Why are people interested in ‘cultured meat’? An ethnographer’s perspective

Sensemaking / Why are people interested in ‘cultured meat’? An ethnographer’s perspective

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft tracks the interest of people, and particularly other researchers, in ‘cultured meat’, also known as ‘in vitro’ or ‘lab’ meat. He shares his insights with Anna Simpson.

By Benjamin Wurgaft / 25 Aug 2015

You’re an ethnographer researching the future of food. What does that mean in practice?

The 'future of food' is a huge topic, and I approach it by examining a specific case. My task is to track the emergence of 'cultured meat' and to understand what brings people into this line of research – or what brings them to fund or promote cultured meat research. My academic home is MIT’s Program in Anthropology, but I conduct ethnographic fieldwork in various sites from Maastricht, the Netherlands, to Silicon Valley, tracking both concrete laboratory research and various types of conversation about cultured meat and the future of food. In this work I am supported by a grant (#1331003) from the US National Science Foundation.

What 'ethnographic fieldwork' means, in these contexts, is to spend time in people’s places of work (from labs to consultancies to nonprofits), to read their publications, show up at their conferences, ask them questions, and of course conduct lots of interviews – sometimes it means collaborating in their work as well. I’ve been lucky enough to be part of several events, put on by journalists and consultants, in which we try to generate productive public-facing conversations about what the futures of food may look like.

I should note that I’m not an advocate on behalf of cultured meat. I’m personally sympathetic to many of the stated central goals of cultured meat research, especially sustainability, environmental protection, and reducing or ending animal suffering. However, my own role is that of observer and analyst, not activist.

What is ‘cultured meat’ and what does it mean to people today?

‘Cultured meat’ is what laboratory-grown meat is often called by its supporters, and it is a potential protein source of the future already in development today – but still years, or perhaps decades, away from being available to consumers. Although laboratory research into meat production without animals has been going on for decades – and was dreamed about by European scientists as early as the late nineteenth century – the effort gained wide publicity in August 2013 when Mark Post, Professor of Physiology at the University of Maastricht, unveiled a laboratory-grown hamburger at a media event in London.

A quick search of the Internet will reveal scores – perhaps even hundreds – of short articles (such as this one) about cultured meat: these articles will mention the very high cost of producing the burger, the fact that the money was provided by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, and the basic details of creating meat through cell culture techniques. Most of these articles will also include an often-repeated but little-understood quotation from Winston Churchill, who in 1932 predicted that “fifty years hence” (so, 1982) we would no longer eat chickens, but rather produce chicken breasts artificially. There are also smarter, more incisive journalistic investigations of cultured meat, that attend to its potential to help resolve possible future protein shortages, to its technical feasibility, and to debates that surround it. And there are even a few scholarly articles in academic journals examining the potential environmental, animal welfare, and related bioethical implications of cultured meat.

What is driving all this interest in cultured meat?

A number of basic problems have led some scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs to hope for a future of laboratory-grown meat: conventional animal agriculture – especially via ‘Controlled Animal Feeding Operations’ (CAFOs) – is environmentally damaging, often leads to health risks (largely of disease) for both human and animal populations, and entails, in the eyes of many, undue cruelty to animals. While CAFOs and other industrial-scale solutions to meat production have been developed in order to ‘modernize’ agriculture, which generally means producing more and more food in less and less space, it seems unlikely that current strategies for meat production will continue to meet rising demand. This is, indeed, the lynchpin in arguments for developing cultured meat technology and infrastructure: many analysts expect meat consumption to rise, and even to rise at rates greater than population growth, by the mid-twenty-first century. The critical driver, these analysts maintain, is the entrance into the middles classes of eaters in developing markets like China and India. 

An assumption, intrinsically un-testable but crucial for cultured meat’s advocates, is that attaining middle-class status always means incorporating more meat into one’s diet, as a marker of class status. Thus – and this is a crucial point – protein future scenarios involving cultured meat, usually rest on assumptions about global population growth, and rely as well upon projections for social and cultural change in developing economies around the globe. 

What are the potential benefits of lab-grown meat?

Well, let’s emphasize that word “potential,” because there are so many unknowns about lab-grown meat. But the potential benefits include reducing or eliminating the environmental footprint of conventional animal agriculture, as well as the “moral footprint” of harm to non-human animal life. Those are potentially enormous gains. Many advocates on behalf of cultured meat also believe that it would yield a more plentiful supply of animal protein than conventional meat production – so there’s a food security gain here as well. 

Returning to the term, “potential,” though, I’m obliged to note that those gains are dependent on several developments, each of them difficult to predict. First there’s technical success: scientists and engineers figuring out how to make tasty meat products that are produced in industrial facilities (perhaps akin to contemporary breweries), at an industrial scale, so that costs come down to the level of conventionally-produced meat; then there’s the development of an entire industry and infrastructure around such products; then there’s the development of a consumer market that will willingly eat cultured meat, switching over from conventionally-produced meat. As with any emerging technology, while we can make guesses about what might happen, we should be careful to note that much about the future of cultured meat remains cloudy. 

Which factors are likely to support the development of cultured meat? 

A robust research and investment environment in which many government bodies as well as academic laboratories support cultured meat research, would be best. At present, a small number of laboratories, funded by a small number of investors and grant-makers, are working on core cultured meat technologies and trying to iron out production problems. Progress would likely be faster, if more heads and hands were involved. 

It’s worth asking a few questions about where money has been coming from, about how sustained interest from private venture capital might be in years and decades to come, and about how other funding sources might be tapped by cultured meat’s architects. It’s also worth asking how existing regimes of intellectual property will affect the development of cultured meat (and similar food technologies) in years to come: to what degree would progress (however we define that) be slowed, if everyone is locked up in nondisclosure agreements? In other words, competition could be enormously good in some senses, and in other senses might work against the broader goal of cultured meat hitting supermarket shelves as fast as possible. Just one of the ironies we should be prepared to eat, when we ask capitalism to produce social goods, like environment-friendly kill-free meat; such social goods might actually come, but they won’t come without complexity and bottlenecks. 

What is the potential to grow cultured meat at scale, and what further support or research is needed to enable this? 

There are a number of pressing technical challenges. Cultured meat techniques currently rely on fetal bovine serum (FBS) as a growth medium for the cells; this obviously makes the process non-vegetarian! Researchers are currently trying to find an animal-free replacement, and some think that they’re close. Then, if one wants to produce meat (hamburger, say) that really tastes like meat, that means including fat cells – another area of current research. Other areas include bioreactor design, and determining ideal ‘scaffolding’ materials or other ‘carriers’ on which cells can anchor and grow. And all those are just the challenges that pertain to developing convincing and tasty pieces of meat; other hurdles will have to be met to produce cultured meat at industrial scale. One approach is to design increasingly large bioreactors, possibly producing meat in facilities that resemble contemporary breweries.

Who is taking a lead? Are cross-sector collaborations emerging to support lab-grown meat? 

As of 2015, cultured meat is still a story of large grants and investments made by wealthy individuals and venture capital groups, rather than of collaborations across, say, the lines between academia, business and government. Mark Post, at Maastricht, has received the most funding for directly cultured-meat-related research, and has done the most high-profile work, and I expect him to stay in the forefront for the foreseeable future. There are several other labs engaged in direct research into lab meat, maintaining different degrees of transparency with journalists, so it can be tough to tell what progress they’re making. Then there’s New Harvest, an organization originally established as a non-profit to do promotional and educational work around lab-grown meat. In its current form New Harvest promotes a wider array of efforts to create “post-animal” products, from cow-free milk to lab meat; most of this promotional work comes through helping to facilitate the creation of, and then collaborating with, start-ups. This places New Harvest squarely within the world of emerging food tech companies. 

The one sector that’s remained less involved in the cultured meat world, is government, especially here in the US. I’ll be very curious to see when, and how, government entities start to take an interest.

Ben Wurgaft is a researcher in MIT’s Program in Anthropology. 

Anna Simpson is Curator, Futures Centre at Forum for the Future. 

Image caption: Professor Mark Post at work in the lab

Image credit: Cultured Beef, Maastricht University

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