Category Archives: animal machines

In-vitro meat as ideological barometer

My food politics class has been discussing food, science, and the influence of ideology on food policy choices (hence Zizek’s RSA Animate – I generally disagree with his conclusions, but he’s right to point out what’s wrong with a certain kind of ethical consumerism, and his critique of environmentalism-as-ideology is apposite). Specifically, we just finished reading Robert Paarlberg’s Food Politics, which I assigned to counterbalance pretty much everything else in the course (Patel, Nestle, Pollan, Foer, Visser, Estabrook). My main problem with food technology isn’t so much the technology itself, but its near-exclusive dominance by a few powerful actors with ‘special’ rather than ‘public’ interests. That said, I share the technologists’ skepticism of the idea that nature provides a useful normative template.

In this vein, the media flurry around in-vitro meat provides an excellent case study. It’s no surprise that this is getting a lot of attention, because it sits at the intersection of academic and public discourses about: authenticity, alienation, disgust, sustainability, animal ethics, food safety, and the role of technology in society. And as Haidt and Bailey note, traditional conservative-liberal divides can break down when discussing food, technology, and purity.

I’m curious to track this potential fracturing of the food movement, with Pollan et al‘s ‘eat whole foods’ on the one side and the likes of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) on the other. In some respects, these debates also apply to the ‘fake’ meats made from textured soy protein, which many people would probably regard as far less yuck-inducing.

In an era of increasing alienation from the means of production, the back-to-the-roots food movement provides an avenue for empathic priming and hands-on learning. But the reality is that we’re eventually going to embrace ever-increasing levels of technological manipulation of the living environment. The relevant questions for me are when this biotech revolution will really take off, and how it’ll be regulated at the national and international levels. But maybe I read too much speculative fiction.

On food safety, people also tend to forget that inaction is a form of action – and this is what inaction looks like. This is also a domain where the Zizekian challenge of environmentalism-as-ideology comes into play: many environmentalists in the Global North have a knee-jerk opposition to artificial as opposed to natural systems, with the result that rich-world environmental elites sometimes transpose their own circumstances and agendas on the Global South. (This whole Green Revolution for Africa debate is complex and contested, but surely such personal biases should be challenged, or at least examined?) A lot of the science here seems to be looking for predetermined answers, whether it’s the agroecological or organic approach trying to prove that GMOs are dangerous, or the Gates Foundation doing the opposite. This is bad science, probably on both sides. But neutrality may be out of reach in such contested terrain.

So do vegetarians really have ‘a moral obligation to eat in-vitro meat’? I wouldn’t go that far, but the topic is definitely ‘good to think’, to borrow from Levi-Strauss. They’ve got a ways to go, in any case.

Autophagy and alienation

Justin E.H. Smith has a good new post on the advertising history of animals eating themselves. There’s even a whole blog dedicated to this macabre-fest: Suicide Food. So where does alienation enter in? I broached the topic of in vitro meat to my students last week, and while we were parsing the pros (health, environment, animal pain) and cons (feasibility, disgust), one of the bigger shortcomings seemed to be that such a food production transition would be yet another step in our alienation from the forces of production (in this case: the food we eat). Either way, the phenomenon of food offering itself up for our consumption is all kinds of messed up. ‘Yuck factor’ indeed.

The new animal machines

Imagine if this image, from a recent FT piece on a proposed Australian ‘camel cull’, included the average human footprint. Put aside for a moment that such an average would be all kinds of skewed because the bottom billion, the middle and top billions, and the uber-rich don’t inhabit anything resembling a normal curve (pace Hans Rosling). And never mind the Orwellian meaning of the word ‘cull’, which gives credence to the Journal of Animal Ethics‘ recent call for a more conscientious use of language, my qualms notwithstanding. Now imagine you could get carbon credits for eliminating human production units. Sounds creepy, right? It should. What’s being proposed with camels in Australia is similarly creepy, for similar reasons.

Our conceptions of other animals throughout history is complex and contested, but this plan represents the endpoint of the progression from Cartesian machine to anthropomorphized other to Taylorist production unit. You can see similar developments in the University of Guelph’s ‘enviropig’ project, which reimagines the pig as production unit. See also the New Scientist‘s recent piece arguing that companion animals’ (specifically, dogs. More specifically, big dogs.) ecological footprints rival those of Hummers.

None of which is to minimize the Anthropocene‘s threat on the planet’s biogeochemical and other systems, or to deny that animal and environmental interests can and do conflict. And such conflict is what a functioning, deliberating democracy on Dewey’s model of the fragmented public interest is meant to weigh and balance–whether such a balancing act is, in the age of Big Money, either realistic or sufficient, is another question, but I haven’t come across a robust vision of society that can replace liberal democracy (whether closer to socialism or capitalism in economic structure–both have their pros and cons).

Instead, we should caution against this kind of reductionist thinking whenever possible–my Honda Civic is pretty beat up, but it doesn’t care.