Domestication on a molecular level – how cultivated meat could affect our relationship to food
Initially proposed as food for astronauts in space, cultivated meat has turned from a science fiction fantasy to a source of hope for a more sustainable, and animal welfare-conscious meat production method for the world’s growing population. Cultivated meat aims to replicate conventionally produced meat by harnessing stem cells that multiply and form skeletal muscle and fat tissue. Therefore, it has the potential to marry the consumer’s desire for meat with a more secure and sustainable global food production. The following interview with Dr. Inanna Hamati-Ataya, Principal Research Associate at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) and founder of gloknos (Centre for Global Knowledge Studies) at the University of Cambridge, evaluates social and ethical implications of this novel technology.
Other innovative technologies like precision farming (e.g. satellite crop monitoring) also aim to increase agricultural production to face the planet’s growing demand for food. However, they act within the traditional paradigm: the continuation of the Green Revolution. This term refers to the drastic increase in the productivity of global agriculture as a result of introducing high yielding crop varieties, new chemical fertilisers and synthetic pesticides in the mid- and late-20th century. Hamati-Ataya points out that cultivated meat approaches the same problems with a completely different framework: it is far removed from land-based food production and agricultural labour.
Just like language, food is a vehicle to express culture. It has the power of being both a biological necessity as well as a deeply symbolic cultural artifact, that connects us to one another. Despite increasing attempts to raise awareness about where our food comes from, for many people “food comes from the supermarket”. In fact, determining the origin of our groceries can be a difficult task; the food supply chains are long and complex. Hamati-Ataya believes that we have already crossed a crucial threshold: since 2007, for the first time in human history, more people have been living in urban than in rural areas. “The production of food is something completely alienated from our day-to-day life. We buy most of our food in supermarkets rather than directly from the producers. As we have become accustomed to processed food, there is no great leap of imagination required for people to accept a drastically different form of food appearing on supermarket shelves as long as it looks familiar to other products, like burgers and sausages, and is priced affordably”.
Studies have shown that a major barrier towards consumer acceptance of cultivated meat is its unnaturalness . Hamati-Ataya brings up an intriguing paradox: “Cultivated meat is high-tech in terms of its production process, but at the same time, it is not unnatural regarding its composition. It is not processed in the way most food products or ready-made meals are. The cultivated meat industry is transitioning from ground to whole cut meat products, like a chicken breast or beef steak: when this is achieved, I think that our definition of what is artificial and what is natural will be profoundly shaken. One area in which such conversations are likely to emerge early on is secular and religious legal doctrines, where these definitions are important and have wide-ranging implications on people’s behaviour and what counts as permissible or taboo”.
Thinking ahead, Hamati-Ataya raises a concern about the asymmetry of technological innovations, the potential for monopolies, and of discrepancies in consumer markets. An urgent priority, she believes, is to put on the public agenda how cultivated meat is going to impact the global structures of food production and the producers themselves. Hamati-Ataya emphasises that it is essential to agree on rules that will protect the livelihoods of current producers and help them to transition. Another important aspect is the current lack of a university curriculum to open up the field of expertise and ensure that large numbers of people are trained in the new technologies and their societal aspects. Moreover, academic research labs are needed to generate open-access data. Hamati-Ataya highlights the importance of this step as the current technological innovation universe is governed by the private sector with growing interest from the big food industry and high-tech investors. Therefore, there is a lot of economic interest whilst the societal aspects are neglected. The current lack of public involvement together with little reflection from governmental institutions or international organisations leaves the main arena to actors who are profit-oriented. At this point, it is essential to interlock these economic interests with public interests to allow a fair and inclusive way of revolutionising our food system.
The prominent vegetarian and socialist Henry Salt predicted in the 1880s that “future and wiser generations will look back on the habit of flesh-eating as a strange relict of ignorance and barbarism”. Being the addressee of his prediction, how would we respond? Hamati-Ataya summarises that, since the start of industrialisation of agricultural production around 200 years ago, humanity has fostered an extremely aggressive way of exploiting other species, even in ways that seem excessive and not always justified to satisfy our basic needs. Cultivated meat has the potential to further abstract our relation to food from our relation to nature, the landscape, and the animals we identify as sources of subsistence or as culinary taboos. At the same time, it could be part of a moral awakening to re-define our role in the ecosystem, a pivot from needing to harm other beings to sustain our needs. Together with the evolving plethora of other alternative protein sources, such as plant-based alternatives, cultivated meat can pave the way for us to be more pacified with our environment and with other species.
For Further Reading
M. Wilks, M. H. (2021). What does it mean to say that cultured meat is unnatural? Appetite.
Mattick, C. S. (2018). Cellular agriculture: The coming revolution in food production. BULLETIN OF THE ATOMIC SCIENTISTS, 32-35.
Neil Stephens, A. E. (2019). Making Sense of Making Meat: Key Moments in the First 20 Years of Tissue Engineering Muscle to Make Food. Frontiers in sustainable food systems.
Young, P. (2019). The Victorians caused the meat eating crisis the world faces today – but they might help us solve it. The Conversation.
Lisa Neidhardt  started her PhD journey in 2019 to broaden our understanding of the molecular mechanisms of stress response pathways in cells.