A Response to Beyond the Impossible

TechnologyKevin Archer is a chef, farmer, and founder of the Peace Meal Supper Club.   He had the following response to Beyond the Impossible: The Futures of Plant-based and Cellular Meat and Dairy.

I appreciate the angles you’ve taken, and certainly the research backing up the entire piece. It is a complex topic, not covered easily.

What keeps going through my mind on this is that tech—and I am loading this syllable with all manner of technological exercises; applied science, as it were, not basic science—is not solutionary. It is a commercial exercise which always focuses on its own longevity. It does not seek to finally solve a problem; it looks to supply more products. This is perhaps the most dominant trait of our political economy, also . . . to the surprise of no one.

It is difficult to see these exercises solving world hunger, rampant meat consumption, or really any other problem. They will make gains, grab a little market share, then wax and wane as all such enterprises. I do not view them as revolutionary.

My concerns go beyond the ones you’ve detailed. There are distinct vulnerabilities associated with centralized food production, especially high-tech food production. It is subject to hacking and the incorporation of contaminants just to name a couple.

I believe that the forms you write about—plant-based, cellular, and “better” meats—are extractive by nature. Factories (or labs as proponents might prefer to call them) are aggregators of multiple forms of extraction, including labor, water, and components of plant/animal materials. But we must look deeper than these forms. High-tech production of food requires the constant extraction of copper, aluminum, gold, and other metals. When we think “tech” we must think “mining.”

We also must think software updates, system bugs, endless obsolescence and upgrades, and massive data centers. Here’s a tidbit from inside the sordid world of high tech: service contracts on data servers and processors typically carry a five-year term. The equipment itself can run for up to ten, but corporations are not willing to operate those additional five years without service. Therefore, these massive systems, which can fill a football field, are retired and scrapped. More resources are extracted to build more systems, ad infinitum. Hopefully this practice is included in the ecological footprint calculations you mention.

Your citing of the Land Grant Act is curious, for this has not worked out particularly well. Jack Ralph Kloppenburg details in his book First the Seed, how the LGUs were quickly co-opted by industry, which led to industry taking control of the entire agricultural sector. We have had a steady decline in seed diversity, arable land, and pollinator support, as well as a loss of family farms. The Act has not been a uniformly positive thing.

Hanyu’s vision of the new world of cellular and plant-based meats is certainly rosy, to the point of naïveté. We can apply his promises of personal empowerment to just about every human innovation—and watch the predictable outcomes. A cellular production machine on every home kitchen counter equals just another gadget—like a bread machine, air fryer, slow cooker, George Foreman grill—which will go unused and end up at Goodwill (hopefully) or in a landfill (likely).

While I appreciate your optimistic recommendations, I can’t help think that our political economy has never favored the individual, the environment, or the laborer. Automation has always taken precedence over employment of humans, corporate structures have always resisted diversification, and a factory approach to food has, by and large, led to a degradation in the food supply. To make all this work in our favor would require a re-engineering of humans.

Given the trajectory of the environment generally and our government specifically, I think an agrarian return is inevitable. (I don’t think we’ll willingly go there, nor will we do so easily.) And yes, all forms of agriculture are problematic, but at least small, strategically distributed, regenerative agriculture is oriented towards renewal. Would it not be more sensible to put our energy into making that transition more successful?