The audience were in the dark – quite literally, as the lights were turned off in the packed tent. Most of the audience were in the dark about the subject too, given the topic for discussion was food that only one person in the room had ever tasted.
The spotlight was on cultured meat. On stage, five of us were in the spotlight – on the first day of the 2018 edition of the Hay Festival. I was joined on stage by Marianne Ellis, Illtud Lyr Dunsford and Alex Sexton, leading experts on cultured meat and cellular agriculture – plus Andy Fryers, Sustainability Director at the Hay Festival, who expertly hosted the discussion. I hope we shed a light on some of the intricacies of cultured meat and some of the questions it raises.
Others on the panel explained what cultured meat is and how it works - being much more qualified than me to talk about the technical details. I won’t describe the who, what and how of cultured meat here. Our Council member Ralph Early has written an excellent blog to unravel this emerging technology here.
Whilst others explained how we might grow cultured meat in the future, my – perhaps easier - job was to ask the big questions. My first question was “even if we can grow cultured meat in the future, should we?”. Most ethical arguments for cultured meat revolve around the possibility of it replacing inhumane intensive animal farming or the environmental benefits it might bring if it takes over from ‘conventional’ meat. For me, too many question marks remain about the environmental impacts to be able to give it unequivocal approval. The Panel collectively nodded heads when it was suggested we wait until cultured meat be produced at scale before assessing its environmental impact. However, an audience member rightly challenged afterwards, saying wouldn’t it ‘be too late’ by then…?
There are questions too about how acceptable it might be to the public, how affordable it will be and how might it connect or disconnect people with where their food comes from? Vital to its success is what this ends up being called. What started out as ‘in vitro meat’ and ‘lab-grown meat’ went on to be more widely called ‘cultured meat’ and increasingly (in the US at least) ‘clean meat’ – the last of which in particular I’m not keen on. One suggestion that I was sceptical of was the idea that the future for cultured meat might be small-scale and artisanal in nature.
Questions we should ask of any ‘techno-fix solution’… What problems are we trying to solve? Who does it empower? Who does it disempower? And who will own the technology in future – not least when there is so much current interest from Silicon Valley billionaires? These might make me come across as dismissive – but in truth my take is that we should explore technologies such as cultured meat, but shouldn’t unquestioningly embrace them.
Despite the newness of the concept, we had insightful questions from what should perhaps be described as a ‘cultured’ audience. This included a question about whether cultured meat will follow ‘the GM foods route’ (time will tell) and a question about taste. On the last point, it was Illtud that was the only one in the room – and one of very few people in the UK - to have actually tasted cultured meat. For the record, he said it was delicious – high praise from an award-winning charcutier and farmer!
My take away on cultured meat: don’t be seduced by the promise of potentially tasty substances trying to imitate ‘real’ meat just yet. Keep on asking questions….