Meat for Spaceship Earth?

by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft

As of 2016 “in vitro” or “cultured” meat is real, produced in very small amounts in a small handful of laboratories. A very small number of people have eaten it, most famously during Mark Post’s 2013 hamburger demonstration in London. Cultured meat is also something much less concrete: an imagined food of the future, a prediction, a vision of hamburgers to come. It has in turn been made possible by other predictions and conjectures about our global demographics, shrinking farmland and the state of food security in future decades. The practice of worrying over, planning for, and more generally thinking about the future of food, has a long history in Western Europe and North America. It is critical that we examine this history if we wish to understand cultured meat and the climate of expectation that currently surrounds it.

Biosphere 2, 2006 - photo: CCBY CGP Grey

One tempting starting point from which to plot the history of the future of food, is Thomas Robert Malthus’s 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population. One of the classic works of demographic theory and political economy, this work was written by a young scholar alarmed by population growth both in Europe and in Britain’s American colonies. As historian Warren Belasco points out, Malthus’s ideas about population growth, food production and the relation between them, would form one pole of debate about the future of food, especially in public policy circles.1 The opposite pole could be called “Cornucopianism.” Whereas Malthusians assume that population growth will always outstrip food supply, exposing the poorest members of a population to malnutrition or starvation, Cornucopians believe in our ability, as Belasco puts it, to have both “babies and steaks,” secure in the knowledge that technological improvements across the food system, from agriculture to industrial processing, mean that supply will rise to meet and even exceed rising demand. Cornucopianism, interestingly, has proven equally compatible with both right and left-wing orientations; it has found supporters among friends of the free market as well as among utopian socialists, and Friedrich Engels himself believed that technological progress would prove Malthusian predictions wrong.

Malthus speculated that population growth always expands “geometrically” (or, exponentially) to fill newly settled areas or to exploit new resources, whereas food production only increases “arithmetically,” or at a constant rate. “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man,” he wrote. The human appetites were central here: human populations could not be expected to curb their sexual drives or their appetites for food, with disastrous results. Thus Malthus advocated for population control, as his followers would do for generations to come and as they still do today. Notably Malthus saw meat as desirable, perhaps even a suitable measure of a healthy diet, and since he acknowledged that meat was inefficient to produce when compared to plant-based food, he invoked meat’s inherent value as a reason to keep populations low. Three years before Malthus, the Cornucopian marquis de Condorcet had published his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, a text animated by the Enlightenment belief that social morality and technology could advance hand in hand, and tended to do so. Unlike Malthus, Condorcet believed in a form of “moral progress” that included increasing self-restraint. He furthermore believed that the ills that plagued humankind, including poverty and starvation, could be alleviated through the advancement of scientific knowledge. Condorcet was swiftly followed by a wave of early nineteenth-century utopians, including Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and Auguste Comte, all of whose visions of utopia included bountiful food made possible by science, technology or social engineering.2

While Malthusianism has demonstrated its appeal for economists and demographers, governments have seldom implemented the population control measures that Malthusianism dictates. Actual human practice in the West, over the past two hundred years, has wittingly or unwittingly reflected a Cornucopian attitude towards the powers of technology to provide more and more food. As modernization and population growth continued, the late twentieth and early twenty-first century have been marked by increasingly fierce conflicts between Malthusian and Cornucopian futurists, and this conflict has shaped the conversation around cultured meat. Ever since Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 The Population Bomb, which predicted massive famines in the last decades of the twentieth century and advocated for population control, Malthusianism has been a central part of our growing environmental consciousness: call this the idea that “Spaceship Earth” has a limited carrying capacity, and limited resources that we are very rapidly depleting.3 Cultured meat has gained traction, as an idea, at an historical moment when we are preoccupied by climate change and visions of near-future environmental catastrophe. Each unusual climatic pattern reminds us of the material limits of our world. Cultured meat is a classically Cornucopian vision of the future of food in the sense that it seeks to make the material world less limited, but it is also Malthusian in its underlying assumptions about human appetites and their tendency to cause populations to swell beyond available resources. There would be no need for cultured meat, from a food security perspective alone (as opposed to an animal welfare or environmentalist perspective), if people could be convinced to eat less meat, or to produce fewer offspring. Cultured meat reflects optimism about technology and pessimism about human behavior’s capacity to be reformed.

Cultured meat is also a project developed in the West with an eye towards the East. There is nothing neo-colonial intended here, of course; cultured meat’s pioneers do not seek to plan an ideal diet for the inhabitants of developing economies. However, expectations for cultured meat have been influenced by an old set of ideas about economic development and meat consumption, ideas that developed in the colonial British imagination. The dream of laboratory-grown meat anticipates the continued rise of the middle classes in states like China and India, where not just populations in general but populations within the middle classes in particular, are on the increase. The notion here is that in developing countries there is a “protein ladder” that we move up as we gain prosperity, eating more and more meat as a marker of increased class status, and this despite any local tendencies towards vegetarianism. These predictions may turn out to be true, and certainly, the influence of the Western diet on Asian countries has been well known for decades.4 But such predictions nevertheless reveal a belief that appetite and economic development work together as if naturally linked. Cultured meat, in such a way of thinking, becomes the means by which growth is allowed to continue without sacrificing animal flesh. And cultured meat would also put an end to a very old Western fear: Malthus and his immediate contemporaries saw a vegetable and rice-based “Asian diet” as inferior to the beef-based diet of the well-to-do in Europe, and they used the Asian diet to symbolize the kind of scenario they were striving to avoid. Predictions about how much meat different demographics will consume in ten, twenty or forty years involve assumptions about what meat means to varied human populations. Furthermore, such predictions seem to rest on quasi-anthropological claims about human nature, either that eating meat is a natural part of human life and that vegetarianism is the unnatural or exceptional condition, or that human appetites are so difficult to change that, instead of reforming them, we should simply seek to satisfy them by means that are environmentally and ethically more sustainable.

It is a striking fact that some of the earliest practical cultured meat research was funded by NASA. Biologist Morris Benjaminson attempted to culture fish cells with an eye towards developing a system of protein production that could be used on long voyages in space. His team conducted their research just as another, much more famous, experiment in sustaining life in enclosed, human-built environments, ended: this was Biosphere II, a set of enclosures (“3.15 acres of the most intensely cultivated territory on the planet”5) in the Arizona desert, a greenhouse whose scientific target was a better understanding of ecological systems and of the way humans and their technology intermesh with those systems; while Biosphere II still exists, the “closed mission” experiments, in which a crew of human researchers lived entirely inside the enclosures, and off of food produced therein, ended in 1994. There is, of course, a very long history of trying to make isolated bits of human-made infrastructure sustain life, removed from ecosystems and familiar sources of food:6 the space program and Biosphere II are just more “charismatic,” science-fictional and attention-grabbing endeavors than, say, sustaining the lives of miners working deep within the Earth. But they are also endeavors conducted in the shadow of one aforementioned idea of the 1960s, a decade of rising environmentalist sentiment which took on, in many Western countries, a decidedly Malthusian edge. “Spaceship Earth” was really a life-raft in the cosmos, an illustration of how little we really have, in terms of security, beyond a “biosphere” we are rapidly depleting – whose “carrying capacity” we were quickly reaching, or had already reached. Some continue to speculate that cultured meat would be an ideal food source for long space flights, but the idea that it might be food for our already-existing “spaceship” of a planet is also compelling. It speaks to the decidedly Cornucopian dream of unplugging food from conventional soil-and-water agriculture and thereby cutting off one of our remaining links to the natural world. It embraces the “Spaceship Earth” metaphor a little more fully than that metaphor’s originators might like: in part to relieve the environment of the burden of livestock, cultured meat might situate us more and more within a world of human-made artifacts. “Spaceship Earth,” a metaphor created in order to instill ecological consciousness, can also inspire the fantasy of a fully non-ecological human life.7 In this regard it reaches back to ideas about the future of food that developed long before cultured meat, such as the nineteenth century French chemist Marcelin Berthelot’s idea of producing food entirely in the laboratory through the synthesis of compounds.

Malthusianism and Cornucopianism are only two ways to think about the future of food on Spaceship Earth, albeit two very influential ones. Both attend primarily to questions of production and consumption rather than to questions of food distribution. Both Malthusianism and Cornucopianism consider the human appetites and technology to be opposing forces, and ask whether or not the latter can help thwart the limitations of the former. Perhaps more than production, food distribution is an inherently political matter, and to change the way food is distributed requires political will. As Belasco suggests, in the 1790s a redistributive approach to food security was represented by a third figure: the radical English journalist and political philosopher William Godwin, whose utilitarian attitude towards the maximization of happiness led him to believe that vegetarianism was not only possible (i.e., human behavior was susceptible to reform), it would be desirable if it facilitated a larger human population than a meat-rich diet could support. Cultured meat, like other “foods of the future” proposes to resolve environmental and food security problems by technological means. Thus it might seem to lie outside politics, debate and ideological conflict—yet the Cornucopian attitude that infuses cultured meat work, is nothing if not ideological. Nor could such technology ever escape politics. Not only will cultured meat be regulated, much as all parts of the food industry are regulated, it is entirely possible that the road to cultured meat will occasionally be blocked by lobbying groups with an interest in bringing research to a halt. And along the way we may wonder, again and again, if the path to food security might lie less in new technologies than in the more equal distribution of the food we already produce.

  1. Warren Belasco, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006)

  2. See Frank E. Manuel, The Prophets of Paris: Turgot, Condorcet, Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Comte (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1965).

  3. Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (New York: Ballantine, 1968). The idea of “Spaceship Earth” has late nineteenth-century origins, but was popularized in the late 1960s in a series of works by various authors. See for ex. Barbara Ward, Spaceship Earth (New York, Columbia University Press, 1966) and Buckminster Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1969).

  4. See James L. Watson, Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997); See also Deborah Gewertz and Frederick Errington, Cheap Meat: Flap Food Nations in the Pacific Islands (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).

  5. Michael Sorkin, “Utopia Under Glass,” I.D. Magazine, V. 40, N. 5, September/October 1993.

  6. See Rosalind Williams, Notes on the Underground: An Essay on Technology, Society and the Imagination (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008).

  7. On the metaphor of “Spaceship Earth” see Benjamin Lazier, “Earthrise; or, The Globalization of the World Picture,” The American Historical Review (2011) 116 (3): 602-630.