Biology grows. In petri dishes or bodies, cells grow and multiply, self-regulating and self-repairing. By taking advantage of the power of biological growth, a single stem cell can theoretically be nurtured to grow indefinitely. Outside of the limits imposed by the edges of an animal’s body, the cells can reproduce and multiply until they exhaust the nutrients and space provided, filling petri dishes and vats to grow the future of meat.
Food grows in domesticated plants and animals, but to produce food for a growing population under the rubrics of industrial capitalism, we force biological growth into an unsustainable model where bigger is better — at any cost. Industrial meat production requires huge inputs of energy, water, and land to grow animal feed. Animal wastes create polluting runoff and greenhouse gases. Industrially produced meat is cruel to animals, damaging to the environment, dangerous to workers, and is creating a growing threat to public health through the overuse of antibiotics. Because the costs of such externalities aren’t factored into the price of a hamburger at the supermarket, however, this model persists.
In vitro meat is presented as an alternative to factory farming, eliminating troublesome externalities through technological efficiency. Instead of dirty and dangerous slaughterhouses we’re shown renderings of the gleaming stainless steel surfaces of a brewing facility, with cells happily growing in vats. Instead of acres of intensively farmed crops we see mockups of ponds of genetically engineered algae, designed to make the perfect mixture of nutrients for growing meat cells. Instead of farms, farmers, cows and their complexities, in vitro meat gives us clean labs, scientists in white coats, and plastic dishes filled with pink liquid.
Removing animals from the system, in vitro meat abstracts flesh into a collection of cells fed by a bath of nutrients. Advocates for in vitro meat rightly emphasize the externalities of factory farming, making visible costs that most people would prefer to keep hidden. But the abstraction of meat to cells produces and hides new externalities. While in vitro meat grows outside of an animal, it doesn’t grow outside of industrial models of food production.
The physicist and writer Ursula Franklin discusses two different industrial models in her manifesto on the social effects of engineering, The Real World of Technology. In the book, Franklin uses biology as a metaphor for the ‘growth model’, where engineers encourage technologies to grow ‘organically’, according to the limits of available resources. In contrast, the “production model” that dominates today’s industry focuses on controlling rather than accommodating growth. Production models aim to maximize the volume of the product and minimize its price, leaving environmental concerns, health issues, and working conditions aside. The intensive micromanagement and damaging externalities of factory farming are classic features of the production model. Rather than disrupting the production model of factory farming, current visions of in vitro meat take industrial logics to their extremes.
Tissue engineer Mark Post, a leader in the field, has spoken about the biological inefficiencies that in vitro meat may be able to address. Animals like cows and pigs, he said, weren’t designed to efficiently convert vegetable protein into animal protein. Only 15% of the calories fed to farm animals become usable meat calories. In contrast, Post argues that with in vitro meat, “we can control all the variables… and probably can make it much more efficient than the animal can.”
What are the variables involved? A steak is the result of a highly coordinated system of cellular growth, where the three dimensional arrangement of bone, cartilage, tendons, fat, muscle, and blood vessels grows with the animal. The animal’s digestive system and metabolism turn grass into more cells, and the circulatory system brings nutrients and removes waste. The skin and the immune system protect the meat from infection, and the skeletal system exercises the muscle, creating the tone and texture of the future steak. Factory farming aims to control these biological variables by regulating animal bodies, forcing animals into conditions that optimize speed, size, consistency, and efficiency over environmental safety, human health, and animal welfare. Animals are bred, fed, and given antibiotics to maximize the size of future cuts of meat at the lowest possible price. Factory farms are indeed factories — assembly lines that manufacture living creatures into shrink-wrapped steaks.
With in vitro meat, the dream of the meat assembly line reaches a logical conclusion: cells are warmed, nourished, cleaned, and exercised using only complex machinery. Tissues are formed by the controlled placement of cells in a 3D printer. Cuts of meat are designed, flavored, and packaged by a series of imagined devices. In vitro meat will be made, not grown.
While attempting to control all the variables of biological growth, the designers of these machines conceal the real labor and resources that must go in to make meat in vitro. To survive and grow in culture, cells not only need sugars, fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals, but also a set of hormones and growth factors that stimulate the cells to divide outside the context of a body. Currently, these factors are provided by supplementing the nutrient broth with fetal bovine serum drained from unborn calves after pregnant cows go to slaughter.
The fact that in vitro meat depends directly on the byproducts of current industrial meat production, however, is routinely left out of the narratives of progress and ‘cruelty free’ meat.
Likewise, we hear about the antibiotics used in factory farming, but almost never the fact that without an immune system, cells in culture must be protected by large quantities of antibiotics and fungicides. We hear about the costs of growing corn in monoculture to produce animal feed, but we don’t hear about the refined sugars and amino acids that cells need in vitro, or where they come from, besides vague references to engineered algae. These are a different kind of externality, hidden from view not because of the economics of in vitro meat, which are not yet in place, but because of the philosophy of industrial control.
The usual response to such critiques is that these problems will be solved by the inevitable march of technological progress. However, it is precisely these incompletenesses — problems not yet solved — that persist and plague the production model. As Franklin writes, the production model assumes that production happens “under conditions that are, at least in principle, entirely controllable. If in practice such control is not complete or completely successful, then there is an assumption, implicit in the model itself, that improvements
in knowledge, design, and organization can occur so that all essential parameters will become controllable.” In the aggressive pursuit of efficiency and profit margins, the easiest way to solve these problems is to banish them out of the frame (as with factory farming) or to the future (as with in vitro meat).
Advocates of in vitro meat — and perhaps readers of this essay — may see in my criticism a wish to ‘return to nature’, to reverse technological progress and throw us all into a life of agrarian serfdom. But a critique of this particular technology is not the same as arguing against all technology. Seeing criticism of in vitro meat as anti-technology relies on the assumption that technology is only one thing, that it has a singular path, and that in vitro meat is already inevitable. This kind of argument is intended to shut down reasoned debate, closing off discussion of how technologies come into existence and work in the real world in favor of a blind faith that in the future, we will inevitably control all the variables.
Food lies at the complex intersection of biology, technology, and culture. There is no single technology that can address all these complexities, and there will always be variables that escape our grasp. No single technology will ‘feed the world’. To build a sustainable growth model for producing food in the future, we will use many old technologies alongside new technologies that have not yet been invented. We will design technologies that help grow foods according to local environments and cultures, enriching soils with diverse populations of microorganisms, recycling wastes and distributing food more equitably. For meat eating, this will mean working to incorporate animals back into diverse systems of agriculture rather than separating them in factory farms, and importantly, it will likely mean eating a lot less meat. Accomplishing these goals will not come easy, and will require a fundamental shift in how we understand and regulate the ways we produce food. Biology can be sustainable, adapting and growing within environmental, social, and economic contexts, but as long as we focus only on industrial efficiencies and hyper-technological dreams, we won’t be able to grow out of the production model.