What is it about meat that makes it so hard to not eat? In last weekend’s Observer (22.01.2012), Hanna Tuomisto observed that reducing the quantity of meat in everyone’s diet, as a way of circumventing the global food shortage, is unrealistic. The answer proposed was to still produce meat but rather than getting it from intensively farmed animals, growing it from a single cell from a (presumably) living animal. The taste, fat content and nutritional value could all be controlled to specification in the lab. But how realistic is it to expect people to go gung ho about lab-grown meat? The population at large is hardly enthused about mycoprotein, though this is produced in much the same way that lab-grown meat would be. When you can add whatever compounds you want to culture the taste, texture and fat content you desire, why then must it start with an animal cell?
We’re not talking about what’s real or natural. Almost all farmed animals have been selectively bred and genetically manipulated to give them bodies and lifespans that are decidedly more akin to machine parts. Entire species have been pushed to extinction because of this drive for a monochromal farm animal that yields maximum growth for optimum flavour and optimum fat content ‒ as recently as 50 years ago, before the proliferation of industrial farms, there were many more types of cow, pig, sheep and chicken around. Yet the idea of ‘natural’ and everything associated with it ‒ humane, fresh, happy, healthy ‒ is still used to market meat. Being omnivorous is the norm, certainly in the west, and somehow the norm has become the natural.
It remains to be seen whether people will also associate lab-grown meat with what is natural, and therefore superior, given its highly processed nature. In this case, perhaps using an animal cell as the starting point will be relevant. But how do people eat meat today? In the fast-food joints and supermarket freezers, meat may as well be lab-grown for all we can deduce of the animal’s original form. But it would take a fair whack of marketing nous to pull the middle classes away from their happy, humane, free-range idyll. Meat grown in the lab could not possibly have experienced happiness in its pre-genesis, unless we insist the cell is taken from a happy animal or figure out how to add a happy gene to the culture. Look at the high-end restaurants and TV chefs (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in his present incarnation aside): the more the dead animal looks as it did when alive, the more prestige is attached to the dish. The whole pig spit roast, the entire crayfish, the duck stuffed inside the turkey … the more body you can fit on the plate, the more ‘respect’ you show for the animal, thus exhibiting your genteel side. But perhaps the point of lab-grown meat is that it is meant for the poor and starving, not the well-fed. Lab-grown meat will not bring about the end of intensive farming, it will mean that the killing of animals for food becomes a past time of the better off.
With this in mind, lab-grown meat would appear not to be the answer to food inequity, but yet another way to widen the gap. We would do well to focus not only on where the food is coming from (especially as the problem seems to be one of distribution, not production) but why people eat the food they do. Western meat-eating habits are spreading throughout the world, exacerbating a food security crisis. Relying on lab-grown meat to solve the inequities of global food distribution smacks of waiting for a miracle and is yet another excuse to not change our behaviour.
On domestication and the extinction of domestic species, Hunters, herders, and hamburgers: the past and future of human-animal relationships by Richard W Bulliet
On meat as symbol of class status, Meat: a natural symbol by Nick Fiddes
On our conflicting notions of the natural, What is nature? Culture, politics and the non-human by Kate Soper