Cultured meat: the utopian, the dystopian, and the weird

Cultured meat is strange and provocative, but also exciting and interesting. It’s inevitable to wonder what kind of potential impact the phenomenon—where a form of animal protein is produced from cell culture in a lab—could have on our world.

“Ethically and environmentally, it seems like a good idea,” says Wolf Humanities Center Director James English. “But what is it about cultured meat that makes me recoil? It’s odd I recoil more from the idea of eating lab meat than a piece of an animal. There’s a sense that there is a strangeness of our relationship to food, and all the cultural and psychological fright that comes with that.”

Contemplation is natural when it comes to thinking about cultured meat, says Ben Wurgaft, a visiting scholar in anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Cultured meat is useful to think about because it allows us to think hard about so many things related to contemporary food practice, animal rights, and ourselves as animals who have desires and needs we try to fulfill,” he says.

Fitting in flawlessly with this year’s Wolf Humanities Center forum topic of “afterlives,” Wurgaft will give a talk—“Cultured Meat and the Three Futures for Flesh”—at 5 p.m. at the Penn Museum’s Rainey Auditorium on Wednesday, Feb. 28. He’ll dive into what he sees as the three versions of the future of flesh that cultured meat could bring about: the utopian, the dystopian, and the weird.

It’ll surely be “a weird talk about a weird topic,” Wurgaft says.

Wurgaft has spent the past four years studying the perspectives of people trying to make lab-grown meat a reality, and the ins and outs of their work. He has picked the brains of technologists, talked in-depth with tissue engineers, and attended conferences organized by futurists. He’s compiling his research into a book, which is currently under advance contract with the University of California Press.

“Cultured meat is not yet a reality or an industry, and it’s not obvious it will be,” says Wurgaft. “And I don’t have any definite answers for the audience about how it tastes, when it will be ready, and whether it will be good for the world.”

In fact, his research shows, quite frankly, “how little we know, and how far media hype has gone beyond laboratory practice.”

But what he will encourage, he says, is that those who attend—especially those with an interest in the future of food, biotechnology, and the intersection of philosophy and science—think hard about how new technologies might change ourselves and our world.

“Let’s think hard about technological promises, and ask what they might mean for us,” he says. “We’ve been told that new technologies can transform our food system for the better, but I suggest that this is also an opportunity to think deeply about the ethical and political dimensions of our existing food practices.” 

The Forum on Afterlives, says English, who is also the John Welsh Centennial Professor of English and director of the Price Lab for Digital Humanities, “keeps us thinking about history, even with the most contemporary of our events.” Emily Wilson, topic director of the Forum on Afterlives, adds that with an “afterlives” topic, you never really know when it’s over—“or it’s usually never over.”

In the cultured meat context, English says, we consider the history of farming and eating and the changing relationships between humans and animals. Wilson says it can be thought of as a “double afterlife”—as we can also imagine life beyond being a meat-eating species.

“I love how it’s just such a completely different approach to the subject,” she says.

The Forum on Afterlives, which will come to a close at the end of this academic year, has not only hosted numerous free public lectures and performances related to the topic, but also weekly workshops for 20 faculty fellows from Penn and other local colleges working on related research.

“We’ve been able to engage with each other’s work all on different things with the core theme of afterlives,” says Wilson, a classical studies professor who last fall became the first woman to translate the entirety of the “Odyssey” into English. “I learned so much just from the exposure to other people’s work, even when it seems completely different from my own.”

Check out additional Forum on Afterlives events this semester, including a talk from Edwidge Danticat, about death, writing, race, and freedom, and Lydia Millet, about environmental science and the post-apocalyptic novel. All are free and open to the public.

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