Norman Rusin

Keywords: In Vitro Meat, Neoliberalism, Colonialism, Cultural Diversity, Sovereignty

In a recent article published by Wired, Jan Dutkiewicz and Gabriel N. Rosenberg1 argue that “Burgers Won't Save the Planet—but Fast Food Might,” because “Fast food joints are cheap, convenient, and widely available. And if they swapped out beef for alternative proteins, they could transform the food system.” Their article taps into some of today’s most prominent concerns (pollution, climate change, world hunger, animal welfare). However, they sell what Jönsson calls a “a benevolent technotopia in which the world’s finest minds work altruistically for the general good, as neo-liberal capitalism is brought suddenly, miraculously even, into alignment with careful ethical thinking” (Jönsson 740). Their plan to end world hunger and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions through fast food’s clean-meat burgers embodies yet another facet of neoliberalism and western colonialism. In fact, their “biocapitalistic salvation” (Jönsson 740) still overshadows a wide range of issues, including labor processes and hegemonic problem definitions, cultural and biodiversity preservation, consideration of diverse religious beliefs, proprietary licensing and patents, use of additives, fair trade, justice, and sovereignty to name a few.

Dutkiewicz and Rosenberg introduce a new take to the long list of supporting arguments that have peppered the almost eighty-year-long debate around in vitro meat. Given that fast foods offer the most efficient and widely accepted model of food preparation, distribution, and consumption, introducing cultured meat into their menus would lower pollution due to animal farming, thus positively impacting climate change and reducing (perhaps eliminating) animal cruelty. In addition, with a little bit more than ten thousand cell muscle cells, it would be conceivable to meet the world population’s hunger for meat.

Their article seems to answer Jeffrey Bartholet’s piece published in Scientific American (2011), which argued that the biggest hurdle to cell-based meat development and commercialization are people’s attitudes and feelings toward lab-produced meat. Reporting Cor van de Weele’s observations, Bartholet notes that people often think of tissue-engineered meat as genetically modified food and associate it with negative perceptions of both meat industry and corporate schemes (Bartholet 2011, 69). In fact, a recent survey conducted over 1800 U.S. consumers—selected among conventional beef and meat-alternatives consumers—showed that farm raised beef had the largest estimated market share (72%) while plant-based alternatives and lab-grown meat shared 23% and 5% of the market, respectively. Moreover, the majority of interviewed opposed labelling “beef” plant- and lab-based alternatives (Van Loo 2020, 13).

Politics of Eating

In her recent volume, La cucina. Storia culturale di un luogo domestico (The Kitchen. Cultural history of a domestic place, my translation), Imma Fiorino shows how the design and management of this quintessential place has been the focus of political interests throughout history, establishing roles, hierarchies, and ways of living. The same line of thought could be applied to places where we prepare and consume food outside our household. Designing urban landscapes embodies both implicit and explicit political ideologies. And giving prominence to the fast-food cultural model means continuing a policy of sticking our heads in the sand when it comes to the right to a good life.

The fast-food cultural model sees feeding as an assembly line, where the end game is filling the tank as quickly as possible to resume production. However, its underlying idea of the body as a machine leads to two equally problematic, worrying, and elitist tendencies:

1. Feeding does not matter as much as a social act as just sustenance of the body as a productive machine. Therefore, as a poor and hasty product that can be consumed while walking or in the car, fast food neutralizes conviviality, which can be celebrated around the table only, with proper rhythms and rituals.

2. People are not smart enough to understand and change their eating habits on the basis of correct information, therefore we might as well tempt their tastebuds. By looking at meat just as a source of proteins, this ideology embraces of what Marion Nestle calls the flatly reductionist philosophical rationale of techno-foods, where “the value of a food is reduced to its single functional ingredient” (Nestle 584).

This model keeps tendering meat as the preeminent source of protein and its consumption as the ultimate satisfaction of human appetite. And both, in turn, perpetuate deep-seated Western cultural myths flowered during feudalism, when eating meat was a prerogative of land-owning elites.

Cultured-Meat Colonialism?

Not only have technotopians given up on the idea of modifying our (Western) social, political, and economic model, but they also seem insensitive to globalization’s homogenizing tendency and its political design. For one, they don’t seem to take into account non-Western cultural habits or religious beliefs. Will test tube meat look and taste like the flesh of animals Westerners cannot conceive of eating? Or will Western standardization pancake other cultures’ diets? Although “technology can play a positive role” and “offer viable solutions for urgent problems in the global food system” (Parasecoli 162), the clean-meat-fast-food combo guarantees to keep pushing Western cultural, economic, and political model onto the rest of the world. And this arrangement raises further concerns regarding proprietary licensing and patents for cultured meat production, long-distance transportation, land grabbing, and fair trade and justice. Who will own the technologies to produce this new food? Will it be produced in a few, strategically located Food Valleys and freighted out to the rest of the world? How will it affect the value of all the freed land, once used to feed cattle? And will this in turn mean more Western control over Southern hemisphere’s lands?

In his recent study, Nathan Lebras shows that people in Bogota embrace globalization as a way to a healthier way of eating without throwing away their food cultural heritage. By looking for new tastes that can help them do away with unhealthy food habits, which constitute part of their culinary tradition, Bolivians still strive to preserve their local patrimony, health, and aesthetic appreciation. Therefore, their tactical stance toward food globalization runs against fast food culture, which, as much as it feigns multi-culturalism by introducing local food look-alike, enforces only one cultural, economic, and political model.

If the fast-food model is the only proposition to better our planet’s health and solve world hunger through in vitro meat, its rootedness into the ideology of ever growing productivity and its lack of creativity in the search for alternative systems bare issues about future involvement and influence of private capital on food supply chain, labor, and foreign policies. From this perspective, the dystopic scenarios proposed by Soylent Green (Fleischer 1973) on one hand—food as a means for social control—and by The Matrix (Wachowski 1999) on the other hand—people become food for the machines they had produced—don’t seem so far away.

1 Jan Dutkiewicz is a postdoctoral fellow at Concordia University in Montreal and a visiting fellow in the Animal Law and Policy Program at Harvard University. Gabriel N. Rosenberg teaches at Duke University and is the Duke Endowment Fellow of the National Humanities Center.

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Bartholet, Jeffrey. “Inside the Meat Lab.” Scientific American 304, no. 6 (June 2011), pp. 64-69.

Dutkiewicz, Jan and Gabriel N. Rosenberg. “Burgers Won't Save the Planet—but Fast Food Might.” Wired, accessed on September 5, 2020,

Fiorino, Imma. La cucina. Storia culturale di un luogo domestico. Torino: Einaudi, 2020.

Fleischer, Richard, dir. Soylent Green. 1973.

Jönsson, Erik. “Benevolent technotopias and hitherto unimaginable meats: Tracing the promises of in vitro meat.” Social Studies of Science 46, no. 5 (October 2016), pp. 725-748.

Lebras, Nathan. “Inventing a Healthy Gastronomy in Bogota: Colombian Patrimony and Cosmopolitanism.” H-Food-Studies Blog, accessed September 7, 2020,

Nestle, Marion. Food Politics. How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.

Parasecoli, Fabio. Food. MIT Press: Cambridge, 2019.

Pearson, A. M. “Meat Extenders and Substitutes.” Bioscience, 26, no. 4 (Apr., 1976), pp. 249-256.

Van Loo, Ellen J., Vincenzina Caputo, and Jayson L. Lusk. “Consumer preferences for farm-raised meat, lab-grown meat, and plant-based meat alternatives: Does information or brand matter?” Food Policy 95, (August 2020).

Wachowski, Lana, and Lilly Wachowski. The Matrix. 1999.


My research areas are Literary Journalism and Digital Humanities, with an emphasis on the relationship between aesthetics and politics in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I am particularly interested in issues regarding national, gender, and ethnic identities and their hybridization. I am currently carrying on two research projects. In the first on I explore food's culture and politics role in shaping gender roles and identities in post-WWII Italian novels and films. In the second one, I explore the evolving role of Italian public intellectuals within the evolution of the publishing field at the dawn of the digital era, by analyzing beliefs and behaviors surrounding the production, distribution, access to, and consumption of cultural products during the era leading to the total digitization of human knowledge.