The success of lab-cultured meat depends on humanity’s desire to eat suffering
“Who can be made to believe that our cultures are carnivorous because animal proteins are irreplaceable?”
—Jacques Derrida, Eating Well,
or the Calculation of the Subject
“We are a species designed to love meat.”
—Promotional Video, CulturedBeef.net
IN a video of the carefully staged presentation of the first laboratory-cultured in vitro beef burger in 2013, physician turned tissue engineer Dr. Mark Post of Cultured Beef, based at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, looks proud and a little nervous. A panel of scientists and journalists has been assembled in the London TV studio to sample his lab’s creation in front of 200 reporters. The burger, produced with the same techniques medical researchers use to create human organs, has been painstakingly assembled from muscle stem cells grown in thousands of individual cultures over a period of months. We watch as celebrity chef Richard McGeown serves up the dry, Petri-dish-shaped beef patty, complete with blood-red color simulated by beet juice.
The panelists’ reactions are cautiously optimistic: as nutritional scientist Hanni Rutzler remarks, the substance seems “close to meat.” In spite of this charismatic and straightforward media presentation, though, it seems unlikely that in vitro meat’s complex ethical, cultural, and economic significance will be resolved as simply as its advocates would like.
In the Western libidinal economy of “conscious” meat consumption, this is an exceptional moment: For the first time, the desire for meat can be sated without the slaughter of an animal or the need to assuage a guilty conscience. Indeed, not only is the new cybernetic meat cruelty-free (or at least, it will be as soon as scientists figure out how to grow the cells without embryonic calf blood), it is also widely touted by researchers and investors as a low-carbon, sustainable meat of the future.
Ever ready with a technological solution to humanity’s crises, the green entrepreneurialism that propels in vitro meat sits at the profitable crux of consumer anxiety and desire. Unfortunately, the environmental claims of these entrepreneurs are based on scant evidence, and critics are quick to point out the obvious: Vat-produced meat is, in fact, probably less resource efficient than the farm-produced variety, given the high costs of electricity and equipment, and the vast sums of capital projected for its mass production.
While in vitro meat diverges technologically from mainstream 20th century agro-industrialism, its ethical and economic discourses are nonetheless an extension of the same logic of capitalist expansion. The most recent drastic historical shift in meat production took place during the postwar “green revolution,” in which the emergence of agro-industrial tech corporations like Monsanto and Dow scaled agriculture to unprecedented scope, expanding profitability along with their disciplinary power over farmers and animals throughout the world. Biotech innovations in animal husbandry have also made it possible to produce milk and other animal by-products at ever-quicker rates. Under the futurism of the new meat, however, the hidden labor and conditions of today’s slaughter houses would be replaced by Big Agra’s next stage: the shiny vats and bright lights of the post-animal laboratory.
If in vitro burgers for the masses seems implausible, at least it fits with a neoliberal economic model already dominated by magical thinking. Following the example of carbon credit schemes, greenwashed consumer throwaway goods, and hybrid gas-electric SUVs, in vitro beef takes for granted that, rather than lower consumption, we should seek technological means for continuing the same patterns of over-extension. Such greenwashed technologies present a way forward for the guilty Western conscience.
Perhaps it is not surprising, in this light, that Google co-founder Sergey Brin threw down $330,000 in seed money for Post’s cultured beef burger. In an August 2013 video promoting Cultured Beef, Brin, sporting his Google Glass, introduces us to the history of man and his meat, with the help of biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham. As Wrangham tells it, ancient man (and he is a man, iconized in the video by racially stereotyped stock footage of dark-skinned men spearing a wild animal) felt a deep libidinal, biological, and seemingly pre-discursive affinity for flesh, a trait contemporary humans also share: “We are a species designed to love meat,” he concludes sternly.
Brin’s LCD-tinted corporate vision positions the new meat as a key node in the cybernetic project of mastery over nature, and its production as a transcendental extension of global human need. As in Barbrook and Cameron’s essay, “The Californian Ideology,” Brin’s endorsement of the new meat extends existing San Francisco Bay Area narratives of hip, counter-cultural libertarianism. Under this regime, we don’t need to challenge the basis of our most indulgent and wasteful behaviors but instead look to bioengineering and the ingenuity of the free market to bring on technologies that are, as Brin puts it, “transformative for the world.”
Following in Brin’s footsteps, a number of aesthetically driven startups have rushed to capitalize on the Google burger buzz, securing millions in finance capital with the help of nonprofits like New Harvest, which has actively promoted the “postanimal bio-economy,” through conferences, TED talks, and social media campaigns. Indie Bio, a newly minted accelerator fund for synthetic biology, devotes itself to nothing less than “funding and building startups dedicated toward solving humanity’s most pressing problems with Life itself.” These companies promises to eventually deliver synthetic shrimp, chicken-less eggs, cruelty-free gelatin, and (to the ire of conservationists) endangered Black Rhinoceros horn.
This wide-eyed futurism is fundamental to eco-entrepreneurialism, drumming up media enthusiasm for a materially unnecessary product. The in vitro meat movement must create a marketable impetus for sustainable, cruelty-free protein that we know is less sustainable than the myriad of equally cruelty-free alternatives that can be already made from wheat, soy, and other materials. But in spite of the buzz, most people still reject the concept of eating test-tube flesh: 80% of respondents in a 2014 Pew survey in the U.S. said they wouldn’t eat it.
THE in vitro meat startup relies upon a dual discourse: it must portray itself as “natural,” while also calling upon a cybernetic logic of transcendence. New Wave Foods states enthusiastically their modus operandi: “get inspired by mother nature and recreate what people have been eating for centuries, in a better and more sustainable way.” Likewise, Post, in describing his in vitro beef burger, makes sure to remark upon the ways it is “safer” than traditional beef, as it is isolated from the contamination of the slaughterhouse and feedlot.
In claiming in vitro meat is simultaneously natural but also “better” than the “real thing,” supporters seem acutely aware of the danger that consumers will see their products as perversions of nature. Unsurprisingly, the unnaturalness of in vitro meat are detractors’ most prominent complaint. Terms like Franken food or shmeat (a portmanteau with either “shit” or “sheet,” depending on who you’re talking to) linger in news reports and Reddit threads.
Whether or not in vitro meat proves profitable, it already presents a threat to a sacred gustatory norm: that of the normative violence of meat consumption. It seems to go without saying that for Post’s in vitro burger to succeed, it must simulate the sensory stimuli of slaughtered flesh— blood most of all. According to this ideal, the in vitro beef attempts to arouse the same corporeal responses that normally exist only in the context of eating a dead animal. In doing so, it sets ajar deeply held cultural sensitivities around meat consumption and challenges our sense of what demarcates human bodies from animal ones.
In the West, meat has deeply seated symbolic links with notions of the erotic, naturalness, stereotypical femininity, and the earth, and also serves, according to the classic structuralist argument, as an oppositional coding that reinforces normative categories of culture, masculinity, and civilization through acts of desire or consumption. In a 1990 interview for the Swedish newspaper Expressen, Jacques Derrida remarks that “the establishment of man’s privileged position requires the sacrifice and devouring of animals.” He adds, “Eating is, after all, the great mystery of Christianity, the transubstantiation occurs in the act of incorporation itself: bread and wine become the flesh and blood of Christ. ” In this narrative of Christianity and Western humanism, it is the capacity to absorb the flesh of the other which makes us fully human.
If flesh sacrifice is basic to the Western experience of being human, in vitro meat may potentially threaten it. For religious doctrines of the human appetite, in vitro meat seems to evoke precisely the same insecurities over questions of authenticity, realness, and animality that vex the popular media imaginary. So far, scholars of Kosher and Halal practices have mainly considered the ambiguity of synthetic flesh. According to Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin, if the flesh is “meat,” it could not be kosher so long as the animal it was derived from is alive, since Jewish law prohibits eating “any meat that was severed from a live animal.” Others, including Rabbi Menachem Ganeck of the Orthodox Union in New York, suggest that the in vitro meat could be considered “parve” (neither meat nor dairy) since it is not derived directly from a living animal, or, alternatively, that it could fit the Talmudic description of “miraculous meat” which is descended from heaven and is always kosher.
Likewise, Islamic scholars have been optimistic about whether in vitro meat could be considered halal. Abdul Qahir Qamar of the International Islamic Fiqh Academy in Jedda, Saudi Arabia, argues that as long as the stem cells aren’t taken from animals banned for human consumption under halal (such as pigs or dogs), the meat would be “vegetative,” and “similar to yogurt and fermented pickles.”
Ontologically, of course, the new meat is no more or less a hybrid of nature and culture than the animals we already raise and butcher. Adult “Broilers” (that is, chickens selectively bred to have breasts 80 percent larger than they were 50 years ago) cannot support their own weight and must be killed as they reach “slaughter weight” or their bodies will begin to collapse under their own mass. Cattle cannot survive their putrid living conditions without a constant stream of antibiotics, which breed ever-stronger strains of E. coli. Hatchery salmon will never reproduce in the wild but are driven by instinct to return to the concrete pens where they were raised and released.
Whether in the minds of religious scholars or animal-rights activists, it seems clear that in vitro meat will not solve the abuse of animals and workers, or the environmental woes of mankind. Rather, it seems more likely that it will continue to reproduce the same ethical quandaries and nature/culture hybridities as existing agro and bio-tech methods. Its ethical meanings necessarily depend on the ongoing production of cultural codes—that is, who, and under what conditions, will have the power to deem it an effective or meaningful simulacra for flesh.
This is cultured meat’s utility: It explicates precisely the impracticality, fickleness, and lack of rationality in humans’ relationships to the flesh we consume, as well as the role of power in influencing and managing our relationship to it. It is for a reason that those who know the violence behind meat continue to eat it. We refuse to let go of the practice not because we are ignorant but because we are deeply entangled with it.
WHEN it comes to daily rituals of sustenance, care, and spirituality, meat is already, and ever more obviously so, a simulacra of itself. From chicken to the chicken nugget to in vitro meat, the progression is one that has long displaced discourses of authenticity and the nature/culture distinction.
Donna Haraway, in “A Cyborg Manifesto,” affirms the importance of such deep ambiguity undergirding humanity’s relationship to nature, reminding us that today “the certainty of what counts as nature—a source of insight and promise of innocence—is undermined, probably fatally. The transcendent authorization of interpretation is lost, and with it the ontology grounding ‘Western’ epistemology.” In vitro meat destabilizes categories constitutive to Western humanist identity in just this way, which may be why it has proved so fascinating and vexing. As in the ambivalence of religious authorities to its authenticity as animal flesh and through its paradoxical marketing apparatus, in vitro meat articulates the breakdown of the ideology of our corporeal sovereignty, and our division from the bodies of those whom we eat.
Easing us away from the brink of solipsism or indifference, Haraway notes that in spite of the obsolescence of these epistemological categories, “the alternative is not cynicism or faithlessness, that is, some version of abstract existence, like the accounts of technological determinism destroying ‘man’ by the ‘machine’ or ‘meaningful political action’ by the ‘text’. Who cyborgs will be is a radical question; the answers are a matter of survival.”
The ethical and ontological significance of in vitro meat isn’t defined by any universal code, the insistence of a Silicon Valley ideology, or Western humanism. It remains open to contest and will continue to be played out as a discursive and political struggle over the links between bodies, technology, and capital. Our failure to articulate the boundary between the new meat and ourselves, and the consumer and the consumed, also reveals the contradictions and arbitrariness at the heart of Western ethical and environmental conscience, as well as our own uncomfortable proximity to the industrial processes we prefer to hold at arm’s length. These contradictions are present in everything in we eat, whether that is a GMO tomato, foie gras, or a piece of fruit transported using tar sands oil. They are in the taste of blood, regardless of whether it was born or made.