With vaccination underway in the UK and the announcement of lab grown ‘meat’ for sale in the US, it really is a time when science is taking centre stage.
The UK led the largest vaccination effort in history last week by greenlighting the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine1. This has buoyed the nation’s hopes of mass inoculation in the near future, but uncertainties remain. With nearly eight billion doses already pre-purchased, where is the UK’s position in the queue? And what about countries that lack the financial power to muscle into the market?2
Major developed economies have taken a diversified approach to secure vaccine supplies, reaching multi-billion-pound agreements with a host of producers nearing regulatory approval. Country purchase agreements are a small part of a much larger picture, with questions being asked over producers’ abilities to deliver. This is highlighted as Pfizer slashed its production target by 50% due to raw material shortages3.
The UK has secured around 350 million4 vaccine doses, ranking highly for dosage pre-purchases per capita, with high-income global peers such as Canada and Australia5. Historical pandemics such as the 2009 swine flu outbreak demonstrated the lack of ethics in the global competitive bidding process when low-income countries such as Mexico struggled to secure sufficient doses for their populations6.
The World Health Organisation took pre-emptive action earlier this year, partnering with other international organisations to create COVAX, a global initiative that provides research and development funding for vaccine procurement, developing a diversified vaccine portfolio to aid in fair global distribution7. It is important to understand that supply is limited, especially in the short term, and despite the efforts of initiatives such as COVAX, reports suggest that nearly 70 lower-income countries will only be able to vaccinate one in 10 people8, compared to developed countries like Canada, which has pre-purchased quantities able to vaccinate its population four times over9.
It has recently been announced that the US company Eat Just have had their ‘chicken bites’ approved for sale for the first time, having passed a safety review by the Singapore Food Agency10. This perhaps would not be particularly newsworthy, except that these chicken bites have been cultured in bioreactors without the slaughter of an animal. The development has been hailed as a landmark moment across the meat industry. A few companies are developing lab-grown meat currently to entice even the most committed meat-eaters off conventional animal sources. The current method of production is very small scale and, as a consequence, it consumes a great deal of energy and is therefore quite carbon intensive. However, manufacturers hope that as the production increases over the coming years, this scaling up will lead to lower emissions and mean far less water and land is needed than for conventional meat11. Another advantage of meat grown in this manner is the avoidance of bacterial contamination due to animals being housed in unsanitary conditions. The current use of antibiotics in meat supply chains is a leading cause of rising antimicrobial resistance in humans. Globally, the food industry is the largest consumer of antibiotics and often uses these essential medicines to prevent disease or promote growth in otherwise healthy farm animals12. A world where it is possible to eat meat without having these practices as part of the production would remove this treatment of livestock.
An important consideration is who will have control over our food system. Rather than local farmers, we could become even more dependent on large corporations due to the specialised nature of the technology needed to create food in this way. If we move into a society where meat consumption is the norm, but abattoirs are a thing of the past, we could be beholden to big business for our basic needs13 .
A further downside is that we cannot live on chicken nuggets alone. Whilst the sustainability of the food system may be improved by these developments, particularly when the technology advances to be able to feed more with fewer resources, they do not eliminate the need to consider the safety and security of the food system as a whole. The requirement to produce nutritious, healthy, affordable and sustainable food extends beyond the cultivation of processed ‘meat’ in bioreactors. Alas, there are a few more changes needed before we are feeding the world in a secure, resilient and equitable way14 .
In our ever changing, fast-evolving world of new science and global developments, you can rest-assured that at Holden & Partners we keep our finger on the pulse, with our focus always on building long-term client relationships and offering a highly personalised financial planning and investment service, based upon expertise, experience and understanding.
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