Monday, April 12, 2021 - Advocates for lab-grown meat say that beyond helping fight climate change, it will also improve animal welfare and shake up our food production system. But there is a problem with cellular agriculture—another name for lab-grown meat—that the cheerleaders don’t seem to be talking about. In key ways, lab-grown meat is built on the same foundational logics of our current industrial food system. As a result, it’s firmly on the road to replicating many of the challenges that it claims it will address, and in the process risks making a food future that is worse, rather than better, for eaters.
Let’s say that through scientific research and technological innovation, industrial food producers can make foods that act like preventative medicine, prolonging health and staving off impending ills. If so, this is great for shareholders: These functional foods come with a higher price tag. It’s great for eaters with the money necessary to bring these foods into their daily diet. But it’s detrimental to those on limited budgets, those who live in rural or urban food deserts, or those unaware that such edible health interventions exist. Indeed, the presence of these foods on the market—with their carefully engineered extraction and concentration of ingredients understood as having significant impact on health—reinforces the idea that access to healthful eating requires going through the technological and scientific expertise found in the industrial food laboratory. That logic that continues to undergird foods that appear “whole” at face value such as the Kuli Kuli bar or more tongue-in-cheek Nonbar. Unable to access the techniques, ingredients, and technologies that allow the creation of such foods, a large swath of humanity is excluded from the ability to produce the types of foods that are advertised as allowing them and their children to be healthier and live longer. This move not only perpetuates an already unequal access to health care and services, it promotes the erasure of traditional food ways in favor of an industrialized diet high in processed foods.
Cellular agriculture doesn’t make the same health-related claims as functional foods. But it operates on the same assumptions: that you have to go through the industrial research and production assemblage to access this “clean,” environmentally friendly meat. There, in the lab, we find molecular reductionism hard at work as researchers seek to understand how to get animal protein cells to grow in spaces foreign to their being. We find molecular reductionism driving investigation into how to replace the animal-based serums critical to cellular growth so the product can live up to its “animal-free” label. We find the same far-flung supply chains and base materials that rely on petrochemical extraction. And we see once again a divide between who can even produce these foods, let alone get access to them.
Rather than take a careful look at our own tastes and desires and how they tie us into larger systems of inclusion and exclusion, lab-grown meat as currently constituted offers a cotton-candy bedtime story about making a different world through food. Unfortunately, unless the logics underlying its production change, cellular agriculture is going to give us the same fluff we already have.
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