Europe. Amid the clamor about the food crisis, there is a budding industry ready to launch their “solution.” A French author went to the US to uncover the behind-the-scenes influencers of the “ethical” resolution to environmental and humane problems with animal production: lab-grown meat. He situates this brand new industry in the culture that has grown it and portrays its key promoters. Why may someone living in France be interested in some American geeks working on start-ups? In part because what happens in America doesn’t stay in America. These food conglomerates are growing in Europe, Asia, and even Brazil, where the biggest meat producer now includes post-animal products in its products. Meat producers transform themselves into protein suppliers. The first in vitro steak was produced in 2013 and funded by Google co-founder, Sergey Brin. In the years 2017-2018, the investments into post-animal substitutes amounted to 14 billion dollars.
Gilles Luneau, born in 1950, is a journalist and documentary movie maker, who has become unpopular in vegan circles after his 2019 investigation into the sources of funding in the vegan movement. He charts the way that Silicon Valley giants enable seemingly idealistic actions to get media attention. In the book Steak Barbare, he unravels the industry that depends on promoting a vegan diet and post-animal agriculture. His book sheds light not only on how labs grow protein, but also on the ways investors market a technological ideology.
Reading this book made me dizzy. The formulas to produce these “morally superior” products were full of synthetic substances, laboratory jargon, and complicated processes. Take the ingredients to produce a substitute for eggs: I counted 15 substances involved in the production of Just Egg. The author remarks that it tastes close to an egg, but it does not smell like one. Knowing his background of living in the countryside and pursuing animal husbandry, he probably knows whereof he speaks.
Luneau gives an example of one protein substitute produced with yeast. In order to obtain the final result, the producers need to use a genetically modified yeast. Feed this modified yeast sugar, and eventually you get a laboratory protein.
Reading these descriptions did not disgust me as much as they might have because I hope I will never have to eat them. However, I was surprised to learn from one of the interviewees cited in the book that cheese is not always produced with natural ingredients. Vincent Sewalt from DuPont Nutrition and Biosciences described how many cheeses were produced with genetically modified enzymes.
What worries me more is the mental gymnastics that people touting these investments engage in. Their vision of the future gives me goosebumps–and not in a good way. For example, Ryan Bethencourt, the CEO of Wild Earth, which produces alternative pet food, hopes that we will live in mega-cities with centralized food production. Instead of meadows, our nutrition would come from skyscrapers.
An in-depth interview with the pioneer of vegan ideology reveals the plasticity of ethical reasoning used to support post-animal innovation. Australian bioethicist Peter Singer supports cellular agriculture as a morally superior choice in comparison to animal-based protein. On the one hand, he argues that genetically modified animals experience poor health, which is a source of suffering. Therefore, it is not ethical to raise them. Genetically modified plants contaminate the wild environment, which makes them undesirable. These hesitations apparently do not contradict his endorsement of the genetically modified yeast required to produce substitutes for animal products. A tuna-with-lamb hybrid did not evoke any hesitancy in him. His certainty was buttressed by the fact that nobody had told him that such innovations might have negative consequences. Surprisingly, his academic career has not given him an idea that there may be no one who can conduct a critical investigation of a well-funded product, one whose production process is being kept secret. If a respected philosopher cannot reason, who will defend ethics in the US?
Further along in the interview, the reader can guess why the professor may suffer from intellectual confusion. Peter Singer reveals that he has donated to the Good Food Institute and invested in a start-up working on a cellular foie gras. He stresses that it has a high return on investment potential.
The industry is supported by the intellectual work and lobbying of “civil society” organizations. The Good Food Institute has received millions of dollars for its mission of creating a new discourse around meat substitutes and post-animal production. Its propaganda achievements include creating a term “clean meat” or advocating for naming post-animal industrial inventions meat, milk, or eggs. Redefining words is not only a marketing strategy and a ruse to mislead shoppers who do not take the time to read small-print product descriptions. Such a linguistic ruse may also help to escape the testing required by pharmacology authorization agencies. The vegan discourse stressing the ethical implications of animal protection is mainly addressed toward Millennials, in an attempt to create a new norm for a younger generation. The Cellular Agriculture Society has gone so far as to examine the convergence of religions with this agenda.
Luneau’s interlocutors seemed to repeat a copy-and-paste line of argumentation to defend the need for post-animal innovation. Their argumentation addresses the many shortcomings of mass meat production as if that was the only imaginable alternative to our current industrial system. For many, the need to feed people in the future motivated such efforts. But the author remarks that it is a strange idea that feeding the world would be the responsibility of a bunch of Americans. The character of their “solution” appears distinctly American as well. It is not as obvious for someone coming from a different background that solving food problems should involve start-ups, multinational enterprises, and an individual’s vision rather than being a collective project of many local communities.
Gilles Luneau did not appreciate the taste of plant-based burgers. His interlocutor suggested that he might have higher expectations as a Frenchman. Luneau went on to ask some of his interviewees what their favorite meals were. They indicated the dishes of their childhoods. This is a striking contradiction with what they want us to eat. Ironically enough, some of his interviewees eat real meat themselves.
My personal takeaway from this book is that we need take the time to cook great meals and share them with young people. There are millions of dollars behind the technological virus contaminating our food system. We need to raise fussy consumers who still remember the taste of real food.