Lab-grown red meat for the base: GOP governors have a new culture-war scapegoat

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The culture wars have a new scapegoat, the only difference is this red meat for the GOP base is quite literally meaty. Alabama just became the second state to ban cultivated, or lab-grown meat after Florida did so earlier this month. 

Officials in Alabama and Florida said the ban was an effort to fight off a conspiracy by coastal or global “elites,” to get Americans to eat something unnatural.

Lab grown meat is an emerging technology that takes cells from animals and then cultivates them in a laboratory to make meat that is then meant for consumption. It’s still years away from being applied on a commercial scale. Earlier this month, Florida became the first state to ban it. Last week, Alabama followed suit when Governor Kay Ivey signed a law banning lab grown meat in the Cotton State. Ivey didn’t give public remarks about the bill since it was signed into law; her office did not respond to a request for comment from Fortune. In Florida and Alabama supporters of the bill sought to frame the ban not only as a testament of their support for the state’s farmers, but also as the latest battleground in the culture wars. 

Officials in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee, are also considering similar bans.  In Europe, Italy issued a nationwide ban on lab-grown meat in a bid to also protect its agricultural industry.

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R.) painted a picture of a vast conspiracy by supporters of lab grown meat to malign traditional livestock farms. Signing the bill, DeSantis said, he had staved off the encroachment of yet another unwelcome new-age technology. “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, referring to a 2021 report from the World Economic Forum that referred to insects as a potential source of protein.  

The ban sought to pit local cattle ranchers and farmers against VC-backed startups seeking to disrupt their way of life. 

Currently, lab grown meat is not available for sale anywhere in the U.S. Although the Department of Agriculture has approved at least two lab-grown meat manufacturers for sale. The two companies, both based in California, are a sort of avatar for anxieties about cultural impositions from elite enclaves on the coasts that are the basis of some of the politics behind culture war issues. 

A wedge (salad) issue

The issue of lab grown meat taps into several of these hot button issues at once. It is sometimes developed using stem cells, a sensitive topic for some conservative groups, and its development is considered a possible solution to addressing climate change. DeSantis said supporters of lab-meat were unfairly scapegoating farmers. 

Lab grown meat is part of “an ideological agenda that wants to finger agriculture as the problem, that views things like raising cattle as destroying our climate,” DeSantis said. 

Experts consider it a possible solution to addressing climate change because it could lower the need for sprawling cattle farms, which are major sources of methane emissions. The agriculture sector accounts for 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to EPA data. The environmental concerns stem from methane gasses emitted by the cows themselves, the production methods used to make livestock feeds, and the large amounts of manure they produce. The industry has attracted major investors like Bill Gates and Richard Branson. Gates even suggested that developed countries should only consume “synthetic beef” because the carbon emissions from cows were too great, according to a 2021 interview.

Other experts, though, say the lab-grown meat industry is still in its infancy and therefore it’s too early to make definitive claims about its effects on climate change. Many of those questions will only be addressed once the current crop of startups moves into large-scale commercial production.

Both Alabama and Florida’s laws were also meant to be efforts to protect the state’s local agricultural industries. If lab-grown meat were to become widespread it could threaten traditional agricultural industries because it would reduce the need for livestock. Stopping the sale and manufacturing of lab grown meat was an effort to protect those industries from being disruptive, according to DeSantis. “We will save our beef,” he said at the bill’s signing. When reached for comment a spokesperson from DeSantis’ office directed Fortune to a video of his press conference.

During that press conference, DeSantis singled out “elites” as hostile to livestock farming. “This is really a vision of imposing restrictions on freedoms for everyday people while these elites are effectively pulling the strings, calling the shots, and doing whatever the hell they want in their own lives,” DeSantis said. 

Advocacy groups for lab-grown meat made similar arguments about limits to consumer choice regarding the bans. “Alabama and Florida politicians are trampling on consumer choice and criminalizing agricultural innovation,” said Pepin Andrew Tuma, legislative director for the Good Food Institute, an industry group for meat alternatives.  

In particular, DeSantis argued that supporters of lab-grown meat wanted to ban traditional meat because they knew that consumers preferred it. “This is not just being done willy-nilly,” DeSantis said. “They want to do this stuff in a lab to be able to wipe the people sitting here out of business,” referring to the cattle ranchers in attendance. 

DeSantis articulated a vision of a cabal of powerbrokers who wanted to create a social credit system in the U.S. where certain political ideas and ideological positions, like “believing in agriculture,” would be used as screening criteria for things like accessing credit or participating in the economy, the governor said. 

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