When The Bioreactor Clicks: Imagining Life On The Cultivated Meat Farm Of The Future
In November of 2022, Respect Farms released The Cultivated Meat Farm, a short video that imagines the future of farming in the cell-based meat age (https://www.respectfarms.com/). Including the farmer in the transition from conventionally produced meat to cultivated meat as a logical and ethical choice, the Respect Farms team created a virtual blueprint of what this might look like and how it would work. Although the narrative of the process is built around how farmers can “diversify their business” by adding cultivated meat as just one of several sustainable meat production methods, the video clearly directs the viewer to envision the farm of the future to reflect cellular agriculture’s style guide of transitioning from agro technology to cell technology.
Screenshot from Respect Farms 2022 Video
While I personally love the optimistic, holistic approach to envisioning the feasibility of transitioning a small family farm into a high tech, end-to-end cultivated meat production site, the anthropologist in me immediately has some questions: why are we trying to keep the romanticism about farming alive in a fully digitized biotech environment? What happens to the ethos of the family farming life and the passing on of farming knowledge? Who is the farmer of the future and how will farmers retain their farmer identities? What will farming mean to future generations of young cell farmers?
A Day in the Life Cycle Assessment
The bucolic view outside of the windows of the cell-based meat farm will undoubtedly juxtapose the hard stainless steel aesthetic with the soft meadows or fields surrounding the farm. Outside of the production facility, we see the familiar, rural tranquility of ordinary farm buildings that house some of the most extraordinary food technology in the world. Inside we see imaginary work spaces that need to be kept 100% sterile at all times, which is a little anxiety provoking amidst the ever looming threat of dust and dirt, the inevitable byproducts of farming anything. This is where, in the not so far future, the modern miracle of bioengineering will put an end to 10,000 years of animal domestication dependence.
Screenshot from Respect Farms 2022 Video
The first cell farmer who will participate in the farm-to-cell transition, will probably not have the funds or the time to obtain a college degree in cellular agriculture so he will have to re-skill while hitting the ground running. He will no longer wake up to the rooster’s call but rather to the beeping of machinery that signals to him that an overnight processing cycle has finished. There will be clicks and beeps and humming of technological equipment instead of moos and grunts and clucks. The cell farmer will rise to feed chicken cells, rather than feeding chickens.
The cell farmer’s daughter, if she intends to run the farm someday, will likely attend an extensive tissue engineering or cell biology program at a prestigious university, thus reversing the generational direction of knowledge transmission as the ever increasing technological complexity of cell-based meat production will soon surpass her father’s capabilities. She, as a digital native, will always and already know more about technology than her parents do, and it will likely be she who will be able to fix a bug in the cell growth monitoring software. The cell farmer’s son won’t need to be socialized into brawny bull-restraining maneuvers that earn him his masculinity badge among his peers. Instead, he will be tasked with constraining risk management strategies that will wildly buck across spreadsheets, not sheds. Of course, this all depends on whether or not both of them want to return to working on the family farm after having gotten used to kale smoothies and performance art shows while away studying in Berkeley or Boston.
Since nobody really needs to dress the part anymore, what will happen to iconic farm work brands like Wrangler and Dickies? The classic jean overall will likely yield to sterile cleanroom wear, and there needs to plenty of pockets for phones, hand sanitizer, masks, and anti-bacterial wet wipes. And since cultivated meat is slaughter-less, with no more carcasses to bleed or gut, the ubiquitous slaughter gear including rubber aprons and boots will also become obsolete. Instead of getting ready to kill a cow, as we see in the video, the cell farmer kills time sitting comfortably at his rustic kitchen table, watching a growth cycle end on a monitoring program on his lap top; he now gets ready to harvest mature cultivated meat cells.
Screenshot from Respect Farms 2022 Video
If a few donor animals are kept for regular biopsies to be used as starter cells, they will not only become precious investments but also the farm’s only teaching models about animal behavior, life cycles, and husbandry. There will be so few that naming them might become part of the new business model since they are now high quality raw material producers. However, the naming of individual animals will have little to do with compassionate anthropomorphizing; instead, the individual name will serve as a traceable identifier just like a certification sticker for an authentic brand. And after all, the only branding that will happen on the cell farm will be the cellular end product, not its building block backsides that once linked animals to farm origin.
In the Respect Farms vision of how cultivated meat gets from farm to table, the final step shows the farmer loading precious cargo to be delivered somewhere locally, presumably a selection of high-end restaurants. What happens when he gets there? What will the chitchat between chef and farmer during this brief delivery meeting be about? “How’s Millie?” won’t be a chef’s question about the farmer’s wife, but rather a question about Millie the donor cow, whose cells provided the starter batch for the just delivered filet mignons. The rest of the conversation might chronicle her current diet, exercise plan, supplements, or mental stimuli to keep her in perfect shape.
The History of Family Farming Retold
The future meat farmer being quite possibly a person who never had to kill an animal for food might become the new cause celebré, the new farming ethic to be passed on to future generations. Part of this farmer inclusion trope, at least to me, has to do with retaining or perhaps recreating the nostalgic naturalness of food production, the lack of which is oftentimes cited as the culprit of critical perspectives of cultivated meat (i.e., cultivated meat is unnatural). On the other hand, the biotechnology that enables cultivated meat on the family farm is also celebrated and made transparent, not hidden away. Indeed, the petri dish and bioreactor, not the vegan activists and regenerative farming lobbyists, are the heroic saviors of animals, human health, and the environment in this unfolding narrative.
Skipping ahead a generation or two, what will be the story about the family farm history young cell farmers will tell their children? “Your grandparents kept many animals, none of them had names, and they raised them to kill them all” will sound like a brutish, uncivilized tale about heartless people whose livelihood was frequently endangered by animal diseases, loss to predators, or unpredictable weather patterns. It will sound a like a risky business model with backbreaking labor in return for shaky profits. It might also tarnish the nostalgic timbre that accompanied hundreds of cattle ranching tales passed on generation after generation.
Then again, the new business model of cell-based meat farming faces its own set of challenges. The high buy-in cost to transition into cultivated meat production might be the largest entry barrier to existing family farms, many of whom are already struggling to stay in business, and the projected ROI for answering the call to innovation might take years to materialize without any sort of guarantee. Similarly, it might behoove investors to ask why the small family farm should be a key player in protein innovation when the conversation about including traditional meat producers in the cellular agriculture revolution has thus far been focused on large corporate entities because they already have what cultivated meat producers need: infrastructure to scale production, and a massive, loyal customer base.
The Future of “Local” Reconsidered
Still, if the well-meaning folks at Respect Farms can pull it off, and I sincerely hope they do, will other farmers follow the Respect Farms vision or model for change? Why, one might ask, couldn’t farmers just be included in the transition to cultivated meat by way of producing what they already do: plants for cell growth media and animals as cell culture starter batches? And while it is true that modern animal farmers already had to adapt their business models to keep up with technological optimization and innovation, I wonder how farmers will adapt their relational identity to animals if the most innovate advancement in animal farming innovates away the very thing it is trying to improve on.
We could also dispense with the need to label cultivated meat “local” food if the transport cost in the supply chain is radically reduced because farmers wouldn’t be transporting cows across the country from one processing plant to another, but rather tiny glass containers with bovine or avian cells. Furthermore, what does local even mean in the age of cell-based farming? Let’s face it, local food, in a folklore kind of way, means food with the dirt still on it. This might also be why other cultivated meat companies that are considering including farmers in the move toward sustainable protein think about adding to, but not necessarily displacing locally produced meat options.
In the end, the de-centralization goal of cultivated meat — meaning here that cultivated meat doesn’t have to be produced only in large scale production facilities but can virtually be grown anywhere, including space — really looks more like a de-localization goal to me. However, if the future consumer interprets this process as adding the desired “localness” to cultivated meat then I would call this a smart move. As for the future farmer and his or her desire to stay connected to local soil and sow, I sense that an equal amount of work will be going into retrofitting the farmer’s identity rather than just retrofitting the barn to house bioreactors. Then again, I am quite excited about one day shaking hands with a cell farmer who, one would presume, no longer, or perhaps never even had blood on his hands.