Some Preliminary Thoughts

A vegan tries vat-grown lard

Last Friday, instead of reading a book, I tagged along with Marina to Mission Barns, one of a growing crop of start-ups trying to disrupt the meat industry by growing animal tissue outside of an animal. They invited us because Marina's written and edited many stories about the meat industry and meat alternatives, but the whole affair is also fascinating for a scholar in my fields, history of science and science & technology studies.

Cultivated Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato

Bacon made with plants & cultivated pork fat. Photo by Marina

We also visited many plant-based restaurants—from vegan fine-dining standard Millennium in Oakland to McDonald's knockoff Mr.Charlie's (whose San Francisco location is, amusingly, right across the street from a McDonald's)—and tried impressively realistic plant-based cheese at another startup, Climax Foods. All of these were delicious, and show the amazing variety of what you can do with plants (and fungi) alone. I'd happily go the rest of my life eating only food like that, but "eating plants" isn't as philosophically and historically unsettling as "cultivating lard" so guess which meal gets its own blog post?

Before that, though, it's the longest day of the year, which means it's also #ShowYourStripes day. The great "warming stripes" data-viz tool by Ed Hawkins at the University of Reading lets you visualize temperature change in your state, country, or planet in a viscerally colorful format. I was stunned and sobered to see that my home state's temperatures have been above the 1971–2000 average all but one year this century, and all but two in my lifetime.

Colorado's Warming Stripes

Colorado's "warming stripes"; find yours here

Some Preliminary Thoughts

Via @DelawareWFP / Twitter

Why cultivated meat?

Cultivated meat goes is a step beyond the current state-of-the art in "alternative proteins," like Beyond and Impossible, which both use pea protein to achieve a texture that's a close (some would say uncanny) imitation for ground beef, sausage, or chicken nuggets.1 The dream of lab-grown meat is that we'll be able to grow a pork chop in a factory, no pig (or slaughter, or "poop lagoons," or oceanic "dead zones," or deforestation, or dead rivers...) necessary. It sounds like science fiction, but Eat Just's cultivated chicken is already sold in Singapore and they and another company have received preliminary approval in the US. It's real enough that someone is already spreading fact-free fearmongering about the safety of the cultivated stuff.

Mission Barns' aim is slightly less ambitious than growing an entire steak or pork chop in a lab, which makes them all the more compelling. Instead of imitating the fibrous texture of muscle fibers (whether by giving animal cells a fibrous structure to grow on [difficult!] or by coaxing them into making the structure themselves [so difficult that I don't actually think anyone is trying this!]) Mission Barns is growing pig fat. Fat has much less structure, so grows happily in a liquid culture. The end result is slaughter-free pork fat (or, if you're being irreverent, vat-grown lard). Mission Barns then adds that to plant-based meatballs, bacon, and sausage, which they hope to sell pending regulatory approval.

Their argument is that the fat is the hardest part of the bacon to replicate, and I buy that, both on culinary and sustainability/supply chain grounds—the tropical oils that products like Beyond and Impossible use far better than meat, but still not great. I haven't had bacon in years, so I don't know that I tasted the difference, but one omnivore reviewed Mission Barns's bacon thusly: "I left the tasting with animal fat on my lips and a new conviction in my mind: At the right price, I’d buy this bacon over the regular stuff."

How a sample is taken from a living pig and grown into fat

Screenshots from Mission Barns's website

Mission Barns' fat is grown from a small sample taken from a pig named Dawn, who is living out her life at a farmed animal sanctuary in New York state.2 Dawn, of course, could not give informed consent to this process, so there are some vegans who wouldn't consider lab grown meat vegan. For me, though, it's more complicated than that: Mission Barns and its ilk are asking us to reconsider what a pig is, with dramatic repercussions for our relationships with animals—and ourselves. The whole time I was there, I was (of course) thinking about the history of cell culture, and specifically Culturing Life, a book I read last summer for prelims—and which previews the philosophical challenges that cultivated meat aims to bring to our dinner table.

Life as culture

Landecker, Hannah. Culturing Life: How Cells Became Technologies. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

Culturing Life's subtitle is a perfect one, because it's a book about how, in the 20th century, cells went from structural components of the ineffable, indivisible wholes we call "individuals" to tools-controlled, isolatable sites of life itself. While human technologies used cultures of unicellular organisms like yeast and bacteria—for beer, cheese, and fermented pickles & tofu—long before we knew what cells were, Landecker's book focuses on a stranger, and until after 1900 even inconceivable process that we now take for granted: the growth and replication of animal cells independent of the animal body.

The prehistory of cell culture doesn't begin with cells, but larger chunks of tissue—most famously, frog legs—which retained some of their sensibility, their responsiveness, when removed from the body. In 1780, Italian physician Luigi Galvani stimulated a severed frog leg with an electric spark, and saw it twitch, inspiring both Frankenstein and a new branch of biology. The violence here is two-fold: obtaining a living frog leg obviously requires (at least with 1800—or 2000—technology) requires killing or maiming the frog, but these experiments also began the long, slow process of philosophically disassembling the organism as an inviolable, autonomous whole—a process that cell culture technologies only accelerated.

Electroshocking frog legs

Diagram of Galvani's experiment (Luigi Galvani/David Ames Wells via Wikimedia)

Landecker's story really picks up with French surgeon Alexis Carrel. Carrel would later befriend Charles Lindbergh, bond over their shared fascist and eugenicist views, and die in Paris accused of collaborating with Nazis. But before all that, he was a researcher at Rockefeller University in New York City, where he was working on the related problems of tissue culture and organ transplantation. Carrel pioneered the use of a new technology—the moving picture—to see how neurons grew and developed, and argued that they were behaving autonomously, each cell reaching out to make connections to other cells. It was the first indication that human and non-human animals had cells which could act independently—and that the fundamental unit of life was not, perhaps, the organism, but the cell.

A question arises here: were Carrel's experiments a discovery, or an invention? The neurons grew as if autonomous, but only in the specially crafted conditions of Carrel's lab, and only under his technologically-mediated gaze, assisted as it was by microscope and cinema film. (The first cultivated cells fed on serum taken from animals, so it couldn't even be said to grow independent of any animal–they grew only in blood-derived serum, which is still commonly used in cell culture.) This is no idle question: if Carrel's work was a discovery, then the discovery is that cells are inherently independent and our selves are not indivisible individuals. But if it was an invention, then while we may still be divisible, that is only through human artifice. Or maybe there's no natural individual at all, and the autonomous organism is no less a construct than the autonomous cell.

Caricature of a surgeon carrying chimeric animals on a platter

Caricature of "Doctor Carrel of New York" (CC:BY-SA Hospices civil de Lyon via Wikimedia)

At any rate, Carrel's work was only the beginning: it took more experiments, more artifice, to find/make animal cells that could reproduce independently and indefinitely in cell culture; the first claims to have achieved that (with cells from a chicken's heart) were probably the result of contaminated experiments—either with cancerous or embryonic chicken cells. Landecker is especially interested in how with each intervention/discovery–autonomous neurons; "immortal" chicken hearts; and the cancerous cells of Henrietta Lacks, which live on as self-replicating research tools long after that very cancer killed Lacks herself—life became more and more separable from the organism, and more and more under the control of scientific artifice.

You might know about the HeLa cell line because of Rebecca Skloot's book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or the HBO film adaptation. In the years since they were taken from Lacks without her knowledge or consent at a Baltimore hospital in 1951, the HeLa cell line has become an engine for oncology, virology, and genetics research: they were instrumental in developing or manufacturing two vaccines (for HPV and polio), and also for more controversial experiments, including the first human-animal "chimeras" produced in 1965. At least one Nobel Prize has been granted for research on HeLa cells. Lacks herself died the same year the cells were taken from her, and of course never saw a dime in compensation, nor even a consent form.

HeLa cells provides a provocative technical and moral comparison to Dawn's cells growing in Mission Barns's cultivator. Informed consent practices in human medicine are better now (though still far from perfect) but of course it's impossible to inform Dawn the pig of how her cells will be used, let alone obtain her consent. We didn't ask, and Mission Barns didn't say, whether Dawn or the sanctuary where she lives were or will be compensated for her cells. I don't know I'd rather they were or they weren't—selling an inhabitants' cells is the opposite of everything sanctuary is supposed to mean.

The immortal life of Dawn the Yorkshire pig

If Culturing Life is about how cell culture technology separated life from the organism, Mission Barns's science is about separating pork from the pig. Their packaging informs us that their meatballs, bacon, and sausage are made from "plant protein & cultivated pork," and their entire rationale centers on the supposed irreplaciblity of animal fat. This elevation of animal flesh, as much as the small, quickly-healed injury to Dawn, is why some vegans are adamantly against cultivated meat. My friend John Sanbonmatsu criticize lab-grown meat as a "clean meat hoax," in part because it does nothing to get us away from the idea that we need to eat animal flesh to survive.

I sympathize with this: in some sense, the mission of Mission Barns is no different from the long-running desire of the meat industry to mechanize animals entirely; Marina wrote last year about a particularly explicit expression of this goal, a 1976 industry magazine urging farmers to "Forget the pig is an animal. Treat him just like a machine in a factory." Dawn's cells, dividing away in the bioreactor are the apotheosis of the transformation of animals to factories.

Some Preliminary Thoughts

Hog Farmer Magazine, 1976 via Current Affairs

But technology doesn't just affect ideology, it affects ontology—what exists in the world. The aim of cultured meat is to separate meat from the animal not only in our minds but in the world. This is an alchemical, almost miraculous transformation—as long as you ignore "coconut meat" and other senses of meat (in fact, the oldest quotation in OED referring to a plant's meat is 600 years old—old enough it reads "þe mete is colde & moiste").

I don't know what Mission Fat™ is, but I don't think it's an animal. This has all sorts of implications. I mentioned the concerns about consent and compensation above—can you ever truly compensate a pig for her body's contribution to science and industry? (For that matter, can you ever really compensate a human for the same?) But upending the link between flesh and meat upends entire ethical systems. I'm no Talmudic scholar, but I'm pretty sure most authorities would agree eating meat cultivated from a still-living animal would violate the biblical prohibition on eating ever min ha-chai (Heb. אֵבֶר מִן הַחַי; "a limb from a living animal"). This would rule Mission Barns's products out for observant Jews and Muslims, even if they weren't, y'know, pig. But if Mission Barns successfully argues that its products are pork but not pig, I wouldn't find it inconceivable that a scholar would find consuming it allowable, just as Orthodox Jews today eat Impossible cheeseburgers, despite them containing both heme (a component of meat–albeit non-animal-derived) and cheese.

Some Preliminary Thoughts

The planet's salvation, or an abomination against nature?

What Culturing Life reminds us is that technology re-configures not only what we think about things, but what they are. Our philosophies must race to catch up. Mission Barns argues that their pork is cleaner than the slaughtered stuff, not only for the environment, but also for consumers–they add no nitrates or antibiotics, and their product hasn't spent its life sitting in manure. It could also eventually be far cheaper: when you grow fat in a vat, you don't have to grow the rest of the animal. Few people drink unpasteurized milk anymore, because it's pricey and potentially dangerous; if just as few ate slaughtered animals, that might just be a much better world.

But for now I'll stick with my legumes, and wonder what Dawn would think about all this.

The recipe:

My family's vegan picadillo, (or what Filipinos call arroz a la cubana), a hearty rice dish that works as a meal for three or four, or a side for many more.

  1. Brown hamburger, rice, onion, and garlic in large skillet, sprinkled with Worcestershire sauce
  2. Then add everything else but the olives.
  3. Cover and simmer for 30 (white rice) to 40 (brown rice) minutes, until rice is fluffy.
  4. Remove from heat, add olives, cover and let steam for about 10 minutes.

This is Some Preliminary Thoughts, Bennett McIntosh's blog. You can sign up for email updates here, or unsubscribe here.

  1. Impossible's gimmick is that their products also include plant-derived heme, the iron compound that gives meat its red color. I think Beyond uses beat juice or something.

  2. If you've never been to a farm sanctuary, I encourage you to look up your local sanctuary and give them a visit—or even volunteer for a day to help take care of the animals. You'll come away with a whole new appreciation for the joyful, loving beings whose brethren are slaughtered for meat.

#hist-bio #recipes #summer-23