A few weeks ago, I read a short piece in The Economist about how scientists in the Netherlands are trying to use bovine stem cells to grow beef muscle tissue in a lab. Then, as I was driving home from the dentist a week later, I caught radio host Kojo Namde interviewing one of the aforementioned scientists on his mid-day show. To garner publicity for their project, head researcher Mark Post announced his plans to eat a test-tube (or should I say pretri-dish?) produced burger by the end of the year. Hearing of this project, I had an immediate, visceral reaction of dismay, and I very nearly tried to call in to speak my piece. But the more I reflected on my misgivings, the more I realized that my response would not distill well into a twenty-five second radio critique. My distrust for this new technology is more complicated than a distaste for things that are “man-made” and “unnatural;” it goes beyond concerns of taste or texture or “monocrop” vulnerability, of resource allocation and the fetishization of science (although it includes all these as well). Here is my response—as best I can explain it—with help from my favorite agricultural philosopher, Wendell Berry, and his essay “Renewing Husbandry.”
I am wary of scientific developments that purport to remove a natural process from its natural setting. I believe that animals belong outside, that plants belong in the ground, and that the production limits naturally occurring in these settings serve a purpose larger than our own. I, like Wendell Berry, believe that these limits are good for us. To produce ground beef in a laboratory, limited only by the availability of culture material, seems fraught with a dangerous sense of invincibility. We come to believe that by isolating and compartmentalizing a process—raising pigs, or growing carrots, or perhaps some future day growing hamburger in a lab–we can move beyond all of those troublesome limits. Too often, in fact, we have only created new problems (what to do with all of the poop, or how to restore the fertility of depleted soil).
Limits grow hazy and hard to recognize the more we operate within a mechanized world of our own making, notes Wendell Berry. “After mechanization, it is certainly possible for a farmer to maintain a proper creaturely and stewardly awareness of the lives in her keeping…however, to maintain this kind of awareness requires a distinct effort of will.” From the tractor seat, it becomes harder to see or feel the soil. We must climb down, feel the earth; dig our hands deep. We must exercise, says Wendell Berry, the old value of husbandry. Is it possible, or even desirable, growing beef in a lab, to retain any awareness of husbandry? I doubt that the question would ever even present itself, though I consider it a central question to the process of feeding oneself, and the world.
This question of “how to feed the world?” is precisely the one raised by the researchers at Maastricht University as a justification for their project. They point to a growing population and the environmental costs of feedlot beef and say, “our hamburger will require fewer inputs and no land, and will avoid the waste of growing bones, brains, hooves, and horns. This strikes me as a false comparison, as false as the campaigns that cite how many pounds of corn it takes to fatten a steer for slaughter. Cows don’t have to eat corn; they are healthier when they eat grass. Animals are a cornerstone of good pasture and cropland management, making the soil more productive even as they themselves become a “product”. Animals can graze on land too steep for the plow, enriching it with their waste, fattening themselves on the grass and forbs that have in turn made free water and sun into vegetative matter. Will the process of growing that test-tube burger run on water and sunlight? Will it help the grass to grow greener, or feed what biologist call the soil food web?
Raising livestock on the land puts us in touch with our limits, and it rewards us in proportion to the attention we give to finding them. I am reminded of our friends Brendan and Katia, who raise dairy cows in Massachusett. One day, as I dodged an errant horn while bringing the cows into their stalls, I asked Katia why they do not dehorn their cows, as is standard practice in the dairy industry. She replied that the horns on her cows are an “anti-crowding device”–a self-imposed limit to the number of cows Brendan and Katia can manage in their parlor. Their cows are healthy and long-lived, and Brendan and Katia’s milk is among the best I have ever tasted.
One of the queerest aspects of this synthetically-produced meat is that no steer would actually need to be slaughtered for a burger to be produced. Scientist could harvest stem cells from a living cow, raise those cells and their billions of offspring on a laboratory “scaffold,” and ultimately harvest the muscle tissue without the cow ever being the wiser. This has raised the paradoxical possibility of “vegetarian” meat—indeed, animal rights group PETA has offered a $1 million prize for any researcher who can produce a chicken-less chicken breast by June of this year.
I am, perhaps unsurprisingly, no more conciliated by this justification. I come at the consumption of meat from the perspective of a producer, someone accustomed to following processes from start to finish. To remove the cow from the burger completes the detachment that is already perniciously evident in vacuum-packed chicken breasts and supermarket ground beef. Radical animal rights groups often claim that American consumers would not eat meat if we had to encounter the animal source or partake in the harvest, and perhaps many fewer would. But that, to me, indicates that we are already too far removed from our food, not that we should further widen the gulf between pasture and plate. The word “animal” comes from the older Latin word “anima,” meaning breath, or soul. To me, growing a tenderloin in a sterile medium in a lab is the final denial of any sort of animal soul, a rejection of the shared breath of farmers and their livestock.
My argument here will probably seem non-sensical to ethical vegetarians, or perhaps to other readers who feel uncomfortable with the transformation of living creature into meat. Nevertheless, I believe that the life of an animal matters as much, if not more than, its death. If we remove the animal from the equation, we lose the opportunity to become stewards of land and of life. We remove the imperative of consuming our meals with reverence and gratitude. We lose sight of our own mortality. I value the necessity of witnessing animal death, because it reminds me of the importance of animal life.