Review: Meat Planet

Meat Planet by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft

Benjamin Wurgaft Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food. Berkeley: University of California Press. 264 pp. ISBN #9780520379008

Ellen Messer (Tufts University)

I have to admit I wasn’t crazy about the thickly lush writing, which constructed or used every possible image from literature and film, in addition to cutting-edge conferences, participant observations, and interviews. I generally don’t appreciate reading philosophy, and this, despite the food and technology subject matter being germane to my interests, was no exception.  This in no way precludes my highly recommending the book and particular chapters.

From beginning to end what I appreciated most were the organizing questions, succinctly summarized on p.19: “What makes cultured meat imaginable?” with corollaries: how does cultured meat fit into the future of food as a concept or idea, and how does this food domain enter into futures-thinking in the technological futures realm more generally?  In his philosophical, historical, literary, media, and anthropological excursions, the author carefully traces the evolution and history of meat-containing human diets, and the ways promoters of laboratory foods, in this case meat specifically, frame issues to make cultured meat appear “natural.”  In other words, cultured meat is the next (if not final) step in the orderly development of human nourishment and relationships with animals, which conventionally are killed for human food, and in their most recent iteration, are raised industrially, on large-scale “factory” farms (concentrated animal feeding operations), which immiserate the animals and brutalize the humans allowing such conditions.  It is in these two evolutionary themes that this account of the travels and travails of cultured meat and its interlocutors (sci-tech producers, economic and political sponsors, thinkers, commentators, marketers, writers) that Wurgafts’s distinctive, erudite, thick descriptions of ideas and their contexts, were to me, as a food and nutrition anthropologist, most engaging.

Beginning with his focus on Richard Wrangham as the authority for certifying the significance of meat in the diets and evolution of humanity, this is a book that should engage anthropologists of all stripes.  The evolutionary questions are introduced in Chapter One, which reports an observational analysis on a 2013 videoconference introducing the first laboratory engineered burger. It focuses on the ways the engineers (Dutch mastermind Mark Post is the most often cited) and chief investors (Google cofounder Sergei Brin is a chief financial backer) have positioned their presentation and performers in cyberspace to make meat, but not meat from conventional animals, central to the human condition.  In other words, lab (cultured) meat, or “clean” meat as others term it, will spare animals suffering and death and thereby meet the main opposition to meat-eating, namely, the ethical concern about taking animal life and making creatures suffer.  In this account, environmental concerns, or health—all mentioned—take less priority than eliminating whole animals for food.  It follows that one final futures image justifying the quest for cultured meat is to have a backyard pig frolicking and lovingly interacting with children, rather than awaiting certain death by butchering after a year’s fattening.  Another is the possibility that cultured meat will fit just fine into ritualized meat exchange which has always been a hallmark of social connectedness and carefully defined kinship or friendship relations.

Along the way, there are many additional cultural images of meat, or, to paraphrase Levi-Strauss, using animal flesh to think with.  These include cultural domains of science, technology, science-fiction, Greek mythology, Jewish dietary laws, the facts and fictions surrounding overexploitation of whales, and the science and culture of futures-thinking overall.  There are profound  general questions, such as whether cultured meat is or should be aiming to produce innovative products that signify human ingenuity with products that are entirely new, or instead seek to imitate more rather than less successfully existing meats and meat products. The creators or inventors have mixed views on these issues, as do the marketers and those targeted to consume the products.

It is a bit of a tough slog to make it through Wurgaft’s endless images incorporated into clear, but often convoluted writing.  Not being a sci-fi or media aficionado, I did not immediately “get” many of his references, and after a while, in some chapters, found them over the top. So much tongue-in-cheek or commentary on tongue-filled cheeks in some cases made it hard to swallow and breathe (choking on the images, to paraphrase Wurgaft’s own language).  Particularly the chapter on Maastricht is cloyingly thick with sci-fi and tech-fi references to books, films, and imagery that I have never read, detracting from the narrative flow. That said, from beginning to end, there are mind-nourishing examples that would fit well into multiple food studies and anthropology courses.  The opening chapter, for example, is a fine example of observation and analysis of a video-conference—a welcome addition to any qualitative research methodology course or exercise which provides opportunities to discuss what can potentially be captured in media performances.  The short chapter on ‘Copy’ will be thought-provoking for food studies or other courses, as scientists-technologists and the author explore the realms of imitation and Creation/creativity in the evolution of humankind. The two chapters contrasting “Doubt” and “Hope” will also produce thoughtful reflections on the future of technologies and food, and the very short chapter on “Kosher” is a specialized excursion into the considerations of this Jewish set of dietary laws that are meant to reduce animal suffering, establish ritual authorities and precise rules, and also create meaningful separations between food domains containing animal meat versus dairy products.  The even shorter chapter on “Cannibals” or why scientist-technologists are not using human cells to create cultured meat will also provoke discussion, Also of great interest for anthropologists studying the role of food, social exchange, and cultural identities will be the chapter opening explorations into cultured food and ritual food culture (“Gathering/Parting”). It includes the imagined example of a backyard pig as an iconic animal surviving without predation, as a reminder or sign of how humans used to exploit animals inhumanely for food.

Ben Wurgaft is trained as a philosopher and historian, with additional specialization in cultural studies of science and technology.  Given his high-level higher education and family history (his mother is a prominent food anthropologist), I was surprised that he claimed at multiple points considerable ignorance about anthropological ideas prior to his MIT post-doc that corresponded to this project.  Analogously, I was shocked by his claim that he had not been thinking about demographic arguments (e.g., Malthus) for transforming food systems prior to getting involved in food issues (pp.88-89).

Overall, the book is well worth reading, but perhaps selectively for students with shorter attention spans and less comprehensive philosophical and literary references and reasonings. The chapter on “Philosophers,” for example, is complex, although Wurgaft’s shrewd citation of poet Paul Muldoon’s verse (in this poem, Muldoon’s white cat Pangur goes hunting for mice; the poet for “precise words”) succinctly captures the different norms separating animals and humans. The author’s footnote (p.217) expands that the poem was excerpted from the poet’s collection, Hay, and “The poem is an adaptation of an oft-translated, anonymous poem thought to have been written by an Irish monk in the ninth century C.E.” It is not possible for a reader to know whether this citation suggests a Geertzian example of winks within winks. Such elaborations occur in the footnotes, which readers should read if they want to get additional subtle or complex flavors of particular examples reduced in the main text, which the publisher economically reduced to 194 (small type, small margin) pages.

Throughout I wondered whether I agreed with the cultured-meat promoters’ arguments that most people will not give up meat eating, because it is hard wired into biology if not soft-wired into culture. The very ubiquity of cheap meat and its decreasing flavor and questionable nutrition quality, not to mention animal welfare, environmental, and health arguments against current industrial meat practices, suggest that giving up twice daily, daily, or frequent meat eating is already an issue (and practice) in many circles. Whether people will then substitute cultured meat depends on price (Wurgaft and his interlocutors discuss viable price points), palates, sociocultural contexts, and possible substitutes. Over the four-year period of Wurgaft’s research (2013-2017), writing, and publication, at least two major cultured meat burger products (Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger) became widely accessible at price points that made them attractive, and additional entrants into chicken, egg, and dairy made the livestock industry increasingly nervous.  One sign of this concern was the livestock industry’s request(s) for regulatory protection of the terms “meat,” “beef,” and “hamburger.”  Both product creators and chefs are also working hard to improve flavor.

During the week I completed this reading, the Wednesday food section of the New York Times coincidentally featured article and recipes by a leading chef, who described how to prepare these cultured meat products so that they taste good. Burgers, he advised, have to be “thick” patties so they don’t dry out when cooked to medium rare or medium, and all these products are best served with intensely flavorful accompaniments, so the eater does not have to rely on the taste of the cultured meat for flavor satisfaction.  To  such guidance, skeptics like me respond, “why bother?” if one can get a similar intensely flavored chili using cheap and conventional hamburger helper along with good quality beans? (I also learned, through the simple comparative chart, that Impossible Burger is made with soy and potato protein whereas Beyond Meat is fashioned from pea and other protein substances.  The former has animal cells as base material; the latter does not.  Both, alas, contain coconut oils, which means someone like myself, sensitive to coconut, should probably avoid them, which I am doing for culinary reasons right now.)

For additional comparative context, I also read Paul Shapiro’s Clean Meat. How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World (Simon & Schuster, 2018).  This author, a vegan leader in organized animal welfare, answers the questions Wurgaft pointedly does not: “will consumers accept meat produced from cells in a laboratory?” why or why not, and at what price, over what time frame? The relatively sudden and expanding market for these products show that once the technical (hygienic, flavor) barriers had been largely overcome, manufacturers managed to scale up production and supply, while other marketers were scaling up demand.  Demand and supply have moved much more quickly than Wurgaft had envisioned even two years before (2017).

And then there are the cultural issues. Serendipitously I also read two recent French novels that had been recently translated in English.  The first, J-B. del Amo’s (Frank Wynne, Trans.) Animalia (Grove-Atlantic, 2019) was a horrific account of the human-animal realm in traditional (World War I era) French small farming villages.  There, impoverished households relied on pigs and chickens for food and livelihoods, but had no compunction about violent killing or maiming of the animals that nourished them. These cultural actions were “natural” in their traditional agricultural realm.  Industrial production of pigs two generations later was even more violent and horrific; as one reviewer of Animalia pointed out, animals and humans shared characteristics of violence, but arguably humans were distinctive in that only their violence could be “cruel”.

Coincidentally, I accessed Marie Ndiaye’s The Cheffe. A Cook’s Novel (NY: Alfred Knopf, 2019).  (They were both reviewed in the same New York Times column covering translations of recent French novels.On p.68 of Jordan Stump’s excellent translation, I came across what might be a wonderful alternative wording for the mindfulness Wurgaft seeks to represent in his oeuvre. In this scene the youthful (16 year old) cook is launching her first meal for her patrons, which involves her preparing various fish and shellfish, vegetables and spices, and a “magnificent” chicken (raised by a local small farmer in the Bordeaux region of France), golden with fat and flesh: “…she saw as her obligation to show [them] all the talents she was certain she had, which necessarily implied, she recognized, some degree of artifice or display (showing off, she called it), but she was still ashamed that she hadn’t yet realized, that glorious summer, had felt no stirring of doubt, no need to silence her sensitivity, that she hadn’t realized the one and only justification for putting an animal to death lies in the respect, care, and thoughtfulness with which you treat its flesh and then take that flesh into you, bite by bite.”

The narrative (by the Cheffe’s loving sous-chef) continues:

“The Cheffe would later devote all her care to respecting the products she used, she inwardly bows down before them, paying them homage, grateful, honoring them as best she could, vegetables, herbs, plants, animals, she took nothing for granted wasted nothing, damaged nothing, mistreated nothing, defiled no creation of nature, however modest, and the same went for human beings, even if her work didn’t involve chopping them up, the same went for all of  us [i.e., her staff, including the narrator], she never humiliated us.”

This is one idealist future of food, and if lab meat has a place, what is it?  Wurgaft more or less ends on the same point, while contrasting this humble humane vision with dominant high-tech motivations to create non-animal meat substitutes.



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Filed under anthropology, food writing, meat, public health, technology

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