired professors, journalists or the general public, even artists. Each time I get the opportunity to get new insights. You learn a lot from this. Coming to the summit should be a two-way street as well: Listen to what we say and get acquainted with the technologies, but also think what you can do yourself to support this or help introducing society to technology.

Do you see any potential drawbacks from exponential technologies and their use?

I often get the question if creating food for 9 billion people would lead to even further growth in populations. In many technological field you see similar questions: “If we use easy solutions for the problems that we have, wouldn’t we create new complex problems that we cannot solve?” That is a really strange argument. Looking at history we have come a long way from a low tech society to a high tech society. Which made us more wealthy than ever, a tremendous feat! We really have done quite well so far: we have more more to eat than ever, we live longer and we have much less diseases. It might be that most of our work will be done by robots in 20 years from now. Of course we would have different lives, but I’m pretty sure that we will still find meaning in our lives. We might have to adjust our expectations in terms of quality of life, upwards! And be comfortable with it…