Thoughts from Ben

On 10.16.2014, the Museum of Food and Drink hosted a roundtable discussion on the future of meat. MOFAD is not yet a brick-and-mortar museum, but rather an organization dedicated to conversations about food, food history and food science, they hope to soon have a physical location in New York City; the event itself was hosted at the Manny Cantor Center on East Broadway. One of the heads of MOFAD, the chef and bartender Dave Arnold, moderated the discussion – another member of the roundtable group, Patrick Martins (head of Heritage Foods USA and author of the recent Carnivore’s Manifesto) is also on the board of trustees of MOFAD. The other members of the roundtable were Isha Datar, head of New Harvest, Peter Singer, perhaps vegetarianism’s best-known voice in academic philosophy, and Mark Budolfson, a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton who also works on ethics as it pertains to human-nonhuman animal relations.

Dave Arnold effectively took part in the discussion at many points, and it’s notable that he’s a very influential figure in contemporary food innovation; his bar, Booker and Dax, comes close to being a “molecular gastronomy” cocktail bar, and I’ve had the pleasure of visiting it on several occasions. It’s important to note that MOFAD’s roundtable was not focused on cultured meat – it was not intended to be a referendum on cultured meat, or on the ethical status of vegetarianism or meat-eating. Instead it was an effort to get together several influential people with strong views on meat, debate the pros and cons of the meat industry as it stands, and ask what kinds of change are desirable or possible.

In fact, the disagreements between the panelists themselves were relatively minor but interesting: to a person, they believe that large-scale industrial animal agriculture needs to go. They may differ in their reasoning, some stressing environmental damage and others stressing animal suffering, but they agree that the future of meat should be different than the present. Singer and Martins glossed the greatest difference on the panel, namely the difference between them, early on: whereas Martins endorses smaller-scale animal husbandry, slaughter and butchery (call it “artisanal” if you will) Singer hopes that meat will have no future at all – save, perhaps, for a future of cultured meat; in this regard, Singer’s views partially aligned with those of Datar. Martins’ hope is that in the future meat will be incredibly expensive relative to the present, and that we will consume far less of it – but that what we consume, will be of the highest quality. He is, notably, the founder of the US branch of the international organization Slow Food, which explains some of his emphasis on small quantities, high expense and high quality. As an aside, I’d like to understand better Martins’ approach to the problem of Slow Food and class – he implies that he’s on the side of food equality, but the classic critique of Slow Food is that it promotes food practices that only the very rich can really afford.

But the two important and interesting fault lines in the evening’s discussion, from my perspective, were respectively those between Dave Arnold and Isha Datar (or, more properly, between Arnold and proponents of cultured meat) and between the representatives of the organization Collectively Freeand Patrick Martins. The first fault line appeared at two moments in the discussion, when Arnold asked if proponents of cultured meat actually “hate food,” and when he asked if other forms of “ersatz meat” (his term) seem like an easier path than cultured meat. Datar’s response to the latter question was that New Harvest is in favor of an approach that embraces a wide array of solutions – not just cultured meat but also vegetable-based forms of “ersatz meat.” I found this particular conflict very important: Arnold seemed to imply a comparison between cultured meat and other things that “aren’t food,” such as Soylent, and such things have drawn scorn from the ranks of more elite foodies, like Arnold.

The question, as Modern Meadow’s Andras Forgacs asked during the later Q&A, is why Arnold takes such a view, given his own work as an innovator in food science (Booker and Dax R&D staff are often on hiatus, designing new drinks and techniques, for example) – why is “cultured meat” a form of innovation that doesn’t appeal to him, while other forms of innovation do? Or, in Forgacs’ words, what is the difference between a kitchen and a lab? But Arnold’s response implied that the kitchen/lab distinction isn’t the important thing: he wants ingredients, he said, that have “integrity” from growth to the point of eating. He didn’t define integrity, but I don’t think he needed to: good soil, well-treated agricultural workers, sustainable practices, high-quality seed or stock, etc.

The second conflict began when members of Collectively Free began a direct action (what they call an “intervention”) during the Q&A. Seeming to target Martins – the only panelist directly involved with the meat industry – they held up signs depicting animals, and insisted “they want to live. Will you let them live.”? Responses from both the panelists and audience ranged wildly – simply put, it was a huge scene, which seems to be what Collectively Free wanted, and Arnold was put in the position of having to defend the panel and try to turn the evening back into a discussion. One Collectively Free sign, depicting a lobster asking “will you let me live?” led to a brief conversation about which kinds of animals might, in fact, possess self-awareness and a desire to live – if we can even know. For me, this was crucial. Arnold had, earlier in the discussion, raised the point that we have to consider whether humans and non-human animal are not, in fact, absolutely different – here, the question was essentially whether or not humans can have, depending on how one wishes to spin the issue, property rights over non-human animals, stewardship over species, and so forth.

Video from Collectively Free of their protest

Thus one important philosophical question lingered after the roundtable, namely that of the purpose and meaning of animal life. This is one of the questions we have to grapple with as we think about Collectively Free’s claim that “they want to live.” Do non-human animals experience themselves as having an existence that is sustained over time, much as we experience ourselves? Do they “want to live” in the same way that many of us do? And do their lives have a purpose, either a purpose given by their human breeders (i.e., to grow, be slaughtered and be eaten) or an internal purpose? Collectively Free did not present this as a question for discussion, but rather as an answer intended to stop discussion, and yet (as the panelists noted) the answer is hardly obvious. I left the MOFAD event that evening feeling a bit sorry for the panelists whose discussion had been disrupted, but rather glad that some of the deeper philosophical issues about meat, had surfaced.

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is an historian currently researching and writing a book on efforts to create cultured meat. Supported by the National Science Foundation (award #1331003), he is based at MIT’s Anthropology Program. You can read his most recent writing on cultured meat here. 

Thoughts by Kevin Schneider

“History matters.” “Meat should be expensive—people should eat less meat, but eat good meat.” “We’re saving breeds of pigs and turkeys from extinction.” “Pigs and turkeys are made to be food, not pets.” “They don’t desire to live like you or me; they just live from moment to moment.” “An individual choosing to be vegan is a candle in the wind—they do not have any meaningful impact on animal suffering; we ought to focus on policy changes.” “History matters.”

Interesting and challenging ideas all, in their own way. And the entire panel would certainly agree that we eat way too much meat. But the speakers hailing from the above “side” seemed to falter on their own swords—words like “history” and “policy” sound great, but they are in the end mere rhetorical vessels that must be filled with the nitty-gritty details. After all, history has seen plenty of awful things justified on the basis of “history” and “tradition,” likewise with “policy.”

Photo of the panel

There was a palpable bias against cultured meat on the panel, particularly from the moderator. And when Dr. Peter Singer shifted the topic to environmental ethics and the links between meat and climate change, the moderator bizarrely “reminded” Dr. Singer that the focus of his seminal 1975 work Animal Liberation was really the ethics of killing for food, not about the environment. There goes that hand of history again?

Fortunately, there was a light on the panel—New Harvest’s very own Isha Datar. Pressed for answers about cultured meat, Isha did not invoke grand, vague themes like “history” or “policy.” Rather, she imparted a vision where free commerce and technology can be a far more efficient vehicle for protecting animals, human health, and environment. This is just the beginning of the conversation, but cultured meat already has a seat at the table.

Above all, Isha reminds us that there is great value in being a “candle in the wind.”

A native of Boston, MA, Kevin Schneider graduated from FSU Law in 2013 and has been living and practicing as a civil rights attorney in NYC for the past year or so. A long-time animal rights activist, Kevin also works in the emerging food space, and imagines a day in the not-too-far future where our meat will come from a lab in Brooklyn.