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No More “Manhattan Project” for Cultured Meat

War and the future of food just can’t go hand in hand.

Published June 19, 2024 | Updated June 18, 2024 | Isha Datar,

It’s hard to witness hypocrisy and stay silent.

So many of us – most of us, I believe – are drawn to cellular agriculture because we want to see a food system that is better for life on earth. We want to see less suffering for animals and workers, less zoonotic, epidemic disease, and less environmental destruction. We want to feed the world and create abundance: a food system that is better for the people and the planet.

Why then, does this community keep calling for a “Manhattan project” for cultured meat (123)? Why select the most destructive, horrific example of scientific collaboration (driven by nationalistic competition) to make a pitch for public funding? Why not draw an example from global collaborations such as the Human Genome Project, which is at least about biology. Or better yet and perhaps most obvious, the Green Revolution, which although not perfect, aimed to create “food for all and forever.”

I’ve been hearing this “Manhattan project” metaphor over the last ten years and chose to apply Hanlon’s razor in my reaction to it. Maybe those using the metaphor just didn’t know any better.

But now, it’s hard not to be reminded by this metaphor over the deafening silence in the cellular agriculture community about the mass destruction of Palestinians and Palestine. In early October 2023, I attended two cultured meat-focused conferences in Europe and listened to pro-Israel statements made by conference speakers, with compassion that yes, it must be hard to be doing your work in a war zone. Back then, I felt like there was more of a two-sidedness to the story. But who would share the other side? Every university in Palestine has been destroyed. How can anyone from Palestine be contemplating the scientific intricacies of cultured meat production when their families are being killed, homes are being destroyed, and food and water are scarce and inaccessible? And if there are people of Palestinian descent abroad who have the privilege to work in this field, how could they possibly feel comfortable speaking up when no one else has?

I’m embarrassed that I’ve taken so long to say something. Yes, I have been thinking – perhaps what others have considered as well –  that maybe our funders won’t fund us anymore, maybe our collaborators will drop our projects, maybe, maybe, maybe. Well, those maybes still leave me with a roof over my head, family members who are alive, and the privilege of not living in terror and looking at a future life of war-induced trauma. So I have nothing to lose.

I’m also saying something today inspired by the students who have used their voices and privilege to speak up. For the past two months, students at universities across the US, UK, Canada, and Australia have been holding anti-war, pro-Palestine rallies. Have the students ever been wrong?

As Kwame Ture, Chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Civil Rights activist said more than 40 years ago,

“Students spark revolution and we must work everywhere to have students live up to their responsibility of sparking revolution. Here, of course it calls for the students properly understanding the role of knowledge. Knowledge has but one purpose. Its purpose is to alleviate the sufferings of humanity.” 

We as a field have celebrated how students are sparking the revolution that is cellular agriculture, and how they are applying their knowledge to alleviate the sufferings of humanity caused by a food system that will not cut it in a climate-changed world. And we should be just as moved by their voices for Palestine.

Just as the students have helped inspire me to speak up, however late it feels, my hope today is that this message inspires others in the field to do the same.

If we want to feed the world; if we want to end food insecurity and alleviate hunger, we must care about basic human rights. And if we care about basic human rights, we must care about all human beings, too. Even those whose ideologies are different from our own.

As we work together across cultures, disciplines, and sectors to alleviate both human and animal suffering through our contributions to the advancement of cellular agriculture, we can not ignore the omnipresence of war. As MLK wrote in his letter from Birmingham Jail more than 60 years ago, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

There’s no place for war in the future of food.

About the Authors
Isha Datar