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In budding battle over lab-grown meat, Florida takes opening stab

Cultured meat, meet culture war. The first rhetorical shots have just been fired in a political battle that could last years.

The catalyst: lab-grown meat.

Florida this month became the first U.S. state to ban meat created from cell cultures. Alabama is following suit. Other states are enacting softer restrictions. Even in Canada, early whispers of the discussion are stirring.

It’s no surprise that a politician renowned for flinging himself into the forefront of the most polarizing debates wound up taking the opening stab at lab meat.

Gov. Ron DeSantis last week signed a bill that sets a $500 US fine, corporate penalties and potentially even 60 days in jail for making, selling or distributing lab meat in his state.

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American meat production under attack, says Florida governor

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said lab-grown meat is an attempt by ‘the elites throughout the world’ to eliminate traditional agriculture and meat production. He said that was why he signed a ban on the production, sale and distribution of what he calls ‘fake meat’ in his state.

DeSantis insisted lab meat isn’t some benign product about which consumers can make their own choice.

Instead, the Republican governor cast it as an early step in a sinister plot by global elites to eventually ban livestock farming entirely, and supplant it with manufactured meat and the eating of insects.

“I recognize the threats,” DeSantis said. “Take your fake, lab-grown meat elsewhere. We’re not doing that in the state of Florida.”

There are, of course, commercial interests at play. DeSantis celebrated the signing in the company of cattle industry representatives, a sector that donates primarily to Republicans.

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But this reflects a broader political divide — a rural-urban split that’s come to dominate American politics; a contest, if you will, between lab coats and cowboy hats.

Given that their voter pool is twice as rural, it’s hardly shocking that Republicans are riding pre-emptively to the defence of the cowboys.

More than 12 Republican-led states have passed laws that require special labels, with some entirely forbidding use of the word “meat.”

Cows are pictured during a cattle drive in southern Alberta.
Cows are pictured during a cattle drive in southern Alberta in June 2021. Canada’s cattle industry wants cell-cultivated proteins be included in Ottawa’s current review of food safety laws. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

What’s the beef with lab beef?

Here’s what makes this a pre-emptive strike: the cultured-meat industry barely exists. Lab-grown chicken was first approved for sale in the U.S. last year. 

With the exception of brief marketing experiments in a couple of restaurants, it’s still not commercially available.

And it’s exorbitantly expensive. While prices have dropped from the eye-watering $330,000 US for the first lab-made burger, one 2022 study presented the best-case retail scenario as $25 Cdn for a small lab-beef hamburger. It’s also energy-intensive, at least for now.

The industry calls these normal growing pains for an innovative sector. To bet against lab meat now, proponents say, is as foolish as the decades-old prognostications of doom for solar panels and electric vehicles.

They insist the sector can grow to deliver massive benefits. 

The potential payoff includes reduced animal suffering, saving precious antibiotics for human use and eliminating greenhouse-gas emissions from livestock. They argue it can also save the Earth’s habitable land, most of which is now used for livestock.

Kitchen crew
Lab-grown chicken was briefly served last year at a Washington restaurant owned by celebrity chef José Andrés. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

How the debate unfolded in Florida

That’s the debate that played out in the Florida Legislature.

At a committee hearing early this year, a Democratic state senator wondered why the Republicans were going for an all-out ban.

Lori Berman asked: Why not just adopt a labelling requirement that lets consumers make their own decision?

“We talk a lot about being a free-market [state] here,” she said, adding that lab meat could help solve some major global challenges.

“Protein is really important for the world. We’re going to be having more and more problems. We want to look at innovative solutions.”

Members of the public who spoke all denounced the legislation. They included a scientist who was born in Iran.

A man in white laboratory garb stands in a vast, white room filled with silver-y pipes and vats.
An employee stands outside the bioreactor suite of Eat Just, maker of ‘lab grown’ or ‘cultivated’ meat in Alameda, Calif., on June 14, 2023. (Jeff Chiu/The Associated Press)

Wearing a white lab coat at the hearing, Faraz Harsini said he escaped his native country — where he said he protested and was almost killed — seeking opportunity and academic freedom. He now works for a non-profit that promotes alternatives to traditional meat. 

Iran’s government “interfered with all aspects of my life, from my academic research to what I was allowed to say, wear and even eat,” he said. 

“This bill brings up a lot of bad memories.”

He used diabetes to illustrate his point about the potential benefits of this science. As recently as the 1980s, he said, it took the pancreases of 24,000 cows and pigs to make a year’s supply of insulin for 700 people, and now safer insulin, with fewer side effects, is mass-produced in labs in a field the U.S. dominates.

He also mocked the idea that a state that is home to space launches, at Florida’s Kennedy Center, would risk its role in long-term space exploration: “How would you feed astronauts in extended space [stays]?” Harsini asked rhetorically. “How would you ship a cow to space?”

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Lawmakers apparently heeded that warning. Unlike the original draft of the bill, the final version includes wording to protect space research, specifying that the ban applies only to lab meat manufactured “for sale.”

Other speakers cast it as a matter of national security — because the U.S. relies particularly on seafood imports which could in part be offset by lab meat. 

The bill’s original sponsor defended it. 

State Sen. Jay Collins is a former Green Beret who lost his leg from injuries in Afghanistan, and who co-leads a non-profit barbecue company that received state contracts.

Before that, he grew up on a farm. He’s says his family struggled, and wound up losing its farm. He says he won’t sit idly by and let it happen to others.

Listening to the complaints at the hearing, the Republican senator noted most of those complaining came from outside the state.

Florida has “zero jobs” in lab meat, Collins said, whereas “our beef industry, is very strong. We’re going to continue to grow that. That’s our focus.”

Lest anyone there doubt it, he went on to insist that he believes in free-market capitalism: “I am an advocate for the free market.”

With this ban, Florida follows Italy, which, last fall, became the first country to ban lab meat. In Canada, the livestock industry isn’t demanding an outright ban. 

But a related discussion is happening right now. Ottawa is several weeks into a request for public comments that ends May 27, as it reviews a national food-safety law.

Canada’s cattle industry says it’s involved in that discussion, and is asking that cell-cultivated proteins be included in the review.

In an email to CBC News, the Canadian Cattle Association says its goal is to not have this product labelled as “meat.” It also wants cell-cultured proteins to be subjected to regulations, like other food products.

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