Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Saving My Bacon

I've been a cheerful vegetarian for twenty years now, and at this point the very thought of eating most meat actually wrinkles up my nose involuntarily in distaste... But I have to admit that to this day for some reason the smell of bacon frying in a skillet stands the hairs up on the back of my neck with lust and something like heartbreak.

So, when I read an article about the near-term prospect of meat grown in vats from a single animal cell "When Meat Is Not Murder," by Ian Sample in yesterday's UK Guardian my very first thought was... Ethical bacon? Sign me up!

Of course, the idea of "vat-grown" meat will have been a staple of science fiction for long decades before it manages finally to become a staple in everyday diets, if it ever does (with futurological crystal balls, it is good to remember that, in general, they always seem to foresee developments "twenty years from now," a twenty year horizon that curiously adjusts forward with the passage of present years). The notion of scaling up a single animal cell into a petri dish's worth of meat-mush and onward thence to a veritable mush-zeppelin of mystery meat with a fork in it ready to feed a hungry grateful world has been deliriously chewed over by futurologists mouthing off ever since I was a kid reading Omni Magazine, even as it never seems actually to arrive at the actual mouths actually chewing stage.

Among the delirious thought-experiments one stumbles onto now, in an era in which puppies can be made to glow in the dark and human ears sprout from the backs of mice, is that vat-grown bacon might not just be less offensive to the ethical allergies of vegetarians like me, but even gengineered to circumvent conventional allergies as well, not to mention, say, reduce the awful fat-content of natural varieties presently on offer or be infused like Froot Loops with who knows what sorts of lovely unexpected nutritional benefits besides?

As always, it is probably more sensible to remember, as futurologists themselves rarely manage to do, the distinctions between science fiction and science proper, and to treat the former as meditations on the hopes and anxieties and problems occasioned by the latter rather than some kind of predictive, policy-making, or promotional literature to which the latter is in any important sense indebted.

Now, I've been eating various veggie-burgers and tofu-pups on offer since the day I became a vegetarian, and I'll admit that for a while there neither the cost nor the taste of the products exactly thrilled me. But these days alternative quasi-sausage (quausage?) patties and veggie crumble and fungi-based non-soy chicken patties have me eating more meat-substitute than I ever ate of the real thing back when I ate it at all. Not only do all these products manage often enough to be delicious and reasonably cheap, but they tend to be rich in protein and have a fraction of the fat of the meats for which they presumably substitute. Maybe my memory of the originals is no longer exactly reliable, but my partner Eric isn't a vegetarian but even he prefers veggie corn-dogs, to the real ones...

Anyway, even if ethical vat-grown versions of sausage or beef or chicken were to arrive on the scene one day I wouldn't feel much of an itch myself to make the switch to them, for the lack of any reason to do so and because I like the nutritional profile of the substitutes already on offer. If the vat-grown versions also managed to improve the nutritional profile, though, I do want to emphasize that the ethical concerns that make me an ethical vegetarian now would inspire not a split-second's hesitation in this ethical vegetarian.

And frankly, even without nutritional tweaking I would leap at the chance to eat ethical bacon, if only occasionally. Nobody has quite figured out the veggie bacon thing yet, sad to say.

In the Guardian article linked above Kerry Bennett, a spokesperson for the Vegetarian Society points out that "this [development] has the potential to decrease the number of meat-producing animals in factory farms." One has to worry about taking futurological handwaving too seriously in the here-and-now so that it becomes a pretext for dismissing actually urgent problems requiring fraught political struggles in the present, fancying that techo-fixes promised by futurologists with their fingers permanently crossed will effortlessly sublime these struggles away in the immediate future, but it is easy to see why the prospect of meat-construction from insensitive cells rather than the present horror of meat-processing of sensitive animals might be foremost in the minds of ethical vegetarians and animal rights activists.

I do find it curious that despite her concession of these promising implications, Bennett goes on to emphasize instead that vat-grown meat "won't appeal to someone who gave up meat because they think it's morally wrong to eat flesh or someone who doesn't want to eat anything unnatural." If eating meat grown in a vat from a single cell of an animal (one who, in principle, would not even have to be killed to provide the cell) rather than from an actual corpse would still constitute an immoral consumption of flesh it is very difficult to see how eating seitan prepared to emulate flesh would not as well, not to mention things like wearing a wool sweater, or taking a non-digital photograph (all film contains gelatin), using most toothbrushes or anti-freeze, flipping through the pages of a leather-bound book, or the use of indefinitely many other commonplace objects that rarely attract the attention of any but the most ferociously committed activist vegans should not likewise inspire Bennett's disdain... Do they? And if not, why not?

As for the curious suggestion that vat-grown meat would not be "natural," one wonders if Bennett suspects that cell-cultures somehow constitute a supernatural procedure? I concede we're talking about futurological fancies, but we're talking cells here, people, not ectoplasm!

Certainly I agree with Bennett that there would be "a number of question marks regarding the origins of the cells and the method of harvesting," and that one would want a lot of study and regulation by legitimate accountable authorities (and you better believe I don't mean the companies themselves that stand to profit most from these developments offering us "every assurance" as to the health and safety of their profits, er, I mean, products). Even many of the most popular already-existing readily-available meat-substitute products mass marketed to vegetarians trouble me ethically when I contemplate their wasteful packaging, their sodium and preservative contents, the conditions of laborers working in the context of extractive-industrial-petrochemical factory farms and food processing and transportation systems.

If these products were ever actually to arrive on the scene (by no means an assured thing, whatever the apparent assurance of futurologists), approved by legitimate consensus science and their production and circulation regulated by legitimate accountable authorities it is difficult to see why another layer of concern about the "naturalness" or not of these products should enter into our speculations. I'm always mordantly amused by the "back to nature" types among the vegetarians I know. Most of these seem either blandly oblivious or even quite willfully to refuse to think too hard about what it means to live an "all natural" lifestyle made possible by faux-meat substitute foods, faux-fur and synthetic-material jackets, faux-leather shoes, and nutritional supplements. All culture is prosthetic, all ritual is artifice, including cultures devoted to the ritual disavowal of their artifactuality.

Scratch a vegetarian, find a cyborg.


Pace Arko said...

It's weird how science fiction teaches it's fans how to cope with the world, isn't it? One of the unexpected benefits of nerdy pursuits. Remember that Pohl and Kornbluth story that featured "chicken little?"

I too find factory farms to be undesirable, not merely for the cruelty but also because they artificially ignore the environmental costs. They are not sustainable in the long run as they overload water supplies and spawn antibiotic-resistant diseases.

Tissue engineered meat seems far more sustainable and less cruel. Energy is only used to grew the muscle and related tissues that compose meat--much more efficient.

I'm a little leery of trying to tweak the vat grown meat to be as healthy as textured vegetable protein. I think more research needs to be done before we start that kind of hack. I'm not saying it's impossible, just saying we should be careful.

I'm a meat eater myself (I try to stay with small, infrequent portions of chicken and fish.) but, it think it will benefit everyone's and the planet's health to stay low on the food chain.

I agree that vat grown meat can be a great benefit to us. Imagine all that cattle range that will be allowed to go wild again. No more coyotes or wolves being shot!

(Thanks for the vote of confidence on my new site layout by the way.)

Eric said...

I am so glad that I'm now known as: "Dale's partner, who likes him some fake miniature corndogs".

Dale Carrico said...

To be known on Amor Mundi is just this side of not being known at all.