Even Lab-Grown Meat Won’t Save Us From a ‘Terrible Reckoning’
Historically, meat consumption has driven violence, colonialism, and war. Will the stuff cultivated in a lab be any different?
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates tells his fellow Athenian philosopher Glaucon that in order to feed the Greeks’ nascent appetite for meat — a luxury good in 375 B.C. — they would need ever more territory to graze farmed animals. Glaucon is quick to point out that would “certainly” require going to war to obtain land for this purpose. New research has proven him correct.
Rosa E. Ficek and Joshua Specht, historians at the University of Puerto Rico and Notre Dame, respectively, have shown that cattle ranching is indeed connected to colonial expansion: During European conquest of the Americas, cattle would be set off to roam in lands that settlers had no rightful claim to, creating the further pretext for military intervention. Specht, the author of Red Meat Republic, referred to the cattle that helped settle the American West as “mobile colonizers” for their unique ability to fulfill Glaucon’s prophecy.
Once the “buffaloes are exterminated,” Philip Sheridan, a Union general and a “chief architect” of the Western expansion movement, said, “your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle, and the festive cowboy, who follows the hunter as the second forerunner of an advanced civilization.” In other words, after the buffalo were killed, Sheridan implied, so too would the indigenous people who relied on them — and thus he appealed to the idyllic notion of America as a cow pasture. In this sense, cattle were intimately tied to the violence, growth and, crucially, the idea of the American frontier. As the land was settled, so was its diet — which, Specht notes, with the help of new technologies like refrigeration and railroads, democratized the availability of cheap beef. This yoked notions of settler belonging to the consumption of meat grazed on freshly stolen land.
The lust to seek new territory stemmed, at least in part, from the fact that Europe had used up many of its natural resources, and needed more to satisfy its hunger for more space. Today, half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture; and, of that, two-thirds is used for animal grazing — an unsustainable portion, according to the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change. Yet when investors talk about “the food space” — the marriage of industrial agriculture and Silicon Valley — they are talking about another sort of future frontier that posits technological advances in food and science can reconcile plenary and dietary limits. With the success of fake meat burgers like Impossible and Beyond, which are available wherever meat is sold, cultured meat — grown from cells in a lab — remains not yet commercially viable.
According to the anthropologist Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, like the so-called New World, the promise of cultured meat could be the next frontier to promise bounty in the face of scarcity. “The word ‘space’ has narrower and more specific historical connotations, conveying not mere dimensionality but also an intimation of the frontier,” he writes in his new book Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food. And Wurgaft suggests that capitalism is always in search of new frontiers—because financiers need endless growth—if only to park their investment capital.
The book focuses on the fraught promise of cultured meat, grown from cells in a bioreactor: The speculative, presumably almost-here sci-fi future of consuming not-quite-animal flesh. Like carnivores at a barbeque, mouths watering at the smell of grilled meats, Google’s Sergey Brin and PayPalantir’s Peter Thiel have gotten a whiff of cultured meat — putting their fortunes behind an emerging technology Brin says is “on the cusp of viability.”
Meat Planet opens with Dutch medical doctor and physiology professor Mark Post’s unveiling of his $300,000 “test-tube” burger in 2013. The launch video for the burger-ish concoction lays out the allure of cultured meat: It will allow humans to continue consuming as much cooked flesh as we want while simultaneously avoiding what environmentalist Ken Cook dubs a “terrible reckoning” with the challenges posed by climate change.
Invoking the image of speckled cattle on the frontier, Brin says on screen that the “vision in our minds” of a “pristine farm” isn’t “actually how meat gets produced today.” Animals are pumped with antibiotics; they live in cramped, cruel conditions, require some 70% of the world’s arable farmland, and ungodly amounts of water — all while their feces create lagoons that damage the air and water that poor and marginalized people need to breathe and drink. Meanwhile, meat consumption accounts for some 14%–18% percent of global carbon emissions and global carnivory is expected to double by 2050. Unless everyone becomes vegetarian, which Brin and Post think is unlikely, there is only one way to square the problem: Another frontier.
Once again, a new food space could save us.
In the case of the American frontier, the land was there for the grazing — the only thing that stood in the colonizers’ way was its original inhabitants. When it comes to the food space, however, climate change is ongoing and can’t be “fixed” with musket fire. Yet cultured meat — “on the cusp of viability” — remains elusive at best, with a delivery date remaining just beyond the horizon. As the writer Charlotte Shane notes in an incisive essay on meat consumption, cultured meat is “a beguiling dream because it frees us from reliance on the near-useless tools of guilt and willpower and suggests the future can be improved without any sacriﬁces.” The same faith is reflected in the pining for geoengineering or space travel. Of course, it is easier to dream that we could innovate our way out of ecological limits than reckon with a problem once articulated in The Republic.
Wurgaft knows this. Throughout the book, he probes at the question of reducing meat consumption, at one point noting that “humans seem to enjoy eating meat, but they have no obvious nutritional need for it, as evidenced by the millions of healthy vegetarians in the world.” Wurgaft’s book, in many ways, is a philosophical inquiry into the question of whether humans should kill and eat animals at all. His contention is that we have to take the technology, and the food that could potentially stem from it, philosophically seriously. The book cites many philosophers — from Marx to Peter Singer — and contains two chapters on Greek gods, one on cannibalism, and none on vegetarianism. Although Wurgaft understands intellectually that factory farming is morally indefensible and that massive dietary shifts are required to weather climate change, he remains seduced by the idea that cultured meat could live up to its potential.
“Cultured meat stands to alleviate the suffering of food animals packed together at industrial scale and to reduce the massive environmental bootstamp of industrial animal agriculture, not to mention eliminating zoonotic diseases that proliferate in microbial feedlot ponds,” he enthuses, before catching himself by noting, “those are problems themselves symptomatic of deeper civilizational troubles.”
Cultured meat is often buoyed by the idea that, “human evolution… is intimately tied to meat,” as Richard Wrangham, a Harvard anthropologist of biology and lab meat supporter, put it. Wrangham suggests that cooking meat is what “enabled us to have big brains.” Wurgaft is quick to point out that this thinking is dubious.
Wrangham’s own, earlier, book Catching Fire, Wurgaft notes, argues our development isn’t tied to meat consumption itself — many species consume raw meat — but cooking.
“Many of the distinct evolutionary claims made on behalf of meat come less from material evidence… and more from modern human physiology,” he writes. In other words, that humans somehow require meat to nourish their brains or for any other reason, is bunk science at best.
To counter the idea that meat plays a necessary dietary role for humans, Wurgaft points to a different theory. Drawing from the anthropologist Nick Fiddes’ book, Meat: A Natural Symbol, Wurgaft posits “that the most important function of meat in human life is not dietary at all. Rather, meat symbolizes our control over the natural world, our dominance over the rest of Animalia, our distance from the ‘lower orders.’”
Seen through this prism, the centrality of meat in the American diet — which is being adopted at an impressive scale throughout the world — was socially constructed by people who owned cattle ranches built on stolen land. The presumed demands of that diet, in turn, became the rationale to build a massively unsustainable industrial food system. Meat’s “naturalness” is a relic from a time when colonialism, slavery, and domination over nature were not frowned upon but encouraged. I couldn’t help but think of a line from the French poet Aimé Césaire’s iconic Discourse on Colonialism (1955):
Colonization… dehumanizes the civilized man; that colonial activity, colonial enterprise, colonial conquest, which is based on contempt for the native and justified by that contempt, inevitably tends to change him who undertakes it; that the colonizer, who in order to ease his conscience gets into the habit of seeing the other man as an animal, accustoms himself to treating him like an animal, and tends to objectively transform himself into an animal.
Césaire calls this “the boomerang effect of colonization.” As I was reading Meat Planet, the boomerang effect of colonization was happening in real time, as fires stoked the Australian brush, propelled, at least in part, from the destabilization of the climate by British colonial coal mining.
Many of Australia’s early settlements in “the brush” (which is smoldering as I write this), like the American frontier, were rooted in agribusiness — cattle ranching. As many as 1 billion animals have died from the fires, including tens of thousands of cattle. In this sense, climate change poses an even greater boomerang effect: one that reminds humans that we are animals, like cattle, who must escape the flames wrought by “colonial enterprise.”
The “terrible reckoning” has arrived, and cultured meat remains, per Wurgaft, “an abstraction,” a frontier just out of reach.