Carniculture in Science Fiction and Real Life

Anderson_FeedThere’s a memorable scene in M.T. Anderson’s YA novel Feed, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book and the winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Fiction. I didn’t love it that much, but a couple of scenes really stuck in my mind and one of them is when protagonist Titus and his girlfriend Violet visit “beef country,” a.k.a. a steak farm. It’s like going on a brewery tour, except at this farm, the vats are full of meat. For purposes of coolness, Anderson has the beef growing in open fields as far as the eye can see, “and in some places where the genetic coding had gone wrong, here and there, in the middle of the beef, the tissue had formed a horn or an eye or a heart blinking up at the sunset …” How unhygienic! And how memorably disgusting. It’s enough to turn you vegetarian.

I recalled this scene recently when I read about the world’s first vat-grown burger. According to the BBC, “Scientists took cells from a cow and, at an institute in the Netherlands, turned them into strips of muscle that they combined to make a patty. One food expert said it was “close to meat, but not that juicy” and another said it tasted like a real burger. Researchers say the technology could be a sustainable way of meeting what they say is a growing demand for meat.”

A lab in Holland is not quite rolling fields of filet mignon as far as e’er the eye can see, but life is imitating art once again and I have no doubt we’ll get to beef country in the end. You see, carniculture is one potential piece of a comprehensive technological solution to the problem of anthropogenic climate change.

I’m a climate change sceptic. That means I’m not convinced that anthropogenic climate change is happening, or that it isn’t. But I do know that Earth’s climate changes, with or without human help. Sometimes it happens rapidly. And I do know, too, that there are more people on Earth than the planet can support in the style to which we in the rich world are accustomed. Even if we’re going to see an overall global population decline in this century, as I expect, the convergence of living standards will generate a much higher demand for electricity, cars, nice houses, iGadgets, designer bags, pets, and beef. Etc., etc. So we either have to come up with more efficient means of producing these things (and disposing of them!) or deny our poorer brothers and sisters the chance to enjoy lifestyles replete with stuff.

Moo! Click picture above to read an article that points out the yuckier aspects of “IVM.”

It all adds up to a crying need for carniculture, among other energy-cheap technologies such as nuclear power(1), hydroponics, aquaculture, space-based solar power (and asteroid mining?? Some people think it’s feasible). Unfortunately, mass production of vat-grown beef is still a ways away. That in vitro burger cooked up in London cost $330,000 from petri dish to plate. Like any new technology, carniculture has still to undergo refinements that will deliver economies of scale.

That scientists should pursue it seems as obvious to me as the fact that they will. Science is like water flowing downhill: it goes where it can, without regard for what may be in the way. Sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes it isn’t. Discrimination and discernment are necessary. Carniculture, though, seems like an unqualified Good Thing. Even the notoriously hard-to-please PETA approves!

So why is M.T. Anderson trying to put us off it?

Eco-millenarianism alert!

That scene from Feed is meant to gross us out. Beef slabs the size of football fields! Beef that doesn’t come from a cow! Oh, yuck! We’re expected to recoil in disgust and shake our heads at man’s estrangement from nature. And I did, like the good little late-imperial American I am. A few minutes on I came to my senses. This is just our old friend, nostalgie de la boue, back again in sfnal clothing. M.T. Anderson is taking his place in a long tradition of science fiction writers who pretend to write about the future in order to criticise the present. Books like Feed don’t actually tell us anything about the future except that the writer in question has not thought very hard about it.

We should anticipate the future with joy. How can you work to influence something for the better if you’re afraid of it? And if that means looking forward to vat-grown steaks, I do. Beef country, here we come!


1. Yes, I am saying this as someone who experienced the Fukushima Dai-Ichi meltdown at close range. It was terrifying and I am still seething with outrage at the moronic blunderers who allowed it to happen and still have not bloody well cleaned up after themselves. But we aren’t glowing in the dark yet, and really? Read George Monbiot on How the Fukushima disaster taught me to stop worrying and embrace nuclear power.

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  1. Thanks David, I was trying not to mention Soylent Green 😀

    The Adams quote is very apropos. But don’t you find the idea of an animal that “wants to be eaten” yuckier by far than the idea of meat manufactured in a lab? I do.

    1. Yes, like someone in the lifeboat offering to be lunch for everyone else. Not very appealing. And it doesn’t necessarily solve the ethical issues since one could consider the animal’s consent to be coerced via the breeding process, even if the animal does not see it that way. So despite the idea of eating a Frankenburger being somewhat repulsive, I would choose it over a talking cow that asked me to eat it.

  2. I read the news about the lab-grown burger when it came out and my own reaction was revulsion (even without having been exposed to the creepy eyeball imagery you mention). It occurred to me at the time that I probably would have been very hesitant to be one of the taste testers. And while I agree that we have to overcome our reactions with a rational approach, I think a large part of the resistance is tied to our survival instinct. We are (particularly as we get older) resistance to change, but we are much more so when it comes to food. Eating experimentally can be fatal and so fear of funky foods is instinctively hard-wired.

    That said, I am not sure artificially grown meat is going end up being the winning solution (although it could be). Much can be done with soy and other products to emulate foods. 3-D printers are making it easier to make synthetics look like the real thing. And who knows what other technologies will offer alternative solutions. The lab-meat will have to compete. In any case, I agree we will have to get creative with our foods (Soylent Green anyone? – just kidding).

    Not that it will ever come to it, but Douglas Adams’ has some very funny related stuff in Restaurant at the End of the Universe (here is a quote from the book, trimmed for brevity):

    “What’s the problem Earthman?” said Zaphod, now transferring his attention to the animal’s enormous rump.
    “I just don’t want to eat an animal that’s standing here inviting me to,” said Arthur, “it’s heartless.”
    “Better than eating an animal that doesn’t want to be eaten,” said Zaphod.
    “That’s not the point,” Arthur protested. Then he thought about it for a moment. “Alright,” he said, “maybe it is the point. I don’t care, I’m not going to think about it now. I’ll just … er …”
    “I think I’ll just have a green salad,” he muttered.
    “A green salad?” said the animal, rolling his eyes disapprovingly at Arthur.
    “Are you going to tell me,” said Arthur, “that I shouldn’t have green salad?”
    “Well,” said the animal, “I know many vegetables that are very clear on that point. Which is why it was eventually decided to cut through the whole tangled problem and breed an animal that actually wanted to be eaten and was capable of saying so clearly and distinctly. And here I am.”

    I wonder if PETA would approve? Makes an interesting point about the vegetables.

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