Ben Wurgaft has spent the last five years studying the phenomenon of lab grown meat. In Meat Planet, Wurgaft traces the history of lab meats, beginning in 2013 in the Netherlands and continuing through the present day in Silicon Valley outside of San Francisco, CA. Neither for or against the idea of lab meats, Wurgaft instead asks us how these innovations will shape the future of food. Read on to find out more about Ben’s research!
What brought you to become interested in researching the history of food?
I have the rare luck to be the kid of a food scholar; my mother, Merry White, is a food anthropologist, and I grew up in her fieldwork. My love of food started there. But I didn’t develop an interest in writing scholarly work about food until I had worked for many years as a food writer, publishing essays in journals like Gastronomica, in magazines like the short-lived Meatpaper, and in newspapers like The Boston Herald and L.A. Weekly. I was moonlighting as a food writer while doing my Ph.D. in European intellectual history at Berkeley. I thought of food as a good subject for essay writing as opposed to scholarship, and I thought my writing practice was neatly bifurcated between the history of philosophy and social thought, on the one hand, and ramen and radicchio, on the other. But I think I was working with a false dichotomy between scholarly research and personal expression – not that they’re the same, but that each can contain elements of the other, and my favorite essay writing combines intellectual seriousness with stylistic grace. Certainly, food’s dignity is no less than philosophy’s – food is the medium of our metabolism with nature; food tells the story of some of our most profound experiences of desire and disgust. When laboratory-grown meat came to my attention, I was excited, because it seemed like a food topic so obviously laden with potential philosophical meaning – a wonderful way to bring my interests, and ways of working, together.
What are the innovations that scientists are touting about lab grown meats, and why should we be skeptical of them?
The technical basis of culturing meat in labs – producing “cultured meat” – is tissue culture, a technique pioneered by the American embryologist Ross Harrison in 1907, but widely employed by scientists around the world, often for medical research. As Hannah Landecker shows in her exemplary book Culturing Life, tissue culture enabled scientists to extend the lives of cells, to get them to display plasticity, to outlive their donors, in ways that they do not in vivo; this opened all kinds of avenues for biological research. Eventually some scientists developed the goal of using tissue culture not only for research, but to produce medically necessary parts, such as human skin or organs, and we can still see this dream living on in the research field of regenerative medicine. It’s a quick step from there to imagine growing animal muscle and fat, suitable for consumption as meat. So while cultured meat is very innovative, it’s important to see it as coming out of existing histories of biological research.
We have, at this point, seen proof-of-concept that certain forms of meat, such as hamburger, can be created through tissue culture. The current questions, as of 2019, are whether or not meat can be produced at “scale” – that is, produced in quantities sufficient to cut into the market for industrial-scale “cheap” meat – and whether or not it’s possible to produce more complex, forms of meat – such as a steak cut from a cow – using these methods. Central to scale is finding a sufficiently cheap, non-animal-derived replacement for fetal bovine serum, or FBS, which is a common ingredient in growth media used to feed cells in culture. These are the same questions we were asking in 2013, when Mark Post of Maastricht University unveiled the world’s first lab-grown burger, and our current posture should be to wait and see. We’re not obligated to be skeptical of claims made by entrepreneurs and scientists, but it’s best to be careful. InMeat Planet I argue that watching an emerging technology involves a complicated relationship between hope, doubt, and promising – because every emerging technology relies on a series of formal or informal promises, on the basis of which investments are made, and which then turn out to be good or bad. I should say that I’m not a “cultured meat skeptic” – in fact, I’m a supporter of cultured meat research on its own terms. I’m skeptical of many of the claims that have been made on cultured meat’s behalf, though, by some of its promoters.
What are the other solutions currently being proposed to combat global hunger and climate change? Do you think that they are more realistic?
If you go to a “future of food” panel at a tech conference, the panel will probably have a lab-grown meat person, a person who promotes urban agriculture, maybe a bug person – someone who promotes entomophagy, or the eating of insects – and of course someone from one of the plant-based burger companies. What’s really interesting is that you don’t get someone from the government or nonprofit sectors, there to talk about how governments can work with farmers (big or small) via subsidies and regulation, to encourage shifts in production in keeping with the dictates of climate change. Nor do you see someone promoting reforestation, which seems to be one of the more promising (that word again!) ways to start working against climate change – not that it’s a silver-bullet solution of any kind. Indeed, the big problem with “food tech,” from my perspective, is that it relies on the background notion that technology and the market, combined, have the power to mitigate massive problems like climate change – it invites us to think that major investments and product launches should be recognized as steps against a major existential threat to our civilization. It’s a way of selling a fantasy of traction, which is very tempting, especially for those who wish to believe that growth-oriented capitalism and sustainability can live harmoniously together.
One could say that your book is about the “limits of technology.” Why should we not be leaning on Silicon Valley’s belief that technology can change the world?
Technology does change the world all the time – I think we’re all living proof of that, from the way we communicate to the simple fact that the planet supports so many of us, thanks to such agricultural innovations as artificial nitrogen-fixation for fertilizer, developed by Fritz Haber in 1909. But my book is about the limits of technological imaginations, and Silicon Valley is now – in the long wake of the 2016 election in the U.S. and our reckoning with the effects of social media on political life, and on social life more broadly – certainly in a moment of necessary introspection about its limits. The key problem isn’t expecting technology to change the world, but to imagine that we can predict how it will change the world. Especially when a specific technology affects complex social and environmental systems. The first chapter of Meat Planet is called “Cyberspace/Meatspace,” both in homage to William Gibson’s terms from his novel Neuromancer, and because of something that I think shapes expectations for lab-grown meat: some people who’ve made fortunes in the digital world, investing in products that “scale” easily because they’re made of ones and zeros, seem to think that investments in somatic things – physical things like meat – could reshape the world in a similar fashion. Soma is much less cooperative than code.
But my message isn’t simply to be cautious about promises made on behalf of new technologies. It’s to ask what the technological imagination might close off. Often what’s foreclosed are the political and social dimensions of an issue like food – and the need to combine technical research with social and cultural research, the need to imagine not just what “meat” (or any other food) might become, but to see that meat isn’t just a physical product, but also a condensation of human labor, values, economic relations, and natural resources, including animals themselves. Meat opens on to important philosophical questions including how we weight the suffering of animals, and I don’t think those questions should simply be “answered” with new products. The future of food is inevitably a political and communal thing, and it demands open inquiry and discussion. We get to ask questions over the figurative or literal dinner table.