Culturing the Status Quo

An article by Jim Thomas on "Flack-Grown Flesh," The Ecologist, covers Ingrid Newkirk, founder and president of the nonprofit corporation PETA, who is offering a $1 million prize for "whoever can scale-up stem cell techniques that grow edible animal tissue – so called lab-grown meat – for a mass market." Thomas writes:

Most intriguing about the PETA prize is the switch in strategy it represents for civil society activism. Newkirk and her colleagues appear to be giving up on the battle to protect animals through social legislation and putting their faith (and money) into a technological silver bullet, a lab-cultured quick fix. It's a familiar story: climate change campaigners, depressed by the battle to change carbon-hungry lifestyles, embrace nuclear power. Global health advocates push for pharmaceutical 'solutions' rather than against inequality and poverty. The argument that social change is too hard leads single-issue fanatics to depend on technological and market fixes for the heavy lifting.

Thomas identifies the neolibral capitalist ideology that has been adopted by PETA, some climate change campaigners and some global health advocates. Thomas continues:

Of course social change is hard and sometimes dispiriting, but its also extremely important. Abdicating to the efficiency of the market means abandoning important nuances. Social justice and notions of equity tend to be ignored by markets that often hand technological control to the already powerful. If test-tube meat hits the big time, we will likely know by its appearance in a Big Mac or when agribusiness buys out the patent-holder. Farmers will not benefit at all. Lab-grown meat may taste cruelty-free to PETA, but it smells like the same old rotten industrial food system to me.

Rather than working for structural change, neoliberals like PETA promote assimilation and work to uphold and sustain the status quo. The United States is a very meat-centered society. Meat is literally the centerpiece of most family meals. I've been vegan for most my life, but I am still reminded of how meat, eggs, and dairy are the social standard every Tuesday when the weekly ads from the local supermarkets and fast-food chains are delivered to my mailbox. The supermarket ads always lead with meat at the top of the front page – a trend that holds true whether the supermarket is Wal-Mart or Whole Foods Market.

Just as meat, eggs, and dairy are made the norm of the Western diet, plant-based dishes are marginalized – literally referred to as "sides." In the supermarket ads, produce is always banished to the last page. (So while it is the consensus among health experts that people in the U.S. should be eating more fruits and vegetables, our society is structured in the opposite direction.)

Even though Thomas refers to Newkirk as a "radical vegan," the advancement of "lab-grown meat" is deeply antithetical to veganism. That is, Newkirk and PETA, by advancing "lab-grown meat," seek to uphold and sustain the normative meat-centered society. By supporting the meat-centered status quo, Newkirk and her nonprofit corporation simply contribute to the marginalization of veganism.