I was invited to give a talk at the Global Initiatives Symposium in Taiwan which took place in 2016. Another invited guest at this event was 15-year-old Advait Patil, who grew up in the San Francisco and Silicon Valley area and is now studying at Stanford University.
Instead of playing soccer, he played with genes. He is a biohacker and a co-founder of the Real Vegan Cheese project. As part of this project, which also involves researchers from major institutions like the University of California, Berkeley, Patil used gene scissors to modify yeast genes to create lactose. Lactose is a crucial basic component of cow’s milk. In this way, the team members managed to make a true vegan milk without a cow, and from that, vegan cheese. As a rule, vegan cheese does not taste like cow’s milk cheese, because it does not contain lactose, but instead uses a milk from legumes, such as almonds or hazelnuts. In Patil’s vegan cheese products, however, lactose is indeed present. The lactose obtained from genetically modified yeast is, chemically, identical to the lactose in cow’s milk.
Patil and his colleagues are working on creating different types of cheese. With this project, they have demonstrated that there need not necessarily be a conflict between sustainable objectives and ecological thinking on the one hand, and genetic engineering on the other. Rather, it is even an indication that proper green goals and a sustainable life can only be realised through the appropriate use of biotechnologies.
This insight contrasts with the stance of most members of the German Green party. The attitude of their counterparts in French-speaking countries towards genetic modification is radically different, however, supporting the appropriate use of genetic engineering. Among many German Greens, one still often encounters the naive attitude that genetic engineering is evil and that a return to ‘nature’ (one which has never in fact existed) is desirable. The Real Vegan Cheese project has shown that a vegan lifestyle and genetic engineering are not contradictory and that vegans do not have to sacrifice the taste of normal cow’s milk cheese.
The students in Taiwan reacted with enthusiasm to Patil’s lecture. Many clamoured for a photo or even a signature. They were inspired by his accomplishments, and also recognised the financial potential of this development. This is a multi-million-dollar business. Revolutionising the dairy industry, not just the cheese industry, in this way could have fantastic consequences for sustainable living. There are problematic moral and health implications of the raising of cows in factory farms. They pollute the soil and the carbon dioxide they emit damages the climate. The widespread use of antibiotics promotes the emergence of antibiotic-resistant cells, which in turn has enormous consequences for human health. By genetically modifying yeast to create vegan milk, both animal and human welfare are enhanced, with additional desirable consequences for the environment. This is a fantastic example of how the use of the latest cutting-edge techniques can promote the flourishing of nature, animals and humans.
The reactions to this case study vary. In Taiwan, but also in other East Asian countries where I have presented it, the response has been almost exclusively enthusiastic. People accept that promoting ecological, sustainable goals through innovation is exactly the direction in which we should move. It is not necessary, nor is it even practically feasible, for new small farms to be created (in the Alps, for example) in order to promote ecological, appropriate and sustainable living. Rather, we can do this with innovations such as this one, even against the backdrop of a rising world population. In the United States, too, many react enthusiastically. However, the reactions have been significantly different in Germany and elsewhere in continental Europe:
The poor young man. He probably did not have a childhood. He was probably forced by his parents to bury himself in his biology and chemistry studies. They should have let him romp around outside and play soccer with his friends. He is playing around with techniques that are dangerous to humanity. And if something goes wrong, he may even bring about the end of humanity in this way. He is playing with our lives, with our health, with the health of nature.
Many people do not understand that precisely by realising such projects, our future flourishing can be promoted. In my monograph We Have Always Been Cyborgs, I highlight how the proper interaction of gene and digital technologies can significantly improve the quality of our lives, and that it stands in a long tradition of what we have always been doing. We have always used technologies to increase our chances of living good lives. We turned into human beings by integrating technologies in our lives. We already turn into cyborgs when our parents upgrade us with language. A cyborg is a steered organism. Cyber comes from the Ancient Greek word for the helmsman of a ship. However, we need to develop a proper democratic use of emerging technologies such that personal flourishing can be promoted. In my book, I develop a selection of guidelines so that a political movement towards sustainable lifestyles can be realised in manifold ways.
Stefan Lorenz Sorgner is Chair of the Department of History and Humanities at John Cabot University in Rome, and Editor-in-Chief and Founding Editor of Journal of Posthuman Studies.
We Have Always Been Cyborgs: Digital Data, Gene Technologies, and an Ethics of Transhumanism by Stefan Lorenz Sorgner is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order here for £64.00.
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Image credit: DKosig