What Good Is a Mammoth Meatball That No One Will Ever Get to Eat?
In the 1800s, Kokichi Mikimoto found a way to farm and harvest perfect pearls. The writer Aja Raden, who describes this moment in her book Stoned, dubbed this process "the birth of biotechnology."
Mikimoto, of course, took his business global … but, panicked that this would cause the global marketplace to crash, the pearl industry freaked, and besmirched these perfect Japanese pearls as less authentic.
But Mikimoto was a natural ad man, and did a lot of incredible things to move momentum back in his direction. Among these acts—including a public bonfire of pearls he claimed were imperfect—was the creation of a Boss's String necklace designed to illustrate his exacting standards.
It was rarely seen and never sold. You could buy Mikimoto pearls, but never the Boss’s String. That necklace is currently on display in the Pearl Museum on Mikimoto Pearl Island.
Now, something similar has happened with a larger sphere, itself symbolic of how far biotech has come in less than 200 years. Australian cultured meat company Vow has created a giant meatball, made of flesh grown from the DNA of an extinct wooly mammoth (combined with lab-made lamb). The meatball resides at the NEMO Science Museum in Amsterdam.
No one will ever taste it. A few reasons have been proffered for this—humans may be allergic to the 5,000-year-old protein. Also, laws around cultured meat haven't caught up with how fast the technology's advanced, as Gio Tarraf of L'Atelier observed. (If Big Meat, like Big Pearl, has anything to do with it, they never will. And our current food system accounts for 37 percent of greenhouse gasses.)
Vow is lobbying for regulatory approval for its less bombastic cultured meat products in Australia, the U.S.—where the FDA approved lab-grown chicken from Upside Foods in California—and Singapore, where cultured meat can already legally be sold.
Perhaps just as important as the regulatory aspects is Vow's willingness to give people a whopper of a tale to pass around. The untouchable mammoth meatball? It's a media sensation, generating millions of views and clicks. Like a page from some updated Mikimoto playbook.
"Normally, we would taste our products and play around with them. But we were hesitant to immediately try and taste because we're talking about a protein that hasn't existed for 5,000 years. I've got no idea what the potential allergenicity might be of this particular protein," James Ryall, Vow's chief scientific officer, told CNN.
That seemingly innocuous quote pretty much sums up the whole story.