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Meat Planet

Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft
University of California Press
2019
264 pp.
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Benjamin Wurgaft’s Meat Planet meanders along a reflective continuum, exploring the promise of cultured meat as well as the philosophical underpinnings used to rationalize the cost of such a creation. It is described as an “anthropological ethnography,” so I prepared myself for a holistic and comparative immersion into “meat culture.”

The book begins by introducing some of the players involved. There is Mark Post, a Dutch medical doctor and physiologist, who is responsible for culturing the bovine stem cells that would become the first laboratory-grown burger. Google cofounder Sergey Brin, we learn, has backed the research that could be pivotal to the food future. We also hear from biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham, who shares a “radicalized” perspective on our evolutionary relationship with meat. According to Wrangham, “We are a species designed to love meat.”
Wurgaft’s ethnographic account of meat culture does not have a key informant to interpret “meat culture.” Instead, he takes on this role himself, informing the reader that there was almost no laboratory science to observe but much public discussion, which comprises the bulk of his participant-observation.

In the book’s introductory chapter, Wurgaft offers some facts and figures about animal muscle—from its basic structure to its nutritional value—and describes the associated environmental impact of its production. His perspective is a decidedly Western one, with historical and policy discussions centered on systems in place in the United States, England, and France. There are no comparative discussions about worldwide food systems or perspectives from the many international institutions and scholars who have been sounding alarms for decades about the impact of meat consumption in developed nations (1–4).

Wurgaft also struggles with the scientific ruminations of anthropology. He misrepresents, for example, what biological anthropologists such as Wrangham say about the human evolutionary history of meat. Yes, these researchers tussle with concepts related to the evolution of food systems. However, none use ethnographic accounts to definitively state that a specific diet was consumed at a particular time in a given environment.

At times, Wurgaft seems disquieted by his own patterns of meat consumption, proclaiming at the end of chapter three, for example, “I am the one out of joint, still eating animals.” Clearly, the author is grappling with his subject, one he says was designed to locate the “lineaments of my larger society in the concepts of its speculative biotechnology.” But are the lineaments of Wurgaft’s larger society the best way to understand the culture of food futurists and the reasons for their labor to generate meat from bovine stem cells?

Wurgaft tells readers to think of his book as a “biotechnological nature walk,” an “assemblage of detours through the history of the future of food.” Unfortunately, Meat Planet does not provide the tools to make this complex journey, let alone communicate effectively about the space that meat culture occupies around the world.

References and Notes
1. F. Carus, Guardian 2 June 2010.
2. L. C. Hoffman, D. M. Cawthorn, Animal Front. 2, 40 (2012).
3. H. Ritchie, M. Roser Meat and seafood production & consumption (2019); https://ourworldindata.org/meat-and-seafood-production-consumption.
4. B. Winders, D. Nibert, Int. J. Sociol. Soc. Pol. 24, 76 (2004).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Nutrition and Health Sciences, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Lincoln, NE 68588, USA.