Why Futurists Should Stake a Claim in Lab-Grown Meat
In 1931 Winston Churchill claimed “fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” Churchill’s prophecy may seem like just another episode of futurism unfulfilled, but there is a chance that he was only off by a few decades. Since the Industrial Revolution we have tried in vain to create a “food of the future” which would keep pace with growing populations and avoid the mass malnutrition and starvation feared by Thomas Malthus. Some scientists and technology trend-spotters think we are now very close. They point to early 21st-Century research that might realize Churchill’s vision by producing in-vitro or “vat” meat, pieces of animal protein cultured in petri dishes or “bio-reactors.”1 Seemingly ripped from the pages of science fiction novels (Margaret Atwood and William Gibson are only two of the most prominent authors who have described artificially-grown animal protein), “vat” meat has been touted as a solution not only to mass malnutrition in the developing world but also to the cruel treatment of livestock. The organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) currently offers a one million dollar prize to the team who can bring a convincing cultured chicken product to market in 2012.
From Eindhoven, The Netherlands to Tokyo, Japan, scientists are attempting to culture the future of food. This future would be made of millions of cells of protein grown from a small sample – in some cases, a single cell – taken from a food animal, usually a cow, pig, or chicken. While the motivations of the scientists involved vary, all are aware of the growing human population (expected to rise from the current 7 billion to 9 by 2050) of the enormous environmental impact of the livestock industry (which accounts for about 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions) and of the fact that we face not just population growth but the expansion of the middle class, especially in growing economies like India and China, where becoming middle class often means acquiring status markers like a meat-rich diet. Michael Specter claims that between 2000 and 2030 meat consumption will likely increase by 70%, far out of proportion with population growth.2 This would, of course, have commensurate effects on our use of grain; according to geographer Vaclav Smil, in 1900 only 10% of the world’s grain was fed to animals but by 1990 that had risen to 45%, and such change would be greatly outstripped by the mid-21st century.3
Vat meat might save us from malnutrition or environmental disaster or even cruelty to animals, but not every future is to everyone’s taste. Mention vat meat to a friend, especially a meat-loving friend, and you are likely to get, at best, a quizzical look. How could anything grown in a vat taste as good as braised pork shoulder from a pig, a beautifully marbled piece of Wagyu beef from a cow, or beer-battered fried chicken from one of those served over cheddar cheese grits with bacon-biscuit garniture? Scientists and promoters of vat meat face a double challenge: One of development and engineering, and another of social acceptance. While hamburger-like meat products are feasible today, palatable equivalents of steak and other recognizable cuts of meat will take far more sophisticated versions of tissue engineering than are currently possible. Technically perfected and scalable versions of vat-meat may lie in the future, but so does an audience hungry for the product, even though it is precisely the global population of the future world of 2050 that vat meat’s creators hope to feed. Scientists thus struggle to design a food source that gratifies many types of need at once, even as they dream of needs to come – these are what historian Warren Belasco has called “the stakes in steaks.”4
But the most immediate question for those trying to bring about a future of vat meat is not whether it is technically possible, nor whether it can make mouths water, but whether or not laboratories can get funding to create it in the first place. Any emerging technology like in-vitro meat competes with other emerging technologies in a broad marketplace, and only some attract the attention and dollars, of venture capitalists. One of the most prominent venture capitalists interesting in emerging technologies, is the futurist Peter Thiel, who claims that we have lost our taste for the future, and especially for imagining futures that might be wildly better than the present.5 Interestingly, food technologies seem to fall outside of Thiel’s area of interest, for reasons that may be linked to the ideology underlying his investment strategies. Why, it is worth asking, might visions like Churchill’s fail to interest Thiel? What attracts (or repels) a futurist from the subject of the future of food?
According to Thiel, previous American generations did the future better. They dreamed of colonizing the moon, of traveling by jetpack or flying car, of growing food in hydroponic rings around space stations, and of curing diseases previously thought incurable. And crucially, they understood these as features of the near future, expected in their own or in their childrens’ lifetimes. Thiel hopes to rekindle that sort of thinking by encouraging new technologies through entrepreneurship, building better futures through business. The slogan of Thiel’s venture-capital firm expresses his disappointment succinctly: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters,” or in other words, Twitter is a neat story but not an Amazing Story, one of the more disappointing products of the Information Age (and this despite the role of Twitter in numerous pro-democracy movements worldwide). Amazing Stories, Thiel suggests, can only be produced by capitalism unfettered by governmental controls. Thiel has been careful to say that he is not a utopian, but his hopes for the future do come in response to a perceived demise of utopian thinking. Thiel is convinced that financial markets and private technology firms, rather than government-funded Big Science of the sort that built Los Alamos, will produce futures worth living in.
Vat meat could prove to be precisely the kind of disruptive technology Thiel prefers to fund – it is certainly Promethean enough – but Thiel has focused little attention on the food and energy sectors, which affect us all. His pattern has been to fund projects which promise to use technology to open up new areas of freedom; Thiel’s most famous fortune-building investments have been PayPal (which he co-founded, and which he interprets as freeing users from the tyranny of currency) and Facebook, in which he now holds a 7% ownership stake. However, some of Thiel’s pet investment projects would be far more dramatically disruptive than alternate technologies of exchange, or social networking websites; these include artificial intelligence and regenerative medicine, which some see as a vector leading towards the extension of the healthy human lifespan. Thiel’s friend Patri Friedman’s SeaSteading Institute, which plans to establish floating independent city-sized states, is yet another project which expresses (and forthrightly) Thiel’s libertarian principles. If any of these projects are realized they would have far greater consequences than a 140-character answer to the question “what’s happening?”
Vat meat could, in theory, appeal to Thiel because of its intimate links to regenerative medicine. Scientists in both areas must master similar techniques of tissue engineering, and those with medical backgrounds move between the two areas with relative ease.6 There are also historical connections between the effort to culture meat, and the effort to regrow organs and limbs: Winston Churchill’s remark about growing chicken meat was inspired by the work of the French scientist Alexis Carrel, who successfully kept tissue cultured from an embryonic chicken heart alive for over twenty years through the regular addition of nutrients. Carrel’s interest was not in food security but rather in demonstrating that cellular senescence could be thwarted – an interest in which he was joined by the aviator and politician Charles Lindburgh, who became his collaborator.7 The promises of regenerative medicine and “vat meat” are, in some senses, the same: both attempt to set forms of life – gross somatic parts and individual cells – free of the natural constraints of life as we understand them. Both promise to introduce novel productive capacities, namely growing meat in factories or the ability to combat organ failure through regeneration. And both projects require massive capitalization and would shake their respective domains – meat production or medicine as it has been conventionally practiced – to the marrow.
For futurists to promote and invest in new food technologies, they have to be willing to contemplate working within an inherently political domain – that of the food system. Interestingly, a view Thiel expressed in a brief personal essay of 2009, “The Education of a Libertarian,” may help to explain why most of his past investments have been in domains less highly regulated, less inherently political and tied to issues of social justice, than food production and distribution. In that essay he suggested that technology, understood as one of the forces moving human history, tends to advance freedom whereas politics limits freedom; as he put it, “we are in a deadly race between politics and technology.” Thiel’s claim that politics limits human freedom was recognizably libertarian; one need not read too deeply in the canon of Western political thought to find the contrary notion that politics is either the expression of human freedom, or even the social structure in which the capacity for freedom develops. The assumption that technology advances human freedom likewise demands closer attention; science fiction has of course produced many visions of technologically-enabled utopias, but it has produced dystopias as well. But Thiel’s underlying intuition, in 2009, seemed to be that government involvement was bad for progress. Investing in vat meat—indeed, investing in any project intended to change highly regulated domains like food or health—could produce scenarios that put that intuition to the test, proving either its deep wisdom or its inherent limitations.
William Gibson, who speculated about vat meat decades before the first patent on an in vitro process was secured, famously remarked that the future is already here, but not evenly distributed. For many of its promoters, vat meat means a future in which both food and health are more evenly distributed—perhaps creating a developing world of better-fed entrepreneurs in whom Thiel and other venture capitalists might invest time and money. But the effort to create foods of the future, like vat meat, will test the ability of technology promoters and futurists to act in concert, convincing others to share their vision and mobilizing not only scientific and technical knowledge but also networks of political actors. And this is precisely why futurists of any political orientation should think about food – none of us will see much future without it.
Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is an intellectual historian who also writes on food. His essays have appeared in Gastronomica, Meatpaper and other magazines and journals, and he has taught at Berkeley and at the New School for Social Research. Author photo by Lydia Daniller.
 See Alexis Carrel and Charles A Lindbergh, The Culture of Organs (New York: P.B. Hoeber, 1938) and David M. Friedman, The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel, and their daring quest to live forever (New York: Ecco, 2007) And see Hannah Landecker, Culturing Life: How Cells Became Technologies (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).