Meat cultures: Lab-grown meat and the politics of contamination

Abstract

The prospect of lab-grown meat has attracted a lot of attention. The peak of this attention occurred after the public tasting of the first ‘lab-grown burger’ in August 2013. However, the discourse surrounding lab-grown meat is limited, and largely shaped by the technology’s proponents. This limited narrative restricts the potential for public discussions and debates about the details of lab-grown meat’s development. Such restrictions clash with lab-grown meat proponents’ stated goal of openness and complicate some of their ethical claims. To begin to overcome these restrictions, this paper introduces contamination as a method that brings important excluded elements to bear on narratives of technological development, particularly those that emphasize biological immanence and plasticity. Reading proponent’s narrative alongside related discourses – the industrialization of agriculture, the biomedical history of cell culture, and the work of bioartists and science fiction writers – reveals systematically excluded contaminants that could threaten the technology’s viability. The nature of these contaminants is both material (e.g., microorganisms, fetal bovine serum) and semiotic (e.g., associations with factory farming and fictional dystopias), revealing the usefulness of contamination as a tactic that both encourages paying attention to the ways in which discourse and matter coshape each other and broadens the scope of consideration and discussion around technological development.

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Figure 1

Credit David Parry/PA Wire

Figure 2

Credit Maastricht University

Figure 3

Image courtesy of the Tissue Culture & Art Project (Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr)

Notes

  1. 1.

    The question of whether lab-grown meat does or could qualify as vegetarian has drawn mixed responses.

  2. 2.

    The timeline that is presented here recalls Sunder Rajan’s (2006) and Thompson’s (2013) discussion of the “forward-looking statement,” a linguistic mode entering science from the business world in which such promissory, but not necessarily accurate, accounts are protected.

  3. 3.

    O’Riordan et al (2017) describe the public tasting as an event that creates a “promotional public,” an audience that promotes the idea of lab-grown meat by gathering to bear witness. Importantly, the promotional public is not scripted or strictly controlled by lab-grown meat advocates; this is why some of the tensions started to emerge when the panel fielded questions from the audience.

  4. 4.

    Post worked as a professor of tissue engineering prior to getting involved with lab-grown meat as part of a Dutch government-funded project. He took over after the director of the project fell ill, and has worked on lab-grown meat – even though that particular funding stream dried up in 2010 – ever since.

  5. 5.

    This is opposed to stem cells, which are not used in meat cultures because they remain too difficult to reliably differentiate.

  6. 6.

    An oft-touted figure is that a culture originating from a single cell may still feed the entire world’s meat demands for 1 year (New Harvest, 2013a).

  7. 7.

    HeLa cells are named after their unwitting donor, Henrietta Lacks, an ovarian cancer patient who succumbed to the disease in 1951 (Skloot, 2010), shortly after the cells were taken from her.

  8. 8.

    Stephens (2010) questions whether cultured meat might be "zombies on the menu." Though Stephens is ultimately unsure whether meat cultures qualify as zombies, he draws on “A Zombie Manifesto” (Lauro and Embry, 2008) to explore the idea. The manifesto classifies zombies in several ways that could apply to meat cultures: as entities that separate mind and body and mark the loss of the individual, as “unconscious but animate flesh” (2008, p. 90), and as entities for which reproduction and consumption are not discrete activities.

  9. 9.

    These dual connotations resonate strongly with Haraway’s (1997) suspicion of technoscientific apocalyptic and salvation narratives.

  10. 10.

    These same ties are what allow cultured meat advocates to apply labels like beef and pork to lab-grown meat cultures.

  11. 11.

    New Harvest highlights urgency as part of their answer to the question, Why meat alternatives?: “With 30% of our ice-free planet devoted to livestock production, can we afford to wait for the world to turn to veganism? This, on top of the fact that the demand for meat will increase in developing countries – more than compensating for reduced meat consumption in the developed world. Because of this reality, many believe that the development of a broad portfolio of meat alternatives – plant-based alternatives as well as cultured meat – will serve the needs of consumers while drastically decreasing the impact of ‘meat’ eating on the planet,” (2013b).

  12. 12.

    This is a distinction that New Harvest makes in its “library.” Even though New Harvest does provide this thorough archive of resources on their website and a forum for commentary on them, as of this writing, no one has submitted comments to any of the articles. Instead, it seems that many of the public conversations of lab-grown meat occur in the news media, where comments sections are much more active. These news articles generally parrot the language that advocates use to describe lab-grown meat.

  13. 13.

    FBS was mentioned once at the burger tasting, when an audience member asked about its continued use (Maastricht University, 2014a). Post remarked on the importance of finding an alternative and referred vaguely to one medium that was “okay for our cells” as a promising lead.

  14. 14.

    Post has estimated that if the process can be scaled up it would take 10–20 years to produce ‘beef,’ likely still at relatively high cost (Maastricht University, 2014a).

  15. 15.

    Considering that the bulk of cultured meat research has utilized cells extracted from pigs and cattle, the choice of chicken for a contest seems a bit unusual, though it is justified by reference to the much larger number of chickens that meet their end in slaughterhouses each year (PETA, 2013).

  16. 16.

    This makes plain a point that I have tried to emphasize: that proponents’ vision of meat cultures, while consistent and pervasive, is not total.

  17. 17.

    Determining which relations qualify as ‘interference’ quickly becomes tricky. I am also not sure that plasticity is the best term to describe life’s complexity and agency, how it may resist playing into the unilateral teleology of (bio)engineering projects.

  18. 18.

    This term was coined by Ian Wilmut, the ‘creator’ of Dolly the sheep.

  19. 19.

    This can be opposed to Landecker’s (2007) concept, from H.G. Wells, of taking the biological “in hand”.

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Acknowledgements

The author wishes to thank both Jenny Reardon and Julie Guthman for feedback on multiple drafts of this article, as well as Jonathan L. Clark for providing the article's initial inspiration. The author also wishes to thank Oron Catts for the included image of his artwork, as well as three anonymous reviewers for their comments and recommendations. This article is composed of original material. It is not under review elsewhere, and the research has been subjected to appropriate ethical review. The author has no competing interests that might interfere with the research.

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Murray, A. Meat cultures: Lab-grown meat and the politics of contamination. BioSocieties 13, 513–534 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41292-017-0082-z

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Keywords

  • lab-grown/cultured meat
  • cell culture
  • biotechnology
  • ethical biocapital
  • animal agriculture
  • biological plasticity