Tag Archives: Food

The $250,000 burger: towards a new moral economy of meat-eating?

Image credit: macieklew

No cows were harmed in the making of this post
Image credit: macieklew

By Helen Pallett

On Monday afternoon at a West London press conference, reporters witnessed a world first: the eating of a pioneering laboratory-grown hamburger. The carefully orchestrated spectacle also reached a further audience worldwide, as this pricey mid-afternoon snack was streamed live onto thousands of PCs, whilst others joined in the conversation on twitter with the hashtag #culturedbeef. Media reporting on this event has been quick to point out the potential of this emerging technology to alleviate pressing food security and distribution problems, and to reduce the environmental impacts of meat production. The arrival of the new burger has also been celebrated by animal rights advocates, such as the philosopher Peter Singer and the activist group PETA, as opening up a new market of cruelty-free meet.

The event has raised challenging questions which have stimulated wide-ranging debates across the traditional media and new media. Are there any meaningful differences between this stem cell burger and ‘natural’ meat? How do we know that it is safe to eat? What stance should vegetarians take? Can a lab-based food source prove to be a sustainable alternative to other low carbon, low impact diets based on low meat intake and local or organic food? And of course, does it taste any good?

The press conference focused on demonstrating the safety of the new product, but also brought together a group of food writers and journalists to attest to the meat-like taste and texture of the burger. What was not under the microscope were some of the broader moral and economic questions, covering scales beyond the object of this solitary burger, spanning temporalities beyond the specific event, and concerning the whole of the production chain. In a 2009 paper, Peter Jackson and colleagues used the term ‘moral economy’ to describe how ethical and moral concerns were expressed across time and space, and in relation to the diverse practices and processes involved in the production of different food products. Whilst Jackson’s paper was concerned with the morals and markets of the supply chains of chicken and sugar, their framework also helps to shed light on the moral economy of this newest of products.

The answers to questions such as ‘how different is this new meat?’ and ‘is it suitable for vegetarians?’ depend not only on which ethical frameworks we use but also where we choose to look, through space and time. The in vitro burger is made up of muscle tissue, the substance which would also account for the majority of any normal beef burger that you could pick up in the local supermarket. The scientists have also been careful to reassure potential consumers that there have been no ‘unnatural’ chemicals added to the burger. In this sense then, perhaps there is no meaningful difference between the two kinds of beef. But the processes that went into making the new burger, do set it apart, and this is why it is possible to claim vast environmental benefits of in vitro meat. A small amount of muscle cells are harvested from a living cow and are then nurtured in the lab so that they grow and multiply. This process takes around 3 months, much shorter than the life of the average cow when it enters the slaughterhouse. The carefully controlled laboratory process also means that there is no fat in the meat to give it flavour, so this instead came from the use of ‘natural’ flavourings such as beet.

On the question of the response of vegetarians, the the texture and taste of the burger itself has been likened to the meat substitute quorn. When we broaden our gaze to the production processes as well, the burger has been welcomed as cruelty-free (and therefore implicitly vegetarian friendly) meat by many advocates as it requires the painless removal of muscle cells rather than the slaughter of a cow. However, when the micro-scale laboratory processes which go into the production of the meat are also brought into the frame the use of calf serum – a slaughterhouse product – to nurture the stem cells comes into view.

Another aspect of the moral economy of the new burger which has been relatively unexplored in the media coverage is its situation in broader economic and market structures. The making of the in vitro burger was bank-rolled by the much-criticised Google co-founder Sergey Brin, citing animal welfare concerns but also with interests in the market potential of this emerging product. In the liberalised and globalised modern food industry does this product bring into being new moral economies or will it simply be moulded by existing ones?

books_icon Peter Jackson, Neil Ward & Polly Russell, 2009, Moral economies of food and geographies of responsibilityTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 34 12-24

60-world2 The world’s first cruelty-free burger The Guardian, 5 August 2013

60-world2 First hamburger made from lab-grown meat to be served at press-conference The Guardian, 5 August 2013

60-world2 Google’s Sergey Brin bankrolled world’s first synthetic beef hamburger The Guardian, 5 August 2013

60-world2 World’s first synthetic hamburger gets full marks for ‘mouth feel’ The Guardian, 5 August 2013

60-world2 Synthetic meat: is it ‘natural’ food? The Guardian, 6 August 2013

60-world2 Lab-grown burgers cannot provide a secure future for Africa The Guardian, 6 August 2013

60-world2 PETA: Lab meat to provide methadone for meat eaters ITV News, 5 August 2013

60-world2 What is Cultured Beef? Maastricht University, accessed 5 August 2013

60-world2 Test-Tube Burger: Lab-Cultured Meat Passes Taste Test (Sort of) Scientific American, 5 August 2013

Local solutions to global food shortages

Mopane Caterpillar

A Mopane caterpillar, found in southern Africa

I-Hsien Porter

The United Nations ‘Food Price Index’ recorded food prices (particularly cereals, sugar and meat) rising to record highs.

Warnings of dangerously high food prices were driven by dry weather in Argentina, cold weather in Europe and North America, and floods in Australia. For example, Australia is the world’s fourth largest exporter of wheat.

However, our attention is rarely drawn to food consumption, rather than food production. In a paper in the Geographical Journal, Peter Illgner and Etienne Nel highlight the loss of traditional food and food consumption, which in many parts of the world has been displaced by imported Western fare.

In a case study of the Mopane caterpillar, the authors argue that edible insects have historically been important to diet in poor rural communities. If bias towards Western foods could be overcome, Illgner and Nel express the view that insects are an economically and practically viable addition to our diets. In addition, this might even empower poor communities that cannot aspire to lifestyles associated with high levels of consumption.

The Guardian (5th January 2011) ‘World food prices enter ‘danger territory’ to reach record high’.

Illgner, P. and Nel, E. (2000) ‘The Geography of Edible Insects in Sub-Saharan Africa: a study of the Mopane Caterpillar’. The Geographical Journal 166 (4): 336-351

Beanz Meanz Home; migrants, food and place

by Fiona Ferbrache

As geographers, we are aware of the problems associated with reverting to stereotypes.  However, I do wish to draw upon the notion that France is synonymous with good food, if only that you might share my surprise on finding an article suggesting that British citizens living in France are creating a high demand for food imports from the UK.  This demand has led to a successful business venture catering to cross-border grocery shopping.

The Guardian report highlights how some Britons in France are online shopping at their favourite UK supermarkets and ordering food (UK and French food – including boxes of croissant) that is then delivered to one of four specialist depots.  From here, a delivery firm, catering to these international customers, drives the lorry-load of goods to consumers in France.  Geographers might be interested to pursue these behaviours for they reveal much about affective relations between migrants and place.

Longhurst et al. (2009) do just this.  Focused on migrant women’s cooking experiences in Hamilton, New Zealand, the researchers explore the visceral experiences of food and how it can help migrant women to connect with their ‘old home’.  The research rests on migrants’ senses of food; sight, sound, smell, taste and touch and what this tells us about their emotional relations with place.

Bon appétit!

Hickman, L. (2010) Expat orders for British supermarket food surge on strength of euro: The Guardian. Wednesday 09 June, 2010

Longhurst, R., Johnston, L. & Ho, E. (2009) A visceral approach: cooking ‘at home’ with migrant women in Hamilton, New Zealand. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. Vol.34, 3 pp.333-345