Edible Creations

The far-reaching promises of far-fetched food-tech startups

Hampton Creek, a food start-up headed by Silicon Valley wunderkind Josh Tetrick, raised about $120 million from investors in its first four years; Bill Gates identified them as a company reinventing the future of food. The company employs the skills of “computational biologists from Stanford, and food engineers from Kraft and Campbell’s, and chefs from Michelin-star restaurants” to develop cutting-edge, plant-based substitutes for animal products. A member of the green-tech zeitgeist, they argue that rendering meat, dairy and eggs obsolete may solve the most intractable problems of an industrialized food system: poor public health, systematic animal cruelty, methane emissions and inefficient supply chains accelerating the pace of climate change. Hampton Creek’s mission is to “increase the probability that … a fair, honest, and just food system is the food system in every community.” This idealism gives the product an aura, and, in a crowded market, a reason to exist. A world-saving mission coupled with the scientific capacity to realize it made Hampton Creek appealing to investors: To date, they’ve raised $220 million.

The company has also been dogged by controversy, including a Business Insider report quoting anonymous former employees questioning its scientific rigor, a board member exodus, a trademark dispute, and the removal of its products from Target following food safety allegations (the FDA declined to investigate them, saying it “had no safety concerns with Hampton Creek at this time”). Nevertheless, Hampton Creek announced this June that they are developing a new product: lab-grown meat, scheduled to arrive in stores in 2018. They join companies like Memphis Meats, SuperMeat and Mosa Meat in the race to engineer meat without slaughter; these companies also compete with Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, which sell plant-based burgers designed to mimic the texture and taste of animal fiber — although it contains no animal matter, the Impossible Burger is said to “bleed.”

Though the futures many of these food startups propose are far from being realized, they still shape what is imaginable in the present

Veggie burgers have been commercially available for decades, of course, and have often been sold along with an ethos. But these burgers align themselves with a better future. They stand not only for a value system, but a vision. Hampton Creek is one of a cadre of food startups advertising hefty scientific and technological qualifications, while advancing a vision of a future in which their product will be indispensable, woven into the fabric of everyday life. These visions have inspired outsize anxiety, scorn, mirth and suspicion, and the reactions make sense: Though the futures these companies propose are far from being realized, they still shape what is imaginable in the present.

In her essay “Make-Believe: Parafiction and Plausibility,” art theorist Carrie Lambert-Beatty describes an aesthetic practice she terms parafiction: a performance that relies on a false, yet plausible narrative being temporarily experienced as fact. She cites as an example Michael Blum’s installation A Tribute to Safiye Behar, memorializing a Turkish scholar, translator, and feminist activist who never existed; artist Andrea Fraser’s tours of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in which she plays the role of a docent enthusiastically spewing art jargon, also fits Lambert-Beatty’s definition. Parafiction is more earnest and fully-fleshed than a prank, less figurative than most literature or performance; to function, it must draw specific details from reality, and leave behind a trace of the fictional world that persists and percolates, even after the illusion breaks. Lambert-Beatty writes, “Parafictional strategies are oriented less toward the disappearance of the real than toward the pragmatics of trust. Simply put, with various degrees of success, for various durations, and for various purposes, these fictions are experienced as fact.”

In passing off the plausible for the real, parafiction renders apparent the conditions that establish truth: the role of delivery and discursive framing, the contours of the sensible that render some fictions more believable than others. It also creates a sense of superposition, alternate realities crowding in on each other, tangling and bumping elbows. Even if the parafictional story isn’t true, it could be; its world is not entirely separate from our own. Lambert-Beatty discusses parafiction specifically as an art practice, an aesthetic strategy that can critique the ways in which ideology coalesces into fact. But parafiction’s tools — institutional language, for example, or emotional appeals, and misleading material evidence — circulate more widely. This temporary and unstable synthesis of the real with the plausible is a favorite strategy of some future-looking food startups.

Early this month, Juicero, a well-funded food technology startup that sells a $400 juice machine reverentially known by its developers as “the Press,” announced it was suspending operations. Juicero had claimed that its Press offered something more than similar appliances: “Not all juice is equal,” founder Doug Evans told the New York Times. “How do you measure life force? How do you measure chi?” The wifi-connected machine scans QR codes on the company’s single-serving packet, refusing to squeeze if the ingredients are expired; the prepared packs, which look like IV bags, eliminate messy preparation time; the Press can apply four tons of force evenly across its 64-square-inch surface. It’s made of aircraft-grade aluminum. Celebrity industrial designer Yves Béhar created its distinctive aesthetic: white plastic and brushed metal, smoothed edges, a simple facade expressing blank amiability. Juicero advertised a luxury good designed to provide the idea of purity and health; Evans called it a“farm-to-glass” experience.

This April, reporters from Bloomberg Businessweek demonstrated that Juicero packets could be squeezed out by hand, featuring a minute-long video comparing the hand-squeezed juice against the Press, side-by-side, showing that the former could yield slightly less juice in slightly less time. The biggest difference between the Juicero Press and making the juice by hand is that the latter is messy; you compress wet matts of vegetable pulp through a plastic pack, and it splatters. Juicero, by contrast, offers a “no-mess” experience. The video debunks the parafiction at the heart of Juicero’s pitch: that a $400 machine is necessary to make good juice. But the machine implies a richer, more idiosyncratic story. Juicero imagined a world a half-phase away from our own in which the Press was an important appliance, rightly commanding a high price. In a response posted on Medium, Juicero’s new CEO called the product the apex of “my personal mission and passion: Solving some of our nation’s nutrition and obesity challenges.”

Parafiction is more earnest than a prank, less figurative than most literature. Future-looking food startups favor this temporary and unstable synthesis of the real with the plausible

Food-tech companies like Hampton Creek, as well as Soylent, Juicero, and others, present an enhanced reality within the present. They frame real, global problems in such a way that their products could resolve them, and posit the existence of products that could solve real, global problems. The products are consumable goods, but more than that, they provide a blueprint for a better future, so the decision to believe them or not often represents more than a straightforward evaluation of fact. Because these start-ups construct aesthetic worlds that muddle the boundaries between the scientific veracity of their product and the future it implies, to believe the science is, on their terms, to assent to live in that future. Buying the parafiction with the product can feel compulsory, and consumers respond with anxiety, or enthusiastic embrace. Sometimes, when the illusion falls apart, it feels like a dam breaking: there’s an outpouring of derision at the debunked future, a silly story that won’t become real quite yet.

Soylent, the enfant terrible of bottled meal replacements, cultivates a space-age, dystopian aesthetic — a box of the matte, chalky-white bottles looks a shipment of NASA provisions, and their name is lifted from the food wafers made of human flesh in the ’70s sci-fi film Soylent Green. In 2016, the company occupied a booth at New York’s Frieze Art Fair, where representatives dressed in gray jumpsuits passed out free bottles of the drink. The art elite gathered on Randall’s Island to pick up on the newest trends in contemporary art also got a taste of the future of food: meals on the go, for one, delivered as a bland beige liquid sometimes likened to pancake batter or breast milk.

There’s an indelible sense that Soylent is hostile to traditional food practices, which likely originated with the company’s founder and CEO, Rob Rhinehart, who has inveighed against food preparation as a nuisance that ought to be streamlined out of one’s life. In a 2015 post on his blog, he wrote: “Kitchens are expensive and dirty … They are the greediest consumers of power, water, and labor and produce the most noise and garbage of any room. Moreover, they can be made totally unnecessary with a few practical life hacks.” Rhinehart seemed to hold special animus toward grocery shopping, and welcomes Soylent as a sort of liberation. “Nevermore,” he wrote, “will I bumble through endless confusing aisles like a pack-donkey searching for feed while the smell of rotting flesh fills my nostrils and fluorescent lights sear my eyeballs and sappy love songs torture my ears.”

The home-cooked meal is outmoded, messy and inefficient; in the future, Rhinehart argues, we’ll see that Soylent makes life better. Like Hampton Creek, the drink could also solve the problems of the food industry: their website states that “Soylent uses science and technology to solve the challenges plaguing the current food system and work toward its mission of providing access to quality nutrition to people across the globe.” There is a peculiar magic to the heightened suspicion and enthusiasm that the drink inspires, because it is largely out of step with what it contains — self-described as a “pioneer in food technology,” Soylent is similar to other meal replacements on the market, which don’t occupy the same cultural position or incite the same paranoia.

In the parafictional world of Soylent’s product, you are young, strong, healthy, autonomous, and your time is worth a lot, too much to waste on cooking. Physical needs are design problems to solve. It’s not wrong to interrogate the ways cooking is burdensome — Soylent’s intellectual antithesis, the contemporary whole foods movement, can go too far romanticizing food labor and elide that this work has historically been performed by women, for free. Still, Soylent’s parafiction reads as an ode to removing the essentially human qualities — work, messy materiality, and collaboration — from the practice of making and eating food.

A white chicken named Ian lives at Fogline Farm, a poultry and pork ranch nestled in the mountains of Santa Cruz. With his glossy comb and robust red wattle, Ian looks the picture of health: He was selected because Hampton Creek wanted “the single best chicken [they] could find.” A short video on Hampton Creek’s website explains that cells harvested from one of Ian’s feathers were used to engineer lab-grown meat. In the film, a lab worker snips a feather’s nib and pipettes liquid into trays. Cell growth is impressionistically represented by amber bubbles multiplying under glass. A chef prepares chicken fingers, and a group at a picnic table enthusiastically digs in while Ian struts and pecks nearby. They’re consuming him, but he’s alive and well.

Regardless of its success with consumers, the aura of technologically enabled progress can leave us with a distorted idea of what’s really at stake

A company spokesman clarified that the video showed a “clean-meat prototype that also contains breading and plant-based filler.” The science behind lab-grown meat (or “clean meat,” also called “cultured meat”) is new and appears to be years away from developing a product that is inexpensive, ethical, and safe enough for regulators and consumers. Announcing their ambition to debut a lab-grown meat by the end of 2018, Hampton Creek joins Memphis Meats, SuperMeat and Mosa Meat in a race to develop the first commercial version, but their timeline sounds unusually optimistic. Memphis Meats projects their meat will be ready to sell by 2021. Mosa Meat debuted a lab-grown burger in 2013 that cost $325,000 to produce, and while the price has dropped considerably, it’s not clear when a similar burger can be found in stores.

Developers of lab-grown meat want to eliminate the cruelty of raising animals for slaughter, as well as the environmental damage inflicted by the livestock industry, but lab-grown meats so far have often relied on an expensive substance called fetal bovine serum, or FBS, with disturbing, decidedly non-vegetarian origins — it’s produced from the blood of cow fetuses, extracted in slaughterhouses. The serum allows a small group of cells to replicate and multiply, building the tissue that comprises meat. Hampton Creek’s Director of Biochemistry Viviane Lanquar told Quartz that the company is investigating plant-based alternatives to FBS, and Mosa Meat and Memphis Meats have communicated similar goals. Timeline aside, it’s hard not to be skeptical of a startup’s ability to eliminate factory farming and save the planet. The parafictional strategies employed by some companies present products as environmental solutions — the narrative outshadows the commodity itself. Regardless of its success with consumers, the aura of technologically enabled progress can leave us with a distorted idea of what’s really at stake — the reality behind the fiction — and a sense of how to responsibly act.

Hampton Creek, Juicero, Soylent and lab-grown meat companies have provoked strong public reactions — scorn, mirth, distrust, manic optimism and anxiety. Taking food technology’s discursive strategies as a type of parafiction, these reactions do not reflect what the company really can do, right now; instead, they respond to aesthetic visions of the future presented as present fact. Some of these companies share a mission to build non-exploitative food systems, but their plans are often sketched so vaguely that believing them becomes largely predicated on aesthetic signifiers — as Lambert-Beatty calls it, the “pragmatics of trust.” Does the technology look the way it’s supposed to, and do I see myself in the future it implies? Emotional reactions make sense when the product is being sold less on its scientific credentials than a vivid image of the future, glimpsed from the present.

Ultimately, Lambert-Beatty sees parafiction as an “unhappy performative” utterance, a term she borrows from literary theorist J.L. Austen: like an actor in a play declaiming “I pronounce you man and wife,” words that would effect an official action don’t really take. The world created by parafiction makes something briefly and contingently true, then it collapses. The obvious difference between parafiction as an art practice and the futuristic autobiographies of food technology lies in the nature of this collapse; when an artist draws back the curtain, the viewer feels enlightened or cheated by the experience, and when reporters discover that a product is redundant, the company loses money, or shuts down. Still, the parafiction functioned as fact for some time, and the world it created leaves an imprint — something about the present made it believable. Though one narrative becomes impossible, the fact that it was plausible establishes the foundation for the next big thing that will change the way you eat.

Erin Schwartz is a writer based in New York.