Mammoth steaks and dinosaur zoos – which animals will we meet in the future?
The Center for Genomic Gastronomy is an artist-driven think tank that examines the biotechnologies for and biodiversity of human food systems. Working with a worldwide network of scientists, the Center devised the “De-Extinction Deli” project to transport questions about reviving, rearing and possibly eating extinct species into the museum context.
The visitors to the exhibition „Creatures Made to Measure – Animals and Contemporary Design“ at Marta Herford are invited to take part in a survey in which they can use a postcard to vote on their attitude to the topic; a variety of feedback is possible. We asked the members of The Center for Genomic Gastronomy for their opinion.
First counts have shown that over 60% of the participants are for the revival of extinct animals. Only about 16% would like to eat the animals, too. Is this consistent with the results of other surveys?
In the past it’s been about 60% in favor of bringing animals back from extinction, however when we took a „tally“ in Liverpool in 2013, eating the de-extincted animals was much more popular than it seems to be at Marta Herford!
In 2008, the genome sequence of mammoths was decoded by US researchers. How far has research on breeding and revival progressed? And how does the legal framework for this scientific work differ from one country to the next?
Research on Woolly mammoth de-Extinction is ever ongoing. Over the years there have been many different breakthroughs and announcements made however the wooly mammoth resurrection always seems to be “about 2 years” away. The legal frameworks that rule the science of de-extinction vary from country to country with places like the European Union being much more heavy-handed. This is due to the ethical implications of cloning and cloning technologies. These ethical questions have a huge impact on the legal structures that determine legal and illegal. China for example is one of the leaders in cloning technologies in the world right now, however their focus has been primarily on creating cloned beef and pig for food supply.
According to the UN, around about 150 animal species become extinct every day, while new species are being discovered at the same time. What criteria can be used when choosing which species should be revived? What impact does the fact that the resuscitation of extinct species is possible have on species conservation?
There are many different criteria that can be used for identifying species for resurrection. A lot of the time we make decisions based on how charismatic the animals are and if they have interesting stories (hence all the work around the Woolly mammoths, Passenger pigeon or the Pyrenean ibex). There are many plants and animals that could be worthy of de-extinction, but their resurrection will never be explored or invested in because their stories just aren’t as attractive or sensational in the eyes of the media and general public.
As cloning technology becomes more precise and high-tech we’re finding that the types of techniques and processes that are involved are actually being utilized in day-to-day conservation efforts for species that are about to go extinct. By evaluating, tagging, and taking DNA from populations of endangered animals we are able to monitor in real-time the degradation of their genome due to inbreeding, for example. This allows us to create a library of DNA that is related to this population of animals that we can hold onto and then reintroduce genetic diversity into declining populations. “De-extinction” isn’t just a question of resurrecting a single animal, it is a question of ecology. If we’re to resurrect an extinct species we need also to recreate the biome they inhabited. If we do manage to resurrect Woolly mammoth, what will be the impact of their presence in an ecosystem that has developed without them for 10,000 years?
The price of an in-vitro meat burger has been reduced in recent years from € 250,000 (2013) per person to around € 10 (2017). How much would you presumably pay for a mammoth burger?
The price of a mammoth burger depends on the types of technology that’s used to resuscitate or resurrect the species. This is very different to an in-vitro meat style scenario where we craft a patty or proteins and lipids to recreate a meat-like experience. The intention for the mammoth would be to bring back the species as a whole and have herds of animals roaming around. If we do this through cloning for example, scientists would use an elephant mother to gestate mammoth embryos that have created by editing the genes directly. This is a shorter term, but more expensive way of resurrecting the animals. An alternative de-extinction method is done through a reverse breeding program. This would take generations and generations of selective breeding in an attempt to re-shape the mammoth’s close cousins in such a manner as to encourage their DNA to migrate back to an original woolly mammoth form. This would take a long time, but is relatively non-invasive and inexpensive. However, most meat products have environmental costs which are rarely taken into account in the cost of the product! Probably better to focus on eating plants where possible.
The “De-Extinction Deli” project has been around since 2013 and has already been realized at several places. The completed postcards will be sent to selected scientists and organizations. Why do you choose a museum like Marta Herford as a platform for this project? Have you ever received feedback from the researchers? And how do you feel about it – should extinct animal species be revived?
We like to share the “De-Extinction Deli” project in public spaces where a diverse, non-expert audience can consider and grapple with the ethical implications of resurrecting extinct species from the dead. Often the scientific work of de-extinction happens behind closed doors and it can be difficult for non-experts to have a voice or to even begin to understand the processes and ethical decisions behind the research. It’s important to open the conversation up to a larger audience because, in the end, if species are brought back from extinction, we all (humans and non-humans alike!) have to co-exist with these new beings and the environments that support them. Framing the topic around eating these animals adds some dark humor to a movement that may overstate its moral ambitions. A few researchers have acknowledged that they have received postcards but have not yet informed us how it has affected their thinking or research. However, in other projects we have worked on we have seen a direct change in the work of scientific collaborators, so it will be interesting to pick up the conversation in the coming year. The “De-extinction” is an interesting theory-object for opening up debates, but we have significant reservations about de-extinction ability to deliver on its conservation promises. For us, thinking about eating de-extinct animals, is a way of remembering the animals that we helped send to extinction the first time around, and to reflect on human nature, desire and ethics. “De-Extinction” is a future facing fantasy about the desire to “see” these animals roam again, the “De-Extinction” is a way of looking into the future with a rear-view mirror, and uses our desire to taste the unexpected or exotic to reflect on our current meat consumption and our historical treatment of animals and landscape. Rather than celebrating the fantastical, utopian idea that we can resurrect the lives of animals we didn’t care for the first time around, we should probably be paying attention to the animals that are in decline on a day-to-day basis right now.
Some views expressed by some of our visitors …
…against the de-extinction of past species:
…in favour of the de-extinction of past species:
…in favour of the de-extinction of past species for eating: