From Vegan to Cegan: Why Cellular Agriculture Will Spawn a New Food Identity
Updated: Mar 2, 2021
Anthropologists have long known that people all over the world are food storytellers before they are food consumers: food is part of the social and cultural narrative we tell ourselves and others about who we are. Cultural narratives about meat consumption (or non-consumption) serve to “explain why we endow animal flesh with its unique status and thence, to suggest whether our rapidly changing view of this singular substance is a fashion or a trend” (Fiddes 1994: 271). In 2021, this point needs no elaboration: people are quick to volunteer their unsolicited dietary preferences and choices that tend to make totalizing moral statements about our core identities. Eating is much more about being than doing, which is why saying “I am a vegan” is an implicit commentary about actual or virtual membership in a community of practice that has both real and imaginary boundaries that are scrutinized and policed at will.
The modern vegan identity is no longer underwritten by philosophical or ideological conviction alone: it is a product of biotechnology that ultimately gave us the Impossible Burger and hundreds of other plant-based versions of animal foods. It is also a reactive identity, a response to the universal cult of carnism that effortlessly attracts and recruits. The value of meat is so tautological (true under any interpretation) that only not consuming it necessitates an explanation. This also informs why we feel the need to call non-animal meat “alt protein” rather than just calling it protein, and why plant-based facsimiles of animal foods are a multibillion-dollar market. There has been a lot of debate as to what we should call cultivated meat (such as cultured meat, cell-based meat, in vitro meat, etc.) but not a lot about what we should call its future consumers. Why do we need to call this new type of consumption choice anything at all? Will the novelty of consuming bio-identical animal products made via cellular agriculture really be profound enough to become part of our future food narratives and identities?
The answer, I think, is most likely yes. Because on today’s hyperaware consumer plate, sustainability is the new star of the dish; the rest is mostly organic, allergen-safe, or gluten-free garnish.
So, what should we call people who would only consume cultivated meat or animal-based products created by way of cellular agriculture? Kris Gasteratos of CAS coined the term Neomnivore three years ago to emphasize the future addition of cellular agriculture products in the human diet. Although he’s no longer keen on the term – or any term that emphasizes the difference between conventional and cultivated meat – Gasteratos inspired my own linguistic exploration of consumer identity nomenclature: should it be cellagetarian? Or celltarian? I’ve finally settled on cegan, for its ontological relationship to vegan, and because it just rolls off the tongue a bit easier (I am not claiming that I invented the word, only that at of the time of writing this, Google is not spitting any authorship on my definition back at me).
Neil Stephens and Chris Bryant, two other distinguished gentlemen in the academic field of cellular agriculture that I recently had the pleasure of speaking with, tend to agree with Gasteratos that cellular agriculture products either shouldn’t have a categorically exclusive or limiting label, or that emphasis on difference might negatively affect marketing efforts. I know there are others who take this point of view and I tend to agree. However, not only I do believe that ceganism will become a new food identity, but I think we should actively support its inevitability to help cellular agriculture earn the sustainability credit it deserves. I just can’t imagine that a such a radically disruptive food innovation that is already the talk of every tech town on the planet won’t become part of our very own personal food narratives, especially for those who start with justification qualifiers such as “I do eat meat but I only eat…”
Can Cellular Agriculture Make Meat Eaters And Vegans Be Friends?
How might ceganism as a new food identity affect its relationship to both veganism and carnism? The vegan and the cegan share exactly the same environmental, human health-, and animal welfare-related rationales for their choices not to eat conventionally raised animals or animal products. The major remaining difference might be that most vegans reject thinking of animals or animal products as food categories while cegans might only reject the conventional production methods of such but embrace the cellular end product. Then again, if the whole premise of cellular agriculture is eating meat without eating animals then the very essence of what meat is will enable that.
What is even more interesting here is that cellular agriculture could move the binary that has up until now polarized and divided meat eaters and vegans to an entirely different line that might divide people into “virtuous” vs. “non-virtuous” or “sustainable” vs. “unsustainable” eaters. Cegans thus move into ideological vegan turf for not consuming conventionally produced animals or animal products while still having vastly different diets. In theory then, cegans should be vetted by vegans as equally conscientious consumption partners in crime. On the other hand, I don’t believe that cegan foods will suddenly turn millions of vegans into bone-gnawing, greasy-fingered diners who can now eat meat without feeling ethically reckless. But I do anticipate that there might be a new party line within vegan communities, dividing those who might abandon “pure” veganism or plant-based only diets by dabbling in cultivated meat from those who remain loyal to the original vegan manifesto regardless of what meat might mean in the future.
Of course, vegan attitudes toward cellular agriculture already differ across the board: some object to cellular agriculture’s pro-meat, pro-profit attitude which they feel violates one of the philosophical principles of not eating or exploiting any sentient beings or their products, period. Others take issue with the complete disconnection from nature and over-reliance on biotechnology to produce food, especially since big ag corporations are no longer demonized but invited to invest in the future of protein. Another set firmly believes that we should consume plant-based diets for health reasons, and many take issue with life cycle analyses that have shown that cultivated meat is actually still quite energy intensive.
Like veganism, ceganism will embrace sustainable living far beyond just food: cegans will want to wear cultivated leather, wool, and demand cultivated animal-based ingredients used in cosmetics. They will want to sit on furniture made from cultured wood. Ceganism will become an all-encompassing philosophy of naturalizing or mainstreaming biomimicry which means that meat is no longer murder, as Morrissey has so dramatically proclaimed over 3 decades ago, just myogenesis that never even had a face.
Would cegans be considered former or “ex” meat eaters or are they still categorically the same? That, I believe, depends on the above-mentioned emphasis on and adoption of identity labels: cegans will want eat "cell to table" or “lab to table” meat only (although at scale, cultivated meat is of course grown in bioreactors, not labs). Since carnism as a food ideology isn’t challenged by ceganism, but rather actively celebrated in some cases, cegans won’t violate tribal carnism membership rules any more than people who only eat organic, grass-fed, or humanely raised animals. Then again, here too, a new line of division may emerge among people who eat animals and people who eat meat.
From Celebrity Chef to Celebrity Chicken
So, what if ceganism would not only change what we eat, but transform our fundamental relationship to whom we eat? What if ceganism actually forged a reconnection to, rather than the ubiquitous disconnection from the animal who produced or became the meat?
I would like to imagine the following. Rather than cultivated meat producers or celebrity chefs taking center stage in building consumer relationships or brand loyalty to cultivated meat, the focus of connectivity could leapfrog directly to the still-alive “hero” or “star” on the plate. Consumers might feel compelled to build personal relationships with the individual animal whose cells they are consuming, even if eventually, cultivated meat will be generated from cell line depositories, not from cells taken directly from living animals. Anthropologists wouldn’t find this inclination surprising at all: many of our ancestors have been engaged in totemic animal worship which is why totemic animals are taboo to kill and eat. This reconfiguration of our relationship to food would mark an ironic return to animism where the provider of anything from basic sustenance to high quality culinary pleasure becomes sacred in his or her own right.
We are already half-way there. The case in point is Eat Just’s 2018 promotional video featuring Ian, the chicken, whose cells taken from one of his feathers provides a bunch of delighted al fresco diners with delicious chicken nuggets while Ian struts around in the grass surrounding them.
The immediate, and perhaps slightly unsettling question that may arise for many viewers is whether it’s stranger to eat the flesh of a dead animal, especially when its carcass is demonstratively placed in the middle of the dinner table, or whether it’s stranger to eat the flesh of Ian, alive and well, watching from a safe distance from carving knives and such. The strategic focus of naming and humanizing Ian so people would want to eat him rather than naming and humanizing him so people would not want to eat him is truly disruptive to the ethos of veganism. Ian is not only not dying in order to become fried chicken, but he keeps on living in order to become fried chicken.
The personification of food animals is of course not a new concept; Wagyu beef cows in Japan receive compassionate, human-like treatment even if they are still viewed as biomass –
albeit being some of the priciest in the world. Maasai pastoralists name their cows and live intermingled with them, not separate from them. Native Americans ritually “thank” animals killed for ensuring their survival and nourishment as they don’t follow the rather arbitrary distinction between human and non-human lives.
But cellular agriculture might very well take building a personal connection to your food a step further: what if the sentiment that your steak “had a good life” becomes “has a good life?” What if what’s for dinner is no longer Chicken Parmesan but Ian Parmesan? Beef Stroganoff? Pffff…who wants to eat that generic papp? Tonight, we’re having Burt Stroganoff, courtesy of a magnificent steer who roams among his own, on a vast, flat stretch of rich pasture somewhere in Oklahoma. And what if, to satisfy the modern consumer’s insatiable appetite for information about where their food really comes from, each of these benevolent cell donors had their own social media accounts to follow, with carefully managed PR updates about…well, whatever goes on in the every-day life of a celebrity chicken.
The restaurant menu of the future could simply be QR codes or scannable screens that link to images or life feeds of who is, or whose cultivated cell lines are on the menu. Think this is too weird? I think it’s equally weird that everyone wants to know where that chicken breast on their plate comes from, but nobody wants to read “TONIGHT: BRUTALLY HACKED TO PIECES AVIAN PECTORAL MUSCLE ALFREDO” on the Specials’ blackboard.
Perhaps this stretches the imagination of the future of human-animal relationships a tad too far. Then again, we live in a hyper-anthropomorphized digital world where Grumpy Cat had amassed nearly 4 million followers on Instagram and Twitter by the time she died, and Mike Pence’s Fly had 20,000 followers within 3 minutes of its Twitter account being created. Whatever that says about our supposed intellectual superiority as Sapiens, the “wise” ones, we clearly enjoy moving the interactive species line across whatever boundary necessary to maximize our emotional engagement. I’m not even going to mention the popularity of tardigrade videos on YouTube (ok, fine, the first search result got 4,006,052 views).
Why Ceganism Done Right Should Lead To Its Own Eventual Demise
Although cultivated meat might be a few years away from scaling up for mass consumption, and thus consumer identity building, we don’t really need to have cultivated meat be a reality to imagine its impact on food narratives. We already have convenient blueprints on how veganism evolved from annoying dinner guests to be accommodated (and uncomfortable dinner conversations to be avoided) into the fastest growing billion-dollar global food market that has now made “plant-based” a common household name. However, it is misleading to think that the current popularity of, and demand for plant-based foods has produced enough vegans to make a large enough impact to halt climate change progression. Most people who consume plant-based products are not vegans; many incorporate these products to eat more sustainably and be ethically responsible. That’s a good thing. But it’s not enough to break down millennia of culinary traditions built around animal consumption that are here to stay no matter how much Impossible burgers bleed. It’s certainly not enough to stem the growing demand for meat world-wide that creates at least a hundred meat eaters for every one vegan.
That’s why ceganism is not the new veganism but the new carnism, and this is also why cellular agriculture products are not intended for or marketed to vegans. The rationales for going cegan may very well be identical to those of vegans but they will still need two vastly different menus. Like vegans, cegan dinner guests might start equally uncomfortable conversations about why they chose to be cegan, and you better keep an eye on which side of the grill you placed their cultivated chicken breast because you won’t be able to tell them apart. But unlike vegans, cegans will remain foodie buddies with their fellow carnists, for the love of meat has been deeply embedded in food sharing since the dawn of mankind. Ceganism may very well rescue self-proclaimed “failed vegans” who tried to give up meat, dairy, and eggs and who keep apologizing for their inevitable capitulation to the seductive power of smokey, drippy, barbecued ribs (why is it always messy Southern food on a bone that breaks the vegan commitment?). Of course, we still consume way too much meat in terms of maintaining a healthy diet so plant-based foods should always make up most of what we eat. This is probably the strongest argument against ceganism as distinctly different from vegan lifestyles that vegans can make.
Paradoxically, ceganism as a future consumption lifestyle may just be a temporary shortcut for long term food sustainability: in an ideal future, ceganism must exist only to lead to its eventual redundancy when cultivated meat reaches price, taste, and convenience parity with conventionally produced meat and replaces its current production method entirely. Losing the “C” for cegan qualifier would thus be the ultimate goal to make cultivated meat just meat, just like insulin is no longer differentiated as “synthetic” – it’s just insulin now. But we still have a long way to go, so in the meantime, let’s let ceganism be the next viral Twitter and Instagram hashtag to go along with your future food identity make over.