This is a response to Kate Lunau’s article discussing a new book by Josh Schonwald, The Taste of Tomorrow: Dispatches from the Future of Food.
The article emphasises (speculatively entertaining) innovations in food production, and is, as such, a fun-filled collection of titillating tidbits and hopeful hypotheses about potential developments in food with regard to climate change, resource management, world health and economics, and the like.
It also considers foodie sensibilities, and the oft-utopian niche endeavours to grow your own and be the change you want to see (by keeping backyard fowl, distilling dandelions, and maybe–if you are me–running parkour with the urban deer). The problem with such excellent activities, of course, is that they are likely not accessible to the vast majority of people, who will continue to rely on mass-produced everything.
So the article previews Schonwald’s look at some possible changes to the menu of what may become available to the masses. Perhaps these possibilities will inspire the speculative writers among you for a nice little snack of a daydream idea. Please let me know if you write anything; I want to read it.
What inspired my response is the delightfully problematic phrase quoted above, about the kinds of meat that could be grown in a lab with the help of “donor animals.” Mind, this is only one of Schonwald’s topics, and Lunau surveys more. But this is what caught my attention. From the article:
It sounds a bit like Frankenstein’s lab, but Post, a medical doctor by training, believes in vitro meat could help feed the world. With his method, “you still need donor animals to supply the cells,” he says, “but we think we could reduce the number of livestock worldwide by a factor of one million,” the equivalent of going from 10 billion animals to 10,000. Beyond freeing up land and water, “you could take care of every animal and make sure they didn’t suffer a death fraught with the issues of large-scale slaughter,” he says.
Post is slowly convincing others of the value of his in vitro meat. He received 300,000 euros from an anonymous donor to make one hamburger as proof of concept, which should be ready by November (Post still hasn’t tried eating his lab-grown meat). Schonwald, who met with Post while researching his book, writes about a possible future of “football-field-sized factories supplying chicken, beef and pork,” and in the home, “a toaster-sized appliance that makes meat making as simple as bread making.” Most mind-bendingly, with the right DNA sample, notes Schonwald, it would be possible to grow a hamburger out of virtually anything. “Endangered, taboo animals—zebras, giraffes, giant pandas, California condors.” If the idea of eating a panda burger isn’t exotic enough, keep in mind that if a scientist ever manages to retrieve dinosaur DNA, we could theoretically feast on a slab of T. Rex or brontosaurus meat.
So, the production of lab-grown meat could mean that we drastically reduce–with paradigm-shifting results–the environmental and ethical impact of agribusiness (and I agree that this is huge, huge! Still gross. But huge!). BUT ALSO, we could eat meat grown from the cells of exotic, extinct, and endangered animals. Taboo animals.
This phrase isolates one very big implication of growing meat. It is not exactly that it smacks of playing God. That is rather blurry; after all, the meat is live, but not alive. And the revulsion at the thought of eating it (Lunau comments that the project’s founder Post has not actually sampled the product) probably just comes from our not being used to it. . . . right?
But something else is going on here. The nagging strangeness seems to emerge from how such an innovation effaces the notion of a certain ontological primacy.
Regardless of arguments about God, or origins, or evolutionary potential, or free will, or biological determinism, the use of “taboo” introduces an uneasy pressure that has to do with the confrontation of the other, and the fear/desire dynamic inherent in that relationship.
Let us consider what else is signified with Schonwald’s invocation of “taboo.” There is the usual serpent-apple-whoa, naked-sex-banishment discourse. There is the question of cannibalism discourse. And then there is Oedipus. Thus, by thoughtfully classifying endangered (exotic) animals as ideologically “taboo,” Schonwald has set an epic table and invited a very primal cast of characters to the future feast.
Consider: here, you may gorge on Giant Panda Chops with Forbidden Apple Chutney, glugging goblets of mixed Pork Milk curdled by the Blood of the Lamb while wearing a Python Bikini that could actually be made from GENUINE SATAN SKIN. After you finish picking the gristle from between your insatiable omnivorous incisors, and wiping your omega-3-enriched oily lips, please have more sex with your brother (or your mother), who is also your number one fan! Nothing indelicate about it–all is yours for the taking! Exotic! Exciting! So lifelike! So REAL.
Dallying with taboos: heady stuff indeed. We may yet glut our collective maw with our own shadow.
I’m on it! Thinking of food grown in vats for public consumption, with a lucrative market for taboo products for wealthy, private clientele.