The cultured wars: Why lab-grown meat is inspiring bipartisan hate

Ron DeSantis wants to “protect meat.” 

This is something the governor of Florida — a Republican who was previously, and perhaps fittingly, dubbed “Meatball Ron” by former president Donald Trump — has made clear for months, first while railing against ESG frameworks and a California law that requires farmers to provide more room for breeding pigs, and then eventually in his sustained campaign to ban lab-grown meat, which ultimately succeeded last week. 

“Florida is fighting back against the global elite’s plan to force the world to eat meat grown in a petri dish or bugs to achieve their authoritarian goals,” DeSantis said in a release on May 1 after signing SB 1084, legislation that prohibits the sale of lab-grown meat in the state of Florida.“Our administration will continue to focus on investing in our local farmers and ranchers, and we will save our beef.”

Florida isn’t alone. 

Arizona, Tennessee and Alabama are all similarly considering legislation that would “prohibit the manufacture, sale or distribution of food products made from cultured animal cells.” While it’s worth noting that these bills were all introduced by Republicans, lab-grown meat has recently inspired both skepticism and serious calls for prohibition on both sides of the political aisle. This is despite the fact that those products are not currently readily available to the average consumer — and is occurring even as questions grow around the safety and hygiene of America’s current meat and dairy supply amid spikes in bird flu cases

For instance, on May 2,  Democratic Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman came out in support of DeSantis’ ban. “Pains me deeply to agree with Crash-and-Burn Ron, but I co-sign this,” Fetterman said on social media

He continued: “As a member of @SenateAgDems and as some dude who would never serve that slop to my kids, I stand with our American ranchers and farmers.” 

Fetterman’s statement actually encapsulates two of the most common motivations politicians cite when it comes to entertaining the idea of banning lab-grown meat: the idea that its introduction to the mass-market would damage farmers’ livelihoods, and the perception that lab-grown meat is hyper-processed “slop” that shouldn’t be offered to their constituents. 

“As some dude who would never serve that slop to my kids, I stand with our American ranchers and farmers.”

To understand these arguments, it’s important to understand what exactly lab-grown or “cultured” meat is. According to Nature, the products begin with a small sample of animal cells, typically muscle cells, which are cultured in a controlled environment like a bioreactor. Provided with nutrients and a scaffold for support, these cells multiply and differentiate into muscle tissue over the course of several weeks. Once enough tissue is grown, it’s harvested and processed to resemble conventional meat products, offering a sustainable and potentially more ethical alternative to traditional animal agriculture by mitigating environmental impact and animal welfare concerns.

As reported by WIRED, while two fine dining restaurants, Bar Crenn and China Chilcano, partnered with lab-grown meat companies for limited-run menus last year, lab-grown meat from the two companies that have so-far received regulatory approval, Upside Foods and Good Meat, is not currently served or available for purchase in the United States. Both companies indicated to the publication they planned to relaunch sales sometime this year. 

However, as pointed out in a recent United Kingdom-based study, while there have been many academic papers about the opportunities for lab-grown meat, comparatively little academic work has been done to assess how its introduction to the market might affect farming. 

“Cultured Meat & Farmers” is a two-year study published in the journal “Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems” that looked at UK farmers’ attitudes about cultured meat and its potential opportunities and risks. One of the chief concerns cited by those interviewed were how its sale would impact small farms and rural communities, in particular. In the interviews, there is also an undercurrent of distrust towards the quality of the product, a fear shared shared by many farmers and ranchers in the United States (and, as indicated by the “slop” comment, by American politicians as well). In an interview with KOAA News5 in Colorado, Garrett Balsick, the owner of BK Ranch, raised questions about lab-grown meat’s quality in comparison to natural beef.  

“It doesn’t even make sense to me why someone would want to eat that,” Balsick said. “For us as humans to think that we can make a product better than God can is interesting.” 

Is a lab-grown steak more dangerous to American consumers than a caffeine-packed soda spiked with artificial sweeteners and “forever chemicals”? Are nuggets made with lab-grown chicken a more questionable choice than, say, milk from a cow that’s been fed ground-up chicken waste, a common practice which experts say may be contributing to the spread of bird flu? And, even if so, is Big Government infringing on the freedom of American citizens by telling them they can’t toss a lab-grown burger on the grill? 

These are the questions the growing calls to “protect meat” raise and they deserve real, nuanced answers — something a blunt-force ban, even one that enjoys bipartisan support, doesn’t seem to provide. 

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