First, you take a dry mixture of soy-protein powder and wheat flour, add water and dump it into an industrial extruder, which is essentially a gigantic food processor. (You have to climb a ladder to get to the hole at the top.) At first, the mixture looks like cake batter. But as it's run through the gears of the extruder and heated to precisely 346°F (175°C), the batter firms up and forms complex striations. It took Hsieh and Huff many years to get the temperature right, and it also took years to discover how to cool the soy cake very quickly, before it could melt. ... All this processing raises a question: Will vegans and other gastronomic purists buy a product that is vegetarian but highly processed?
Not only “gastronomic purists” but many others will worry that it’s highly processed, that “It’s not natural.” I find this objection odd. Is there anything we eat that is “natural”? Fruit, vegetables, meat, drink – it’s all the product of centuries or millennia of artificial processing, commonly involving genetic engineering in the form of selective breeding of plants and animals – on top of which today are the vast industrial processes of chemical, mineral, and fuel extraction, then transportation, ploughing, fertilizing, planting, irrigating, harvesting, housing, feeding, waste disposal, more transportation, then often cooking with gas or electricity. Does “natural” retain any discernible meaning in this context? In what sense is a meat analogue any less natural than real meat? I can’t see it. And what about vat meat – real meat grown in labs (and eventually, no doubt, in factories in industrial quantities)? Is that any less natural than real meat hacked from the bodies of artificially modified and industrially produced animals? Again, I can’t see it.
We are natural beings and yet, as Marx described in Capital, our “metabolism” with the external world involves a ceaseless process of dialectical modification.
Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process in which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement his acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature.
For human beings there is no tidy distinction between the natural and the artificial. This doesn’t mean that anything goes, that whatever we do is okay because, after all, it’s all natural (and simultaneously it’s all artificial). There are forms of dialectical exchange with non-human nature that are healthy and forms that are not – forms that promote the flourishing of ecosystems and individuals and forms that do not, forms that we can judge to be morally appropriate and forms that we can judge to be morally inappropriate. But whether getting B12 from a pill is “natural” – if that’s an issue at all, it’s small potatoes.