Eating stories: On the contested future of meat–with, and without, feet

Sketch of three people sharing a meal by Vincent Van Gogh (Van Gogh Gallery).

In the excerpts below, Alexandra Sexton, geographer and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, offers ‘a more nuanced reading of the promissory and counter-narratives around recent alternative proteins than has sometimes been relayed in public discussions on this topic.’

‘This blog is an overview of the open-access article Framing the future of food: The contested promises of alternative proteins, written by Alexandra Sexton, Tara Garnett and Jamie Lorimer and published in Environment and Planning E: Nature & Space. Its findings were also included in a recent World Economic Forum report entitled Meat: The Future Series–Alternative Proteins.

When we eat food we eat stories.

‘Think about your last trip to the supermarket. Many of the labels will tell you of the places and people that have brought the different products to the aisles. A family farm in North Yorkshire, a cocoa grower in Ghana. They may also feature images of those places and people, and sometimes the animals involved in production. There may be accompanying stories of social justice, environmental care and healthfulness told through traffic light systems and the logos of certification schemes (e.g. Fairtrade, Soil Association).

At the very least, most food comes packaged with stories of its taste.

‘Millions of dollars are spent on these particular narratives by food businesses. The “finger lickin’ good” of KFC. The “Taste the Difference” of Sainsbury’s. The slow-motion sequences of melting chocolate, sizzling steaks and fizzing wines of Marks & Spencer’s. All are designed to get us tasting the products before we’ve even touched them. Taste, along with price and convenience, has been shown to be one of the biggest drivers of how and what we choose to eat.

‘My recent work has been examining the stories or narratives used to promote a range of food products that have been making global headlines over recent years. Frequently heralded as the “future of protein”, these approaches include a new generation of plant-based proteins, edible insect products, and a group often referred to as cellular agriculture. Within this latter group you’ll find lab-grown/cultured/clean/cell-based meat, milk and egg products, all of which are united by their approach of using cell science techniques to grow animal-derived foods in vitro, i.e. outside the animal body (see Stephens et al. [2018] for overview of the technical, socio-political and regulatory aspects of cellular agriculture). The intention behind growing cells instead of animals is to remove the need to raise animals intensively and the need for their slaughter.

‘A particular type of narrative—often referred to as “promissory narratives” in social studies of science and technology—has driven the development of these recent products. This type of narrative is largely defined as the promises and future expectations upon which technological innovations depend to gain the momentum needed for their development, particularly in the early stages (Brown & Michael 2003). Often these techno-driven promises offer visions of a better future—e.g. pest-resilient crops or the eradication of human diseases. The promise of economic opportunity also tends to feature, although often directed at particular audiences (e.g. investors, retailers). A key feature of promissory narratives is the work they do in the present to turn their utopian visions into reality. In the case of the recent alternative proteins, their promissory narratives have worked extremely hard to create awareness across a variety of audiences (investors, retailers and the general public), and ultimately convince people to invest in them, stock them, or put these novel products in their shopping baskets. See also Stephens (2013), Jönsson (2016) and Mouat & Prince (2018) for discussion of alternative protein promissory narratives.

‘Yet for cellular agriculture, there are currently no products available on the market to purchase anywhere in the world. For the last decade, they have existed almost entirely as promises of what they will achieve once they get to market, rather than as tangible, eatable products. Even for the plant-based and insect products that have recently launched in a selection of Western countries, their narratives promise an all-round better alternative to conventional animal foods; or in the case of insects, that they actually qualify as “food” at all.

‘We might think that the promises companies make about their products are simply part of the business of marketing. While this is certainly true, we can look beyond the marketing formulas to explore what other roles promissory narratives can serve. This exercise can also highlight the “situatedness” of these narratives—in other words, how they sit within, reflect and reinforce broader ideological, institutional, economic and cultural systems at a given time. As mentioned above, the promises of an innovation almost always come packaged with a vision of delivering something better than the status quo. Here, then, we have a snapshot of how the status quo has been interpreted and found wanting in certain ways. This snapshot provides a valuable window into a set of beliefs—themselves embedded within ideological and institutional networks—that have resulted in a diagnosis of a “problem” followed by an offering of a “solution”. Promissory narratives thus offer a way to examine these diagnoses and solutions as products of their contemporary (and historical) contexts. This enables us to ask critical questions concerning the who, what and why of their contexts: for example, who has created the narratives, and for what ends; who are the intended audiences; what cultural representations do they (re)inforce; what messages and data do they emphasise; and who/what is missing from them?

‘This was the critical approach that my colleagues and I used in a recent paper called “Framing the future of food: The contested promises of alternative proteins”. We wanted to understand what kinds of promises have been made across all three categories of alternative products (plant-based, insects, cellular agriculture)—in other words, what types of “goodness” have been attached to these products by their developers to convince different audiences that they are better than conventional animal foods. . . .’

Read the blog article by Alexandra Sexton on the Food, Climate Change Research Network: Framing the future of food: The contested promises of alternative proteins, 11 Apr 2019.

Vincent Van Gogh, sketch of fiver persons at a meal (Van Gogh Gallery).

Read the whole science paper by Alexandra Sexton, Tara Garnett and Jami Lorimer: Framing the future of food: The contested promises of alternative proteins, 6 Feb 2019.

Excerpts from the science paper:

The aim of this paper is to examine the narratives deployed by a new movement of producers and advocates of ‘animal-free’ alternatives.

These products have attracted multibillion-dollar investments from some of the biggest names in global business, including Bill Gates and Richard Branson.

Over the last decade, key promoters of these products have consistently driven visions across industry and popular media of what the future of food will look like . . . .

Despite their influential role, however, food narratives can often fail in their intended purpose, instead causing confusion and even indifference on account of the sheer volume and contradictory nature of information that modern consumers must navigate within their everyday foodscapes.’

Abstract to the Sexton et al. paper
‘This paper offers a critical examination of the narrative landscape that has emerged with a new movement of alternative proteins intended as substitutes for conventional meat, milk and other animal-based food products. The alternative protein approaches analysed include edible insects, plant-based proteins and cellular agriculture, the latter of which encompasses ‘cultured’ or ‘clean’ meat, milk and egg products produced in vitro via cell-science methods. We build on previous research that has analysed the promissory narratives specific to cultured/clean meat by examining the key promises that have worked across the broader alternative protein movement. In doing so, we develop a five-fold typology that outlines the distinct yet interconnected claims that have operated in alternative protein promotional discourses to date. The second part of the paper examines the counter-narratives that have emerged in response to alternative protein claims from different stakeholders linked to conventional livestock production. We offer a second typology of three counter-narratives that have so far characterised these responses. Through mapping this narrative landscape, we show how different types of “goodness” have been ascribed by alternative protein and conventional livestock stakeholders to their respective approaches. Moreover, our analysis reveals a series of tensions underpinning these contested food futures, many of which have long histories in broader debates over what constitutes better (protein) food production and consumption. The paper’s discussion contributes to ongoing research across the social sciences on the ontological politics of (good) food, and the key role of narratives in constructing and contesting visions of “better” food futures.’

Read a World Economic Forum-ILRI white paper on this subject: Options for the livestock sector in developing and emerging economies to 2030 and beyond. Meat: the Future Series, 2019.