Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Josh Milburn's "Food, Justice, and Animals"

Josh Milburn is a British philosopher and a Lecturer in Political Philosophy at Loughborough University. He has previously worked at the University of Sheffield, the University of York, and Queen's University (in Canada), before which he studied at Queen's University Belfast and Lancaster University. He is the author of Just Fodder: The Ethics of Feeding Animals (2022), and the regular host of the animal studies podcast Knowing Animals.

Milburn applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Food, Justice, and Animals: Feeding the World Respectfully, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Food, Justice, and Animals: Feeding the World Respectfully starts to introduce the technology of precision fermentation, and especially cultivated dairy. It reads as follows:
I return to cultivated meat in Chapter 5. For now, let us turn to consider cellular agriculture beyond meat. In an important sense, it is non-meat cellular agriculture that has established itself first. As already noted, for example, Impossible Foods’s haem and Geltor’s collagen have been available for years, and fermentation-based rennet has been available for decades. But more striking than these cell-cultured additives is the existence of cultivated milk. Perfect Day is an American company that has been producing cultivated dairy proteins since 2019—available to consumers in ice cream, milk drinks, and more. Cultivated dairy products are thus available (if likely unfamiliar) to Americans. Other companies focus on other dairy products. The German company Formo, for example—although their products are not, at time of writing, commercially available—produces cheese.

The technologies of precision fermentation used by makers of cultivated milk are simpler than the technologies used for cultivated meat. Cultivated dairy producers genetically modify non-animal cells (say, yeasts) to produce organic compounds (say, casein, a milk protein) via fermentation. The producers thus do not need animals. At most, some understanding of animal genetic makeup is required. (Unsurprisingly given their commercial significance, cattle genetics are already very well-known to humans.)

At the risk of oversimplifying, the process uses brewing technologies that have been relatively familiar to humans for millennia; the only high-tech part is the initial genetic modification. The Good Food Institute carefully distinguishes traditional fermentation from biomass fermentation and precision fermentation technologies. An example of the first is turning soybeans into tempeh. The second creates foods’ bulk—food scientists ferment fungi, for example, to produce Quorn’s plant-based meats. It is the third with which I am presently concerned: genetic modification allows for the creation of cell-level factories to produce particular proteins (or similar). But even the genetic technologies are accessible compared the technologies used for cultivated meat. Indeed, some of the first people to explore cultivated dairy…
And that’s where the page ends.

In many ways, this page is typical of the book: there’s talk of plant-based meat, cultivated meat, cultivated milk, and so on. These are the kinds of approaches to food production that this book explores at length.

But in other ways, this page is not typical. Simply put, this is a work of political philosophy. Page 99 gives the impression that it’s a book about the current state of novel food industries. But, really, it’s a book examining the reasons for and against particular methods of food production. It is thus making the case for a food system that we should collectively try to create.

The book’s central claim is that recognizing that animals have rights doesn’t mean that we must give up animal foods if we can produce these foods without disrespecting animals’ rights. And this involves close analysis of the ethics of products like cultivated milk – milk created without the need for cows, and so milk produced without the rights-violating horrors of the contemporary milk industry.

So, starting on page 100, Food, Justice, and Animals moves on from introducing precision fermentation and starts to closely examine the ethics of cultivated milk, responding to several arguments against the technology. Crucially, I suggest that these arguments fall short, meaning that we don’t have to choose between respecting animal rights and continuing to consume dairy. With products like cultivated milk, we can choose a third path: We can collectively continue to eat animal products (including dairy products), while collectively ending the violence against animals in the contemporary food industry (including the violence in contemporary dairy production).
Visit Josh Milburn's website.

--Marshal Zeringue