Initially proposed as food for astronauts in space, cultivated meat has turned from a science fiction fantasy to a source of hope for a more sustainable and animal welfare-conscious meat production method for the world’s growing population. Cultivated meat aims to replicate conventionally produced meat by harnessing stem cells that multiply and form skeletal muscle and fat tissue. Therefore, it has the potential to marry the consumer’s desire for meat with a more secure and sustainable global food production. The following excerpts from an interview with Dr Inanna Hamati-Ataya, Principal Research Associate at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) and founder of gloknos (Centre for Global Knowledge Studies) at the University of Cambridge, evaluate social and ethical implications of this novel technology.

Innovative technologies like precision farming (e.g. satellite crop monitoring) are within the traditional paradigm of agricultural production: the continuation of the Green Revolution. This term refers to the drastic increase in the productivity of global agriculture as a result of introducing high yielding crop varieties, new chemical fertilisers and synthetic pesticides in the mid and late-20th centuries. As Dr Hamati-Ataya puts it: “Cultivated meat approaches the same problems with a completely different framework: it is far removed from land-based food production and agricultural labour. If you consider how old Homo sapiens are, agriculture itself is quite recent.”

Agriculture describes a form of land use and economy that results from a combination of cultivation and domestication. “I think that cultivated meat is a new threshold,” Hamati-Ataya says, “but it has the revolutionary characteristics of the earliest transition to an agrarian lifeway. Whereas the first ‘Agricultural Revolution’ developed over thousands of years and on a community level, this one is happening very quickly and is controlled by a relatively small number of people working within specific socio-economic sectors.” The First Agricultural or Neolithic Revolution describes the prehistoric transition from hunter-gatherers to larger agricultural settlements starting around 10,000 B.C. “For us as a species, it is not the first time we transition to a new way of producing our food,” Hamati-Ataya points out. “I think we tend to forget that the current agricultural paradigm is not our natural disposition but a way of life that has emerged out of a long cultural evolution for thousands of years.” Hamati-Ataya thus suggests that we evaluate the emergence of cultivated meat within a broader historical perspective as simply another transition into a new modality of food production.

“Hamati-Ataya thus suggests that we evaluate the emergence of cultivated meat within a wider historical perspective, as simply another transition into a new modality of food production”

Just like language, food is a vehicle to express culture. It has the power of bei­ng both a biological necessity as well as a deeply symbolic cultural artefact that connects us with one another. “Cultivated meat has the potential to abstract our relation to food from our relation to nature, the landscape, and the animals we identify as sources of subsistence or as culinary taboos,” Hamati-Ataya says. However, despite increasing attempts to raise awareness about where our food comes from, for many people ‘food comes from the supermarket’. In fact, determining the origin of our groceries can be a difficult task; the food supply chains are long and complex. As Hamati-Ataya puts it, “the production of food is something completely alienated from our day-to-day life.” She believes that we have already crossed a crucial threshold: since 2007, for the first time in human history, more people live in urban than in rural areas. “We buy most of our food in supermarkets rather than directly from the producers. As we have become accustomed to processed food, there is no great leap of imagination required for people to accept a drastically different form of food appearing on supermarket shelves as long as it looks familiar to other products, like ‘burgers’ and ‘sausages’, and is priced affordably.”

“Studies have shown that a major barrier towards consumer acceptance of cultivated meat is its unnaturalness”

Studies have shown that a major barrier towards consumer acceptance of cultivated meat is its unnaturalness. Hamati-Ataya brings up an intriguing paradox: “cultivated meat is high-tech in terms of its production process, but at the same time, it is not ‘unnatural’ concerning its composition. It is not processed in the way most food products or ready-made meals are. The cultivated meat industry is transitioning from ground to whole cut meat products, like a chicken breast or beef steak: when this is achieved, I think that our definition of what is artificial and what is natural will be profoundly shaken. One area in which such conversations are likely to emerge early on is secular and religious legal doctrines, where these definitions are important and have wide-ranging implications on people’s behaviour and what counts as permissible or taboo.”

Thinking ahead, Hamati-Ataya raises a concern about the asymmetry of technological innovations, the potential for monopolies, and of discrepancies in consumer markets. An urgent priority, Hamati-Ataya believes, is to put on the public agenda how cultivated meat is going to impact the global structures of food production and the producers themselves. “It is essential to agree on rules that will protect the livelihoods of current producers and help them to transition.” Another important aspect is the current lack of a university curriculum to open up the field of expertise and ensure that large numbers of people are trained in the new technologies and their societal aspects. To address this gap, Hamati-Ataya is setting up a summer school to bring cellular agriculture into the university curriculum and explore how its scientific, societal, and legal dimensions might be integrated into undergraduate or postgraduate training. “This is an important step as the current technological innovation universe is governed by the private sector with growing interest from the big food industry and high-tech investors. There is a lot of economic interest but the societal aspects are neglected. My sense at this point is that there is not much public involvement either, and certainly little reflection on the part of governments or international organisations. This leaves the main arena to actors who, of course, are profit-oriented. We need to find a way of interlocking these economic interests with public interests or developing independent pathways to prepare for this coming revolution.”

“Cultivated meat is part of a moral awakening that can pave the way for us­ to be more pacified with our environment and with other species”

The prominent vegetarian and socialist Henry Salt predicted in the 1880s that “future and wiser generations will look back on the habit of flesh-eating as a strange relict of ignorance and barbarism.” Being the addressee of his prediction, how would we respond? Hamati-Ataya summarises that since the start of industrialisation of agricultural production around 200 years ago, humanity has fostered an extremely aggressive way of exploiting other species, even in ways that seem excessive and not always justified to satisfy our basic needs. Cultivated meat is part of a moral awakening that can pave the way for us­ to be more pacified with our environment and other species.

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