The Uncanny Valley of Fake Meat

Updated: Mar 8

And what it might mean for climate change

By Hannah Simon and Robert Nolte. Art by Aishah Wilson

Animal agriculture is widely recognised for having a considerable impact on the earth’s climate. It accounts for 13–18% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which is greater than those coming from all the world’s industrial activity. A growing realisation that climate change and agriculture are inextricably linked has birthed an activist movement dedicated to eating less meat, or adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet. Part of this movement involves producing and consuming substitute meats that are made to look, feel, smell and taste like the real thing. Fake meat products have been popularised by Beyond Meats, Impossible Foods, JUST, and other companies capitalising on a globally growing vegan market. While these products have been backed by economic, nutritional, ethical and environmental interests, little consideration has been paid to how our psychological response to them might limit their uptake, preventing them from reaping the benefits that some people think they could bring for tackling climate change, animal welfare issues, and public health. Indeed, plant-based and lab-grown meats have often been met with backlash, and therefore run the risk of alienating vegans, vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. Such backlash can be explained, at least in part, by a psychological theory called “the uncanny valley”. In short, the theory suggests that humanoid objects which imperfectly resemble actual humans provoke uncanny, eerie and uncomfortable feelings. With the above in mind, we unpack the uncanny valley, why it applies to fake meat, what such a response might mean for the future of food, and, ultimately, what this means for global climate action.

Meat substitutes: definitions, processing, benefits, and prospects

Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have pioneered plant-based burger patties that imitate the taste, smell, texture, and nutritional profile of animal-derived meat, often to an indistinguishable degree. Both burger patties ‘bleed’ when bitten into, thanks to beetroot extracts, and the addition of a nifty little molecule called ‘heme’ in the Impossible Burger. Heme is found in both animal muscle and plant cells. It is what gives meat its meaty, or umami, taste. Impossible Foods produces their plant-based heme via genetically engineered yeast that is extracted from the DNA of soy plants. Cultured meat, on the other hand, which is currently being researched and developed by JUST, involves an intricate process of cultivating meat from harvested animal stem cells. A scaffolding structure, usually made from cellulose or collagen, acts as the fibre that shapes and directs the stem cells as they are moulded into traditional cuts of meat like pork chops, chicken breasts, ribeye steaks, or fish fillets. Together, these substitutes have been touted as a panacea for global warming and animal welfare, allowing us to eat as much meat as we like without causing ecological harm and animal death.

Animal agriculture is responsible for a large share of the world’s GHG emissions, freshwater use, soil erosion, land-use change, deforestation and biodiversity loss. In comparison to animal-derived meat burgers, however, a Beyond Burger requires 99% less water, 93% less land, 46% less energy, and accounts for 90% fewer GHG emissions. Meat substitutes hold economic promise, too. In 2018, the global market for plant-based meat substitutes was valued at US$4.6 billion and is expected to reach US$6.4 billion by 2023. While far off from today’s US$90 billion global meat market, this is a promising start. Despite this, while meat substitutes are certainly making their mark economically, for now they inevitably form part of the capitalist system of industrial agriculture and its associated problems. Without larger changes to the economic system, meat substitutes risk engraining a range of social inequalities.

The environmental and economic impacts of cultured meat, however, are currently less certain, causing problems to do with certification and marketisation. These difficulties are compounded by the fact that the mainstream meat industry harnesses regulatory capture or PR power to prevent substitute meat producers from calling their products ‘meat’, which has impacts for how those products are perceived and consumed. With the science and technology largely in place in many countries, public adoption and regulation are the main barriers to the uptake of ‘fake meats’. While substitute meats – with the exception of cultured meat – are now widely available in many franchise restaurants, fast food chains and supermarkets, they still account for a negligible proportion of the global meat market. Tight regulation, market nascence, and a slowly evolving culture around food can account for this, which brings us to the uncanny valley.

Psychological framework: into the uncanny valley

The graph below offers a visual representation of the uncanny valley. The x-axis is a measure of human likeness, or how human something looks, and the y-axis depicts our collective affinity or familiarity towards the thing in question. As the graph shows, as things look more human, we tend to have a higher affinity towards them. However, when we encounter an entity that is almost, but not quite, human, we experience a sharp dip in our affinity; we don’t know what to do within this narrow window between human and non-human, so we start to feel uneasy and uncomfortable. This psychological response falls into the uncanny valley, and some suggest it is the reason why people are scared of clowns, repulsed by the new Cats movie, and repelled by robots. The theory was first hypothesised in 1970 by the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, who suggested that as robots become more human-like, people would find them to be more appealing than their mechanical counterparts. But, as is apparent from Figure 1, this only holds true up to a certain point.

Figure 1. The graph depicts the uncanny valley, the proposed relation between the human likeness of an entity, and the perceiver’s affinity for it. Bunraku is a traditional Japanese form of musical puppet theatre. Source: M. Mori, “The uncanny valley,” Energy, vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 33–35, 1970 .

Not everyone, though, agrees with the explanatory power of the uncanny valley. The philosopher Timothy Morton has criticised it as a ‘fascist concept’, arguing that the beings that reside in the uncanny valley are likely to be those that deviate from what society deems to be ‘normal’; and thus, the measure of human likeness is not apolitical or innocent. However, when applied to fake meat rather than humans, we find the theory helps explain the backlash against fake meat.

While many of the foods we eat without concern are shockingly artificial, packed with varied and unpronounceable ingredients that offer no nutritional value, we tend to be considerably less forgiving when it comes to meat and its substitutes. This can be attributed to a range of factors, including, for example, the meat-masculinity nexus that creates cultural associations between meat ‘production’ and meat-eating with being a ‘real man’, while denigrating those who do not consume (real) meat as ‘less manly’. Mori’s theory and the uncanny valley framework offer an additional explanation that helps us make headway in understanding the slow uptake of fake meat.

When presented with a Beyond or Impossible product, how do people typically respond? On one hand, many relish the taste, smell and texture. For some, it is the first time in decades they get to have such an experience. On the other hand, however, the inevitable comparison with ‘real meat’ presents a dilemma. Having been labelled as ‘weird slabs of fakery’, ‘like Frankenstein's monster’, ‘so-close-I-could-almost-be-fooled’, and ‘saltier than meat, squishier than meat, and not at all like meat’, being not-quite-meaty-enough for some people plunges fake meat into the uncanny valley. As a result, there is a risk that fake meat brands might fall out of favour for some, at best prolonging and at worst exacerbating the problems that they are trying to mitigate.

So, what happens if meat alternatives descend into the uncanny valley, freaking out the majority of people with their eeriness? The rejection of new and existing disruptive meat products would allow the meat industry to continue business as usual, sending today’s budding alternatives back to the drawing board. But what if we can’t find another way of convincing meat-eaters to adopt a plant-based diet or to curtail their meat consumption? There is a growing collection of books and documentaries that attempt to enlighten the masses about why eating meat is bad for everything. The size of that collection is a testament to the failure of analytical approaches to converting meat eaters. Those approaches often fail to recognise that human psychological responses are complex and unpredictable. And this is precisely why the uncanny valley is a useful framework: it offers new insights into the reasons why people may or may not take up fake meats in the first place. In analysing the situation in this way, we can start to shed light on the future of food and its role in global climate action.

Beyond the uncanny valley: ascension and avoidance

Technological innovation offers hope in the quest to ascend the uncanny valley. Meat substitutes could soon look, taste and feel just as good as animal-derived meat. But just as good simply isn’t good enough for many people. To climb out of the uncanny valley completely, these products need to taste even better than real meat. But are taste, texture and the sensory qualities of meat the only thing that matters when it comes to convincing people to cut out their steaks? We now look at the extra-sensory factors that play into meat consumption as an act embedded in societal structures at large.

Prehistorically, it took skill, effort and risk to hunt animals. As such, meat was treated as a luxury to be savoured. Even today, those who can afford it often mark special occasions with a pricey wagyu beef steak or sushi platter. So why do we place such great value on a prime cut of beef or a freshly caught fish, and how do meat substitutes alter our dietary perceptions? In a research paper published in 2017, Anne DeLessio-Parson shows that in Argentina, aversion to a plant-based diet can largely be attributed to gender normative beliefs; the idea that if men do not eat meat, they aren’t all that manly. It could well be, then, that the psychology beneath the uncanny valley could be less about the sensory perception of substitutes, but more about the cultural value that we place on eating animals. The notion of saving the earth by relinquishing our right to benefit from its bounty cuts through the fabric of the human psyche. Even if we do reach a place beyond the uncanny valley where substitute meats are just as good as the real thing from a sensory perspective, would we place the same intrinsic value on them? If we want meat substitutes to satisfy emotional and experiential needs too, we need to figure out what the mechanisms of such satisfaction are.

Conclusion: a cocktail of collective curtailment

To solve the climate crisis, what should a sustainable relationship with meat look like, and is it even possible? The fundamental problem in solving the environmental issues created by the agricultural industry isn’t necessarily a lack of alternatives, but our reluctance to abandon the old and embrace the new; we are creatures of habit. We don’t take kindly to new ways of doing things, because we will invariably compare them to what we are used to. If we are to overcome the dangers of the uncanny valley, how can we do so in a way that does not foster a negative relationship with substitutes to begin with? Should we be breaking our ties with meat more gradually? Could we start by eating less, but better, meat by avoiding intensively farmed produce and choosing products that come from animals fed a local, home-grown diet? And who gets to make these decisions, especially on behalf of the animals we’re eating?

What really matters, though, is not how we curtail our meat consumption, but that we do. We need to take collective action to disrupt the meat market as we know it - whether it is through endorsing and supporting meat substitutes, altering the quantity and quality of our meat consumption, adopting plant-based diets, or a hybrid of these things. And these approaches need not be mutually exclusive at the global, national, local, community, familial, or even individual scale. Our move away from intensive meat consumption can be varied and iterative: we can try out different options, we can figure out what works for us as individuals, and we can be active players in shaping what might be the biggest cultural shift of our time.

Hannah Simon is a London-based climate change consultant, where she helps businesses understand and adapt to the physical and financial risks that climate change presents to them. She holds a MSc in Environmental Change and Management from the University of Oxford, which is where she became mesmerised by the world of climate change communication.

Robert Nolte is a copywriter at Cape Union Mart in Cape Town, South Africa, and serves on the company's Steps 2 Sustainability committee. He is currently studying Environmental Management through the University of South Africa.

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