Public debates explore the political and personal dimensions of engineered living materials and cultured meat

Diverse voices explore perspectives and share insights with project partners Laurens Landeweerd and Martina Baumann.

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People gathering and talking around a firepit in the woods.

Organized by Radboud University, two firepit debates explored arguments for and against ELMs (Engineered Living Materials) and cultured meat. Participants, from students to artists and scientists, shared personal perspectives and delved into implications, emphasizing the need for informed dialogue. Future sessions might delve into the cultural and personal backgrounds shaping these discussions.

In September and October 2023, Laurens Landeweerd, Principal Investigator at ISiS (Institute for Science in Society), organized and moderated a series of insightful debates at BioArt Laboratories Eindhoven exploring different perspectives on ELMs and cultured meat. ISiS, Radboud University Nijmegen, is PRISM-LT’s Dutch partner, leading a multidisciplinary research effort on the public perception of PRISM-LT’s pilots.

BioArt Laboratories opened their premises for two debates, targeting diverse audiences. The first debate, “Engineered Living Materials,” held on September 28, 2023, engaged pupils and teachers from an international school, “providing a unique opportunity for young minds to delve into the complexities of state-of-the-art scientific advancements,” states Laurens. The second debate happened on October 28, 2023, during the International Dutch Design Week. This session attracted an audience of artists, scientists, and curious visitors who met to share values, interests, and perceptions toward new technology in materials science.

During the debate, structured like a House of Commons, participants were presented with 13 bold statements to argue for or against passionately. Around 25 people actively participated, providing fertile ground to examine different perspectives on engineered living materials and cultured meat.

Nuanced personal views and the importance of terminology

Notably, the debates suggested that discussions about ELMs, especially in the context of cultured meat, were not just scientific but inherently political. Laurens mentions that “participants pointed to examples such as the recent lift of the ban on cultured meat in Italy or traditional dietary customs in India, emphasizing the international and global relevance of the discourse.”

A particularly intriguing revelation was the participants’ nuanced stances on ELMs for or against cultured meat. Views ranged from openness and curiosity to skepticism, primarily rooted in concerns about the origins of growth factors and the impact of sustainability. Martina Baumann, a postdoc in Philosophy and Science Studies at ISiS, who joined the second debate, explained, “The debates showed how participants’ personal views on meat eating and production influence how suitable they find the ‘meat’ terminology for cultured meat.” She emphasized the importance of providing accurate information to potential consumers to prevent them from rejecting cultured meat based on uninformed assumptions.

Future explorations of cultured meat

“The success of these two debates certainly invites organizing these in future phases of the project as well,” concludes Laurens. In future debates, Laurens and Martina want to specify the discussions around cultured meat, exploring it from the perspective of varied personal backgrounds. “We want to explore the dependency of pro- and contra-arguments on cultural or religious backgrounds, personal values, and societal or political context,” says Martina.