This is the world’s first ‘lab burger’. Yum.

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The world’s first ‘lab burger’

2 years ago it was announced the world’s first ‘lab burger’ had been grown, grilled, eaten (and enjoyed). Indeed, it (quite literally) was served as an example of the crude fusing and hybridisation of nature, food and technology. The growing of animal cells in a lab was hailed as a way to solve the food crisis and concerns with livestock farming, unable to keep up with the world’s rapidly growing population. These developments continue to raise profound questions about what we mean by nature, food and technology.

These terms were perhaps at a time well established and defined concepts. Yet the boundaries of these concepts are ones that are becoming increasingly slippery and disrupted by powerful scientific discoveries and meaningful debates. These difficult and complex relationships are ones I will explore now, as I consider how we negotiate the definitions of food and nature. Indeed, advances in this field such as the ‘lab burger’ demonstrate the disturbing and striking consequences in the blurring of these lines. Such terms are becoming more prominent and more loaded. Arguments and discussions around food, animals and nature continue to be closely connected and play a very present role in our society. Moral questions about how food is produced and what food represents continue to emerge, alongside difficulties in how we use the word nature and what frames this notion of the natural. These difficulties are continually in dialogue with each other, and as a result have to be navigated together.

In Part One I will start by exploring what we mean by the natural and nature and the possible implications for the fluidity of the term.

 Nature: what is it?

This first question is broad and obscure, but it’s necessary I think, that we grapple with some of the challenges of this difficult word, nature. Nature is often framed as a straightforward concept and one in which the meaning and its use has become an inherent part of our society.

Noel Castree –a British geographer and academic- in his book ‘Making Sense of Nature’ highlights the slippery meaning and fluid definition nature has. He argues that nature is so challenging because it is such a sensitive concept and simultaneously attached to lots of different definitions and meanings. Castree sheds light further on these ambiguities, suggesting the term is a ‘social force’. This is a powerful image, one that captures the way in which nature steers and governs our communities, societies, laws and people. Indeed, the case that something is natural or ‘in our nature’ tends to privilege it in some way and act as validation.

Take for example these recent headlines that link nature and food:

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And for good measure these as well:

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These aren’t food related, but do give you a sense of the scope of the word ‘nature’ and how it invades our everyday lives, realities and logic.

It seems ironic, that a term so difficult to pin down – Castree for example, has written an entire book on this concept- has such authority, prominence and meaning in our lives. Castree proposes that we need to re-focus what we mean by nature to allow us to participate ‘more meaningfully in momentous decisions about the future’. What he seems to suggest is that by giving more defined peripheries to the concept, it can help us to negotiate advances in science and the challenges happening to traditions and norms. For example, the consumption of the ‘lab burger’. Perhaps defining nature and applying better boundaries will enable us to understand what this means more, on an ethical, social and political dimension, and negotiate these feelings.

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Image Two: are these natural pigs?

The French philosopher Bruno Latour suggests nature is ‘a double performance’ in the sense that the term flirts with multiple meanings and images. Inger Anneberg employs the pig farming industry and this notion of ‘double performance’ to reflect how the definition of nature lacks clarity. Anneberg draws on the pig farm as a paradox and the pig itself as a paradoxical symbol of nature: both projecting the idyllic and nostalgic image of pig farming alongside the mechanical and impersonalised process of industrial scale farms. Both impressions are variants of nature. She presents the pig with several identities, both a number and commercialised device of the farming process and yet a figure guarded by animal welfare policies and ethical guidelines. Anneberg is provocative in her undoing of the image of natural, traditional pork meat projected by farms, yet also interesting in the way the pig is rendered in different lenses, as natural, as mechanical, as human.

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Image Two: ‘a double performance’, does this photo capture the natural?

 I spoke to a local dairy farmer in order to get his thoughts about the use of the term natural and to see if he felt that his farm was, in some sense, natural. He spoke at length in ways that blurred different conceptions of the natural. He presented the animals as tools through which to fulfil our needs as consumers. I asked whether the cows had names and identities? ‘No’, he replied, ‘they’re numbered, they get numbers. Well I suppose some have nicknames’. Even when discussing their welfare there are distinct reasons why this is important, not only passing legal regulations but also the impact any problems could have on milk supply and therefore the business. Everything is complexly tied up here and any concrete notion of nature is hard to extract or disentangle. Nature emerges again as fashioned deeply by context, a term poorly defined and challenging to understand.

Further attempts to define nature

 So pulling these threads wasn’t offering too much definition, but a lot of breadth and sense of fluidity and adaptability with which the term nature sits. I decided to look into The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and explore what they have said in specific relation to food. The FDA are a governing body and surely this means they have to provide a tangible definition.

Strangely however, there is no clear bounds of nature or how it can be used in food labelling, only that ‘natural’ cannot be considered where anything ‘artificial or synthetic’ exists. Yet this simply places the burden of interpretation on artificial and synthetic. The FDA’s unwillingness to lay boundaries down perhaps acknowledges the changing landscape of food, nature and technology and also the disunity of the term. How we define nature then, is complex, slippery, contested and challenging. While this width provides space for innovation and experimentation, I think there is also a risk that when a term can mean anything, it can also mean nothing. By providing no parameters, we risk devaluing it altogether, and its meaning becoming redundant.

I do think we need to be aware of this risk and the potential for this flexibility to complicate further definitions of food. Part Two discusses this and the way in which technology interacts with both food and nature.