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Getting to know... Ben Wurgaft, cultured meat historian

Ben Wurgaft, a postdoctoral fellow at MIT, is researching the ‘future of foods’. 

“The effort to create cultured meat will force us to ask tough questions about life, the natures of human and non-human animals, and our relationship with the environment around us.”

Although he is a European history graduate from Berkeley University, his current time is spent investigating and reporting on technologies and innovative ideas in the food industry, such as cultured meat.

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New Harvest: Thanks for chatting, Ben. Could you begin by telling us a little bit about yourself and your educational background?

Ben: My area of doctoral training is modern European intellectual history; that is, my academic specialization is the history of philosophy and social thought in Europe, from about 1800 to the present – so much of my previous scholarly writing, as a graduate student at Berkeley, wasn’t on biotechnology or food at all. I have, however, been very interested in food for many years – I began writing food journalism right after college, and I’ve been increasingly involved in more scholarly kinds of food writing, such as food history. I recently completed a (co-authored) short book on global food history, for example.

NH: Given your interest in philosophy, history and food, what drew you to cultured meat?

B: My interests in the history of philosophy and the history of food don’t necessarily overlap with one another, but I think that the subject of cultured meat offers a very interesting case in which they do overlap. Regardless of whether or not cultured meat is a technical success – that is, whether or not scientists and engineers clear the remaining technical hurdles to mimic “in vivo” meat – the effort to create cultured meat will force us to ask tough questions about life, the natures of human and non-human animals, and our relationship with the environment around us. It should also make us ask questions about the history of food and agriculture, and what it means to provide food for an increasingly human-populated globe.

NH: Of course, because history informs the future.

B: Yes. I’m also keenly interested in the long history of effort to create “foods of the future,” most of which have failed rather spectacularly – but which tell us a great deal about the values and goals of the scientists who made each attempt. Visions of the future are, after all, records of the cultures that produced them, and usually inform efforts to bring specific futures into being. I like to say that academic history and futurism have a great deal in common – for example, they both make us very curious about causes, about which forces drive events at a given moment, and what kinds of trends we can identify and track.

NH: What are some examples of foods of the future that have failed?

So many. Pretty much everything envisaged in the 19th century, and many plant-based protein alternatives, like Chlorella. Warren Belasco’s book, Meals to Come, is just full of these.

B: For me as an historian, these examples aren’t cautionary tales per se – I don’t mention them because I’m pessimistic about cultured meat’s chances – rather, I mention them because it’s important for people to understand the factors influencing the adoption or non-adoption of emerging technology.

NH: Do you see uptake as the biggest challenge for cultured meat?

B: It seems intuitive to me that while enormous technical challenges stand between us and a world in which cultured meat is available in stores, an equal or greater challenge is to reach out to potential consumers and help them overcome any prejudices they may have against it – I say “may have,” but we’re all aware of how important the so-called “yuck factor” is.

NH: Please tell us more about your work on cultured meat.

B: After earning my doctorate I taught at Berkeley for a year and then served as a postdoctoral fellow at the New School for Social Research in New York; I’m now based at MIT’s Program in Anthropology, where I’m a postdoctoral fellow supported by a two-year National Science Foundation grant. That grant is explicitly for the study of efforts to create cultured meat.

NH: The study of efforts to create cultured meat? So studying the people who are advancing cultured meat?

B: Yes. Though I’m trained as an historian, I very much enjoy working with anthropologists, and I employ “ethnographic” methods in laboratories when I visit researchers – while it may seem strange to frame it in this way, contemporary anthropologists frequently turn their attention to research sites in the developed world, and I work with an anthropologist of science who spends a great deal of time with biologists, asking them, essentially, how they think about life and living things. I hope to continue to spend time with cultured meat researchers (and those whose job it is to promote cultured meat), because I’m as interested in the human stories around cultured meat as I am in more abstract philosophical issues. And I’ll add that if any New Harvest members or other interested parties would like to chat, I’d be more than happy to connect.

NH: I am sure many New Harvest community members would also love to chat with you! Lastly, what personally draws you about the idea of cultured meat? Are you excited for it to become available?

B: I suppose I should add that I’m not a New Harvest volunteer nor a member of any interest group connected to cultured meat. I’m probably sympathetic to many of the causes that bring people to the topic – I’d love to see less animal suffering, and a food system that causes less environmental damage – but my role is that of investigator and commentator rather than that of an activist or organizer. One very exciting thing about writing on the future of an emerging technology, particularly as a junior scholar in the early years of his career, is that I may have the opportunity to see how things develop.

If you’d like to get in touch with Ben and find more about him or his research, he can be reached at bwurgaft@mit.edu

Written by Rebecca Norris