Monolith 2: In-Vitro Meat

In 2008 a trend emerged for super-expensive hamburgers. In restaurants like the Wall Street Burger Shoppe in New York you could get the Richard Nouveau Burger (Kobe beef, truffles, foie gras) for $175 while over at Fleur in Las Vegas you could get the virtually identical Fleurburger for just $75 (or $5,000 if you decided to have it with wine). At the same time Dr. Mark Post of Maastricht University started work on his own special burger. It would take him five years, but now that Wall Street Burger has closed down and the PR effect of the Fleur is wearing off, it seems that at least in terms of cost, Post has won the prize. At a crowded press conference on August 5th, the world’s media crowded in for a glimpse of a single patty that carried a hypothetical price tag of $330,000.

This burger did not consist of pampered Kobe or Beluga caviar, nor was it served on an Iranian saffron bun. Post’s burger was the first in the world to be cooked using laboratory grown beef. This synthetic product, known as ‘in-vitro meat’, has been developed from the biopsied stem cells of cows. The cells are bonded with muscle fibres and are cultivated in a nutrient rich mixture of lipids, glucose and amino acids. The resultant tissue is then formed into translucent strips before the whole process is repeated until enough material is accumulated to be colored and packed into the shape of the burger. 

This story has been periodically hitting the press since the start of the project. In an article from November 2011, the process was described as using stem cells harvested from “leftover animal material from slaughterhouses”, with Post claiming that

It may sound and look like some kind of imitation, but in-vitro or cultured meat is a real animal flesh product, just one that has never been part of a complete, living animal -- quite different from imitation meat or meat substitutes aimed at vegetarians and made from vegetable proteins like soy.

Following on from the high profile unveiling of his ‘prototype’, this kind of simulacral and detrital imagery will no doubt fuel the claims that in-vitro meat constitutes ‘frankenfood’. Indeed, some responses to the launch brought Soylent Green into the mix of references.

Soylent Green is a film from 1973 directed by Richard Fleischer based Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! Set in the far-flung year of 2022 (the year in which, according to the predictions of Post’s team, will see the mass production of in-vitro meat) it shows an over-crowded population facing a severe housing crisis and a potentially terminal food shortage. As an efficient solution the global Soylent Corporation produces ‘Soylent Green’, a rationed protein wafer allegedly made from plankton.  Sincere apologies for the spoiler, but the product turns out (of course) not to be planktonic but human: the solution to the food shortage caused by over-population being the harvesting of corpses and the implied establishment of human farms.

Cannibalism is obviously not in question with in-vitro meat, but the comparison with Fleischer’s film does raise some points worthy of critique.  The stated advantages of the process are environmental and humanistic. Using stem-cells to create meat in the laboratory will reduce the need to harvest cattle directly, thereby achieving a cheap, healthy food supply in the absence of the animal cruelty and excessive land cultivation that is involved in industrial farming.  

It is very hard to challenge such a socially conscious discourse. What can be said is that given the long history of the industrial slaughterhouse and its opposition (Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle from 1906 being a key example), it’s notable that this argument is being made now in relation to this particular technology. A more pragmatic and less idealistic view would argue that the process and its discourse is a manifestation of the post-2008 ideologies of austerity and capitalist apocalypticism. If, as Josh Ozersky argues, the hamburger is symbolic of American corporatism, it’s appropriate that its early 21st century incarnation is one that eschews the production-line of the 1950s, responds to the environmental crisis of the 1990s and appears to reverse the trajectory of the excessive spending of the 2000s. 

On the back of this analysis, a basic counterargument to the stated efficacy of Post’s burger would be that catering to the world’s food needs has nothing to do with supply or volume. The issue is not one of shortage per se, but one of distribution. The right amount of food exists but it simply does not reach everybody who needs it.  An extended version of the same argument would point to the financial involvement of Google founder Sergey Brin in the in-vitro meat project. The symbolism of Google possibly moving into the food market to complement its monopolization of web searches, global maps and cybernetic interfaces could at best be seen as a further prescriptive creation of supply in the absence of a pre-existing demand and at worst, an example of what could be called ‘hostage capitalism’. That’s to say, now that Google is channeling some of its considerable resources into a high-profile product with a seemingly undeniable social benefit why should the company be questioned about its dubious tax practices? After all, “don’t be evil” is coded into Google’s existence. Do you really want the flow of capital (and hence research, development and therefore food) to stop?

The point is this: apocalyptic scenarios and their seemingly miraculous solutions often obfuscate the longer term, specifically catastrophic processes that have led to the points of crisis themselves. Such emergency conditions do not allow the deeper fault lines to be inspected and improved. In addition, the liberal humanist ideology at work in the promotion of in-vitro meat is fabulous in theory but becomes questionable when hypothesized in practice. Once developed into mass production it’s unfeasible to assume that laboratory meat will entirely replace the cultivation of cattle and thus achieve its stated utopian aims. Livestock farming is far too hard-wired into the global economy and labor culture for it to be rendered obsolete.  As such, the most ominous scenario to be extrapolated from the public launch of Post’s ‘petri’ meat is that at some point it will exist as a synthetic food source in parallel with the production and consumption of ‘real’ meat. This would be problematic because as has been demonstrated by structural developments in comparable sectors such as health, education and transport, the emergence of a seismic differential parallelism in the food industry would quickly ossify into (or at the very least be read as) a qualitative hierarchy. 

For all its hysteria, it’s at this point that Soylent Green’s prophetic potential is revealed.  At one point in the film Robert Thorn, a detective played by Charlton Heston visits the home of Tab Fielding, a possible suspect in a murder investigation. There he finds a jar of strawberry jam. After savoring a single spoonful, Thorn considers the jam to be suggestive of Fielding’s involvement in the murder. Why? Because within the food shortages of 2022, authentic strawberry jam is an enormous luxury and an extremely expensive commodity.  For a mere ‘bodyguard’ like Fielding, Thorn reasons, it must have come as a result of a significant pay-off. A conspiratorial reading of in-vitro meat would project a similar outcome as a result of its widespread production: not the end of cattle farming, but the amplification of its meat products to the level of elite consumer items.

If the August 5th launch is to be taken as an opportunity for speculation what, then, is the probable rise of in-vitro meat realistically likely to produce? A healthy market for Kobe hamburgers at $5,000 a shot. 

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