Cultured Meat? The way to end suffering?

Animals have historically been understood in a variety of ways that have served to justify the human use of their bodies for their flesh, labour, company and experimentation. Their lack of language, as understood by humans, has been the justification of the exploitation of animals in the history of the social sciences to the point where the howling dog being vivisected becomes “analogous to the squeaking of a rusty clock”. Descartes was a leading proponent of this attitude where he saw that human animals were soulless and nothing more than biological mechanical structures that could not think, know or feel.  This ideological framework justified a range of atrocities to animals including the development of factory farming, animal experimentation which included vivisection, and other structural forms of violence against all non-human animals. Jeremy Bentham, a well-known utilitarian philosopher, however, questioned our use of animals and is often quoted stating – “The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”. Suffering, for utilitarian’s like Bentham and Peter Singer became the benchmark for questions around how we treat animals.

This at first glance, seems like a reasonable standpoint to begin with when thinking about how we treat non-human (and human) animals. If suffering is involved should we not do everything that we can to reduce that suffering? Philosophers like Peter Singer have argued for vegetarianism as a response to this suffering, whereas others have not opposed the consumption of animals, but rather have called for local “humane” slaughter and consumption as an alternative to the high levels of suffering inherent in large scale factory and free-range agriculture.  If suffering is the benchmark of our actions would it not then be acceptable to consume animals that were free from all suffering?

At first this question seems easy to answer. Of course producing animal products without suffering would be ideal! From a utilitarian perspective this indeed would seem like a good path to take, and contemporary scientific “developments” have opened up room for discursive explorations of “meat without suffering”. This is what Andras Forgacs calls for in his talk about biofabricating meat and animal products like leather. By taking cells from a living animal, and using modern 3D printing technologies, he argues that we can ethically and sustainably produce meat and leather without enslaving the animal beyond the removal of a few cells. Another option would be to render the animal unconscious of her/his suffering by removing all knowledge and experience of one’s enslavement and use – including her/his death. John Miller in his article ‘In Vitro Meat: Power, Authenticity and Vegetarianism’ highlights how companies are well under way to advocating and developing these technologies of cultured meat where “a single cell could be used to produce enough meat to feed the global population for a year” (new-harvest.org).

The contexts in which these technologies take place, however, remain problematic. Jay Sanderson argues that bioengineering is critically examined within a legal framework but that sociological, ethical and moral conversations within the academic and wider community remain wanting. In examining the context in which bioengineering takes place Sanderson problematizes the tendency for us to jump straight to legal discussions of engineering biological matter arguing that the context of power in which these developments take place needs careful consideration. Bioengineering and biofabrication takes place within a capitalist corporate society where the eating of meat is closely linked to gender and sexuality – what Derrida has termed carnophallogocentricism. The eating of meat is so central to our understanding of ourselves as human, that if we were to become vegetarian in countries that produce flesh en masse that our very identities would be altered. If the bioengineering of meat takes place within a patriarchal capitalist context, it begs the question as to whether this is a legitimate way to end the suffering of nonhuman animals for the process not only relies on current technologies that abuse countless nonhuman animals, but in the end it may end up propping up the system where the eating of flesh is tied to our (human = non-animal) identity. John Miller warns us about this arguing that class differences and power imbalances amongst humans will necessarily prop up a system of animal exploitation, even if bioengineered meat was to take hold, as those who can afford it may well wish to access an “authentic” experience of eating natural meat – i.e. consuming meat that was once a whole living being, then slaughtered. This is aside from any consideration of the animals that will be used in attempts to “discover” this technological scientific knowledge. Where animals were once valued only for their corporeal bodies, now they are valued for their biological information, information which under corporate control will no doubt be exploited.

Despite Miller’s pessimism about the ethical standpoint of cultured meat, he reminds us not to dismiss biotechnology outright – especially if this rejection rests on a false dichotomy between nature and culture. Rather, he ends his discussion of in vitro meat with a reminder that vegetarianism is not just a way in which one abstains from eating animals, but is in itself a form of resistance against hegemonic power relations which posit the eating of flesh as superior and an indication of masculinity and virility. Eating meat is the ultimate statement about our place in the world as it is the ultimate triumph and expression of power over others, including ourselves. Therefore meat replacements, whether genetically engineered or processed, unintentionally serve to reinforce not just the practice of eating meat and the centrality of meat in our lives, but also the social systems sustaining such practices and the meaning associated with its consumption.

When framed within a utilitarian perspective “meat without suffering” might seem like a viable alternative to today’s cruel practices of meat production. However this “victimless utopia” does little more than continue to facilitate a “collective forgetting” of where our food comes from and at what cost. It also continues to render animals absent, continuing the historical legacy that seems to suggest that what we don’t know can’t hurt. To quote the Tissue Culture and Art Project – “parts of the living are fragmented and taken away from the context of the host body (and the mere act of fragmentation is violent) and are introduced to a technological mediation that further ‘abstracts’ their livingness. By creating a new class of Semi-Being, which is dependent on our technology for survival, we are also creating a new class for exploitation”. The question of suffering is now insufficient when dealing with such a complex issue, as is legal discourse around rights. What is needed is a much more nuanced account that takes the broader social context of human and non-human animal suffering and posits it within a patriarchal capitalist system of domination and violence.

Author: Mel Jackman

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