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Every month, the Hong Kong school teacher Kala Wan simmered a bundle of herbs, gelatine made from donkey skin and velvety deer antlers for 75 minutes until she has a dark, cloudy soup. She pinches her nose and swallows it quickly.
“Donkey skin and velvet antler gelatin can nourish the blood and strengthen my health,” said the 27-year-old, adding that she tends to dose during her period.
Wan’s doctor, who supplies the ingredients for her monthly brew, is one of the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners who prescribe treatments – from colds to cancer – for many in Hong Kong.
Other TMC agents like acupuncture are popular around the world, although their effectiveness has been questioned
TCM encompasses a wide range of practices such as acupuncture, diet, and exercise. These treatments aim to rebalance the flow of energy known as “Qi” in the human body. The principles are not recognized by conventional Western science and there is little evidence-based research on the effectiveness of TCM. According to China’s state newspaper China Daily, the TCM market was worth 434 billion US dollars (374 billion euros) in 2020.
TCM remedies like acupuncture are popular in many parts of the world. And while most pressure points and needles skeptics would at least agree that such treatments are pretty harmless, other aspects of TCM are far more controversial.
About 12% of the drugs prescribed by traditional Chinese practitioners are from animals. This often includes the body parts of endangered species – such as pangolin scales, rhinoceros horns, tiger bones, and bear bile.
The rhinoceros horn trade is banned, but demand remains high and it is still used in traditional Chinese medicine
The Chinese and US governments have banned the use of most of these products, and their international trade is prohibited by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Nevertheless, the demand remains high. The annual trade in rhinoceros horn is around $ 230 million, according to the United Nations.
So what if there was a way to supply the market without touching these endangered species?
With laboratory-grown meat promising to feed the carnivores among us without the cruelty and environmental impact of the meat industry, scientists are investigating whether the emerging industries could do the same for Chinese medicine.
In the first step, tiny tissue samples are taken from living animals, from which “induced pluripotent stem cells” (iPSC) are obtained. These, in turn, are grown in the laboratory to produce synthetic animal tissue. Biomedical scientist Kenneth Lee says it is now possible to create iPSCs that “can be induced to differentiate into muscle cells, bones, cartilage, fat, etc.”
Lee is a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. But he’s about to retire and move to Scotland to start his own meat culture company. It should be possible to use stem cells to produce slaughter-free rhinoceros and tiger claws as well as shark fin for soups and dog meat for the Chinese dog meat festival. “I think this is a legitimate process that can counteract the illegal pet trade,” said Lee.
Jars of dried seafood such as sea cucumbers, snails and mussels in a typical traditional Chinese medicine pharmacy
The entrepreneur admitted that it will be several years before these products hit the market. But he’s not the only one working towards that goal. Hong Kong-based, lab-grown meat startup Avant Meats is developing cultured swim bladders, known as fish throats, as part of its lab-grown fish range slated to hit the market by 2025.
Could laboratory-grown TCM be a boon for smugglers?
“We want to address the environmental impact of eating fish maws in the ecosystem that leads to the [near] the extinction of several species including Bahaba, Totoaba and Vaquita, “said Carrie Chan, CEO of Avant Meats.
Many Chinese believe that fish mouth has medicinal value, for example in the treatment of arthritis. Totoaba swim bladders illegally caught off the coast of Mexico are worth around $ 46,000 per kilo ($ 22,500 per pound) on the Chinese black market, according to the Porpoise Conservation Society.
Totoaba fish maws dry in baskets outside a dry goods store in Hong Kong
Not only is the totoaba classified as critically endangered, the nets are also a threat to the vaquita, a small harbor porpoise most endangered in the world.
But not everyone believes that TCM, using laboratory-grown products, will do much to protect these rare species.
“There is a high likelihood that laboratory-raised meat that mimics exotic and endangered animals will instead fuel demand for raw meat and pose a challenge to enforcement,” said Zhaomin Zhou, a researcher at Southwest China Wildlife Resources Conservation Lab in China West Normal University.
Zhou points out the case of synthetic ivory designed to replace real tusks. Their research has shown that unscrupulous traders were able to pass real ivory off as a synthetic counterpart to avoid prosecution.
The Hong Kong start-up Avant Meats is breeding fish throats in the laboratory in the hope of reducing the demand for real totoaba
When asked if cultured fish maws could increase the demand for real fish, Chan of Avant Meats said, “These fish species are endangered with or without this invention.”
“I don’t think the demand will be driven for this alone, and there are cultured products because we want people to switch from conventional meat to a more sustainable version,” she added.
Just like the real thing?
Others argue that if laboratory-grown alternatives could be produced cheaply and in abundance, they would lower the cost of animal-based TCM and reduce the economic incentive for poaching and smuggling.
A survey last year found that 70% of Chinese consumers were willing to try laboratory meat, and nearly 60% were willing to buy it. But will TCM users just as willing to accept something grown in a Petri dish as interchangeable with wild-caught?
The scales of the pangolin are very popular in traditional Chinese medicine – the pangolin is considered the most traded mammal in the world
TCM doctor Cristine Li says her Hong Kong clinic would consider using laboratory-grown animal tissue products if they were available. “If man-made products can achieve half the effectiveness of their real counterparts, that’s good news,” she said.
Given the sparse scientific evidence that these treatments are effective, how do you compare the two? But Wan with her deer antler brew says she’d like to rely on her doctor’s judgment. “If my TCM practitioner believes it’s effective, I’ll use it,” said Wan. “I’m against killing animals, so I’m ready to try.”
Nevertheless, she doubts that the older generation would make friends with cultivated TCM so easily: “My mother, for example, doesn’t trust such artificial veterinary drugs. It would be very difficult for them to imitate the function of real animal parts. Your generation will likely stick with real veterinary drugs. “