What Does Lab-Grown Meat Say About Society?

A conversation with Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, author of “Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food”

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Photo: Pete Linforth/Pixabay

To start, I will say I probably fall under the “neo-agrarian” label you use in the book to define people obsessed with locality — whom you call Luddites when “cranky.” My understanding of food systems is of course deeply tied to my reporting in Puerto Rico, where I now also live, which is a U.S. colony where nearly 90% of food is imported, agriculture has been systematically destroyed, and Monsanto owns an incredible amount of land. The effects of this lack of food sovereignty — even security — were especially felt after Hurricane Maria. Because of this, I’m especially wary of any corporations that centralize production of a product they claim will help feed the world’s population. Which is all to say: Who is cultured meat for, and what problems does it solve?

Well, in the eyes of its creators and champions, cultured meat is for everyone who currently eats conventional, in vivo-based meat. It’s not intended for vegetarians or vegans who already eat a diet (crucial point) that is more environmentally friendly (because it’s less resource-intensive) than cultured meat would likely be, and who already don’t eat animals. You could take me as a target, for example: I’m an omnivore who would prefer to eat fewer animals than I do, and to have a smaller environmental footprint than I do. Animal suffering is a real issue for me, but I’m ultimately a humanist who places a higher moral value on human life than on non-human animal life. So I’d be inclined to embrace cultured meat. I agree with the claim that conventional, industrial meat — “cheap meat” — has unacceptably high moral and environmental costs, which are the main problems cultured meat sets out to solve. Other problems include having sustainable sources of protein to feed a growing global middle class, and the problem of potential pandemics beginning in CAFOs and the like.

You said on Twitter recently that people in cultured meat don’t think of their work as “capitalism trying to save itself” (something I’ve certainly said before about tech meat) and also that many aren’t fans of capitalism and growth generally. But does their intention matter here when the end product would be sold anyway, and by the logic of how business functions under capitalism, have to sell increasingly more product?

To start with my comment on Twitter, I should recap and clarify. Chuck Metz of This is Hell asked me, as a guest on his show, whether or not cultured meat is capitalism’s effort to save itself. My answer was that no, it’s not that simple, it’s not reducible to capitalism trying to save itself.

Another issue for me around cultured meat, which is a very vegan issue, is do you personally, from your research, think that cultured meat is a better solution to the environmental and ethical issues posed by meat than putting energy toward convincing people of the detrimental effects of meat consumption? There are companies you note who are attempting to produce collagen and leather, as well. Why not work outside of the framework of the animal body as a provider for humans?

I’d suggest that cultured meat is a way of moving beyond the animal body itself, because lab-cultured cells can become all kinds of things, not just things that mimic animal body parts. Why shouldn’t we want to make, for example, pyramids of smoked trout?

My answer is that both may have their role to play. We simply don’t know what effect cultured meat will have, if it truly emerges as a consumer product, and I’m supportive of research into it while remaining skeptical of grand claims made on its behalf. And activism, education, and outreach have their place, even if they’re time-consuming and often seem ineffective. It’s worthwhile to unmake some of the myths around meat, such as the idea that our species has a special hunger for meat that nothing else will satisfy, or the myth that physical health and strength are greater when there’s beef around, or that vegan food can’t be delicious.

And because I see the continued obsession with the use of animal bodies as tied to patriarchy and a very masculine need to dominate nature, and because I have been observing food-tech for years now and see many men attempting to solve problems that don’t actually exist — printing 3D food, for example, or creating ovens you can operate via iPhone — it seems to me that this “space” often ignores the reality of what is usually “women’s work”: cooking, shopping for ingredients. Is the cultured meat world very male dominated, and if so, does this create any blind spots you’ve noticed?

You see a link between a focus on animal bodies and meat, and gender — indeed, a link between food/tech and masculinity, and behind all this you posit a “very masculine need to dominate nature.” Without knowing if you’re a reader of Carol Adams’ Sexual Politics of Meat, or Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature, I can only say that your comments on patriarchy seem to me to follow in an established tradition of critique. Merchant’s book in particular influenced me when I wrote Meat Planet.

Does it seem feasible to you that people developing a technology to feed people will distribute that food ethically? While cultured meat hitting the market is still years off, is its eventual accessibility — if it is to feed the world’s population using less land and water than traditional meat — a concern?

Meat Planet offers a few images of meat sharing, because carving meat, dividing an animal, has long been a way of uniting (omnivorous) people, and I’m interested in that social function of meat. If you’re trying to create “cheap meat” via tissue culture, you’re not necessarily thinking about the problems of the ethics of distribution — you’re trying to deal with the ethical problem of animal cruelty, and you’re thinking about feeding billions of people who aren’t necessarily united around a table. Again, cultured meat is a project that doesn’t challenge the economic frame in which many problems of food distribution occur. This doesn’t mean that people involved in cultured meat work are somehow opposed to food ethics or food justice — far from it! Merely that there’s nothing about cultured meat research that automatically commits them to that work.

The image of meat sharing reminds us that stories about meat have often been stories about society, and questions about meat are often questions about what kind of society we want to live in.

At the end of Meat Planet I dwell on the idea of the “pig in the backyard,” which is a Dutch bioethical fantasy about an urban community that lives with a pig, whose cells they occasionally biopsy and turn into meat via tissue culture. I dwell on it precisely because it’s a charming image that entertains the possibility of cultured meat as a project of communal sharing, and of human-animal coexistence. And I want such images to stay very much at the forefront of our minds as we contemplate the future of food, not because they’re likely scenarios, but because they remind us that the — ahem — stakes involved in our foodways are ethical. The image of meat sharing reminds us that stories about meat have often been stories about society, and questions about meat are often questions about what kind of society we want to live in.

To you, even though you’re not personally vegan, what should please vegans — if anything — about the development of cultured meats?

I’ll try to answer: for vegans who are motivated by animal protection, any technology that produces animal protein that doesn’t cost animal lives, is probably a huge advance. But I think that the case of cultured meat, like the Impossible and Beyond burgers, and like all kinds of meat surrogates, should make vegans and vegetarians curious about the economic, political, and philosophical issues inherent in replacing meat.

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MEAT PLANET by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft Copyright © 2019 University of California PressCredit:

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I’m a food writer from Long Island based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Subscribe to my weekly newsletter on food issues: aliciakennedy.substack.com

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