‘Political efforts’: the Republican states trying to ban lab-grown meat | Republicans

At a press conference in February, the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, told a room full of reporters: “We’re not going to do that fake meat. That doesn’t work.” He’d been discussing legislation under debate in the statehouse that would ban cell-cultivated meat – an emerging technique that, instead of slaughtering animals for consumption, grows meat in a lab using a small sample of animal cells.

A few weeks later, a Republican member of the Florida legislature – and cattle rancher – Dean Black took to the House floor, saying, “Cultured meat is not meat … it is made by man, real meat is made by God Himself … If you really want to try the nitrogen-based protein paste, go to California.”

In March, Florida passed the legislation both men had been addressing: making it the first state in the nation poised to ban “lab-grown” meat. (DeSantis still needs to sign the bill.)

Florida isn’t the only state on track to ban cell-cultivated meat. Three other states – Alabama, Arizona and Tennessee – are currently debating legislation that would ban the production or sale of cell-cultivated meat, despite the fact that cell-cultivated meat isn’t actually on sale anywhere in the country. Sixteen states plus the federal government have already instituted regulations on labeling cell-cultivated meat, such as prohibiting companies from using the word “meat” in their marketing, or requiring them to print a disclosure explaining that the product contains cell-cultured products.

But experts say these new laws sweeping red states aren’t so much about the many safety, ethical and environmental questions lab-grown meat pose – they’re about the culture wars.

“These are political efforts to rile up voters,” says Sparsha Saha, a lecturer on meat politics at Harvard, who notes that cell-cultivated meat is a long way away from being produced on scale to reach most consumers. “Meat is inherently political. We know that meat attachment is higher on the right. We know that masculinity norms tend to be stronger among conservative men – and meat is associated with masculinity … If you’re a politician and you want to make sure that conservative men are getting mobilized to come out and vote, this is a really good political strategy.”

At the same time, the focus on cell-cultivated meat serves as a distraction from other, more important food issues, Saha says, like “the fact that a lot of people can’t afford their groceries any longer”.

Lab-grown meat is still a new technology. In 2013, a Dutch scientist created the first cell-cultivated meat product for human consumption. Growing cell-cultivated meat requires taking a sample from an actual animal, and then feeding that sample nutrients like amino acids, vitamins, sugar and salts while it grows in a bioreactor. This, supporters say, eliminates many of the environmental problems – deforestation, water contamination, greenhouse gas emissions – posed by animal agriculture.

A nugget made from lab-grown chicken meat. Photograph: Nicholas Yeo/AFP/Getty Images

Although more than 150 companies are now working in the cell-cultivated meat industry worldwide, it’s not yet widely available to the public: Only two restaurants in the US have sold cultivated meat. In 2023, restaurants in San Francisco and Washington DC sold cell-cultivated chickens developed by Upside Foods and Good Meat – but those products are no longer available at either restaurant.

As the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) debated federal regulations for this new technology, states across the US began requiring special labels for cell-cultivated meat. In 2018, Missouri became the first state to pass such a law. The following year, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming followed suit. Kansas, Louisiana, Georgia and Texas have since joined them.

Chloe Marie, a research specialist at Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Agricultural and Shale Law, said it was “pretty unclear” who would have the authority to regulate cell-cultured food: “We were very much in uncharted territory. And so because of that, many stakeholders started pushing for some regulatory actions.”

A new Republican-sponsored bill introduced to Congress earlier this year, the Fair and Accurate Ingredient Representation on Labels Act of 2024, would authorize the USDA to regulate “cell-cultured” and “imitation” meat product labels. Democratic senator Jon Tester and Republican senator Mike Rounds also introduced a bill to ban cell-cultivated meat in school lunch and breakfast programs, even though it’s not currently available in any school lunches – or anywhere else in the US – with backing from the US Cattlemen’s Association. (Although conservatives have strongly favored labeling efforts for cell-cultivated meat, they’ve called out labeling of other products, like sugary drinks and junk food, as government overreach.)

The state bans introduced this year go a step further and prohibit the development and sale of cell-cultivated meat. Anyone found in violation of the ban in Florida or Alabama could be charged with a misdemeanor, while those who violate the ban in Tennessee could be fined up to $1m.

“We want to protect our cattle and our ranches,” said Arizona representative Michael Carbone.

The US Cattlemen’s Association, the main lobbying group for American beef producers, is also pushing back against lab-grown meat, saying in 2022 that “cell-cultured products cannot be independently produced – the technology is shrouded in intellectual property protection and requires intensive capital resources” which “could lead to the monopolistic control of America’s sovereign food supply”.

While defenders of these bills say they’re concerned about the safety of new techniques, experts say there’s also a politicized fear of science at play. “Historically, science has been a friend to agriculture. And instead of us being accurate about that relationship in the past, I think what we’re seeing on the right is this undermining of science that perhaps started with Covid, if not earlier with vaccines,” said Saha.

Amid these bans, California is investing in cell-cultivated meat. As animal agriculture is increasingly recognized as a key contributor to the climate crisis, lab-grown meat has been pointed to as a potential solution. Though many environmental experts worry it’s a solution that will come too late – and that allowed us to forgo the difficult work of rethinking our relationship with meat and agriculture. In 2022, California became the first state in the nation to publicly fund cell-cultivated meat research. And the year before, the USDA gave Tufts University in Massachusetts $10m to support a cellular agriculture institute. However, the vast majority of funding for cell-cultivated meat has come from venture capital.

The North American Meat Institute, the country’s largest trade association for meat packers and producers, and dozens of biotech investors have spoken out against bans like the one Florida is set to pass – arguing that it will stifle innovation and limit consumer choice.

“We think consumers should be able to decide for themselves whether they want to try cultivated seafood. The USDA and FDA should continue to regulate food products in this country, not state legislators who lack the required expertise in food safety,” said Justin Kolbeck, co-founder and CEO of Wildtype, a cultivated seafood company, who says he and his colleagues have traveled to Arizona, Alabama and Florida to discuss pending bans. “Rather than bowing to special interest groups who are trying to stifle innovation, we’ve encouraged state legislators to work with our industry on clear labeling.”

Even if Desantis signs his state’s cultivated meat ban into law in coming weeks, Marie suspects the issue won’t be laid to rest. “A lot of environmental or food conscious associations have challenged many of these labeling laws,” she said. In states like Arkansas and Mississippi, companies sued to challenge laws that would have prevented them using terms like “meatless meatballs” and “plant-based jumbo hotdogs”. Marie says she “would not be surprised if they also challenge these banning laws”.

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