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

Sunday, July 16, 2006

When Meat Culture Meets Cultured-Meat

An article that appeared last week in AlterNet, written by Traci Hukill, sounded a strong warning about the prospect of laboratory-produced “cultured meat” substitutes to animal corpses as food, and the piece has attracted widespread attention. As a longtime ethical vegetarian who has written on this topic before, Hukill’s piece certainly attracted my own attention.

The title of Hukill’s piece takes the form of a question: “Would You Eat Lab-Grown Meat?” One quickly gets the impression that this question is a rhetorical one for Hukill, and that the article pretty much assumes that the prospect of “Lab-Grown” meat will inspire almost universal revulsion in its largely progressive AlterNet readership. But what we discover from a survey of the reader-comments that actually appear alongside the article is that few people seem to share Hukill’s bioconservative assumptions at all. I’ll discuss some of these comments -- and their implications for my emerging technoprogressive mainstream thesis -- in a moment. But first I want to take a closer look at Hukill’s piece itself.

“As I type these words,” the article begins, “men and women of science are growing meat in a laboratory.” Although this opening snapshot is probably intended to highlight from the get-go the urgency of what Hukill takes to be an emerging atrocity, it crucially highlights for the apathetic and the sympathetic as well the crucial fact that this is not some fantastic or science-fictional but a proximate real-world development.

Hukill goes on to point out that this “growing meat” is not “hatched or born. It doesn't graze, walk or breathe. But it is alive. It sits growing in a room where somebody has called it into existence with a pipette and syringe.” Presumably, this conjuration of alienness inspires shudders of repugnance in Hukill. But for me it raises questions and inspires hopes.

Now, I feel the force of Hukill’s “But it is alive” here quite as surely as I am meant to do. But the simple fact is that there is a difference between what I mean when I say that a cow is alive and when I say that broccoli is alive. And this is a difference that makes a difference to me as an ethical vegetarian making choices about my own eating practices. Everything Hukill is saying here, apart from using the term “meat” in the first place to describe this food product, locates “cultured-meat” closer to the ethical location where I place broccoli now than where I place cows. And nothing about a “pipette and syringe” changes that assignment, since I know well enough that all agriculture, including the long history of cultivation practices that have brought us what we now regard as “broccoli,” is technoscientific through and through. Indeed, even in my most stridently vegan organic revolutionary moods (yes, I have them occasionally) I turn to technoscientifically literate intervention to provide the superorganic foodstuffs for an agricultural practice that could feed actual real-world populations in a healthy and sustainable way (rather than the romanticized post-genocidal die-off fantasies of diminished population that “naturalists” would need to impose their nostalgic feudalist fantasies of technophobic sustainability).

"Cultured meat," writes Hukill, “is supposed to save us from the execrable pollution and guilt of factory farms while still allowing all 6.5 billion of us to stuff our gullets with ham sandwiches whenever we want to.” I share Hukill’s view that factory farms are an environmental, health, and moral atrocity. And I also strongly share Hukill’s skepticism about techno-hype in general, and am especially skeptical of the endlessly reiterated corporate-futurist promises of painless techno-fixes which are almost inevitably and disastrously doomed to failure without real education, agitation, organization, regulation to articulate technodevelopment in democratic and emancipatory directions.

But it seems to me that the conclusion one should draw from these shared views is that we should educate and organize to ensure the regulation of lab-grown cultured meat-making will in fact ameliorate the environmental, health, and moral atrocity of factory farming. For Hukill it seems that the better course is for vegetarians to make fun of meat eaters for liking to eat sandwiches with meat in them. I will admit that I cannot see any reason to agree with Hukill that this is a strategy likely to achieve the outcomes we both would claim to desire.

As of now, cultured meat involves “[t]ak[ing] some stem cells, or myoblasts, which are the precursors to muscle cells. [One s]et[s] them on [a] ‘scaffolding’ that they can attach to, like a flat sheet of plastic that the cells can later be slid off of[, and then p]ut[s] them in a ‘growth medium’ -- some kind of fluid supplying the nutrients that blood would ordinarily provide. [Then one] ‘Exercise[s]’ them regularly by administering electric currents or stretching the sheets of cells mechanically.” And then? “Wait. Harvest. Eat.”

Of this process, Hukill then says: “The concept is as simple as it is horrifying.” I have to admit, this is an utterly confounding moment in the article for me. Why exactly is the process described here “horrifying”? Is Hukill comparably horrified by the process through which one makes seitan, blue cheese, or beer? Or, not to put too fine a point on it, is Hukill not incomparably more horrified by the “process” through which animal bodies are turned into sausages and steaks?

Cultured meat-making “seems like something out of a chilling sci-fi future,” writes Hukill, “the very epitome of bloodless Matrix-style barbarism.” The proposal that cultured meat-making nudges us onto a slippery slope that will lead us ineluctably to the enslavement and slaughter of living human beings is apparently commonplace, despite its conspicuous curiosity. Consider that the cultured meat-making process doesn’t require the death or enslavement even of the nonhuman animals for whose flesh the cultured-meat would provide an alternative for corpse-eaters. Through what argumentative contortions, exactly, would one find oneself turning from the delighted contemplation of one’s cultured-meat sandwich to entertaining as a good idea that one might scoop up some fellow human beings to put them on a bun? Just how is that argument supposed to happen, again?

“[R]evulsion seems to be a common… response to the idea of meat grown in a petri dish,” writes Hukill. But is that really so? Certainly few of the people actually interviewed for the article seem to share Hukill’s knee jerk shudders of Kassoid repugnance to the very idea of cultured meat-making. And, as we shall see, neither do those who responded to the article seem to share it.

For me, as for many others, a more congenial point of view is offered up by Jason Matheny, “a doctoral student in agricultural policy at the University of Maryland who sits on the board of New Harvest, a research organization for in vitro meat.” He says of cultured meat-making, quite simply, that "[i]t's cleaner, healthier, less polluting and more humane[.]"

There’s more. “Meat grown in the sterile environment of a laboratory wouldn't harbor zoonotic diseases like avian flu or contribute to antibiotic resistance… As for human health, artery-clogging beef fat could be swapped out in vitro for salmon fat, for example, with its salubrious omega-3 fatty acids. And the squalid misery of factory farms could be bypassed altogether. No river would be fouled with manure and no chicken's beak would be clipped in the making of dinner.”

Writes “Bruce Friedrich, vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,” cultured meat is "the best thing since sliced bread." As Hukill pithily summarizes Friedrich’s position, for somebody “who energetically denounces the eating of ‘animal corpses’ every chance he gets... "anything that takes the cruelty out of meat-eating is good."

This certainly sounds pretty good to me (with caveats). Again, I would insist that some of the rosy scenarios being painted here are more speculative than others. And no doubt it is only within the context of proper regulation, testing, safeguards -- not to mention trade policies to ensure that economic dislocations arising out of these developments are more properly addressed than is usually the case -- that we can speak of this (or any other) technoscientific outcome as a progressive one.

Hukill is right, then, to follow the hopeful technoscientific best-case scenario with the more cautionary note that “[t]here are a couple of serious problems with cultured meat[.]” Astonishingly, though, for me is that these “problems” for Hukill return us to the supposed “fact that people seem to find the idea repellent.”

But surely it is clear by now that only some people react this way. Can Hukill offer readers a reason to identify with the prejudices of the hostile over those of the hopeful here? Observe the very instructive exchange that immediately follows in the article: “Presented with the argument that cultured meat just ain't natural, Matheny gamely counters that wine and cheese are engineered products, too. ‘And I would say cultured meat is not inherently more unnatural than producing chicken meat from tens of thousands of animals raised intensively in their own feces and fed antibiotics,’ he says.”

Even Hukill concedes that this “is a very good point.” Hukill counters that as a vegetarian Metheny “probably” (I suspect this means that Hukill didn’t actually ask) won’t eat cultured meat, just as PETA’s vegetarian Friedrich doesn’t plan to do so. Neither do I plan to eat cultured meat, as it happens, since I have lost the taste for it in over a decade and a half of vegetarianism (I might very well indulge in cultured bacon or pepperoni, though, since these occasionally still exercise an allure for me even after all these years), but this distaste doesn’t come close to the kind of ethical aversion that might make me itch to get prohibitive laws passed.

For this ethical vegetarian, any unpleasantness that freights cultured meat, is no more ethically significant than the unpleasantness of tempeh of gorgonzola -– neither of which I find particularly appealing either, but both of which I strongly champion as ethical alternatives to animal corpses treated as food.

But for Hukill, cultured meat-making is just “a lot of trouble to go to for a solution that is frankly nightmarish.” Especially traumatizing, apparently is “the ‘exercising’ of the disembodied muscle by means of electrical shocks.” Perhaps it would be kinder to leave these matters to Hukill’s therapist.

Certainly, this reminds us what we should do with those bioconservatives who claim there is some special "wisdom of repugnance" (whether Hukill's aversion to a stream of electricity pulsing through organic matter in a petri dish, Leon Kass's aversion to the very idea of cloning, even if it comes to be a safe and desired procedure, Margaret Somerville's aversion to gay marriage, or any random racist's aversion to an interracial kiss). Shudders of repugnance must simply never trump democratic deliberation and contestation, the offering up of arguments to one's fellow citizens to educate, agitate, and organize and so facilitate what come to be more generally desired outcomes.

“Fred Kirschenmann of Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture” introduces some reasonable skepticism, finally, and registers the hope -– which I say must be a demand rather than a “hope” –- that “there will be plenty of testing.” He goes on, "I'm not saying some of these new ideas can't be done and they won't work at some level, but every time we mess around with our ecological heritage there are always unintended side effects that come from it... We have a long history of unintended consequences.”

I could not agree with him more.

And it seems to me that reasonable concerns and reasonable regulatory environments are far more likely to arise in the context of a discussion defined neither by those given to uncritical starry-eyed techno-hype nor by those given in to the full-froth of technophobic panic.

Hukill proposes as an alternative to cultured meat the inculcation of greater awareness and self-discipline. It is easy to dismiss this as a more sanctimonious than serious recommendation if what is wanted is to truly ameliorate the institutionally entrenched and culturally ubiquitous slaughter and exploitation of human and nonhuman animals facilitated by the contemporary meat industry (I talk about some of the theory and politics of this ongoing catastrophe elsewhere), but the truth is that I agree with Hukill that we should work to increase awareness and organize movements with these desirable outcomes in mind. Again, though, I agree with Matheny, who Hukill quotes as “think[ing that] cultured meat can be ‘a stopgap measure’ aiding that process [of mainstreaming vegetarian practice, like] methadone for meat eaters to ease the transition out of the era of 72-ounce steaks and into the days of dollops of hummus.”

Hukill snarks in response: “Maybe he's right. Maybe in vitro meat can serve that purpose. Or maybe it will work in a different way -- by so thoroughly grossing people out that they'll gladly reduce their meat consumption just so they lessen the risk of accidentally eating a meatri burger.” Since I doubt that few people share (or will long continue to share even if they think they do so now) Hukill’s spastic “gross-out” at the very thought of cultured meat, I think Metheny is more likely to be right on his own terms. If corpse-eaters discover that their taste for flesh can be satisfied without demanding the suffering and slaughter of the sentient nonhuman humans with whom we share the planet, I suspect this realization will go a long way indeed in hastening the day when murderous meat is history and obscene factory farms are universally condemned.

Now, I must admit that I was intrigued and mostly quite pleased to discover that the comments generated in response to Hukill’s article accorded much more than I expected them to do with my own. The article has generated nearly two hundred responses so far, and so, I thought I would briefly survey just the first ten, whether I agreed with them or not, as a roughly representative sample and see whether any interesting trends suggested themselves.

Under the heading “Good idea,” the first response to the piece, by one “nbrown,” enthused: “I like it! This comes with less baggage than the existing system. If you don't believe me, go work in a slaughterhouse for a minute.”

Next up, “prod” suggests “We already have lab grown kids. Why not meat? I bet it will never be as good as the veal my girlfriend makes though. It is the best!” Since it isn’t actually true that we “already have lab grown kids,” unless “prod” refers to IVF and other assistive reproductive technologies, it is difficult to see why the ontological status of human beings would actually find its way into the discussion so quickly. But, as we shall see, the issue of “human status” is one that recurs again and again here. For me, it would be more to the point to say, “We already eat hybrid and otherwise cultivated foodstuffs. Why not meat?” The conclusion about veal -- which requires what is already widely viewed as brutal treatment of animals -- suggests to me that “prod” is being ironic here.

“JamesRollins” tells us that, “[w]hen I was eleven years old I read a book by the name of ‘Revolt in 2100’ by Robert Heinlein. In the second story of that book (named Coventry) the main protagonist talks about this same thing. And in the future, people (most of them anyway) eat lab-grown meat. As I grew up, I became a struggling vegetarian, mainly out of moral issues, and I used to think back to this book and truly wish that it was a reality. How I could truly enjoy a guilt free hamburger, only if an animal didn't die to make such a burger. I say amen! Finally, and when it becomes less costly, my family and I will fully enjoy lab-grown meat.”

Notice a pattern emerging here yet?

“BlueStateBitch” offers the slogan: “No kill; therefore no ‘yuck’” And then she elaborates: “It will be wonderful to eat "meat" without an animal having to die a painful death. Protein is protein. As long as it's healthy and tastes good, who cares if it's been grown in a lab?”

“davidhobby” wonders in his subject line whether or not Hukill has offered us a “Biased article?” He has a point. His comment: “This wasn't reportage, so much as a long screed about how awful , yucky, revolting, vile, ... lab grown meat was. That's news to me, though. I'm surprised that it seems most people have this attitude. To me, meat is meat. But then I've been a vegetarian for many years. Since I do it partially for ethical reasons, I guess that I'd eat cultured meat. It seems every culture gladly eats the ‘familiar’ meats, which may be bugs, blood or whatever, but that unfamiliar meats are considered gross. It's interesting that people don't have a big problem with unfamiliar vegetables...

There is more, but the comments are quickly becoming to elaborate to discuss in all their implications. I’m excerpted from the next, even longer, post as well. (For the full discussion, absolutely one should follow the link to the article itself and read the many interesting comments there.)

“Maybe it's just me,” writes “Lizmv,” “[b]ut human insanity seems to be a growing threat. People are getting weirder every day. Yeah, growing a little bit of ‘meat' in a laboratory may be nice and clean, but what will it look like when it is produced in huge factories? Most likely as dirty and detrimental as factory farming is now. Why is it we keep looking for expensive solutions to problems caused by the insanity of economic growth that will only continue the insanity? The real solution is already known: Learn to live sustainably. This is just another scheme by the mega-corportations to further control our food supply.”

While I think some of this skepticism is quite useful, it seems curious that “Lizmv” would rather consign this emerging development to the dustbin of history in advance dismissing it as a corporate conspiracy destined to maintain the status quo or make things worse. But why not treat this potentially destabilizing and potentially promising (not perfect, not utopian, not inevitable, just promising) development as an occasion for technoprogressives commited to democracy, sustainability, and social justice to opportunistically seize the historical forces that confront us and work to turn them to more democratizing and emancipatory ends?

There is nothing in such a vision that stands in the way of “Lizmv’s” recommendation that we “[l]earn to live sustainably.” How can she be so sure that organizing to regulate, fund, and distribute the costs and benefits of cultured meat is not one of the key demands “learn[ing] to live sustainably” makes of us in our own historical moment?

Next up, “gilliani” shares a few more interesting and reasonable concerns. The article “makes me nervous. There is a great deal we don't know about long term consequences of engineered food, veggies included. I feel it's safest to eat locally produced, organic food as much as possible.” I agree with this myself.

“gilliani” continues, “I am a vegetarian, but I also worry about the fate of all the animals we have now on farms if everyone gave up meat. We (the big we, that is) have created this method of raising animals. Those animals have lots of babies, and they're good at it. If everyone stopped eating meat, what would happen to all those animals? Will the farmers continue to feed and care for them until they die natural, peaceful deaths of old age? Maybe, but I doubt it.” It seems to me that even cultured meat will not end the meat industry overnight. I think that there would be global shifts in demand that would discourage the frantic facilitation of breeding for foodstock. A little family planning would go a long way to diminishing subsequent generations of “supply” as “demand” likewise diminished. The specter of sudden slaughter seems to me to misconstrue just how relentlessly the meat industry must actively facilitate the ongoing generation of the nonhuman animals it goes on to slaughter as food.

”gilliani” concludes: “My point is that it would take a huge cultural shift on many levels to get the carnivorous guts of North Americans off meat, and I'd rather see us make that cultural shift gradually while considering the condition of existing livestock.” I suspect myself that even with the most optimistic arrival of cultured meat-making that catastrophic violence of the meat industry will vanish from the scene of civilization far more slowly rather than too suddenly for our taste as ethical vegetarians!

“rsaxto” posts the perplexing comment that “[m]aybe we will end up eating ourselves (steaks grown from our own cells). Would it taste good or not -- only cannibals know for sure.” Again, I can see no logical or practical connection between these issues. I suspect this sort of argument arises so regularly either because it is a cynical effort of a negligible minority to make a congenial practice seem more revolting than it otherwise does to majorities, or it symptomizes the deeper irrational fears that nudge people into that negligible minority in the first place.

“I would love it,” “Samantha Vimes” posts next in conspicuous contrast. “I'm a vegetarian,” she writes, “and there's no fake salami that tastes like the real thing. These cultured meats would be meat, but they would not be part of an animal. I'd eat it. I don't even understand the ick factor. Laboratory meat doesn't have feces ground up in it, and never got a parasite infection. It seems far less icky than carcasses.”

And then, in conclusion, “deo508” ominously demands “When will we get our gr[e]en crackers?” in his subject line. “See the movie S[O]YLENT GREEN. Oh no! there feeding us people! What hell, WalMart sells baby oil made from virgin (first press) Chinese babies why not eat labratory meat?” Quite apart from the claims about WalMart (where I refuse to shop even though I am a bit skeptical about the baby oil accusation made here), it really does matter enormously to me that cultured meat-making demands the sacrifice of not one animal, as opposed to the scenario in Soylent Green in which bulldozers cheerfully scoop up crowds of living humans from urban streets, murder them, and then feed them to the remaining population. Failing to grasp this as a difference that makes a difference is, to say the least, puzzling.

Now, I think it is quite clear where I stand on the specific questions raised by Hukill’s argument, but what I find especially heartening is that the mainstream progressive audience of AlterNet seems to be responding much the same way. The conspicuous irrationality and hysteria of the exemplars of the bioconservative left in evidence among the respondents is heartening in its way, too, in its extremity and marginality.

I have been repeatedly making an argument here lately that there is an emerging technoprogressive mainstream in the American and in the global left. The emerging technoprogressive mainstream is a technoscientifically literate left that is coming to understand the affinities between the use and defense of digital networks and peer-to-peer democracy, the defense of consensus science, the need for well-regulated and radically increased medical research and development, and the demand for an immediate shift from primitive extractive petrochemical and military industries to renewable technologies.

This is a new left, a genuinely emancipatory left. This is a left that has no patience with the technophobic luddism of Deep Ecology, but neither has it any truck with the complacent corporate-militarism of the DLC. The technoprogressive left is not seduced by the nostalgia of anti-democratic elites that gets peddled in the name of “nature,” “natural markets,” or “nature’s God.”

And in consequence, I think it is less and less relevant all the time for technoprogressives to decry as their chief antagonists “left luddites,” when clearly it is “bioconservatives” of the religious and social right and “corporate futurists” of the neoliberal, neoconservative, and market fundamentalist right who are our more conspicuous antagonists. Although there are vestigial pockets of technophobia and naturalist nostalgia on the left, it seems to me that there is little remaining energy to be discerned there, and that technoprogressives would do better to educate and outreach to the reasonable among those folks and otherwise let them drift out of the picture.


Anonymous said...

I need to stop ordering pepperoni pizzas as the scent is clearly getting to you.

Anyway, I don't understand who this person Hukill describes who: eats meat, would be grossed out by the prospect of meat grown from cells in vats and yet apparently is not at all grossed out by slaughter houses.

Anonymous said...

I found a useful link,, about the status quo of cultured meat research, but also about possibilities to lift vegetarian meats to higher levels of acceptance.