Chewing gum on Trees, Meat in Factories, and Our Ever-Distant Redemption / Tamar Novick

translated by: Mor Ilan

“Chewing Gum Seeds,” a 1966 book by Lea Naor, which became an immediate hit record, tells the story of a group of enthusiastic children and their adventures. The leading figure, a red-headed girl named Michal,  describes their idea for a secret experiment: sowing chewing gum seeds in the hopes they will sprout into an abundant chewing gum tree. If the experiment succeeds, the children intend to set out each morning to harvest red chewing gum. Michal and her friend Neta selected their most delicious gum, cutting into eight “seeds”, sowing, watering, and waiting for the coming summer. This was an experiment in growing food in a utopian environment – a “land for children only”.

The experiment conducted by Neta and Michal is certainly not the only example linking sublimity and food; many historical utopian visions include food components. One is the biblical “land flowing with milk and honey,” another, in which wine flows, is the medieval German “Schlaraffenland”, and a third is the French “Cocagne”, a fantastical realm named after a small sweet cake. We do not know the results of Neta and Michal’s experiment in that land for children, as the group quickly turns their attentions to other endeavors, such as observing a pair of dragon lizards, or debating the scientific question – Who ate the moon? But the very idea of sowing chewing gum seeds is nevertheless sufficient to demonstrating the importance of this point. A chewing gum tree would provide obvious advantages: in the speculative reality where chewing gum grows on trees, children would be liberated from dependency on parental benevolence, funding, shops, or even the ethical code of education to healthy nutrition. Kids could eat as much gum – maybe even chocolate and candy too – as they wanted!

One could also consider efforts to grow meat in laboratories and the potential of fabricating meat in a similar way. This could be viewed as an experimental attempt to realize the aspiration of producing a wealth of food in a utopian environment. Just as with the red-head and her crew of friends, these attempts also carry elements of liberation and the promise of redemption from ethical problems associated with food. While the chewing gum tree never thrived, the vision of artificial meat has long been accomplished in the form of the hamburger patty, created in a Maastricht laboratory and presented to the world in 2013. This was the ultimate evidence that the dramatic global increase in animal meat consumption could be tackled. The public appearance of this Dutch hamburger marked the possibility of producing laboratory meat in unlimited quantities and under controlled conditions – without having to breed and slaughter animals. Thus, cultured meat rescues animals from the abattoir, and unchains the human population from the tension between our carnal craving for meat and our repugnance to cruelty. We can continue to scarf down hamburgers as if nothing has happened. But redemption is not yet at hand, as since news of that single hamburger struck waves, enthusiasm for the idea has waned, fiery debates have settled, and a multitude of obstacles to this vision of ethical meaty wealth have cropped up.

At the center of these attempts to make synthetic meat into a sustainable product is the laboratory, generally perceived by the public to be an omniscient place where everything is possible, one unbound by the limitations of material and flesh. As with countless past projects, this project is also based on the assumption that science is capable of overcoming corporeal limits, and that labs can produce something out of nothing. For success-hungry entrepreneurs, as well as the entire science-loving community with its hearty appetite, the laboratory functions as a wonderland – a utopian space. Projects aimed at cultivating meat cells have linked this perfect realm – just like other famous visions – with the dream of creating a cornucopia of foods. And since the concept of artificial meat is already here, all that is left is to wear white coats, perform magic – and presto! Here’s the meat! And now we can move on: where can we find a lab for world peace?!

This tendency to imagine the lab as a place where matter can be fashioned, creation free of biological origin or life, lies at the core of modern scientific ambition. The possibility of generating organic materials in laboratory conditions is critical to proving the correlation between the natural world and human capabilities, demonstrating that there is no universal force instigating all life forms – as commonly understood according to vitalist theories. Proof that no substance is impervious to replication. God’s omnipotence over Man – gone. The first evidence of humanity’s greatness is not tied to its appetites, but rather in its fetid bodily fluids. Roughly two centuries prior to that cultured hamburger appearing, urea – a compound naturally produced in the body and secreted through the urinary track, was first synthetically produced. This event is considered a momentous landmark of humanity’s departure from the vitalist gloom and a step forward into the glow of science and progress. Since that revolution occurred, we have tended to believe that everything in nature can be manufactured, copied, and replicated in labs. This “synthetic myth”, as we might call it, continues to lead both scientific endeavor and the common belief about what is being carried out within the hallowed halls of laboratories.

This synthetic myth is joined with the fantasy about the cleanliness of science and its laboratories. We are inclined to believe that science has only pure motives, that scientific work is shielded from the impurities of the material world and the frailties of morality, and that lab walls barricade its interior from grime and waste. The laboratory is perceived as an unspoiled space in pristine white, where everything is in its place. Its imaged sterility makes the laboratory seem free of the filth of life itself. The vision of fabricated meat adopts this same myth and the fantasy of scientific cleanliness in full force. It is no wonder that one term for this prized product is “clean meat”.

The collapse of synthetic myth recurs again and again, as matter is not made out of nothing, and laboratories are not disassociated from time and place, but instead are their precise materialization and embodiment. Fabricated meat is flawed, too: one of the major weaknesses of those companies established to market lab-grown meat is their reliance on organic matter: Cell growth depends on daily “feeding” with a serum produced from the blood of very real and living calves. The problems now mounting in attempts to make synthetic meat a reality are not random; they are tightly linked to our failing vision and to the hope that the lab would be the site for our sterile salvation. But the lab cannot be the place of our salvation, nor the source of our moral integrity. Even should we overcome the need for calf blood, we will always be subject to the limitations of body, of matter. A bountiful chewing gum tree will just cause tooth aches; clean meat will not sate our dirty cravings.