In 2013, a Dutch scientist unveiled the world’s first laboratory-created hamburger. Since then, the idea of producing meat, not from live animals but from carefully cultured tissues, has spread like wildfire through the media. Meanwhile, cultured meat researchers race against population growth and climate change in an effort to make sustainable protein. Meat Planet explores the quest to generate meat in the lab—a substance sometimes called “cultured meat”—and asks what it means to imagine that this is the future of food.
Neither an advocate nor a critic of cultured meat, Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft spent five years researching the phenomenon. In Meat Planet, he reveals how debates about lab-grown meat reach beyond debates about food, examining the links between appetite, growth, and capitalism. Could satiating the growing appetite for meat actually lead to our undoing? Are we simply using one technology to undo the damage caused by another? Like all problems in our food system, the meat problem is not merely a problem of production. It is intrinsically social and political, and it demands that we examine questions of justice and desirable modes of living in a shared and finite world. Benjamin Wurgaft tells a story that could utterly transform the way we think of animals, the way we relate to farmland, the way we use water, and the way we think about population and our fragile ecosystem’s capacity to sustain life. He argues that even if cultured meat does not “succeed,” it functions—much like science fiction—as a crucial mirror that we can hold up to our contemporary fleshy dysfunctions.
About the Author
Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is a writer and historian, and currently a Visiting Scholar in Anthropology at MIT. He was a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT and a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the New School for Social Research. His essays on food and other topics appear regularly in publications from Gastronomica to the Los Angeles Review of Books to the Hedgehog Review. He is @benwurgaft on Twitter.
Read an Excerpt
I wake up to a weird future. It is 4:30 A.M. in Los Angeles on August 5, 2013. I'm about to watch the food of tomorrow appear at just past noon in London, my bleary eyes and smudged computer screen a double set of windows into space and time. I set my browser to www.culturedbeef.net. The future will arrive in the form of laboratory-grown meat made of bovine muscle cells that proliferated in a bioreactor. Or at least that's how the press event I'm awake to watch has been billed. Each announcement has been filled with promise: meat will never be the same, nor will we. A basic fact about humans is that one of our food sources has, for longer than we've been Homo sapiens, come from the bodies of dead animals. That might soon change, as technological progress moves us further along a track that leads from hunting to farming to the laboratory. Such transitions are serious business, but if we're perched on one of history's great pivot points, it's good to keep our sense of humor — there is something inherently silly about the idea of an international media event staged around a hamburger, one of the world's most recognizable, mundane, and American foods. At the world's fairs and expositions of a previous era, grand events that one critic called "sites of pilgrimage to the commodity fetish," novel foods were displayed to crowds of visitors inside glass pavilions. I'm getting ready to watch the early twenty-first-century equivalent, coffee mug clutched tight.
Journalists have described the hamburger in question as a "frankenburger," "test-tube burger," or piece of "vat meat." It was produced not by killing and butchering a cow, but through the expensive and laborious use of a well-established laboratory technique known as tissue or cell culture, first accomplished by the American embryologist Ross Harrison in 1907. After decades of use in scientific and medical research, tissue culture has only recently been used to produce what is sometimes called, with technical accuracy but zero gastronomic zest, "in vitro meat." One of the many promises attached to this new meat is that it could offer an alternative to industrial animal agriculture, perhaps completely replacing its environmentally damaging and cruel practices with pacific ones. This meat's utter weirdness cannot be overstated. Meat that never had parents. Meat that never died (in the sense that a whole animal dies) and, in the eyes of some critics who define their meat narrowly, never properly lived. Meat that could utterly transform the way we think of animals, the way we relate to farmland, the way we use water, the way we think about population and our fragile ecosystem's carrying capacity of both human and nonhuman animal bodies. A new kind of flesh for a planet of omnivorous hominids who eat more meat with each passing generation. As my Los Angeles neighborhood stirs in the early morning, cyberspace becomes meatspace.
Clickbait stubs have swarmed through the Internet in recent weeks, drawing bits of human attention (perhaps the Internet's real currency — I'm spending some now) by announcing the burger's shocking price tag: over $300,000. Rumor has it that a single wealthy benefactor in the United States has funded the Dutch laboratory that grew the cells and shaped them into muscle and then meat. Mark Post, the medical doctor and professor of physiology who created the burger, is the man of the hour, but media professionals coordinated this event, paid by Post's benefactor. Cultured meat is a technology still in development, despite the very established nature of tissue culture techniques; this is one of the reasons it costs so much to produce a small piece of meat. In the local language we might use to describe this technology, it is "emerging"— a metaphor regularly used to mark the phase when novel types of computers, energy generators, or medical technologies are devised or discovered, built or grown, eventually tested and licensed, promoted in the media and (with painful slowness, from the perspectives of their designers and investors) become available to consumers. "Cultured meat" is a term that is just starting to surface as of 2013, and Post's use of the term at this event may be an effort to replace the clinical-sounding "in vitro meat."?
The "emergence" metaphor casts the future as a kind of mist out of which concrete things materialize. I think of the signs by which we track emerging technologies: patents, investments, research grants, conferences, exploratory launches of products in specific markets, splashy front-page profiles of entrepreneurs in technology magazines. Before my own meat brain is properly awake it occurs to me that the emergence metaphor performs a curious sleight of hand by hiding human agency. It implies that a new technology comes toward us of its own accord, rather than being ushered into being by many hands, each pair with its own agenda. And for a given technology to emerge, there must be a public for it to emerge into. Someone must be watching, and they'll have their own ideas about the future. I've been trained by utopian science fiction to expect certain things from a future of spaceships, and dystopian science fiction has taught me what to expect from a future Earth devastated by climate change, but do I know what to expect from a future of vat-grown meat? I train my eyes on my monitor.
For a subjectively long stretch of time, "feed will start soon" is all my browser shows, but then the event begins with a promotional film. A gentle guitar chord strums in the background and the camera shows gulls diving down over waves. A house is perched over the ocean. We see a bucolic human coastal settlement, the architecture noticeably North American or European. We're in the immediately recognizable aesthetic mode of a nature documentary or a science program aimed at young viewers. The camera pans out over the ocean, showing a lighthouse. Over this a voice states, "Sometimes a new technology comes along, and it has the capability to transform the way we view our world." Post's secret backer is revealed. A quick cut to a headshot of the speaker shows Sergey Brin, cofounder of the major Internet search and product company Google, and thus someone with a unique perspective on the way technology changes worldviews. But why is a Silicon Valley billionaire, someone who made his fortune from a search engine that has become so ubiquitous that "to google" is practically standard English, getting interested in the future of food? A simple lexical shift will reveal one answer to this question; cultured meat may someday be food, but right now it is part of what investors in Silicon Valley, Brin's domain, often call "the food space," an area of enterprise and investment that links food production and supply, environmental sustainability, human health, and the welfare of nonhuman animals. The food space is one in which venture capitalists have been very visibly active in recent years. But the word "space" has narrower and more specific historical connotations, conveying not mere dimensionality but also an intimation of the frontier. Frontiers are places different human populations have gone, over the centuries, in order to extract resources. Some have argued that without frontiers capitalism itself could not function, for capitalists need fresh natural resources and new opportunities for the profitable investment of capital. From the standpoint of shareholders, Google doesn't produce value by providing free search functionality to billions of people around the world. It produces value by establishing a new frontier: extracting the resource of our search data (and many other kinds of data too), which it then puts to undisclosed but immensely profitable use — and it also sells advertising space, a chance to catch human attention that was originally directed elsewhere. Meat is already in our money in many parts of the world, through a trace quantity of tallow in the lining that coats our banknotes. You might say that commodity meat and money are already "spaces" for one another, reciprocally linked through use and investment. This is how cows become capital — they are counted head (caput in Latin; thus "capital") by head.
Brin continues speaking, and the scene dissolves from the birds and the waves to a close-up of his youthful face with a fringe of salt-and-pepper stubble, framed by the device known as Google Glass. This is a headset designed in California and built by the Chinese company Foxconn, with a tiny computer screen the wearer can look into, gazing at the Internet while they appear to be gazing at those around them. Itself an emerging technology, Glass was released to the public in February 2013, but it is rare to see anyone walking around wearing the very expensive Glass (the name reminds me of glass pavilions from world's fairs) except in such tech-centric places as Palo Alto, California, or the blocks surrounding the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Brin's decision to wear Glass in the film underscores his role as a very wealthy ambassador from the future. Brin speaks of his efforts to find technologies "on the cusp of viability," capable of being "really transformative for the world" (more promises, I note, and his phrasing reminds me that cultured meat may soon be an investment opportunity), and then the scene changes again.
A new talking head appears. It belongs to the senior biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham, who sits in his Harvard office, book spines visible on shelves behind him. He's apparently here to explain the transformative potential of which Brin spoke. "The story of human evolution," Wrangham says, "... is intimately tied to meat." He proceeds to tell a common and widely shared story about the importance of meat in our species' natural history, a version of which is included in his 2009 book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. There Wrangham argued that our evolution into modern humanity was made possible by cooking, and especially by cooking tubers and meat, abundant sources of calories that facilitated the development of several features of our contemporary morphology and sociability: small mouths, large brains (the brain is a calorie hog), a facility for cooperation, and a distinctive social structure based on reproductive relationships between males and females. Wrangham's is a radicalized version of other tales about humans and their evolutionary relationship with meat and other foods. His book has been subject to discussion and debate among biologists and anthropologists in a way that the film I'm watching can't possibly track. The tactical reasons for bringing Wrangham into the picture are clear. If Brin speaks for the promise of new technology, Wrangham speaks for evolutionary antiquity and the authority of science.
Whether one agrees with Wrangham or not, it's impossible to miss the way the film matches a story about our hominid past with a story about the future of meat. Why suture together the deep time of species identity and the shallow time of our imminent dietary choices and food-provisioning strategies? Is evolutionary antiquity supposed to ground and legitimate hyper-modernity? Am I to think that the past justifies the future? The next sequence jars me out of such reflections, as we cut from Wrangham to a piece of meat being cooked over a campfire in the darkness. The meat is on a stick held by a long-haired human, naked save for a loincloth, features obscured by darkness and the glare of the fire. Then a quick cut to African tribesmen, carrying spears and running barefoot. Wrangham goes on: "Hunters and gatherers all over the world are very sad if, for a few days at a time, the hunters come back empty-handed. The camp becomes quiet. The dancing stops." Wrangham's voice grows more animated and he raises his fists: "And then someone catches some meat! They bring the prey into the camp" — the camera jump-cuts to a new, distinctly modern scene, in which an adult white male opens the lid of an outdoor grill —"or nowadays, into someone's back garden barbecue." The two registers, the stereotypical African-primitive and the white and modern, are suddenly fused to a specific purpose, as if to explain and justify Western and modern behaviors by reference to "primitive" ones. The move is familiar, and offensive though probably innocently intended. It's the sort of fusion that took place in the after-school science programs I watched as a child, or in some older nature documentaries; it comes as a considerable surprise to see such recourse to the notion of the primitive many decades later. It is the visual equivalent of what anthropologists have criticized as an unthinking sociobiological turn. As the film continues, Caucasian children stare at modern meat in the form of hamburgers. Wrangham says, "Everyone gets excited to come and share. ... It is ritually cut." A knife-wielding white male in a baseball cap divvies up a steak. "We are a species designed to love meat."
The symbolic assignment of modernity to Western white males, and of an ancestral past to black Africans, is surprising in a promotional film released to an international media audience in 2013. Yet Wrangham's claims hold a different kind of surprise. In less than a minute of exposition, Wrangham (as presented by the film's director and editor) has achieved a magnificent elision of meaning, moving from the idea that cooked animal flesh played a crucial role in producing human physiological and social modernity to suggesting that our taste for meat is original, innate, that it is natural for us to desire it. According to this logic, vegetarianism represents a break from our "design." But this logic is a tangle. The idea of a natural taste for meat is not uncontested, and this contest may in turn be the iceberg-tip of a deeper scientific debate regarding the status of humans in the food chain and our relationship with other forms of animal life. Technology is implicated in the practice of hunting animals, and thus our relationship with meat is linked to our status as tool-making and tool-using creatures. This latter point is not lost on cultured meat's advocates. Some of them argue that laboratory-grown meat may be a logical extension of our gradually changing and inherently technological relationship first with subsistence itself and then with industrial food production. "Designed to love meat" is a slogan that invokes hominin evolution as a license to pursue the love of meat in whatever modern way technology enables.
The film won't wait for me to summon footnotes to mind, of course. It moves on to a conveyor belt carrying pink hamburger patties directly into the camera lens. We've dropped the question of human appetites and picked up the crucial question of scale, announced with this look into the guts of our industrial meat production system. A new expert, the environmentalist Ken Cook, says, "Feeding the world is a complex problem. I think people don't yet realize what impact meat consumption has on the planet." With a quick cut to cows in a field, Cook and Brin alternate to provide a few bullet-point problems associated with industrial-scale animal agriculture, the problems that cultured meat's pioneers hope to remedy. For example, 70 percent of antibiotics used in the United States go into livestock bodies, not human ones, and those antibiotics are required partly because of the cramped conditions in which livestock are raised and kept before the slaughter. Another important reason for the use of subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics is that it enhances the rate at which animals put on weight, bringing them to slaughter faster. "When you see how these cows are treated ... that's certainly not something I am comfortable with," says Brin, reminding me of the obvious problem of animal ethics, but the other side of such intensive antibiotic use is that it has been known to breed antibiotic resistance in the pathogens that circulate among livestock. This makes concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) breeding grounds for viral agents dangerous both to livestock and to humans. Stories about the hazards of CAFOs and slaughterhouses have become commonplace. From a dystopian perspective the "future of meat" isn't lab-grown meat, it's a global pandemic originating in abused and crowded animal bodies. Cook reminds us of the health risks associated with simply eating a lot of meat; high levels of carnivory are associated with a 20 percent greater-than-normal chance of developing illnesses such as heart disease or cancer. However, as I will come to learn, more supporters of cultured meat are motivated by the next issues he raises: the environmental cost of meat production, which is thought to yield about 14–18 percent of industrial society's greenhouse gas emissions annually, and which uses an enormous amount of water and land. These resources could feed more mouths if they were devoted to fruits, grains, and vegetables instead. In 2011 a graduate student at Oxford conducted a theoretical life-cycle assessment of cultured hamburger, comparing it to the conventional kind. While the assessment favorably compared the lower environmental costs of cultured meat production to those of conventional meat, it was also declared full of holes by critics and was eventually revised.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Meat Planet"
Copyright © 2019 Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments 1 • Cyberspace/Meatspace 2 • Meat 3 • Promise 4 • Fog 5 • Doubt 6 • Hope 7 • Tree 8 • Future 9 • Prometheus 10 • Memento 11 • Copy 12 • Philosophers 13 • Maastricht 14 • Kosher 15 • Whale 16 • Cannibals 17 • Gathering/Parting 18 • Epimetheus Notes Selected Bibliography Index