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Flying potatoes and dinosaur sausages...

ATOVA goes back to school to speak to students about the future of food!

Consumer acceptance is one of the main hurdles we face in the food-tech industry. Clear, honest and transparent communication is required to reassure consumers that food derived from new technologies is safe to eat. However, consumers look to governments to tell them what is safe and last week we saw the Italian government approve a bill moving to ban the production and sale of cultivated meat before it has even been approved!

There is growing skepticism about cultivated meat and dairy proteins derived from precision fermentation, driven by meat and dairy lobbies disguised as food tradition and heritage.

With this backdrop, how do we know that when these products are finally given the regulatory ‘all clear’ to be safely consumed in Europe, that consumers will actually choose to eat them?

We believe it is vital to educate people about these products so that they can make an informed decision about their food choices.

Today´s children and future generations will be the ones who benefit from this new technology and so they need to know about it in order to decide what they want to eat (and maybe even enlighten their parents?).

Last week, Mary Richardson- our UK-based marketing coordinator had the opportunity to talk to children at her local school…

“Since working at Atova I have had my eyes opened to the food-tech industry and the incredible innovations that are happening worldwide, especially with alternative food ingredients that are being created to ensure food security for a growing world population. As a trained Montessori teacher, I can’t help but wonder what children think of these innovations - after all, they are often more open and accepting of new technology than us ‘jaded’ adults and ask insightful questions through fresh eyes. We can learn a lot from children!”

Mary presented to a class of 8 to 11-year-old children at a small rural school in Somerset, England, which is a traditional farming region. The children had just finished a topic called ‘Sow, grow and farm’ so it was perfect timing to talk to them about the ‘future of food’.

To pave the way for introducing the new food technologies, Mary talked to the children about nutrition and gave an overview of food production from early human ‘hunter gatherers’ to present-day intensive farming. She talked to them about population growth and the damage intensive agriculture is causing to the environment.

Mary then showed the children some pictures of packaged insects and talked to them about insect protein and that many people around the world eat insects. When asked how many would eat a whole insect, there were many screwed up faces and ‘blurgh!’ noises and 3 out of 21 children put up their hand (plus 1 teacher). When asked whether they would eat a cake or bread that had insect flour in 18 out of the 21 put their hands up (plus all 3 teachers). This then sparked a discussion about product labelling as some children were concerned that all their baked goods have insects in! “I’m never eating cake again!” Said one of the children who had kept their hand down.

Before leaping to precision fermentation and cultivated meat, Mary talked to the children about cells…

“Whenever I teach children about cells, I make an analogy with LEGO. There are lots of different blocks that have different functions and come together to build something special. I explain that LEGO has a set of paper instructions to follow, and cells have a set of instructions in their nucleus- the ‘brain’ of the cell…”

Mary gave each child a basic diagram of a cell with a nucleus dividing and multiplying. She talked to them about genes and DNA and was impressed with what they already knew.

After this, Mary went on to talk to the children about Genetic Modification- relating it to the wheat crops that grow in many fields around the school and how much shorter it has become over the last few decades…

“When I asked why they thought that the crops had been modified through selection to become shorter, the first response was, ‘so tractors can be smaller’. To a certain extent this is true, and I elaborated that having shorter crops means it is easier to harvest and has less waste, meaning less time and energy used by machinery.”

Mary went on to explain that Genetic Modification can help crops give a higher yield or be immune to disease and insect damage and introduced how modifying microbes and cells can create food.

After having these processes explained to them (in layman’s terms)- and being shown pictures of products that are already being sold using this technology (Remilk’s ice-cream and GOOD Meat´s chicken nuggets)- the children were blown away. When asked if they would eat these products, all bar one child put their hands up. Mary asked the child why he wouldn’t eat these products and he said that “They might taste yucky, like chemicals”. Several children said they were going to ask their parents if they could go on holiday to Singapore or the USA so that they could try the ice cream and chicken nuggets! (Oops!)

Once the presentation had finished (lasting 45 minutes- not the 20 minutes Mary had planned for, because of so much interest) every child had their hand up to ask a question. A vegetarian girl asked, “Does that mean I can eat meat, if no animal is actually killed?” and another said, “Could we programme a daisy to make milk?”. One child slightly missed the point and asked, “Can we make flying potatoes?” causing much laughter. Ironically, one of the older girls in the class (who might have watched Jurassic park) said “So, does that mean we could take the DNA from a dinosaur fossil or amber and make a dinosaur sausage?” to which Mary answered “Well, potentially yes.” not realising that later that day Vow’s mammoth meatball would be exhibited at the NEMO centre in Amsterdam!

Mary received great feedback from the class teacher…

“I’ve not seen the children so engaged and excited for a long time. They were buzzing for the rest of the day- it really tapped into their imaginations. Us teachers have had our minds blown too. It’s great. We’ve had so many children say they want to be scientists now, and we are going to run with this and dust off the microscopes from the back of the cupboard so they can start looking at the ‘microscopic world’.”

When asked if she thought parent’s would be concerned about their children learning about these technologies, the teacher said…

“It’s so important that they are prepared for the future, and it’s our job as educators to do that.”

With recent negativity surrounding these new technologies, we were uplifted to hear such positivity from these children and their teachers. We hope that you find it uplifting too!

Mary says “This group certainly proved how open and accepting children are to new ideas. I was so impressed by their understanding and ability to make links to what they already knew and ask thoughtful questions. I am a little concerned, however, that they are going to go home and tell their parents that we can ‘milk mushrooms’ though, as I may have explained that precision fermentation is like programming microscopic mushrooms to make cow’s milk?!”

The "Plesio-furter" designed by one of the children!

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