Event Report: Utopian Protein, or Eating Well in the World to Come – a talk by Dr John Miller

13 November 2017
By Mira Lieberman

Mira Lieberman is a PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield, funded by the Grantham Centre for Future Sustainability, and a member of ShARC.


Utopian Protein, or Eating Well in the World to Come – a talk by Dr John Miller, University of Sheffield, reported on faithfully by Mira Lieberman

The first description of protein molecules by Gerardus Johannes Mulder in 1838 marks a crucial turning point for societal relationships with animals as a primary source of protein ‘providers’. However, the human relationship with animal-based proteins was long established before then; In ancient Roman times, Pliny the Elder coined the term ‘albumen’ for egg white. Early nutrition scientists believed that protein was the most important building block of life: ‘flesh makes flesh’, marking the increasing reliance on animal-based ‘food’ sources.

The theoretical possibility of growing meat in an industrial setting has long captured the public imagination. Winston Churchill suggested in 1931 in a predictive essay called Fifty Years Hence, that ‘we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.’ And indeed, in recent years there has been research working towards molecular agriculture to produce in-vitro meat (IVM) or lab-grown meat.

Dr John Miller’s talk explores the reinvention of human-animal relations and the reinvention of human society through science-fiction literary works depicting futuristic biotechnological meat production. Dr Miller skilfully peels off the initial utopian layers to expose the not-so-utopian ethical and philosophical problems inherent in the production and consumption of cultured meat.

We began our science fictional exploration with a contemporary art exposition of semi-living worry dolls.

These are made of cultured tissues and are the children of Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, two artists working for the most part in Australia in the field of bioart, or, more specifically, ‘living-tissue engineered sculpture’. The installation is titled ‘Tissue Culture and Art(ificial) Womb’, part of a larger enterprise called The Tissue Culture and Art Project. The project is based on a Guatemalan tradition in which children tell their worries to their worry dolls, placed under their pillow erasing their troubles. In the same vein, the art exhibition asks visitors to confess to the dolls their innermost worries. But the interaction doesn’t stop there. The audience gets to participate in a ritual killing of the dolls by touching them. The contamination of the dolls’ cells with bacteria and air causes the cells to die, some faster than others:

The killing is done by taking the Semi-Living sculptures out of their containment and letting the audience touch (and be touched by) the sculptures. The fungi and bacteria which exist in the air and on our hands are much more potent than the cells. As a result the cells get contaminated and die (some instantly and some over time). (Zurr & Catts, 2006: 83)

The interaction is in fact bilateral: just as the visitor touches the semi-living doll, as in any interaction of touch, the visitor is touched by the doll. This, Miller argues, is an important moment for reflection on in vitro meat, a not-far-in-the-future concept that holds within it the ultimate promise of animal liberation from agri-business. (Although animal blood serum in which the ‘fake’-real meat will be floating will surely need to come for someone.)

Should vegans and vegetarians eat cultured meat?

IVM promises virtually no animal suffering, and as no animals are involved, cultured meat significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions and provides a sustainable answer to global food shortages. With a rapidly growing population, isn’t this a neoliberal capitalist nirvana?

Well, there are several problems. As mentioned above, the serum in which the cells are grown derives from the exploitation of animals. At the moment it’s calves’ blood. A second problem is a problem we see now, of inequality of access to food. Having cultured meat as a ‘food for the masses’ may encourage the rich elite to rear animals for ‘the select few’ which raises further ethical questions. And finally, mass-producing cultured meat reinforces the myth that meat is an essential component for a healthy diet.

But more important, Miller continues, IVM poses an even more complex question: How might it feel to kill, or at least be responsible for the death (perhaps we should say the semi-death) of the Semi-Living? What relationships might evolve between humans and their Semi-Living familiars? What does it mean to share a world with these ‘fragments of bodies’? Should we be concerned, as Catts and Zurr are that ‘by making our food a new class of object/being […] there is the risk of making the Semi-Living a new class for exploitation’? (Zurr & Catts, Project Webpage).

The literary works Miller discusses slowly framed the polemic. When the talk started, I only had an undefined visceral discomfort thinking about lab-grown meat (which does not sound appealing, or as Dr Miller put it has the slight ‘yuck factor’.) But is there an inherent philosophical and ethical problem?

In the futuristic feminist sci-fi novel Mizora (1890), IVM is depicted to be a liberating advance that freed the world from the despicable act of killing animals for meat. Written in the 1880s, the story spans the travels of a Russian noblewoman Vera Zarovitch who was sentenced to exile in Siberia for her revolutionary views, escapes her captors and arrives at ‘a land of enchantment’ (14), Mizora, a secret world in which ‘not a man or the suggestion of one, was to be seen’ (16) and in which ‘a remarkable egalitarian feminist commune flourishes.’

The food scenes depicted in the novel exemplify the egalitarian society and, according to Miller, are the first literary mentions of IVM beefsteak and vegan cheese!

they took certain chemicals and converted them into milk, and cream, and cheese, and butter, and every variety of meat, in a vessel that admitted neither air nor light. […] It was the same with meats; they combined the elements, and the article produced possessed no detrimental flavor. It was a more economical way of obtaining meat than by fattening animals. (56)

Lane’s novel is a utopian example of a society that is more at peace, having the violence, inequality and poverty driven out by technological solutions where scarcity and hunger are unknown to its citizens.

A second IVM depiction is found in Kurd Lasswitz’s Two Planets (1897), a sci-fi novel about Martians coming to Earth to colonise the planet and use its sun and water resources. The Martians’ advanced technology is an opportunity for humanity to learn and develop. An example is of an automatic sausage maker the explorers come across.

In both Mizora and Two Planets, the utopia is signalled when cultured meat replaces animal exploitation and enslavement, and a world without wants and hunger establishes a more peaceful, egalitarian society.

However, not all is well with the utopias portrayed in the works above. Miller argues that in Mizora the view on animals as pets is seen as barbarism, representing the erasure of animal life. Could another reading of this be that Mizorean stance on pets is that it is another form of exploitation?

The most poignant of all, however, was the very last novel discussed by Miller. Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth’s novel The Space Merchants (1952) is a sci-fi futuristic reality dominated by advertising and consumerism. Chicken Little is a ‘hundred-ton lump of grey-brown rubbery flesh’ (87), that grows and grows (on processed algal feed) and is sliced and sliced in order to provide re-processed food for the masses. But what is important in the story and the mentioning of this book is the blurring of the lines between the ‘alive’ and ‘semi-living’, here I quote directly from Miller’s talk:

The text stresses that Chicken Little is ‘alive’ (86); Chicken Little, as we’ve heard, moves, both in the sense of its continuing expansion into the available space under the influence of the tubes that penetrate the flesh delivering its ‘nutrient fluid’ (86) and in the pulsating motion that the meat exhibits and which features in Pohl and Kornbluth’s descriptions on several occasions. There is a fleshly, even creaturely texture to this mass of heart tissue that the novel connects to a dark, ironic familiarity; Chicken Little is repeatedly gendered; her ‘concrete and lead’ container (86) designed to protect her from the cancers she’s prone to, is described by Herrera with a gesture back to Chicken Little’s ancestors as ‘her nest’ (86). Her life is governed by circadian rhythms: at night she rests: ‘They turn down the nutrient just enough, they let the waste accumulate in her just right. Each night she almost dies. Each morning she comes to life like San Lazaro’ (86). Herrera even professes a certain creepy fondness for her, ‘whack[ing] the rubbery thing affectionately with the flat of his slicer’ (86) […] Chicken Little can’t feel, but the pulsating throb of her body suggests some kind of animal life-force.

This reminds me of pigs currently engineered to grow to monstrous sizes in order to ‘provide’ the largest possible ‘yield’. They are not considered by those in the agribusiness as sentient, much like Chicken Little is said not to feel anything. The duality between developing a human fondness for your victim while slicing it is a common dichotomy in agriculture.

So, Miller asks, should vegans and vegetarians eat IVM? As always, the answer is complex. However, Miller discusses carnophallogocentrism (I learnt a new word), the combined forces of masculinity and carnivorism or ‘carnivorous virility’ (Derrida, 1991: 113) underlie the cultural significance of meat, the reinforcing position of authority and power.

Just eat plants, people.

Works Cited