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”
I don’t care at all about lab meat, cultured meat — whatever anyone is calling the flesh born of animal cells in laboratories that some believe could eventually feed the world, if only it could scale. There are things other than meat that people could eat, as we know. The human race could survive without any food that comes close to resembling animal flesh, but it remains an obsession. For reasons from the patriarchal, as outlined in Carol Adams’s seminal text The Sexual Politics of Meat, cultural, and other, though, meat remains a daily part of life for much of the planet’s population, and thus there is money to be found in replicating it in a kinder, gentler, more environmentally friendly way that doesn’t depend upon factory farming.
Despite my complete disinterest in meat — whether from the flesh of an animal or created in a lab — I wanted to read the new book Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food by academic Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft to understand a bit better this world that’s adjacent to my work without rejecting it wholesale. He begins with the 2013 debut of a cultured meat burger by Dutch scientist Mark Post, using a live-stream of the event to begin to address why he will have spent five years deep in the world of cultured meat and what he hopes to accomplish in the text. He treats the cultured meat as science fiction through which to ask real questions about the global food system, human desire, capitalism, and ethics. While it is difficult, for me, to look at the very real problems of the food system and the destruction — of life and environment — caused by humanity’s meat fetishization through anything but a literal lens, the book provided me with many more levels to consider around why people are so obsessed with any kind of animal flesh. “Meat’s meanings are multiple,” he writes, ”and this holds true for the lab-grown kind too.”
Meat Planet, which is at turns enlightening and funny and a tad bit infuriating to anyone who has chosen to just not eat meat, is worthwhile reading for anyone invested in what a more just food system could possibly look like. I asked Wurgaft a few questions about my concerns.
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.
But here’s the kicker — for some (but not all) the champions of cultured meat, the main goal isn’t to have people adopt cultured meat out of moral agreement. Instead, they want to replace conventional meat in the food system to whatever degree they can. That probably means offering a product that people can easily adopt because it would be hypothetically identical in flavor and texture to conventional meat, and — again, hypothetically — equivalent in price tag. The project of promoting cultured meat is mostly a project of marketing a product to replace conventional cheap meat, rather than a project of moral and intellectual persuasion. And of course cultured meat, as of this writing, doesn’t yet exist as a consumer product.
Getting back to your Puerto Rican context, cultured meat does not address the problems of the destruction of agriculture, or the consolidation of agricultural land, or the consolidation of crop seeds and intellectual property in the hands of a few companies, or any other infringement of food sovereignty. That’s not an indictment of cultured meat. It’s just not the problem it sets out to address.
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.
This is because the story of cultured meat isn’t just the story of its potential effects on the world, but also a set of anthropological and historical stories regarding the nature and meanings of meat, diet, and the human condition itself. And as an ethnographer, the intentions of my interviewees matter a great deal to me. Many of them are, it’s true, people who have no problem with capitalism. Some are even advocates on behalf of the free market (as if it needed advocates!). And some have critical attitudes towards the logic of growth that capitalism seems to require, but they nevertheless see cultured meat as an important means towards an end that matters very deeply to them. And look, I’m a socialist. Doing ethnography in the world of tech startups was not always comfy for me, ideologically speaking, although I met a lot of nice people.
But back to your question: “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?” I think the answer has to be that cultured meat does not stand to change the economic model in which it would be created, marketed, and sold, and that if that model is premised on growth, cultured meat would remain bound up with growth, a way of ensuring that we can have “babies and steaks too” to adopt the language of the food historian Warren Belasco. And that seems to me like an unwise Cornucopian gamble.
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.
Your second question is “Why not work outside of the framework of the animal body as a provider for humans?” and 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?
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.
During my fieldwork in the cultured meat world, I observed far more gender parity than I had expected. I was impressed, for example, by the work of the women-led New Harvest, and by the way Isha Datar’s leadership of that organization opened paths for women in food/tech. On the basis of the active leadership role taken by women around cultured meat, and by their disinterest in what you might call masculine narratives around meat, I would be uncomfortable with claims that cultured meat specifically is shaped by a patriarchal interest in animal bodies.
All that said, the food/tech nexus is full of what you rightly call out as “men trying to solve fake problems” (to paraphrase). It’s also full of efforts to streamline away all the parts of food preparation that connect us to the agricultural realities behind food. This makes food/tech a machine for generating blind spots, but I don’t think that’s because of patriarchy.
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.