From “Meat Culture” to “Cultured Meat”: Critically Evaluating the Contested Ontologies and Transformative Potential of Biofabricated Animal Material on Culture and Law

Hope Johnson

Abstract


Introduction

According to its proponents and developers, we will soon be consuming animal flesh that has been manufactured outside of an animal’s body using a suite of technologies and processes that fall under the broad banner of biofabrication. This flesh, termed “clean meat” by proponents, is expected to be safer, healthier, victimless and far more environmentally benign than flesh derived from an animal’s body within intensive animal agriculture systems. As the Good Food Institute, an established non-governmental body for reducing meat consumption through the creation of new products, claims:

Clean meat is one breakthrough solution to the problems associated with raising animals for food. Clean meat is created by growing meat outside of an animal from a small cell sample, eliminating the need for factory farming and slaughter.

This kind of narrative has dominated media and scholarship on the new material, which this article refers to as biofabricated animal material (see, e.g., Dilworth and McGregor; Driessen and Korthals; O’Riordan et al.). Recently, however, a counter-narrative about the material has entered key discursive spaces. Triggered by lobbying efforts of meat industry stakeholders and taking place largely in the legal terrain, the counter-narrative is not critical of the technologies and processes deployed to bring the material about. Rather, and at this stage, it largely casts doubt on the nature of the material itself and what actions bring meat into existence. This line of discussion is concerned with the ontology of meat and of biofabricated animal material, that is, it is concerned with what an object is in reality to different groups, how it comes to be that object, and the ways in which these varying understandings of the reality intersect, diverge and influence outcomes (Mol, Body Multiple; Law and Lien).

Before public attention was drawn to this new material and the suite of related, emerging technologies being developed to create it, what meat was and how it came about has been relatively stable. We generally understood meat to be specific kinds of animal flesh, prepared in particular ways in accordance with cultural norms, and which were extracted from a dead animal in a farming context. Even with the rise of plant-based norms within meat cultures, meat was still understood as being animal flesh. Indeed, the animal welfare and animal rights movements have in part reinforced the ontology of meat with their emphasis on the interests of the animal in the context of meat production and consumption, while the cognitive dissonance that “guilty meat-eaters” experience when consuming meat stems in part from their understanding of meat as animal flesh derived from an animal killed in order to provide flesh. Yet, the accepted reality—i.e. the ontology—of meat has recently become destabilised. Meat is now the subject of multiple interpretations, or ontologies, of how meat is meat, which realities compete in debates about legal definitions of meat.

Broadly, proponents of biofabricated animal material understand meat to be anything that is animal flesh regardless of the processes that made it come about, including whether the flesh was ever part of a body. This ontology is being deployed in a political way to support the collective, discursively constructed expectations that biofabricated animal material will disrupt meat culture, while assuring consumers that the material is, in reality, still meat. Meanwhile opponents focus on the enactment of meat, that is, the agricultural practices that go into making “animal flesh” and turning it into meat. These contesting ontologies are playing out in largely legal arenas to date, suggesting that what is legally defined as meat will have political and cultural consequences for the future of food.

Yet, this article calls into question how different the parallel ontologies of meat are in terms of the realities they enact. It argues that while biofabricated animal material is expected to transform the production and consumption of meat, the material’s ontologies reinforce existing interrelationships between the dominant meat culture and the law. Additionally, the expectations surrounding biofabricated animal material vests the material with transformative power, even though it does not challenge the structural factors, namely law and culture, which underlie the exploitation and commodification of animals. I begin by delineating the co-constituting relationship between law, the realities of meat production and consumption, and meat culture. I then unpack the interface between different ontologies of meat and consider why the contest has taken place in legal terrains. From here, I consider the key expectations that have assigned transformative power to biofabricated animal material. I suggest that these expectations work to reinforce existing meat culture, and the configurations of power that benefit from it, as supported via legal instruments.

Meat, Meat Culture and the Law

Central to cultural legal studies is the theory of “law as culture” rather than law and culture being separate spaces that occasionally intersect (Mezey; Sarat and Simon; Ewick and Silbey; cf. Schlag). This understanding sees law and culture as non-static dimensions co-constructing each other, and law as a particular cultural product through its ability to make and stabilise meaning (Weisbrod; Mezey). Scholars in this space have unpacked some of the ways in which the meanings, practices and sources associated with the law influence ways of being, sensing and knowing on a day-to-day level by “shaping consciousness and making asymmetries of power seem, if not invisible, then natural and benign” (Sarat and Simon 19; see also Marusek).

Drawing on this body of work, law and meat culture can be understood as mutually building and reinforcing each other; simultaneously, relevant laws are an artefact of meat culture. Potts (19–20) uses the term “meat culture” to refer to expressions of carnism (Joy chap. 2), including “the representations and discourses, practices and behaviours, diets and tastes that generate shared beliefs about, perspectives on, and experiences of meat.” Carnism is the ideology that condones and legitimises the killing and eating of particular animals. Expressions of carnism construct meat as a food that is “natural, normal, necessary and nice” (Piazza et al.). Laws that condone and enable intensive animal agriculture are an expression of meat culture, as are legal definitions that demarcate the material dimensions of meat. Simultaneously, the role of law in representing and locking-in meat culture is an outcome of socio-cultural processes that diffuse meat culture based on carnism.

This co-constructing relationship between law and meat culture is especially evident in the statutory provisions that recognise animals as capable of being the object to which private property rights determine relations (for instance, s. 12 of the Animal Care and Protection Act 2001 (Qld)). Humans, as opposed to animals, are positioned as having a higher moral status that automatically attracts rights to life and to a certain standard of treatment by others and governments (Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Hence, animals are objects of human and corporate ownership rather than holders of rights due to their intrinsic worthiness as living beings. This understanding of animals as commodities both embodies and reinforces contemporary meat culture, and especially Western notions of human-animal relations based on subordination and domination (Huggan and Tiffin 10).

The absence of formal law further enables meat-eating cultures stemming from a carnist ideology. In Australia, animal welfare laws recognise that farm animals experience pain and suffering via generic animal cruelty offences that would consider as “cruel” many routine husbandry practices and animal slaughtering. However, most animal welfare laws provide a defence to, or exemption for, actions of a producer that would otherwise constitute an animal cruelty offence if the same actions were directed towards companion animals. In order to provide an effective defence or exception, the producer must have acted in compliance with codes of practice set by farm industry groups (see, e.g., Animal Welfare Act (SA) s. 43). Unsurprisingly, given the vested interest of the industry, the standards set for farm animal welfare are broadly inconsistent with the standards for animal welfare expected by Australian publics (see, e.g., Doughty et al.; Coleman). Goodfellow suggests that the failure of Australian welfare standards to meet public expectations and basic animal welfare principles represents a kind of meat-based “cultural capture”. The perceptions and values of industry have become absorbed by those regulatory agencies created to regulate for animal welfare consistent with community expectations (Goodfellow 197).

Finally, law works to obscure intensive animal agricultural methods and mass processing and retail of animal flesh products. For instance, law and legal institutions prevent documentation of intensive animal agriculture facilities (ABC v Lenah Game Meats), and through its absence enables the misrepresentation of on-farm conditions on food labels (Parker et al.).

Law’s role in embodying and perpetuating meat culture is further explored in popular culture and legal cultural studies. For instance, the Netflix film Okja confronts the links between capitalism, especially market-based approaches to regulating societies, and intensive animal agriculture, while highlighting the related disconnects between humans, animals and nature. Gunawan, through a jurisprudential reading of the Netflix film Okja, explained how the film “highlights law’s desire for a legal landscape grounded in fictional constructs – the fiction that some animals have a higher moral status than others” (264). Because Okja does not fit neatly into the existing categories of human or non-human animal, the film unpacks how laws categorise living bodies in ways that can be considered arbitrary and inconsistent while being compliant with dominant meat culture.

Contemporary meat culture and its constitutive relationship with law is associated with European colonial systems of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Colonial processes expanded specialised farms in settler colonial states and led to large amounts of meat being exported to European countries (Friedmann and McMichael). The violence associated with these changes, for humans, animals and the environment, were legitimated by law that both legitimised European domination and was used as a tool for asserting domination over human and non-human animal populations (McBride).

Colonial expressions of meat culture connected the high consumption of animal flesh in Western diets with white supremacy, strength and masculinity; meanwhile, the diets of Indigenous populations, which tended to be more plant-based, were portrayed as lesser and a cause of their perceived inferiority as non-whites (see, e.g., Leroy and Praet). Gambert and Linné through their media analysis of #Soyboy tweets observed how colonial representations of meat-based diets as superior to plant-based diets continued to be highly influential on Western culture and politics. They explained that the use of #Soyboy in alt-right media must be understood as “a contemporary extension of colonial era tropes of plant-food masculinity like the ‘effeminized rice eater’ of the late 19th-century … and as an example of the way the alt-right uses irony and humor to advance its often dead-serious views.”

Globalising, capitalist processes in the mid- to late 20th century followed the trajectory set down during colonisation as capital, markets, governments and authorities continued the expansion of large-scale, intensive production of meat, combined with increasing consumption of animal flesh typified by high productivity and low animal welfare (Goodfellow; D’silva). These changes are integrated with, and were enabled by, broader globalising capitalist processes that further incentivised intensive animal agriculture, and technological transfer programs to “modernise” animal agriculture in developing countries (see, e.g., Gonzalez). These processes and other societal and cultural changes facilitated the “nutrition transition,” that is, the global shift away from Indigenous and traditional diets and towards Western diets typified by a high consumption of animal products (Popkin).

Law plays a central role in legitimising and enabling the industrial ways of making animals into meat. It provides the “methodology by which it is possible to continue forms of domination” (Wadiwel 287). Intellectual property law played a profound role in enabling the agricultural research and development for intensive animal agriculture, especially through the expansion of intellectual property rights over animal genetics (Kloppenburg; Aoki). Indeed, private investment in agriculture continues to increase including for intensive animal agriculture technologies (Pardey et al.), while the space for developing alternate ways of agriculture narrows (Johnson). Law also provides standards of meat production and composition suited to industrial facilities, which fosters citizen-consumer trust and legitimacy in the system despite the increased risk and scale of food safety issues associated with intensive animal agriculture (see, e.g., Webber et al.).

Legal Definitions of Meat and Ontological Politics

Collectively deployed, discursive expectations regarding biofabricated animal material have successfully destabilised a broadly accepted singular ontology of meat, that is, the pre-existing reality of meat as flesh extracted from an animal enacted in a farming context (Jönsson et al.). While different groups assign particular symbolic qualities to meat, the objective understanding of reality was that meat was muscle tissue that had formed part of an animal’s body and was culturally considered edible. Parallel to debates on the nature of “milk,” the destabilisation of meat has played out largely on legal terrains. Specifically, meat industry groups informally or formally have called for legal definitions of meat that understand the material to be directly derived from the carcass of an animal (McCarthy and Brann).

A key moment in in the breaking of the singular ontology of meat was the US Cattlemen’s Association’s filing of a petition to the US Department of Agriculture. This petition requested, among other things, that the definition of meat be the “tissue or flesh of animals that have been harvested in the traditional manner” and should be used to “inform consumers that the product is derived naturally from animals” (2). The reality produced in this petition, and then conveyed through the media, is that meat is the entire body of a dead animal or parts cut off from a body of a dead animal. Moreover, the petition positioned intensive animal agriculture as traditional and natural while the biofabrication of animal material was unconventional and artificial. For the meat industry, meat is enacted through practices from breeding, raising, and slaughtering animals which instills the end product of meat with not only its existence as meat but also its other qualities like naturalness and healthfulness (Mol, Body Multiple). According to this perspective, muscle tissue is not meat unless it is enacted in particular ways.

Although the influence of law on cultural and social structures is neither linear nor complete, law still has a unique ontological-political power to categorise things in ways that widely influence and coordinate behavior (Ruiter; Mol, “Ontological”; Viljanen; Deakin). In other words, law configures and reconfigures a real practice, relationship or event into fictitious legal categories (Ewick and Silbey 16). The contestation over meat and the focus on legal definitions certainly reflects a general awareness of the ontological-political power of law, which was a theme further explored in Okja, discussed above.

The law in the US, as well as in Australia, have definitions of meat that would, mostly and depending on the processes used, exclude biofabricated animal material (see, e.g., Johnson). Legal definitions of meat tend to align with the reality of meat that opponents of biofabricated animal material hold and which definitions are consistent with dominant cultural understandings of meat. Thus, political and ontological debate about meat taking place in legal terrains is not due to any lack of clarity in legal categories that require the law to represent a societal decision between two or more ontologies. Rather, the debate is an attempt to influence the social and cultural ontologies of meat that interact and underpin the legal definitions of meat in order to influence consumer acceptability and markets. In this way, the debate over what meat is and how meat comes about is reminiscent of other battles over “mouths, minds and markets” (Lang and Heasman). As the next section illustrates, however, what meat is and how it is enacted by consumers and retailers as meat does not change at the retail and consumer end of the food chain.

Just Meat But Still Transformative?

 

Figure 1: Fictional representation of possible future “meat” products (Hayden McNamara 2018)

The conjectures about what biofabricated animal material will do for the environment, for human health, and for animals are merely the collective “imaginings, expectations and visions” of stakeholders with an interest, commercial and political, in the material (Borup et al. 385). An emerging body of literature has undertaken discourse analyses on the collectively deployed, discursively constructed expectations for biofabricated animal material across spaces including scholarly works, mass media and public comments. Broadly, this body of work finds that the collective expectations deployed by proponents in relation to biofabricated animal material have been uncritically taken up in mass media, scholarship (Dilworth and McGregor), and among its developers (Chiles). Studies on public perceptions of biofabricated animal material suggest that the general public also expect benefits to eventuate for animals, humans and the environment, perhaps to a lesser extent, while the publics examined simultaneously conceive of biofabricated animal material as “unnatural” and animal flesh from an animal as “natural” (Laestadius and Caldwell; Wilks and Phillips).

Although the dominant expectations overlap, I categorise them as follows:

  1. Biofabricated animal material will be available on a commercial scale.
  2. The material is meat. 
  3. Consumer uptake will be such that market signals will result in a decline in intensive animal agriculture.
  4. A decline in animal agriculture will reduce, if not remove entirely, the significant suffering and harms associated with its performance. 
  5. This decline will be causally associated with healthier, safer and happier environments for humans and animals.

Unpacking the expectations in this way shows the technological determinist ideologies at play and from which these discursive constructs stem. Accordingly, practical pathways for such a transition or the multiple assumptions and variables underpinning the expected benefits are absent.

Collective and discursively constructed expectations are an essential component to technological innovation for attracting investment, gaining regulatory acceptance and inspiring and attracting developers. Such expectations are also shaping the agenda and the actors involved (van Lente and Rip). For instance, the expectations that biofabricated animal material will be “victimless” has mobilized animal interest groups and non-governmental actors who, in various ways, advocate for biofabricated animal material. The expectations for a victimless animal flesh product have been so compelling, consistent with Western ideas of technology and progress (Jasanoff), that various truths about the current processes have not prevented these coalitions forming. These include that biofabricated animal material is yet to be produced on a commercial scale due to technological barriers (Bhat et al.), and that the processes commonly entail slaughtering animals. The extraction of cells from the “donor” animal, for instance, commonly relies on the use of invasive and lethal procedures to extract the tissue containing the cells (see, e.g., Genovese et al. 4; Burton et al.). Moreover, tissue samples must be taken repeatedly because their proliferation abilities are not well conserved in the cell culture (Boonen and Post).

Meanwhile, foetal bovine serum is the main ingredient in mediums used to grow biofabricated animal material because it is an especially good source of growth factors. This serum is essentially refined blood from the foetus of a pregnant cow. To maintain blood quality, the method for drawing out the blood is particularly invasive. The foetus is “alive” within the removed uterus while its heart is punctured with a needle and its blood is drained (van der Valk et al.). Thus, expectations are being collectively deployed in ways that obscure the violence that is still implicated in the consumption of animal flesh, analogous to how animal welfare claims on food labels misrepresent the processes and decisions behind the product.

Importantly, the expectations about biofabricated animal material also represent and reinforce a particular understanding of what the problem is with animal agriculture and food systems more generally (Bacchi). Broadly, biofabricated animal material is expected to solve the ills associated with the mass-production and consumption of animal flesh leaving unproblematic the underlying cultural, political, legal and social structures that enabled these harms in the first place. Reflecting this problem-solution construct, Bill Gates wrote on his blog:

The demand for meat will have doubled between 2000 and 2050. This is happening in large part because economies are growing and people can afford more meat. That’s all good news. But raising meat takes a great deal of land and water and has a substantial environmental impact. Put simply, there’s no way to produce enough meat for 9 billion people. Yet we can’t ask everyone to become vegetarians. (As much as I like vegetables, I know I wouldn’t want to give up hamburgers – one of my favorite foods). That’s why we need more options for producing meat without depleting our resources.

It is common for such neo-Malthusian reasoning to be deployed in support of capital-intensive, industrial agricultural technologies, and that laws that enable and protect them. Yet, the projections about how much meat production “needs” to increase are being conveyed as normative claims about what food systems should do, rather than what the projections are intended to provide: predictions about the future based on current trends so we can intervene now. That is, statistics about how much food and meat production must increase by are based on a continuation of current trends such as high rates of meat consumption and food waste rather than a systemic transformation. As the FAO stated in relation to its own projections regarding growing populations and increasing meat demand, the projections are positive statements of “the most likely future … not necessarily the most desirable one” (Bruinsma 1). By treating these projections as targets, expectations for biofabricated animal material normalise the increasing consumption of meat and leave out the possibility of other trajectories, such as, the further mainstreaming of plant-based diets.

Along with being non-disruptive of dominant meat culture (Goldstein), the expectations conveyed implicitly condone market-based approaches to the ethical, environmental and social issues intertwined with production and consumption patterns. They position consumer-citizens as capable of “voting with their fork” to bring about a better food system by purchasing biofabricated animal material. Meanwhile, the fact that biofabricated animal material is being developed within existing configurations of power and wealth is absent from the expectations surrounding the ability of biofabricated animal material to disrupt agriculture. For instance, Tyson and Cargill, two of the world’s largest meat processing companies, have invested into companies developing the material.

Critical engagement with the dominant meat culture that condones and legitimises the exploitation of animals, and with the law that reflects and enables it, is absent from the collective expectations about biofabricated animal material. Other methods for addressing the multiple harms associated with industrial agriculture, for instance a meat tax, incentives for plant-based businesses, educational campaigns to promote plant-based diets, are not within the problem-solution equation underlying expectations about biofabricated animal material. Rather, the expectations for the material as meat continues problematic aspects of meat culture that place “the highest symbolic value on flesh foods and the lowest value on plant foods” (Lee 80). The expectations surrounding biofabricated animal material imply that the issues with intensive animal agriculture, from cruelty to pollution to antibiotic resistance, can be resolved without changing, or minimally changing, the ontology of meat or the underlying meat culture, and without altering the exploitative, capitalist basis common to legal regimes for animals and intensive animal agriculture.

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Keywords


Animals, ontologies, meat, law, policy,



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