In Defense of Dirty Meat: Ecology, Techno-Utopianism, and the Cultured Meat Movement

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Over the past year, we’ve been inundated with stories proclaiming the imminent arrival of “clean” or “cultured” meat. “Lab-grown meat is in your future,” asserts the Washington Post, while Business Insider announces that affordable cultured meat is projected to hit the shelves by next year. Whether this news generates feelings of relief or revulsion, there seems to be near-unanimous agreement that this development is significant. Like many other Silicon Valley wonders, a comforting, techno-utopian aura pervades the whole idea. The homepage of one such cultured meat venture, the Good Food Institute invites us to “imagine a food system where the most affordable and delicious products are also good for our bodies and the planet.” In other words, we are encouraged choose “clean meat”—midwifed by scientists in white coats—rather than “dirty meat” with all its attendant blood, pain, and negative environmental effects.

But is the difference between conventional and cultured meat a difference that makes a difference? The folks at the Good Food Institute would say yes, claiming there is no difference in taste and nutrition, but every difference in the ethical and environmental consequences of meat consumption. Who wouldn’t want to eat a cruelty-free, environmentally sustainable, and (allegedly) delicious alternative to farmed animal protein? Who—other than the millions of people working in the animal food processing industry and a handful of recalcitrant foodies—could possibly object to such an effortless solution to all the ethical and environmental problems posed by conventional farming?

Cultured meat might boast of its green virtues, but in fact it cannot be separated from the ideology that lies at the heart of the environmental movement. While clean meat claims to protect our health, our animals, and our planet, it nonetheless frames the relationship to animals and the planet in the same terms that inspired environmentalists in the first place—the Cartesian worldview of human beings as “lords and possessors of nature.”

Ultimately, this is clean meat’s main selling point: the prospect of cultural and ideological continuity and the agreeable fantasy that we can “live greener” without fundamentally changing our lifestyles. The bait-and-switch at work here—a supposedly cruelty-free (cruelty-lite) solution that changes nature rather than changing our exploitative relationship to the natural world—is a familiar one. It is endemic to most proposals that would have us combat the environmental crisis with technology. (Think of the growing ambition to capture carbon from the atmosphere rather than forcing ourselves to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.) The hidden assumption is that we can have a flourishing environment without jettisoning a culture predicated on the notion that the natural world exists for human beings to consume, control, and conform to meet our demands.

While it is impractical (and likely undesirable) to dismiss all technological approaches to the environmental crisis, we should ensure that the green technologies we embrace cast off, rather than strengthen, ideologies in which the natural world becomes our plaything. We should be particularly skeptical of “solutions,” such as cultured meat, that would have us cede responsibility for the health of our bodies and our planet to big business and an army of technocrats, rather than cultivating grassroots traditions of locally based civic responsibility for the what, where, and how of our food choices.

In How to Think Seriously About the Planet (2012), philosopher Roger Scruton used the term oikophilia (the love and feeling for home) to designate a sentiment that animates the preservation of such local traditions and networks of mutual responsibility. Both oikophilia and ecology come from the Greek word oikos, meaning home, and Scruton understands the former to be an emotional attachment to one’s immediate environment and place of living. Considering a sense of loyalty to one’s home to be the primary motivation for environmental activism—rather than an endless parade of abstract facts or alarmist warnings—Scruton focuses on what’s missing from much of left-leaning political ecology: the importance of an affectively-charged perception of being connected to the land as a motivator for action. In this sense, the connection is not romantic or mystical, but an expression of an intuitively felt responsibility to and investment in one’s local surroundings.

By removing such connections from the calculus that informs our food choices, the cultured meat movement—which only further divorces the places we call home from the places we source our food—threatens to deplete our already-dwindling reservoirs of oikophilia. It assumes that the “what” of food is irrelevant and irrelative to the “where.” The journalist Michael Pollan has called these sorts of assumptions about our food choices “nutritionism.” Alongside clean meat’s implicit assumption that nature exists for the realization of human aims lies the related idea that the value of food is reducible to its chemical makeup, that is, its nutritional potential. In this view, scientists, rather than communities and their traditions, become the ultimate authorities regarding the legitimacy of food practices. By logical extension, the geographical and cultural specificity of how, where, and why that food was produced becomes secondary (even irrelevant) to the value of food—which is no longer about pleasure or social solidarity, but health in the narrowest sense.

Nutritionism isn’t hard to find in the cultured meat industry. For example, on its website, Memphis Meats invites us to “Meat the Team,” a group composed of cardiologists, cell biologists, and biomedical engineering PhDs dedicated to bringing clean meat to a grocery store near you. Scrolling through the site, the visitor is inundated with catchy slogans—“Better Meat, Better World”—and an announcement of the arrival of “the world’s first chicken produced without the animal” next to a picture of a breaded cutlet of “clean poultry.” There is no doubt who will be saving both the planet and the American dream of a chicken in every pot: neither you nor I, nor our local communities, but a handful of Silicon Valley engineers and their cadre of investors.

Ironically, Memphis Meats boasts that it is “combining the innovative spirit of Silicon Valley with the rich food traditions of the American south.” Seeking to evoke, perhaps, an association with the legendary barbecue at the Rendezvous in the city of Memphis, the message is clear: You can have your lab-grown meat and keep your culture too! But can you really? Memphis Meats’ slogan “better meat, better world” actually drives home the idea that food is something that can—and should—be engineered and that food production itself should have loftier aspirations than merely satisfying hunger.

In drawing a hard line between techniques of production and habits of eating and by discounting culturally specific and time-tested practices of food consumption, however, something valuable is lost. Oikophilia isn’t simply about loving and caring for the land. It is about having reasons to love the land. When our health and eating satisfaction depend on responsible interactions with our local environments, we discover the new imperatives for ecological prudence in all aspects of our lives. When the choices we make in our homes and our communities don’t relate in any meaningful way to what ends up on our plates, the health of our planet becomes less relevant to our interests and less worthy of our attention.

Whether it be lab-grown chicken or organic grass-fed beef, something clean or something green, we are swapping ease, convenience, and self-satisfaction for real cultural transformation. Certainly, both visions of the food future offer improvements over the genuine horrors of industrial agriculture, but it is not yet clear how far reaching they may prove to be. What we need is an intervention that targets our food system as a whole—tying happy eating to environmental awareness—and one that doesn’t content itself with simply purging a few problematic items from our refrigerators.

Tyler Harper is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at New York University.

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