A Culture of Promises: On Liz Marshall’s “Meat the Future”

By Benjamin Aldes WurgaftAugust 31, 2020

A Culture of Promises: On Liz Marshall’s “Meat the Future”
IN AN ESSAY called “For an Ethics of Promising,” anthropologist of science Mike Fortun claims that an “ethics of suspicion” often guides anthropologists and other social scientists when they examine the work of scientists and engineers. This especially applies to the latter’s promises that new technologies might, in that exhausted and exhausting phrase, “change the world.” I had Fortun’s essay on my mind as I watched Liz Marshall’s new documentary Meat the Future, which is about the effort to grow meat using tissue-culture techniques, in order to replace animal-derived meat at an industrial scale. New technologies, especially ones we chew and swallow, naturally raise the issue of suspicion and trust.

This new substance has many names: “clean meat,” “cultivated meat,” and, for detractors, “vat meat”; my own preference is “cultured meat.” The documentary follows the medical doctor Uma Valeti, founder and CEO of Memphis Meats — a company that is located not in Memphis, Tennessee, but in Berkeley, California, a city less well known for barbecue (though Everett and Jones, in Oakland, is really worth a try). Marshall, who seems entirely unsuspicious, must have built a great deal of trust with Valeti, the team at Memphis Meats, and their venture-capitalist backers. Without trust, her crew could never have gotten permission to film inside the company’s laboratories, not to mention follow Valeti to his hometown in India, or jog with him along the shore of the San Francisco Bay.

For many viewers, Marshall’s documentary will be their first look at the world of cell-derived meat, which she and her interlocutors prefer to call “clean.” This wasn’t the case for me: I spent a little over five years conducting ethnographic research in the world of cultured meat for my 2019 book Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food. In the process, I experienced the challenge of getting potential interlocutors to trust me, to share their motivations for pursuing a novel biotechnological replacement for conventional meat, and to let me into their laboratories. Scientists and entrepreneurs are busy people, and even the kindest among them often don’t let ethnographers or journalists spend time in their place of work, for the purpose of writing (perhaps unflatteringly) about their efforts.

Many of cultured meat’s pioneers feel an understandable need to guard the fragile reputation of their kind of research; after all, growing meat in laboratories sounds like science fiction, and early critics of the effort used the term “vat meat” or even “frankenmeat” or “schmeat.” Early in Meat the Future, Valeti is interviewed for a podcast and has to insist that his meat is authentic, grown from real animal cells. Is it any wonder cultured meat workers feel a need to limit access to their research and to carefully manage how they appear to the public? During the years I conducted my research, another factor affected security concerns: whereas during the early years of cultured meat research (say, 2000 to 2015), research took place mostly in academic laboratories, the field has recently begun to be more and more driven by startup companies backed by venture capital. Their investors, of course, expect a return, obliging the entrepreneurs to protect their intellectual property, including from even the most sympathetic journalists and ethnographers. Thus, while Marshall’s documentary lets us inside Memphis Meats’s facilities, it is remarkably light on technical details.

We see a close-up of chicken muscle cells, viewed through a microscope. “I’m still blown away by how complex the structure itself is,” says Eric Schulze, a Memphis Meats scientist, who compares the cells’ arrangement to Van Gogh’s Starry Night. It’s early in the film, and through a series of short interviews and voice-overs layered over a montage of laboratory procedures, the personnel of Memphis Meats introduces us to the basic proposition of cultured meat, beginning with the problems they hope it will solve. The overarching issue is livestock’s long shadow, as a team of researchers for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) put it in a 2006 report of that title. Industrial animal agriculture is very costly in terms of land and water use; it puts out a considerable amount of pollution, including perhaps 14 percent of our global civilization’s annual greenhouse gases. Feedlots are also places where pathogens can flourish, and viral contagions affecting humans are often traced back to the meat industry. And, for anyone who believes that the suffering and deaths of nonhuman animals matter, meat also casts a long moral shadow. Many actors in the world of cultured meat want to eliminate as much of industrial animal agriculture as possible, in order to reduce the amount of animal suffering in the world. Valeti recalls celebrating a friend’s birthday party as a kid, but when he saw cooks in the kitchen butchering animals, the stark contrast between joy and pain left him deeply troubled.

Telling stories about cultured meat can be as challenging as getting inside the laboratory to begin with. It is easy enough to show microscopic images of cells, or shots of San Francisco viewed from the waterline at dawn, the city’s glow a metonymy for venture capital. But while the proposition of cultured meat is nearly science-fictional, and the world of cultured meat research contains fascinating human characters, it unfolds through mostly uncinematic developments in visually boring spaces. Laboratories, barely furnished corporate offices, and conference centers aren’t naturally chock-full of narrative pizzazz. Marshall tackles this problem by constructing her film around several important moments in the history of Memphis Meats: a public tasting of a new cultured meat product, a form of chicken; two different moves into increasingly larger office spaces; a series of team meetings meant to mark milestones in product development or regulatory progress; a tense meeting in Washington, DC, to debate, with meat industry lobbyists and regulatory authorities, the terms used to describe and market cultured meat. But throughout all this, I imagined the uninformed viewer thinking, “Wait, where’s the meat factory? Where’s the future that you promised me?”

Promising is at the core of cultured meat. The relationship between entrepreneur and venture capitalist hangs on promises, and so does the relationship between cultured meat and the publics it seeks to reach, with journalists and other image-makers playing the role of intermediaries. My difficulty with Marshall’s film is that she simply relays the promises of her subjects, presenting no outside expert opinion on their viability. All documentaries are partial, but the viewer of Meat the Future could easily end up with the impression conveyed by that punning title: that cultured meat will be on our plates soon, even if the film can’t show us a conveyer belt of hamburger patties just yet.

My own research has suggested a different set of possible futures for cell-cultured meat. Indeed, my research has led me to doubt the style of futurism that projects specific scenarios with any certainty, particularly when it comes to complex new technologies. I know enough about the technical challenges involved in producing cultured meat, especially at an industrial scale that can compete with “cheap meat” made by traditional means, to have doubts about its viability. I am a supporter of cultured meat research, agreeing with entrepreneurs like Valeti that conventional meat is a problem both environmentally and ethically. I would like for cultured meat to become a reality. But though I support research, I’m a critic of hype. And I have doubts about the expectation that a new technology, combined with market forces, is sufficient to address the meat problem, or the deeper problems for which meat is merely an index. Meat the Future presents the case for cultured meat in terms that are almost naïve, as if the challenge of replacing meat were merely an engineering problem.

In the film, the task of presenting the “new technology plus market forces” view falls to Bruce Friedrich, founder and head of a nonprofit called the Good Food Institute, which advocates both for cultured meat research and for plant-based meat. We watch him bicycle through Washington, DC, heading to his office, looking down at his cell phone as he pedals, monologuing his way through his commute via voice-over: “Using markets and food technology to solve problems? That’s not a left or a right issue.” “There should be governments, there should be foundations, there should be billionaire philanthropists. We need Manhattan Projects, we need moon landings, we need absolute commitment to making this happen as quickly as possible.” “That’s not a left or a right issue,” seems to mean that, for Friedrich, markets and food technology somehow transcend political differences.

I want to pause on this idea. While many people in the world of cultured meat believe that new foods can find favor with consumers and replace old ones, and many implicitly believe in technology’s central role in fostering social change, Friedrich’s desire to place technology and markets outside of politics is striking. Needless to say, there is a long history of expert opinion about the relationship between markets and politics; there’s a mountain of scholarship about what it means to live in a “market society.” Many social scientists have argued that markets are, in fact, political in two significant ways: first, markets are made up of human actors, and human behavior is inescapably political; second, markets are embedded in political institutions, which shape and regulate them. As sociologist Neil Fligstein put it, in an article entitled “Markets as Politics,” “[c]apitalist firms could not operate without collective sets of rules governing interaction.” It is easy to see why someone might believe that technology itself is beyond politics, but the people who develop technologies aren’t, nor are those who regulate them. Whole areas of scientific research are shaped by internal academic politics and by the expectations of funding agencies. The perceived “hotness” of a given research program may have less to do with its viability, or the proximity of major breakthroughs, than with less tangible factors, such as whether or not it seems to respond to a pressing social or environmental concern. And because the FDA’s regulatory process is lengthy, difficult, and, as a result, expensive, biotechnological projects illustrate the political character of both markets and technologies: not only must a company be able to pay for research and development, it has to endure a marathon of regulation, too.

Like many other proponents of cultured meat, Friedrich appears to argue that the problem of meat is an apolitical problem. And Marshall seems to agree. But her film provides evidence that should make us question this claim. A protracted scene depicts a 2018 hearing in Washington, DC, in which representatives of the traditional meat industry squared off against representatives of Memphis Meats and other new companies and organizations. The issue on the table was the use of the terms “meat” and “beef” to describe cell-cultured food products, which the meat industry perceived as market infringement and Memphis Meats, among other companies, saw as crucial to their marketing strategy. One might imagine that the question to be answered was fairly straightforward: “Is cultured meat authentically meat?” But the hearing had less to do with questions of ontology and more with a conflict of economic and strategic interests — a conflict that illustrates the crucial role regulation plays in the emergence of new food technologies and the need for cooperative relationships between governmental and industrial actors. Notably, the outcome of the 2018 debates seems to be a joint regulatory relationship between the FDA and the USDA, the two cooperating to examine the products of cellular agriculture.

I believe that the problem of meat is political in an additional sense. Meat is problematic in part because of the sheer scale of industrial meat production today. We could either conclude that the problem can be resolved by a new means of making meat (“we want to separate the animal from meat-making”) or that it has something to do with the issue of scale itself. The former response offers an engineering challenge; the latter, however, poses issues related to the broadest patterns of behavior in our society, and their political and economic organization. In other words, cheap meat may — as I assert it does in Meat Planet — point to a problem with the premise, common to our moment in capitalism’s history, that the growth of markets and populations can be an unalloyed good. Such a premise is located squarely within the political realm. Believing that we can fix the meat problem by changing the substrate of meat production from animal bodies to animal cells is strikingly consistent with an ideology of continued growth, and with the premise that market forces are basically good for us. Contra Friedrich, this is a left or right issue.

Another idea Marshall presents without much discussion is that meat is income-elastic. She uses a quotation from Bill Gates, not the idea’s originator but probably its most visible proponent in the media: “The richer the world gets, the more meat it eats; the more meat it eats, the bigger the threat to the planet. How do we square this circle?” Gates, who has invested in a number of cultured meat companies, as well as in firms producing plant-based meat, believes that meat is an income-elastic commodity, our consumption rising with our wealth. This premise, which notably says nothing about the underlying mechanisms driving our appetite for meat, is so widespread that it is rare to see anyone challenge it.

In his recent book The Meat Question (2019), anthropologist and historian of science Josh Berson examines the premise and finds it lacking; as he puts it, “[t]hat story is one of affluence and its consequences: humans crave meat, and rising affluence in the cities of the emerging world has created a new stratum of consumers with the purchasing power to satisfy that craving.” There are, of course, problems with the kind of survey research on which claims about income elasticity are based, but Berson also points out that, in the cities of the developing world, it isn’t meat in general that we eat more and more of, but cheap meat; the same holds in the developed world as well. Think of Berson’s paradigmatic example: the fast-food chicken sandwich or hamburger eaten on the go, perhaps while driving between second and third jobs. For a harried workforce, food like this is more convenient than, say, taking vegetables home from the farmer’s market, washing and drying them, and cooking them. Cheap meat thus pairs up not with affluence but with financially precarious and time-poor living. Berson calls cheap meat “an enabling factor” in the version of capitalism we live under.

Friedrich speculates that we might be able to eliminate industrial animal agriculture within 20 or 30 years. But one thing we don’t learn while watching Meat the Future is how close Memphis Meats or other researchers actually are to resolving the major technical challenges involved in producing cultured meat products ready to be sold at market. Those appear to be the same three challenges I tracked in my own research, which have stood in the way for some time. First, cells grown in vitro need to be fed growth media, and as one of the Memphis Meats scientists describes in a voice-over, one component of the usual growth media is an ingredient called Fetal Bovine Serum, whose derivation is distinctly non-vegan and involves the deaths of animals. There are vegan alternatives already in use for the small-scale experiments involved in medical tissue engineering research, but they are too expensive for use at the scale meat production demands, and thus many teams have been working for years to develop an alternative.

The second problem has to do with copying structurally complex forms of meat. While it is simple enough to grow muscle cells in a shallow layer appropriate for simulating ground beef or sausage, many forms of meat demand a more complex structure involving sheets of muscle cells layered across one another, with interstitial fat; steak, for example, derives much of its texture from such a structure. Designing the complex bioreactors that provide the appropriate scaffolding and the vasculature that distributes nutrients to all cells simultaneously is a time- and money-intensive endeavor.

The third problem is scale. Toward the end of Meat the Future, we follow the staff of Memphis Meats on a tour of a new facility, which looks like a massive converted warehouse, perhaps in the formerly industrial blocks of West Berkeley, down near the train tracks. The team spoke with excitement about establishing a production line there, in a great U-shaped arc. But cultured meat work, as I observed it, is more like an artisanal laboratory practice, not much greater in scale than the production of small amounts of human cardiac tissue intended for transplant. As I watched Meat the Future, I tried to remain open-minded about the possibility that, behind carefully closed doors, industrial-scale cultured meat production had been made possible by the steady application of investment capital. Faith in the power of money is, of course, everywhere in Silicon Valley. Toward the beginning of the film, Valeti claims that speed to market is a function of funding, but the relationship isn’t really function-like at all. Certainly, without funding, nothing happens. But there are challenges like regulation, which is strategic and political, and thus presumably not soluble via an outlay of cash. Even more importantly, not all scientific and engineering challenges become easier simply because you can hire more scientists and equip more laboratory space. There are some problems that aren’t resolvable at all, at any scale, and there are others that require specific breakthroughs you can’t predict or plan for.

One of the tricky things about cultured meat is that so much of the commentary surrounding it is of the “for or against” type, rather than the “commentary and conversation” type. Fortun, in “For an Ethics of Promising,” notes that ethnographic observers of techno-scientific work need to be open to future possibilities, something that an ethics of suspicion makes very difficult. He argues instead in favor of an “ethics of promising,” which sees the promise of scientific research neither as a signed contract nor as mere promotional hype. Within such an ethics, scholars confronted with a novel technology would not play the role of naysayers but would rather “think with” its architects about potential implications and the possible shapes this technology could take in the world. Throughout my own fieldwork during the early phase of cultured meat’s emergence, I adopted a slogan from the 1990s science-fiction TV series The X-Files: “I want to believe,” which I considered sufficiently open-minded for the task at hand, while still giving me the space to entertain and investigate intellectually responsible doubts.

Cultured meat is an idea whose technical viability at scale has yet to be demonstrated, but, if viable, it really could transform human foodways within a single generation — probably the fastest change of subsistence strategy our species has ever seen. Theoretically, it could produce sustainable animal protein for a growing global population, eliminate the suffering and deaths of trillions of animals, and erase livestock’s balefully long environmental shadow, too. Like any technological change of massive scale, it would upend many lives, as industries and employment markets shift. There would be petty gods of cultured meat, just as there have been petty gods of software and hardware and social networking. In the face of such possibilities, it is good to have films like Meat the Future, even if I wish that Marshall had gathered more critical voices alongside the affirmative ones. It is good to present cultured meat as a project in search of public trust and confidence, even if a few writers like myself are skeptical when the architects of a novel technology claim to know its ethical implications in advance — conflating making and knowing, writing our future in animal cells. As the story of GMOs in our food system has shown, however, nothing builds trust — or facilitates an “ethics of promising” — quite like transparency, and that is something the world of cultured meat has found harder to grow than muscle cells themselves.


Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is a writer and historian. His most recent book is Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food (University of California Press, 2019).

LARB Contributor

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is a writer and historian, whose books include Ways of Eating: Exploring Food Through History and Culture (University of California Press, 2023), co-written with Merry White; Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food (UC Press, 2019); and Thinking in Public: Strauss, Levinas, Arendt (Penn, 2016).


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!