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The Age of the Non-Vegetarian Who Doesn’t Eat ‘Meat’

Say what you will about the magic of ‘please’, ‘sorry’ and ‘thank you’, but there’s nothing that hits people the way the words ‘butter chicken’ do.

We had felt similarly, as we sat around our restaurant table, hungrily eyeing each order that seemed like ours but then rapidly zoomed past. When the steaming hot bowl of delight finally settled in front of us, I dug in amongst a frenzy of spoons stealthily trying to scoop out the best pieces.

But as the others began chewing excitedly, my first bite made me halt. Something about the taste seemed…different.

On being called upon to enquire, the manager kept trying to insist that I was wrong, and then, he finally gave in: “the meat you’ve been served is, well, actually not meat”

We almost collectively caught our breath. “What is it then?”

He sighed. “We’d been asked to try out this ‘meat’ they made in the lab – they’re calling it ‘ahimsa meat—”

Responses simultaneously erupted from our table.

“WHY wouldn’t you specify that on the menu?!”

“I think I’m going to throw up”

“Hey guys, wait, I’m looking this up, and it doesn’t seem that ba-”

“Does this mean I don’t have to consider veganism anymore?”

That’s how we imagine ‘cultured meat’ would be received.

Created through what is now being termed as ‘cellular agriculture’, this lab grown innovation, that had begun 6 years ago, promises to separate meat from the violence and environmental damage it is associated with. And all with a minimal reduction on the meat’s juiciness.

Back then, preparing a hamburger with cultured meat cost $325,000. But today, a kilogram of the same has been made available at $25; a price that is expected to drop below $10 by the end of the year.

Research suggests that given their habituation to red meat, US may be a tough market to penetrate. However, China and India are expected to adopt the concept quicker.

And the prediction doesn’t seem far from true, considering how the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, an Indian bio-tech research establishment, has been tasked with taking the production of cultured meat to a commercial scale within five years.

But how easily can the average Indian be convinced to view this product with an open mind, when the binary of vegetarianism and non-vegetarianism is all that they’ve known their entire life?

The key lies in understanding how cultured meat can fit best within people’s belief systems about food.

And here’s the first thing to note: people themselves don’t adhere to this binary all that well to begin with.

There is you who is a vegetarian, but not a purist since you take egg. There is your cousin who is a non-vegetarian but opts out on Tuesdays because his mother told him to, and she because her faith told her to.

There is also your friend who is required to identify as a vegetarian before her parents and relatives; but nothing about how she goes at mutton curry behind their backs would convince you to classify her as one.

Even though choices such as these deviate from the core understanding of vegetarianism and non-vegetarianism, why don’t they see the kind of public outcry that cultured meat probably would?

Because these deviations aren’t strong enough to threaten the fundamentality of the basic binary surrounding meat consumption.

Think of it like this: Christianity explains that Adam existed first, and that Eve was formed from one of Adam’s ribs. By that logic, Eve becomes a derivative and not an original.

Similarly, vegetarianism and non-vegetarianism existed first. And it was on the foundation of these, that we carved out our personal food preferences. Thereby, again creating derivatives and not originals.

And derivatives don’t aim to dismantle the binary. They only wish to create enough breathing space without offending the dominant players.

Which is why they only take hold of smaller numbers; they don’t gain enough influence to make the next person seriously reconsider the binary.

It’s like when your friends poke fun at you for identifying as an ‘eggetarian’, saying ‘people will make up anything these days’.

Now, you might perceive this strongly-ordered system of vegetarianism and non-vegetarianism, and their subsets as mostly watertight. And you’re right. Yet, cultured meat has initiated entry into the gang of the Big Two.

Therefore, it is reasonable to see this concept posing a threat to an Indian’s understanding of the core food binary. As a product that doesn’t fully align with either category, cultured meat is bound to throw even the understanding of what is and isn’t meat into question; thereby compromising the ‘common knowledge’ aspect of the pre-existing binary.

How then does cultured meat dodge suspicion, resistance and a barrage of malicious mislabelling?

There appear to be two ways.

One, dress the concept as a derivative of meat. Give something, that holds the potential of becoming an ‘original’, a garb that makes it appear less threatening.

Much like how people have begun passing it off as ‘ahimsa meat’; an idea that plays into the dominant Indian narrative of being non-violent towards animals.

And two, work with the pre-existing utopic notion of technology being able to resolve any problem we face. An easy effort given that cultured meat already comes with the promise of being environmentally friendly.

And who knows? Much like with other cases of technological disruption (think TikTok), this concept too may be able to serve a need that was never previously addressed.