Animals and Us   /   Spring 2019   /    Animals and Us

Biotech Cockaigne of the Vegan Hopeful

If we succeed in growing meat, we will do more than change human subsistence strategies forever.

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft

Alamy Stock Photo.

August 2013: The future of meat appears in London. At least, that’s how the media event I’m watching online has been billed. A hamburger made of bovine muscle cells grown in vitro is unveiled, then served to a panel of tasters while a studio audience of journalists watches. A promotional film describes the various ills that “cultured meat” promises to solve, ills caused by eating animals at industrial scale. Industrial animal agriculture possibly produces 14 to 18 percent of global emissions of greenhouse gases. The byproducts of animal agriculture can pollute waterways and soil. Livestock, especially bovine livestock, is inefficient at turning plant foods into protein. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are a potential source of zoonotic diseases; furthermore, subtherapeutic dosing with antibiotics to speed animals’ growth builds antibiotic resistance in pathogens that can grow in feedlots.11xOn the history of treating farm animals with antibiotics to encourage growth, see Orville Schell, Modern Meat: Antibiotics, Hormones, and the Pharmaceutical Farm (New York, NY: Vintage, 1978), and Maryn McKenna, Big Chicken: The Improbable Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Farming and Changed the Way the World Eats (Washington, DC: National Geographic Books, 2017). Billions of animals suffer in our meat production infrastructure, and the moral weight of that suffering depends on whom you ask, and on his or her philosophical views about animals. Today’s event conveys the implicit promise that “cultured meat” may solve all these problems. The short promotional film concludes with the words “be part of the solution.”

A second promotional film describes how the burger was made: The process started with a biopsy of cow muscle cells, followed by careful stimulation of a stem cell–driven, natural process of muscle repair, as cells were fed with growth media under carefully calibrated laboratory conditions. Gradually, what functions as a healing process in vivo (i.e., in living animals) becomes a meat production process, in vitro. Thus, the potential of stem cells to create new tissue becomes the biological grounds for a promise about the future of protein.

But this is only a test—or, only a taste. In vitro techniques cannot yet perfectly reproduce in vivo animal muscle and fat, and thus cannot perfectly reproduce what consumers recognize as meat. Cultured meat has yet to become delicious. Nor is the technology scalable. The techniques and materials are still too expensive. The burger taste-tested in London took months of lab time to make, and the entire project (materials, technician salaries, etc.) cost more than $300,000 US. If the holy grail of cultured meat research is to develop a product that can replace “cheap meat,” that is, the kind of meat that is produced at industrial scale and sold at fast-food restaurants, then the goal seems years or decades away.

If we succeed in growing meat—meat that never had parents, meat that was never part of a complete animal body—we will do more than change human subsistence strategies forever. We will also transform our relationship with animal bodies, beginning at the level of the cell. Mark Post, the Dutch medical researcher who created the burger with the help of a team of scientists and technicians, seems hopeful and confident. He laughs good-naturedly with the journalists when they articulate their doubts. Of course, he acknowledges, it would be easier if everyone just became a vegetarian, but such a mass shift in human behavior doesn’t seem likely.

A Tale of Hope—or Hype?

October 2018: Scientists, entrepreneurs, and promoters are working to make cultured meat a reality. There is still no cultured meat on the market, but a handful of startup companies, many of them based in the San Francisco Bay area, promise that they will have a product to sell—presumably still not at the same price point as a fast-food hamburger or chicken nugget—in a matter of months or a handful of years.22xSee, for example, Tara Duggan, “Bay Area Companies Race to Get the First Cell-based ‘Meat’ to Market,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 6, 2019,

I spent the years between the first in vitro hamburger unveiling and late 2018 conducting ethnographic research on the cultured meat movement, and I still cannot tell you if cultured meat will grace our tables soon. To the best of my knowledge, the two main technical challenges in cultured meat research have not yet been surmounted. One challenge is the creation of an affordably scalable growth medium not derived from animal sources (the current mix contains fetal bovine serum) and the other is the ability to create “thick” and texturally sophisticated tissue, such as that found in steak or pork chops, as opposed to growing two-dimensional sheets of cells and assembling them into meat. And beyond these technical challenges, cultured meat’s pioneers will need to find a way to make production “scale up” to the point where the cost of an individual serving of meat drops close to, or even equals, the cost of the conventional equivalent. In short, we don’t yet know what kind of technology story this is. Are we en route to success, or are we watching a cautionary tale in progress, one about hope and hype?

Much like self-driving cars, the advocates of which hope their use will reduce car crashes, cultured meat is promoted by those who believe in its practical and ethical benefits. But cultured meat is also like the self-driving car insofar as opinions vary as to whether a single technology can resolve a complex and, in some senses, social problem that involves not only engineering challenges but also the vagaries of human behavior. Like medical therapies based on stem cells, cultured meat excites the imagination and creates hope, but the hype seems to be running years or decades ahead of the reality. (Cultured meat itself is an offshoot of the effort to create tissues for transplant to human patients, an effort that goes by the name “regenerative medicine.”)

Cultured meat may one day come ashore on the high-tech equivalent of the Island of Misfit Toys, where flying cars rust next to moldering piles of food pills, but it hasn’t yet. One of the forces keeping it afloat, both financially and in the popular imagination, is many people’s deep investment in the defense of animals. The cultured meat startups are linked by a loose social network of educated professionals, often vegans or vegetarians, who believe that cultured meat may accomplish what decades of animal protection activism has not, alleviating the suffering of animals in our food system. Not all venture capital investment in cultured meat research is inspired by a desire to protect animals, of course; there are investors interested in the potential environmental “cleanliness” of cultured meat, and those angling for a profit, just as profit orientation is part of the package for any investor. But the most vocal proponents of cultured meat speak more eagerly about the defense of animals than they do about the defense of the natural environment or human health, although they readily acknowledge that cultured meat (many of them call it “clean meat,” or use other terms) happily addresses all three needs at once.

Meet the Utilitarians

In addition to resources, the advocates of cultured meat have a philosophy ready to hand. Many of them are self-described utilitarians, readers of the works of philosopher Peter Singer, in particular his 1975 book Animal Liberation. In that book, Singer followed classical utilitarian philosophers like Jeremy Bentham by arguing that the way to determine the moral standing of animals is not by assessing their intellectual capacities relative to those of most humans but by asking if animals can suffer as humans do. Answering that question in the affirmative, Singer suggested that it was “speciesist” to deny moral standing to the suffering of animals. Many regard Animal Liberation as the bible of the contemporary animal rights movement, despite the fact that the book does not defend the rights of animals per se. Contrary to the thinking of some other philosophers concerned with animals, such as Tom Regan, Singer does not assert the inherent rights of animals, or (in what philosophers term a “deontological” fashion) define the maltreatment or even the use of animals as morally wrong. “I am a vegetarian,” Singer has written, “because I am a utilitarian.”33xPeter Singer, “Utilitarianism and Vegetarianism,” in Philosophy and Public Affairs 9, no. 4 (Summer 1980): 325–37. Rather than focus on the inherent worth of a human or animal life, a utilitarian will ask how that life is contoured by experiences of suffering or happiness. These notions, unlike those such as inherent worth, are the conditions a utilitarian can measure with some hope of improving the world. Whether they share Singer’s ordering of concerns (first utilitarianism, then animal protection), many of cultured meat’s promoters have taken up Singer’s approach as a philosophical support for their work.

Utilitarianism combines the following features: It is consequentialist insofar as it judges right and wrong by considering the outcome of our actions, not preoccupying itself with the nature of those actions themselves. It is a doctrine of ends, not means. It is universalist insofar as it claims to take into account every being’s interests equally. It is welfarist in that it understands and measures people’s well-being in terms of the satisfaction of their needs. And it is aggregative in that it considers everyone’s interests added together with the goal of maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering for the greatest number. Individuals count only as part of the whole. Each one counts for one, never for more than one.

If this account of utilitarianism’s parts seems schematic, it is worth saying that many utilitarian accounts of the world can seem like line drawings or blueprints. As the philosopher Bernard Williams noted, this philosophy “appeals to a frame of mind in which technical difficulty…is preferable to moral unclarity, no doubt because it is less alarming.”44xBernard Williams, “A Critique of Utilitarianism,” in Utilitarianism For and Against, ed. J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 137. That is to say, for a utilitarian it is better to have a complicated job of balancing multiple interests than to be unsure what would count as a desirable outcome. Utilitarianism appeals to those who dislike moral ambiguity and to those who focus on outcomes; this characterization also applies to many actors in the world of cultured meat who eagerly anticipate an end to animal agriculture. It is a moral philosophy, we might say, for problem solvers both actual and would-be. One of utilitarianism’s chroniclers, the philosopher Bart Schultz, calls the early utilitarians “happiness philosophers.” This name captures one very salutary dimension of the project of Jeremy Bentham and like-minded thinkers such as William Godwin, James Mill, and John Stuart Mill. In his 1928 essay “The Harm That Good Men Do,” Bertrand Russell attributed many of the great social improvements of the British nineteenth century to utilitarianism’s influence, from the Reform Act of 1832 (which made Parliament more reflective of middle-class as opposed to strictly aristocratic interests) to the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, to the abolition of the Corn Laws in the late 1840s, which reduced food prices, to the introduction of compulsory education.55xBertrand Russell, “The Harm That Good Men Do,” Harpers 153 (October 1926): 529–34. It is important not to take Russell’s crediting of Utilitarianism at face value; as an advocate of progressive and even radical social and economic policies, he had a personal interest in a sympathetic review of the utilitarians’ historical contribution.

It is curious, then, that a moral philosophy seemingly so progressive in its powers, and so admirably on the side of the reduction of suffering and the maximization of happiness for all, might be viewed, decades after Russell, as a form of bureaucratic and restrictive reasoning antithetical to the freedoms and dignity of individuals. It is in that latter key that Michel Foucault wrote, “I hope historians of philosophy will forgive me for saying this, but I believe that Bentham is more important for our society than Kant or Hegel. All our societies should pay homage to him.” This was sarcasm. Foucault was referring to Bentham’s administrative invention, the “Panopticon,” an architectural design for a prison intended to ameliorate conditions in such institutions and aid in the correction of prisoners.66xMichel Foucault, “Truth and Juridical Forms,” in Power: Essential Works of Foucault, 1954–1984, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York, NY: New Press, 2000), 70. I borrow the device of pairing the varying accounts of Utilitarianism by Russell and Foucault from Utilitarianism and Empire, ed. Bart Schultz and Georgios Varouxakis (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2005); see the introduction. While Foucault’s claim that “Panopticism” was Bentham’s real legacy does his target some disservice, it also gets something right. From its inception, the utilitarian imagination has often (but not always) been an administrative imagination. It presumes a fully disinterested perspective and assesses the respective happiness and suffering of different beings as if these beings were units to be administered. Accomplishing such total administration requires establishing some kind of equivalency among the disparate units being overseen. Singer deals with this problem by acknowledging that while human and animal needs are likely to be vastly different, both are subject to what utilitarians often term “satisfaction.”

“Satisfaction” is an idea with analytic advantages. Although a pig and I have different needs, we both have a sense that our needs (say, for food) are being met a lot, a little, or not at all. However, it is worth noting that this principle of satisfaction can become a kind of smoothing function with regard to the different interests of individuals. If each one counts for one, and not more than one, the consequence is a strict refusal to attend preferentially to any particular person or any particular person’s goals. “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong,” Bentham wrote in 1776.77xJeremy Bentham, “A Comment on the Commentaries and a Fragment on Government,” in The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham, eds. J.H. Burns and H.L.A. Hart (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1977), 393. To Singer, this is the kind of “sound theory” from which we can build toward right action, rather than begin with our moral intuitions (or, say, our sympathy for a particular creature) and then build theories that function to explain and justify those intuitions. A good utilitarian will notice his or her prejudices and remember to check them when it comes time to make a moral calculation. The problem with this “checking,” as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre points out, is that it suggests that utilitarianism provides “no place for genuinely unconditional commitments,” such as the ones parents make to their children.88xAlasdair MacIntyre, in conversation with Alex Voorhoeve, in Conversations on Ethics (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2009), 116. It certainly provides no place for an unconditional commitment to one’s own species.

The term “utilitarian” came to Bentham in a dream in the summer of 1781, years after he had begun his important philosophical work. In this fateful dream he founded a sect called the “utilitarians,” his written work having inspired a community of shared belief and conviction. Bentham’s vision expresses a more than passing interest in convincing others.99xFor a brief account of Bentham’s desires for influence see James Crimmins, “Bentham and Utilitarianism in the Early Nineteenth Century,” in B. Eggleston and D. Miller, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Utilitarianism (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 38. For a more extended account, see Crimmins, Secular Utilitarianism: Social Science and the Critique of Religion in the Thought of Jeremy Bentham (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1990). The paradox of classical British utilitarianism is that its “felicific calculus” contains impulses toward two things at once. First, it pushes toward social progress, subversion, and the dissolution of those forms of tradition that work against moral betterment; second, it shades off into a kind of bureaucratic reasoning that, especially from the standpoint of other versions of moral philosophy, reduces the complexity of moral determinations by rendering such concepts as “happiness” and “satisfaction” less fully dimensional than they might otherwise be. The utilitarian hopes to observe the tears and laughter of the world from the standpoint, as it were, of the universe.

From a certain angle, the “fit” between utilitarianism and cultured meat seems perfect. Replacing the factory farming of animals with literal meat factories would be a suffering reduction strategy. Thousands or millions of bioreactors could take the place of millions or billions of food animals currently living in terrible conditions, many of them in CAFOs. In those bioreactors, cells from “donor” animals, members of comparatively small populations kept alive to maximize genetic diversity, would become tons of meat. Some might object that this would mean billions of animals would not exist to contribute to the total happiness of the world, but this assertion is readily deflated by the counterpoint that life in a CAFO followed by death in an industrial-scale slaughterhouse is not exactly happiness-promoting. From the standpoint of a certain administrative imagination, the decision to replace animals with meat-making machines just makes sense, and appeals to the problem-solving spirit of utilitarianism.

The Value of Animal Otherness

But if utilitarianism has much to say about the morality of mistreating animals, it says little about the philosophical consequences of living with them. Nor does it say anything about the philosophical consequences of producing meat in vitro and not in vivo. The philosopher Christine Korsgaard suggests that living with animals presents philosophical problems that extend beyond morality because animals make our self-understanding, as humans, more complex.1010xChristine M. Korsgaard, “Getting Animals in View,” The Point 6 (2013): 123–130. Korsgaard writes that animals create “a profound disturbance” in our thinking about the world, as if we “are unable to get them firmly into view, to see them for what they really are.”1111xIbid., 123. Animals do not seem to organize their lives in the same terms in which we organize our own. A bear may recognize a berry as a good berry or a bad berry, but not through the same cognitive apparatus or within the same cultural milieu that causes me to recognize myself as a good son or a bad son. Both animals, bear and man, have norms, but they are different kinds of norms. As Korsgaard puts it, a “strange extra dimension” distinguishes human life, a sense of life being a project we endeavor to work upon each day.

Animals do this cognitive work on us, Korsgaard further says, not only when we look at them directly—although she never denies that immediate experience of animals might do its own special kind of work—but just by existing. Whatever our position on the moral standing of animal life, the existence of animals reminds us of something distinctive about human life, something nonhuman animals do not seem to share. This is our way of organizing our active lives around norms and ideals, our sense that life is a project and not just a set of shifting internal and external conditions (feelings on the inside, circumstances on the outside), although of course life is that, too. While Korsgaard is careful to observe that this “extra dimension” of human life is not somehow missing from the lives of animals just because we possess it (any more than the capacity to detect electrical fields is missing from our lives, just because the duck-billed platypus possesses it), it seems clear that this difference between ourselves and other animals constitutes an imaginative challenge for us. It is a form of otherness, a gulf between distinctly human and animal experiences of being, and one we find we cannot cross.1212xThomas Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Oct., 1974): 435–50.

Korsgaard’s argument raises a question about cultured meat: Is there something valuable about the gulf between humans and other animals, some unquantifiable element of sheer animality, that cultured meat sacrifices? From the standpoint of morality, the value of that animal otherness seems to be that it reminds us that nonhuman animals have their own kind of existence, and that any moral standing we accord them must take into account that existence—their terms of “satisfaction,” in utilitarian-speak. While growing meat in laboratories certainly produces its own form of “alterity,” and even an alien-ness beyond our everyday understandings of difference, it can also make more banal forms of difference, such as animal difference, recede from view. This is one conceivable philosophical consequence of exploiting the potential plasticity of animal cells and tissues. A tissue culture developing in a bioreactor is not the sort of life toward which we are likely to be morally responsive, whether that moral response is couched in terms of absolute duties or of the consequences of our actions. Once we demonstrate that somata (in the sense of the artificially extended bodies of animals) can be a kind of building material, the questions are, first, whether this does anything meaningful to our regard for animals and animality themselves, and second, whether there is something morally desirable about our regard being transformed.

The Cockaigne Cornucopia

Two observers of the cultured meat movement have produced a possible scenario for cultured meat’s future that promises to explore this sequence of questions. This scenario, called the “pig in the backyard,” is described in detail by its authors, the bioethicists Cor van der Weele and Clemens Driessen: In a city, a neighborhood contains a yard, and in that yard there is a pig, and that pig is relatively happy.1313xCor van der Weele and Clemens Driessen, “Emerging Profiles for Cultured Meat: Ethics through and as Design,” Animals: An Open Access Journal from MDPI 3, no. 3 (2013): 647–62, It receives visitors every day, including local children who bring it odds and ends to eat from their family kitchens. These children may have played with the pig when it was small; they may have been small together. Each week a small and harmless biopsy of cells is taken from the pig and turned into cultured pork, perhaps hundreds of pounds of it. This becomes the community’s meat. The pig lives out a natural porcine span, and may enjoy the company of other pigs from time to time. This scenario is based on a real-world social experiment in which Dutch neighborhoods raised pigs and then debated the question of their eventual slaughter.

The “pig in the backyard” conjures an image from late medieval Europe that has been recorded in literature and art history. This is the pig in the land of Cockaigne. Cockaigne, the Big Rock Candy Mountain of its time, was a fantasy for starving peasants across Europe. It was filled with foods of a magnificence that only the starving can imagine. In some depictions, you reached this land by eating through a wall of porridge. On the far side, all manner of things to eat and drink came up from the ground and flowed in streams. Pigs walked around with forks sticking out of backs that were already roasted and sliced. Cockaigne was an image of appetites fulfilled, and cultured meat is Cockaigne’s cornucopian echo. The great difference is that Cockaigne was an inversion of the experience of the peasants who imagined it: a land where sloth became a virtue rather than a vice, food and sex were easily had, and no one ever had to work. In Cockaigne, delicious birds would fly into people’s mouths, already cooked. Animals would want to be eaten. In its gratification of the bodily appetites, Cockaigne inverted heaven.

It is clear that if the “pig in the backyard” echoes one aspect of Cockaigne—namely the almost magical availability of meat from animals who seem to cooperate as they are eaten—it does so with major differences. Instead of inverting virtues and vice like its medieval antecedent, it aligns our appetites with our higher aspirations, enabling us to have our meat and our ethics too. Whereas utilitarian expectations for cultured meat production attend only to the projected consequences of cultured meat, the “pig in the backyard” encourages us to ask what the implications of cultured meat would be for our ability to “get animals into view.” It is an inquiry, in other words, into our moral potential.

The great strength of the “pig in the backyard” scenario is that it maintains the visibility of pigs in the meat production process. It combines intimacy, community, and an encounter with two kinds of difference: the familiar but largely forgotten difference manifested by the gaze between human animal and nonhuman animal, and the weirder difference of an animal’s body extended by tissue culture techniques—that literally being what culturing animal cells does, extending the body both in time and space, creating a novel form of relation between an original, still-living animal and its flesh which becomes meat. The “pig in the backyard” tries to please both hippies and techno-utopians at once, and this is part of the charm of this vision of rus in urbe. But this doubled encounter with difference also promises to work on the moral imagination. The materials for this work are, first, the intact living body of another being, which appears to have something like a telos of its own beyond providing for our sustenance, and second, a new set of possibilities for what meat can become in the twenty-first century. The “pig in the backyard” is only a scenario. Its outcomes are uncertain. It is not obvious that the neighborhood will want to eat the flesh, even the extended and “harmless” flesh, of a porcine neighbor whose grunts and snorts they know well, but the history of slaughter and carnivory on farms suggests that they very well might. The “pig in the backyard” is an experiment in ethical futures. The pig points her snout at us and asks what kinds of persons we might become.