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The Pig in the Backyard
Words by Hester van Hensbergen; Illustration by Marie-Henriette Desmoures
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Another short intro from me today ─ today’s article by Hester van Hensbergen is long enough without me taking up space, and I promise it’s worth that extra five minutes just to absorb all its implications in.
You might surmise that I’m short of time right now, and you would be correct. I’ve been working on a long read for the last two months, which has taken up most of my life not spent at work or on Vittles. One thing I’ve learnt, or rather not learnt but it has been reenforced, is that there is nothing inherently wrong with new technologies that intuitively feel dystopian, but neither is there much inherently good about them either. Technology promises revolution by virtue of its own design, but technology is and always has been a tool. Far more important than technology is who gets to wield it. I think of Mikhail Kalashnikov who, close to his deathbed, suffered anguish over the invention of the AK-47 which he had only ever intended to be a defensive rifle; of Robert Oppenheimer who named his successful nuclear tests after John Donne sonnets and two months later told Truman he ‘had blood on his hands’.
Lab-grown meat is another technology which as come into the world with all the right motives behind it. It has the capacity to alleviate the enormous suffering of animals, and it poses us the interesting philosophical question of The Pig in the Backyard. It also has already being used by those who are only interested in consolidating their power, who may use it to cause suffering which we have not yet predicted. Sometimes I do wonder whether in this system, the idea that ‘who gets to wield these technologies is important’ is simply a comforter; it is always the same people, after all.
The Pig in the Backyard, by Hester van Hensbergen
Route 59 in the US cuts a 3,000km fissure up the middle of the country. As it hits its final leg in Minnesota, the highway rolls through land reserved for corn and livestock to the quiet town of Appleton in Swift County. It is notable for the large and disused private prison – the Prairie Correctional Facility – that imposes on the landscape from the south. On the town’s northern edge, there is a more unassuming building. It is a low-lying factory, all white sheen, red brick and well-clipped lawn, with an American flag hanging limply over the driveway. This retro establishment could be home to the next food monopoly.
In the winter of 2019, the San Francisco-based Just Inc. acquired the factory as it ramped up production on JUST Egg – its egg alternative, made from mung bean protein isolate. Already successful in the US, Just Inc. are preparing to launch their flagship product across the globe. But Just Inc. has another project range, JUST Meat, which is still in development. This won’t be a plant-based product; but a different kind of future meat – meat grown directly from animal cells in a lab. This type of meat is what is known as ‘lab-grown’ or ‘cultured’ meat, although some companies like to call it “clean meat”. Clean as in clean conscience – green, humane, and (possibly) cholesterol free. They want us to see lab-grown meat as an essential part of a human future where conventional meat production has become unsustainable in a post-pandemic, warming world.
Where lab-grown meat once belonged to the realms of science fiction, it’s fast becoming big business, and not just in Silicon Valley. The major titans of the old meat industry too are investing too, with Tyson Foods already muscling in. Perhaps you’ve heard of them recently: the company has been at the centre of several major coronavirus outbreaks at its slaughterhouses in the US (across the sector over 40,000 meatpacking workers have been infected) and it is now the subject of a lawsuit by the families of deceased employees. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, the corporation was feeling out new opportunities in lab-grown meat. Their octopus-like investment arm, Tyson Ventures, has backed the start-ups Future Meat Technologies and Memphis Meats, alongside two plant-based ventures: Beyond Meat and New Wave Foods.
Although fundamentally different as food technologies, the parallel rise of plant-based meat and lab-grown meat is part of the same trajectory for political economy. After selling its shares in Beyond Meat, Tyson launched its own competitor plant-based Raised and Rooted range. One of their burgers is called “The Blend.” It is half beef, half pea protein isolate. One day soon they could have a new mix – with lab-grown meat in the recipe too. This is the blended future on offer here: the worst of all worlds.
Writer Alicia Kennedy’s work has focused on plant-based products, like Impossible Burger, that are already on the market. These products, like lab-grown meat, are billed as solutions to the climate crisis, but their production still relies on agri-industrial monoculture farming, contributing to the ongoing mass extinction of biodiversity. “For me, it’s greenwashing,” she explains. “It’s using veganism and plant-based diets, that have historically been connected to political movements, and divorcing them from that politics.” There is no genuine transformative promise here. “It’s the same big agriculture and corporate profits. It’s not really about providing nutrition, it’s not about providing culturally sensitive and responsible foods to communities.”
With many of the same players involved, we might expect a similar picture in the future with lab-grown meat. Rolling through into the era of catastrophic climate change, a partnership of venture capital start-ups and long-standing meat barons will comfortably control the new food system. Or rather, the food will be new; the system will be quite familiar. Despite the virtuous language of “clean” (and even JUST) meat and fish products, there will be no social virtue here. There will be no reason to cease wage depression or mitigate abysmal working conditions. Things will likely fall into the usual patterns of precarity. There is no guarantee that lab-grown meat would mitigate climate change, either, since it all depends on how the vast quantities of electricity it requires would be generated.
But what if there are other possibilities, other locations for the meat future? A high school student’s bedroom in a house on a residential street in Tokyo sounds like an unlikely place to find it. In the corner, nestled among books, school medals, and teddy bears, a pink and white box hums quietly. It is a makeshift incubator, where meat cells are growing. The process is relatively simple, though it isn’t for the squeamish: a fertilized chicken egg is incubated to develop the foetus. Then, the shell is cracked and a few cells are extracted. These cells are placed in a petri dish with proteins, nutrients, and egg white, which helps to stop the growth of mold, and they multiply in the incubator. If successful, an edible sponge of meat cells will develop.
Someday there could be not just beef, chicken, and pork, but also lobster, lamb, king prawns, oysters, foie gras – the whole crustaceous, avian and mammalian rainbow. Another student is already working on crayfish. This DIY science is facilitated by Shojinmeat – a non-profit “citizen science” or “biohacker” project in Tokyo, which shares recipes, tips, and experiments for any budding cultured meat hobbyists. In the future, it should be possible for any keen amateur scientist to grow the meat from cells extracted directly from a living animal. Alongside hobbyists, small farms and butchers could develop their own unique recipes.
Shojinmeat is more than a science experiment. It is an invitation to speculate about a different food system altogether. For members, DIY cellular agriculture could radically democratise food production. They envisage a time when small community city farms could become viable meat producers. Once it is widely possible to extract the necessary cells directly from a living animal without harming it, one cow or chicken could be sufficient. This vision of meat production is a utopia of sorts: a city peppered with community smallholdings and skyscraper vertical allotments. The distinction between farm and city could dissolve altogether, achieving what classical Marxists envisaged as the eventual abolition of town and country.
For Benjamin Wurgaft, author of Meat Planet, it is the philosophical speculation that lab-grown meat invites which captivates him. Drawing on the work of the Dutch bioethicists Cor van der Weele and Clemens Driessen and their thought experiment, “The Pig in the Backyard”, he envisages a neighbourhood raising a pig communally, and using it as a source of cell-based meat. At the same time, living alongside the animal, the members of the community would form a genuine relationship with it. The experiment throws up exciting possibilities, Wurgaft explains. “What draws me to this idea is that it isn’t just a utopian cultured meat fantasy (although it might be that, too) but an experimental investigation of our morality. How might cultured meat change the human moral imagination? We’d be using an animal as a means to an end – hypothetically delicious pork – but the animal would go on living, demonstrating that it has its own sense of its proper ends, of what’s good for it. What’s life like, if you can play with an animal whose cells you ate yesterday?” That, he thinks, is where the profound possibilities of this new meat future lie: in its potential to reorient human-animal relationships in a moral sense.
Rather than a utopian endpoint, communal cultured meat might prove a temporary condition, allowing humans to negotiate a new moral orientation towards animals. Josh Berson, author of The Meat Question, sees it this way. His preference would be for cultured meat to serve as a “transitional phenomenon.” As a transitory technology for a food system in transformation, it could make way for a more sustainable future. For Berson, “in the long run, plant-based proteins afford a more ecologically sound nutrition strategy”. They are more carbon efficient and, unlike lab-grown meat, they “at least hold open the possibility of our retaining our awareness of our broader dependence on the biosphere.” By moral and political means, that’s the place we need to eventually get to.
While the early promise of biohacking and backyards seems genuinely radical, it is worth noting that in the wrong hands, the same exact technologies could dangerously favour a gig economy model. If the operation can be scaled down to a household incubator, you could imagine a large company taking the opportunity to Uber-ise its meat production. Outsourcing to individuals in their homes, alone with the incubator, the app, and its algorithms, tweaking them into higher productivity. The ongoing lack of regulation for the gig economy would be a boon – by the time there are scandals about malfunctioning incubators, infected meat, and working poverty, the companies might be deemed too big to regulate.
This is less likely to happen in Japan, though, than in the UK or the US. That’s because of an important fact about the development of lab-grown meat there: the state is involved. The Japanese government is eager to research and regulate cultured meat as part of a wider plan to reduce the country’s reliance on imports and secure protein for the future. It provided seed money to the lab-grown foie gras start-up, IntegriCulture (launched by the team behind Shojinmeat), and will also be involved in a new research association focused on cellular agriculture. Positive state support and a willingness to develop sensible regulations early on could have an enormous impact on the trajectory of lab-grown meat; similar state research and development programmes are being led by the Singapore Food Agency and the Israeli government’s Innovation Authority.
It is clear that we should transition to a less carbon-intensive food system, with a focus on food safety, security, and equality. As a prospective public good, lab-grown meat could have a lot to offer in that transition: increasing food security while limiting emissions, animal cruelty, and exposure to antibiotics. It could also bring about the closure of the chilly hangars of conventional industrial meat processing. In the midst of Covid-19, we’ve begun to understand how desperately that needs to happen. Those tightly packed warehouses and human-animal interactions are not only hotbeds for the spread of coronavirus, they also create the ideal conditions for the emergence and mutation of new viruses. In short, “big farms make big flu.”
Jan Dutkiewicz, a political economist at Harvard whose research focuses a critical lens on American meat corporations and the future of food production, recently made the pragmatic case for a fast food transition to alternative proteins in a co-authored piece for Wired. For Dutkiewicz, the argument for lab-grown meat is that it’s a practical answer to an entrenched problem: we simply eat far too much meat. The vast majority of the world would have to move to a vegan diet to see major environmental impacts. “You need to meet people halfway”, he says, “and if you can’t change what they eat, you need to change how what they eat is produced.”
But on its own, simply moving to lab-grown meat wouldn’t be enough; many of the comparative advantages aren’t going to be fulfilled if an unchecked corporation is at the helm. We only need to look at Big Pharma to see how something that should be a universal good can become a social problem in the wrong hands. The state, then, has an important role to play, not just in providing funding and facilities, but in bending the development of this emergent technology to genuinely serve the public.
Dutkiewicz thinks there is a strong case for state intervention for making lab-grown meat a major part of a Green New Deal project. When it comes to lab-grown meat, it’s not a question of if anymore, he explains. “As far as I'm concerned cellular agriculture is going to happen. And so you might as well harness it to a broader project aimed at creating a cohesive green industrial policy and mitigating environmental harms.” He’s concerned by the lack of attention to the food system in discussions of climate economic policy. In terms of emissions and biodiversity loss, it absolutely needs to be a priority alongside transport and energy production. As laid out in an article for Jacobin in the US, Dutkiewicz would like to see state investment in research and development, open source research rather than jealous patenting of the new technologies, and a reskilling programme for workers from the old meat and dairy industries.
The regulation of alternative meat corporations in the UK should be a part of both Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy and Labour’s vision for a Green New Deal. One solution could involve the provision of state research funding on the condition that companies develop affordable and healthy products, offer secure and well-paid employment, and bring workers from meat and dairy into the new production lines. At this early stage, failure to comply could mean the refusal of regulatory approval for the new foodstuffs. If the new technologies were open source they would be freely available to small-scale producers and community projects. It would be more likely that a “pig in the backyard” or Shojinmeat-style project could co-exist with larger scale production.
These are ways to mitigate the worst effects of lab-grown meat’s emergence, and draw out some of its potential benefits as part of a set of Green New Deal food policies. But perhaps this is the wrong kind of compromise to make, because the framing of a Green New Deal could seem misguided – it promises to reinvigorate economic growth through climate action. Some environmental critics want to see an end to the ideology of growth altogether. Kennedy, for one, is more sympathetic to the voluntary egalitarian downscaling captured in the idea of economic degrowth, as she explained in a recent interview for In Digestion. Though there are many interpretations of the concept, that could involve rolling back industrial scale food production, reducing consumption, moving towards the local and communal, and a more plant-focused diet. She tells me, “It just doesn’t make sense to replace one state subsidised monoculture system with another.” Instead, she’d like to see a scaling back to the local: “systems that are community-based, and focused on creating sustenance and sufficiency for those communities.”
The potential shape of a food system responsive to the emergence of lab-grown meat remains wide open. The alternative possibilities sketched here – its place in a biohacker utopia or a state-led green recovery – barely touch the surface. Importantly, though, they offer a different future than one in which the grip of gig and tech monopolies is simply deepened. Whether we are tempted to embrace some role for cultured meat in the future, or reject it, speculating about these alternatives is productive. It can help sharpen our sense of the range of possible relationships between workers, capital, citizens, and the state in the new supply chains.
Hester van Hensbergen is a PhD student in politics and an occasional food writer. You can find her on Instagram at @hestervandelemme. Hester was paid for this newsletter.
The illustration was done by Marie-Henriette Desmoures. For more commissions she can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter as @dancing_garlic. You can find more of her work at https://www.takkformat.com/ as well as Instagram @dancing.garlic