The Ban on “Lab-Grown” Meat is Both Reprehensible and Stupid

Mandating that animals should suffer is cruel and benefits no one, except the ranchers whose profits Florida is trying to protect.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis has just signed a ban on “lab-grown” meat, animal meat that is made by cultivating cells rather than growing and slaughtering actual animals. In his press release, DeSantis portrayed the ban as an effort to fight back against a plot by the “global elite” to “force the world to eat meat grown in a petri dish or bugs to achieve their authoritarian goals.” 

“Lab-grown” meat, which is not actually on sale to the public yet, would look, feel, and taste like any other kind of meat, meaning that it would be very hard for anyone to even know anything had changed. The benefits are obvious. Factory farming is a moral atrocity, with over 100 billion animals being killed for food and other animal products every year. To be able to eliminate this horror without humans having to give up any of their culinary experiences would be almost miraculous. Animal agriculture is also a major factor contributing to pollution and climate change, and changing the way meat is produced could substantially cut greenhouse gas emissions. Since nobody’s experiences would change, animals wouldn’t suffer, and the planet would be healthier, why would anyone be against cultivated meat, if it turns out to be viable? At the very least, one would think that we should allow it to come to market, and let consumers decide whether or not to eat it.

But that’s not the approach DeSantis is taking. Instead, he is making it a crime to sell any meat that doesn’t involve slaughtering an animal. I have to say, it’s very hard for me to think of any conceivable rational argument for this policy. It’s not consistent with free-market principles, which emphasize letting products survive or die in the marketplace. (Libertarian capitalist magazine Reason has condemned DeSantis as an authoritarian.) If there was evidence that cultivated meat was unsafe to consume, that would provide a good argument, but that’s not really the argument DeSantis and other Florida politicians have been making. 

Instead, they’ve been claiming, as the state’s Commissioner of Agriculture put it, that it’s “a disgraceful attempt to undermine our proud traditions and prosperity.” In fact, DeSantis hasn’t even made much of an argument for why cultivated meat should be banned, saying things like. “We’re not going to have fake meat. Like, that doesn’t work.” He’s also claimed to be stopping a plot by sinister Davos elites, saying that “this is really a vision of imposing restrictions on freedoms for everyday people while these elites are effectively pulling the strings.” In Alabama, which has passed its own law making it a Class C felony to sell lab-grown meat, the argument made by state Senator Jack Williams amounted to: “I don’t want Alabamians eating that.” (Presumably regardless of what Alabamians themselves would choose to do.) Back in Florida, Republican legislator (and cattle rancher) Dean Black said “cultured meat is not meat… it is made by man, real meat is made by God Himself.” 

None of these statements make sense as an actual argument for the policy. They amount to “I don’t like it, therefore I’m going to make it illegal.” Black says that “real meat is made by God.” Okay, fine, although Honey Nut Cheerios are not made by God himself either (to my knowledge) and we still allow those to be sold. Why not ban all processed foods if the only things we are allowed to eat are those directly designed by the Almighty? In fact, the arguments are so poor that it’s easy to suspect there’s something psychological at work here. It’s been suggested that the right’s belief in traditional masculinity, and the association of masculinity with killing and eating animals, might be important here. Carol Adams, in The Sexual Politics of Meat, notes all the ways in which meat is given associations with gender, and vegetarianism is feminized. DeSantis and company may associate animal slaughter with strength and its abandonment as a kind of weakness and sign of civilizational decadence

But there’s an even more basic factor at work here: pure corruption. DeSantis and other proponents of cultivated meat bans are remarkably open about the fact that they are trying to protect the profits of the wealthy business owners who support them. The Florida agriculture commissioner said part of the purpose of a ban was to “protect our incredible farmers.” “We want to protect our cattle and our ranches,” said Arizona representative Michael Carbone. Speaking at the Hardee County Cattleman’s Arena, DeSantis said that cultivated meat would “wipe the people sitting here out of business,” and that “we will not let that happen,” pointing out that “we have one of the top cattle industries in the country.” One of the bill’s sponsors, Tampa Bay’s Senator Jay Collins, said that his family had once lost its own farm, and that “I can’t stand idly by and watch that happen to other people in our great state of Florida.”

art by mike freiheit

Essentially, then, the ban’s supporters believe that if the free market were allowed to operate, cultivated meat might be very successful indeed, to the point of threatening the whole cattle industry. After all, cultivated meat offers the prospect that the same kind of meat could be produced much more cheaply and quickly than with the existing method. You wouldn’t have to go through the time and resource intensive process of growing entire live animals from birth, raising them, feeding them, and slaughtering them. You’d just grow the meat itself. If this turns out to be feasible at a large scale, it might make cultivated meat cheaper than slaughtered meat, at which point those who have huge sums of money invested in cattle ranches would be stuck holding on to worthless assets. The arguments for banning cultivated meat don’t make any sense, then, because they’re just rhetorical fluff. 

The barely-concealed truth is simple: cattle ranches are big business in Florida, the ranchers have a lot of political influence, and they’ll use that influence to get competitors banned. This doesn’t make sense for society at large, of course. It’s like banning calculators because your state has a lot of abacus-makers in it. Someone also compared it to banning Netflix in order to keep Blockbuster in business. It can be strange to see Republicans who supposedly love free enterprise using Big Government to throttle free enterprise. But it makes sense if you realize that for most Republicans, protecting the rich is far more important than protecting the market, and when the market does something that threatens those with a lot of money and influence, all of a sudden you’ll start hearing a lot less about free-market principles. (See the bank bailouts, for example.) 

Banning cultivated meat is absurd in several different ways. First, believing that slaughter is crucial to meat being “real” strikes me as psychopathic. DeSantis also seems to think the fact that cultivated meat could reduce emissions is an argument for banning it, since reducing emissions is a priority of the hated “Davos elite.” But to people who retain basic sanity, stopping climate change is a good rather than bad thing. Next, there’s no argument presented for why the product should be prohibited outright, rather than just letting consumers decide what they want to eat, and whether they prefer murder-meat over non-murder-meat. But it’s also incredible how open the pro-ban politicians are about the fact that they’re just trying to protect the profits of the private capitalists they happen to favor, those whose riches are threatened by a new technology that could produce the product they sell more efficiently and cheaply. 

There are policies that have done more harm in our time than Florida’s cultivated meat ban, such as the Supreme Court’s elimination of a woman’s right to reproductive autonomy or Joe Biden’s weapons transfers to Israel. But it’s hard for me to think of a policy that is more arbitrarily cruel and stupid than the ban on cultivated meat. There is essentially no argument in favor of it. It is designed to make sure animals are slaughtered unnecessarily, climate change continues, and inexpensive, cruelty-free meat products never become available to consumers. It’s a policy that appears to have been dreamed up by people sitting around trying to think of the most reprehensible and idiotic legislation that could possibly be introduced into law. 

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