The shape of the Ouroboros Steak depends on its underlying mycelium scaffolds. Various designs are pictured as part of the "Designs for Different Futures" exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Ouroboros steaks on display at a personal diner as part of the “Designs for Different Futures” exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Aleph Farms unveiled its thin-cut steak prototype at the Asia-Pacific Agri-Food Innovation Summit in Singapore on Nov. 20.
Cells are periodically fed with serum before they turn into steaks.
It took roughly three months for the team to grow the Ouroboros Steaks; two are pictured in progress and have been cast in resin for preservation.
Human cells, mycelium, paper, plastic. This story starts benignly enough. But as with so many points of contention in our polarized world, it’s about context, engrained beliefs and a sliding scale of willingness to consider other points of view. A DIY meat kit is the crux of the debate — but this isn’t just any protein.
Instead of using animal cells to produce chicken nuggets, meatballs or slices of steak, Ottawa scientist Andrew Pelling, industrial designer and scientist Grace Knight, and interdisciplinary artist, designer and researcher Orkan Telhan cultured human cells in human serum to grow blobs of, you guessed it, human meat.
Feeling queasy yet? Or an uncomfortable push-pull of repulsion and intrigue? It gets even more provocative when you consider the name the team of scientists and designers gave their concept: Ouroboros Steak. Conceivably grown by the eater using their own cheek-swabbed cells and a blood bank by-product, it’s a reference to the ancient Egyptian symbol of a snake swallowing its own tail. An infinite loop merging the consumer with the consumed.
Originally part of Telhan ’s “Breakfast Before Extinction” series, the installation is now on display at London’s Design Museum among the Beazley Designs of the Year . Four bite-sized, crimson morsels of flesh preserved in resin sit on a red and white checkered rim plate set on a pink and white striped placement, a shiny stainless steel fork to their left, and knife to their right.
Architecture and design magazine Dezeen featured the project in mid-November, in an article titled “ Ouroboros Steak grow-your-own human meat kit is ‘technically’ not cannibalism .” Coverage has snowballed, all hung up on one word: cannibalism.
Ouroboros Steak was intended as a thought experiment, Telhan explains. A critique of the lab-grown meat industry, designed to start a discussion rather than present a potential protein solution for the future.
“The cellular agriculture industry is a very important industry — it’s a very important area of biological design,” says Telhan. “But a lot of people don’t pay attention to the real costs of lab-grown meat.”
Dubbed clean meat, cultured animal protein is often presented as a slaughter-free means of meat production that’s lighter on the planet than conventional livestock agriculture. Israel-based startup Aleph Farms, which announced its proof of concept in 2018, is edging closer to a commercial product. After launching a program to grow steaks in space ( Aleph Zero ) earlier this month, it unveiled its thin-cut prototype at the Asia-Pacific Agri-Food Innovation Summit in Singapore on Nov. 20. Another Israeli company, SuperMeat, is trialling cultured chicken burgers at The Chicken , a new restaurant/testing ground in Tel Aviv.
“There’s constantly a hype cycle,” Telhan says of announcements heralding the development of a $280,000 lab-grown burger , 3D-printing meat on the International Space Station, or hatching plans to grow steak on Mars. These headlines bring attention back to the industry, he adds, and help companies raise funds. “We should be critical about this hype and be realistic about what’s possible at any given time. And also ask people the very basic question: Why don’t you just consume less meat instead of trying to replace our meat consumption with all kinds of more expensive and (less desirable) solutions?”
The creators of the Ouroboros Steak highlight the cultured meat industry’s use of fetal bovine serum (FBS) in particular. A commonly used ingredient in a range of fields, including lab-grown meat, biotechnology research and vaccine production, FBS is harvested from living fetal calves — through a puncture to the heart without the use of anaesthesia — during the slaughter of pregnant cows. Given the ethical considerations of its extraction as well as rising prices — 500mL of FBS currently costs as much as $1,084 — there are incentives for finding a replacement.
As Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft writes in Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food , there are hundreds of candidates, but cost is a potential roadblock. “While many commercially available growth media are free of the decidedly non-vegan fetal bovine serum, they have all been judged to be too expensive for use at industrial scale.”
Some lab-grown meat companies — including Aleph Farms, the Netherlands’ Mosa Meat and Turkey’s Biftek — have reportedly established workarounds, and no longer require FBS for production. “To our knowledge no independent, peer-reviewed, scientific studies have validated these claims,” Pelling told Dezeen .
There’s been a lot of progress made in the cultured meat industry, Telhan says, but he doesn’t see the FBS issue as being resolved. “When people are choosing between killing animals, or lab-grown meat versus plant-based alternatives, this human steak needs to be considered because it also asks us the question: How far can we go to meet our protein needs when we are running out of options?”
The prototypes in the Ouroboros Steak installation took roughly three months to grow, and Telhan says the team doesn’t have plans to commercialize the project (nor did they taste what they created). “It is a little bit combined storytelling with real, hard science. But ultimately, it’s about asking these questions.”
Presented as a way to grow meat from one’s own cells, some have equated the Ouroboros Steak to autocannibalism. Whether it “technically” is or isn’t is less straightforward than you might assume. Cannibalism as a word has always been used loosely, explains Maggie Kilgour, Molson professor of English Language and Literature at McGill University, which is why some anthropologists prefer the term anthropophage — literally “people-eater.”
“The fuzziness is actually part of the whole myth of the cannibal — what is cannibalism and what is not,” says Kilgour. “Who is a cannibal? ‘It’s them, but it might be us’ is part of what makes it powerful.”
We’re both fascinated and repulsed by cannibalism, she adds, and portrayals have often been used to critique consumerism. In Dawn of the Dead (1978), for example, a shopping spree at a mall merges with a zombie feeding frenzy.
One of her favourite examples of cannibalism’s blurred boundaries comes from narrator Ishmael in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851): “Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds. Does not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibal’s jaw? Cannibals? Who is not a cannibal?”
Drawing parallels rather than distinctions between consumer and consumed can trigger anxieties. A project like the Ouroboros Steak serves as a reminder that eating is a basic necessity of life, yet it’s also profoundly significant, says Kilgour. We routinely define others by what they do and don’t eat: gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, carnivore.
“People have different taboos but food is just so symbolic that it’s a statement about who you are, and what you believe in. It’s a statement of values. And that’s clearly part of the whole design (of the Ouroboros Steak),” says Kilgour.
There are grey areas when it comes to the definition, acknowledges zoologist Bill Schutt, author of Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History , and everyone has their own. He thinks of it as the act of consuming all or part of another being of the same species — or “a substantial part” of yourself in the case of autocannibalism. In his estimation, scavenging qualifies, as long as it’s the same species.
Schutt finds the Ouroboros Steak “ridiculous,” and given there are alternative techniques to cell culture that don’t require FBS, doesn’t see the value in growing human meat in a lab — even to make a point about the cultivated meat industry. “If you wanted to grow meat in a lab setting, you could do it with chicken or you could do it with beef, or you could do it with fill in the blank,” he says. “But the whole idea of doing it with humans is just completely absurd.”
“Culture is king” when it comes to perceptions of cannibalism, emphasizes Schutt. Our abhorrence for cannibalism is so entrenched, he adds, that if a grow-your-own human meat kit were to hit the market, there’s no chance it would sell.
“It’s been ingrained in us since the time of Homer,” says Schutt. “The worst thing you can do to another person is to cannibalize them. Now tie that into Christian ideas about what you do with the dead and how at a certain point you’ll be resurrected — your body and soul will be together up in heaven. And then tie that into food, which people are all worked up about anyway.”
In Greek and Roman mythology, cannibalism marks a “final, ultimate transgression,” says classicist Rebecca Moorman, who teaches a course on Horror and the Grotesque in Ancient Rome at the University of Toronto, Mississauga. A fall from glory of someone who was once destined for greatness. Tantalus, for example, was sentenced to perpetual hunger in the underworld after cooking his son and serving him to the gods.
The use of ouroboros imagery interests her. In antiquity, it was a symbol of renewal. Adopted from ancient Egypt, it signified Greek and Roman magical practices: the name coming from the Greek oura (tail) and boros (devouring or gluttonous).
Why don't we just consume less meat instead of trying to replace our meat consumption with all kinds of more expensive and (less desirable) solutions?
“It’s resisting these ideas of autocannibalism as a taboo by labelling it as something that is a symbol of rebirth and regeneration,” says Moorman, adding that this is reflected in the installation’s diner setup, which includes a mirror directly facing the hypothetical eater.
“It really raises questions about the morality of meat-eating and what lengths we should go to avoid eating other animals — and so eating yourself. It’s not really cannibalism when you think about it as this ouroboros … it’s using yourself to regenerate. And in that sense it’s like an infinite cycle of life and rebirth and regeneration, instead of this horrific killing and end of life that we get when we eat other animals.”
While many people immediately reduced the project to “human steaks,” Telhan says, the use of the ouroboros was meant to promote just this kind of contemplation.
“We all like to think about sustainability as ‘how do we survive on the planet in a longer period?’ But we don’t really want to take the risks or question our own assumptions. So we push by saying that, ‘Well, maybe you need to eat yourself to be able to survive on the planet.’ People feel very offended. And that offence is an important place to really ask these questions,” says Telhan. “Ultimately this project is doing its job in terms of creating this self-reflexive environment.”
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