This past summer, Israeli startup Future Meat Technologies launched the world’s first industrial facility to mass produce lab-grown meat. Of the roughly 25 “cultured meat” startups in the world, Israel is home to five, a disproportionally large number and second only to the United States’ six. Despite claims of environmental and moral superiority, the commercial drive to produce lab-grown meat is rooted in the traditional meat industry; it stems from the idea that a beefless future is inconceivable, it is at least partially funded by conventional meat-producing titans such as Cargill and Tyson, and is still reliant on the suffering and killing of animals (see: Bovine Fetal Serum). With its long history of large-scale ranching and massive meat packing, it is clear why the United States is spearheading the path towards lab-grown beef. Israel, on the other hand, only recently became a prominent beef consumer and it produces only a fraction of the beef it consumes. Unlike the American story of meat abundance, the drive for lab-grown beef in Israel is embedded in a history of meat scarcity. It is a story of settlement, colonization, and a desire for meat in an environment that does not support it.
For the men and women who migrated from Europe to the Americas or the Antipodes in the 19th and 20th centuries, resettlement often meant increasing access to meat. Italians moving to the United States and Argentina – two global meat producers – embraced access to meat as a marker of prosperity and plenty. The encounter with a new land and its offerings reshaped their traditional cuisines: familiar dishes were enriched with morsels of meat or even accompanied by big portions of it. As one Italian immigrant in Argentina wrote back home, “here we eat steaks every meal… I lack for nothing. We are in America”. Eastern-European Jews experienced a similar culinary revolution in the United States. While in Europe meat was reserved for the sabbath, in the United States immigrants gained access to meat every day. In Australia, yet another global meat producer, European settlers celebrated the land’s bounty by eating meat three times a day.
Argentina, Australia, and the United States did not evolve into meat utopias spontaneously. Their transformation was a byproduct of ecological imperialism where both humans and animals moved across the world. Cattle colonialism, an extension of ecological imperialism, constituted Europeans introducing their bovine species to overseas territories, where cattle reproduced, multiplied, and wandered. The animals both blazed the trail for settlers and served as a renewable source of sustenance for them. One corollary of using cattle to colonize was the creation of a cowboy or guaco ethos. As settlers drove cattle across vast terrains, a romantic image of beef production emerged. The desire for meat was then perpetuated not only by a constant and cheap supply of it but also by the idyllic image of the cowboy, even as actual cowboys were sidelined by meatpacking conglomerates, industrial ranching, and factory farming in the 19th and 20th centuries. Establishing what Joshua Specht calls the “cattle-beef-complex”, supplying cheap beef for local and global consumers meant continuous dispossession of indigenous lands and the exploitation of (often migrant) workers in the arduous task of processing animal bodies.
Not every territory colonized by Europeans at the time was a meat utopia. Palestine was a land of limited pastures and limited livestock. Its location on the coast of the Mediterranean, with its long hot summers and sparse reservoirs, meant that only few locals made a living off of animal husbandry. Meat was scarce and accessible only to the wealthy until the early 20th century when the growing urban middle classes of the Levant – Syria, Lebanon, Palestine – gradually increased their access to capital and consequently their meat consumption. With limited local production, the Palestinian meat trade depended on a regional livestock economy: Arab merchants drove animals across the Middle East to local markets and urban consumers. Following World War I, when the country came under British rule, the history of meat in Palestine shifted. The division of the region into British and French territories created new borders which disrupted historical livestock trails. British rule also attracted newcomers. At the turn of the century, systematic and state-sponsored persecution made Europe inhospitable for Jews . With a British government in Palestine committed to facilitating the settlement of Jews there, the country absorbed unprecedented numbers of European Jewish settlers to the dismay of its local population.
An unforeseen consequence followed. Demand for beef in the country soared. Even the expansive regional trade could not supply the country’s new needs, and access to meat continued to occupy the minds of many Jewish settlers during that period and beyond. For Jewish settlers who dealt in meat and cattle in Europe – a trade associated with Jews since the middle-ages – Palestine’s regional supply chains were not only insufficient but also firmly beyond their reach. Local cattle, they thought, were too few and too meager to feed Jewish beef demands, and more importantly, the regional trade was dominated by tight networks of Arab merchants. Alien to local networks, Jewish dealers instead tapped into their old ties with the European cattle trade, opening avenues of maritime exchange between Europe and Palestine. In doing so they bypassed Palestinian and regional merchants and generated a competing meat economy with its own supply chains and slaughter systems. The maritime exchange never obviated the Palestinian and Arab regional trade, and it was also never entirely separate from it, but it allowed Jewish dealers to penetrate the meat trade by importing to Palestine European bovines three times the size of local species.
Notably, urban Jewish settlers – and not Zionist settlement planners – drove this process. It was colonization from below. As the country’s environmental conditions were incompatible with intensive livestock breeding, Zionist planners never invested in breeding cattle for beef in Palestine (though they did for the dairy industry). Because they could not produce it, beef had no value to Zionist leaders in Palestine. As beef consumption depended on Palestinian breeders, regional Arab merchants, and increasingly on overseas imports, Zionist leaders saw beef as a threat to their aspirations for a self-reliant settlement. Unable to control meat production, they instead tried to control its consumption. In other settler-colonies like Australia, meat was economically vital and thus promoted to settlers as a dietary staple. In Palestine, however, Jewish experts claimed that meat was not only economically incompatible with Zionist goals but also nutritionally hazardous. In the daily press, in school curricula, and even on the radio, settlers accustomed to eating meat in Europe were encouraged to change their habits, with nutritionists and other experts insisting that eating meat was physically harmful in Palestine’s heat. Zionist efforts to support only Jewish agricultural production generated a hegemonic discourse on meat: it was damaging to settlers’ bodies and the body politic.
Import records show, however, that Jewish consumers ignored this advice and insisted on devouring large quantities of beef regardless of its source. Tel Aviv, for example, was the settlement’s most important city financially, demographically, and also in terms of meat consumption. Its emerging meat infrastructures – especially its slaughterhouse built in 1931 – facilitated the expansion of the city, and by proxy, the entire Jewish settlement. Even though it was not directed from above, the desire for meat drove settlers in Palestine as it did elsewhere. Rather than a land of milk and honey, immigrants and settlers hankered for meat as the material manifestation of arriving at a utopia of prosperity and plenty. Increasing Jews’ access to meat in Palestine may have been against the advice of leaders and experts, but ultimately served the national goal: the expansion of the settlement and the colonization of Palestine.
Many developments in Israeli history have since made beef a dietary staple rather than a threat to Zionist goals, especially the opening of the Israeli market to international imports and the 1990s economic boom. Unable to expand its “traditional” beef industry, the country still relies on shiploads of chilled meat and live animals to supply its beef needs. With Lab-grown meat, the Israeli tech-industry offers to swap overseas imports for locally (lab)grown. These efforts are not entirely new; they are embedded in over a century of Zionist zeal for employing technology to bend the land’s resources to its will, with achievements in agriculture especially acclaimed. With the turn towards “cellular agriculture”, Israeli startups are responding to a historical hankering for meat in a natural environment that does not support it. And because “traditional” beef production consigns Israel to the global periphery, Israeli leaders are eager to promote lab-grown meat technologies. In the “modern-day space race”, leaders of the self-acclaimed “startup nation” are seeking to position Israel as a “global alternative-protein leader”. In a somewhat historical inversion, (lab-grown) meat in Israel becomes not only a source of national pride but officially incorporated into Zionist policy.