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Ron DeSantis Is Attacking the Greatest Food Innovation Since the Corndog

What Florida Republicans have against cultivated meat

Ron DeSantis and a very large hamburger.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

In the Free State of Florida, Republicans have banned woke public investments, woke racial education, and woke books in school libraries. Now they’re trying to ban woke meat.

Legislation that would criminalize the sale of cultivated meat grown from animal cells is wending its way through the state House and Senate, even though cultivated meat is not currently for sale anywhere in Florida — or, for that matter, anywhere else. Governor Ron DeSantis, eager to start owning libs again after his fiasco of a presidential campaign, has said he’s on board with banning the new technology, even though the federal government has already signed off on meat grown in fermenters rather than feedlots as safe.

So what’s the beef?

The cattle industry has always had outsized clout in Florida politics — the term “cracker” originated with whip-wielding Florida cattlemen — and some Republicans hope to curry favor with the state’s ranchers by strangling potential competition in the cradle. But the crusade against cultivated meat is mostly just the latest skirmish in the DeSantis culture war against what he considers a progressive plot to make Americans feel guilty about the status quo.

In his only public comments about cultivated meat — sometimes described as “lab-grown meat,” although the ultimate goal is to grow it in breweries — DeSantis made it clear that his main objection to the nascent industry is that its leaders hope to limit animal agriculture’s damage to the climate and the environment. To the governor, growing meat outside an animal is just like taking “environment-social-governance” considerations into account in investment decisions or teaching “critical race theory” in the classroom, a left-wing assault on tradition.

“They really want to go after agriculture because they blame agriculture for global warming,” DeSantis said. “You need meat, OK? Like, we’re gonna have fake meat? That doesn’t work. There’s a whole ideological agenda that’s coming after a lot of our society.”

Setting aside the merits of the governor’s anti-woke crusade against “ESG,” “CRT,” and gay-themed books in public libraries, the cultivated meat and seafood entrepreneurs trying to harness capitalism and technology to disrupt a trillion-dollar industry notorious for government influence-peddling don’t see what’s left-wing about innovation or competition. They don’t want to be part of any culture war, and as the legislative ban has been moving through Tallahassee on party-line votes, they’re trying to remind Republicans that they’re supposed to be against the nanny state.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson, for instance, a key supporter of the ban, actually boasts on his website that he’s “stood up to politicians who treat Floridians like children incapable of making their own choices.”

“How does banning our products promote consumer choice?” Blue Nalu CEO Lou Cooperhouse, whose San Diego startup is cultivating bluefin tuna toro, told me. “It’s un-American and un-Floridian to stifle innovation and attack free-market principles.”

It is true that cultivated meat has extraordinary potential to limit the impacts of animal agriculture, which now uses one quarter of the land on Earth and is by far the leading driver of deforestation and biodiversity loss. But even if you don’t care about the climate or the environment — or the looming public health crisis created by the overuse of antibiotics in livestock, or the tens of billions of animals who get slaughtered every year — there’s a compelling business proposition behind cultivated meat: Animal meat is inefficient. Why waste feed, land, water, energy and other resources helping livestock stay warm, poop, burp methane, have babies and do other things that don’t produce meat?

That’s why a part-time futurist named Winston Churchill, not usually considered a wokester, predicted in a 1931 essay titled “50 Years Hence” that “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing.” But it’s now 93 years hence, and while more than 150 startups around the world have begun growing chicken cutlets, burgers, pork meatballs, salmon nigiri and even woolly mammoth meat from cells, they’re not yet doing it inexpensively enough to compete with conventional meat and seafood.

Last year, the Bay Area startups Upside Foods and Good Meat served America’s first cultivated chicken to restaurant patrons in San Francisco and Washington, but only for a limited time to a very limited number of diners. (Some journalists have tried it, too, and I can report that both companies make chicken that tastes like chicken.) For now, you can’t buy cultivated meat anywhere on Earth, and while its costs have plunged more than 99% in a decade, many skeptics doubt that it will ever get cheap enough to make a dent in the 350 million tons of animal meat that the world consumes every year. In the past few months, Wired, Bloomberg, and The New York Times have all published quasi-obituaries for the industry.

Plant-based meat, hailed five years ago as the next big thing in food, is also struggling mightily. Global sales have stopped soaring and are actually declining, and industry darling Beyond Meat’s stock price is down more than 95% from its peak. Meat substitutes have faced a flurry of attacks — some from meat-industry water-carriers, some from natural-food ideologues, and some reflecting genuine discomfort with the idea of eating so much technology — as “ultra-processed foods” with long ingredient lists.

But the problems meat substitutes are designed to address are not going away. Cattle burps (and, to a lesser extent, farts) produce methane, while manure is a major source of nitrous oxide and water pollution, and the world is on track to deforest another two Indias worth of land by 2050 to satiate humanity’s meat tooth. DeSantis may think it’s silly to blame agriculture for global warming, but overall, it generates a fourth of global greenhouse gas emissions, most of them from livestock. It’s not yet as big a problem as fossil fuels, but it is a big problem. And since meat consumption is expected to rise at least 50% by 2050, the problem is getting worse.

Meat alternatives made from plants, fungi, or animal cells can use far less land and generate far fewer emissions than meat made from slaughtered animals, which is why supporters see them as the agricultural equivalent of solar, wind, and other clean-energy alternatives to fossil fuels. Cleaner meat should receive the kind of public support that governments have long provided to cleaner energy, they argue — which has started to happen in the European Union, China and even the United States, which provided $10 million for a cultivated meat research center at Tufts University early in the Biden Administration.

Obviously, it isn’t happening in Florida. Cultivated meat lobbyists have been passing around a clip from a Chinese newspaper gloating about the Sunshine State’s restrictions, saying they will help ensure Chinese domination of the new industry. Rini Greenfield, who runs an ag-tech venture fund called Rethink Food in Miami, told me the ban would send “a clear message to technology companies to take their operations elsewhere.” In fact, every venture that testified against the bill was based in California, the state DeSantis constantly cites as the epitome of woke.

But culture wars are bad for business, no matter where you’re headquartered. The industry doesn’t want to be making Bidenburgers any more than the electric vehicle industry wanted to manufacture Obamamobiles. Today, they’re not selling to anyone, but someday, they want to sell to everyone.

Blue

Michael Grunwald

Michael Grunwald, a Miami resident, is the author of The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise. His next book will be about food, land, and climate change. Read More

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