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Politics

How Republicans Engineered a Fake Meat Controversy

It’s Tofurkey all over again.

Protesters and lab-grown meat.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

At a triumphant bill-signing earlier this month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sounded less like the leader of the nation’s third largest state and more like the host of a QAnon podcast. “Today, 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,” he said. DeSantis was there to trumpet a new state law that outlaws the sale of lab-grown meat, also known as cultivated meat.

One might reasonably ask why DeSantis and his Republican allies care about lab-grown meat at all. The technology — in which cells from animals are fed with nutrients and grown until they eventually produce something resembling a cut of actual meat — is still in the experimental stage, and it could be decades before companies are able to produce it on an industrial scale, if ever. So why bother outlawing it?

But DeSantis is not alone. Legislators in Alabama, apparently satisfied that they have solved all the state’s other problems, rushed to pass a similar law, which Gov. Kay Ivey signed on May 7. Similar measures have also been introduced in Arizona, Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia. And it isn’t just Republicans; a few Democrats looking to fortify their carnivorous bona fides have also attacked cultivated meat. Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senator John Fetterman applauded DeSantis’ action, saying he “would never serve that slop to my kids,” and Montana Democrat Sen. Jon Tester — who lost three fingers in a meat grinder as a boy — introduced a bill to ban cultivated meat from school lunches.

So far, Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, has not weighed in on lab-grown meat. But given his taste for outré conspiracy theories and niche culture war issues, no one would be surprised if he began railing against it in his rallies and on Truth Social.

This is fundamentally a fake issue: Not only is there no place you can buy lab-grown meat in Florida or Alabama, there’s no place you can buy it anywhere in the country. Last year the Department of Agriculture gave approval for lab-grown chicken to be sold, and not long after it was featured as a special menu item at the upscale restaurants Bar Crenn in San Francisco and José Andrés’ China Chilcano in Washington (reviews were mixed but mostly positive). But those experiments have ended, and it could be a while before it’s available again even in a restaurant. The technological challenges in recreating both the taste and texture of meat have proven greater than many anticipated; the problem may not be insurmountable, but it hasn’t been surmounted yet, at least not at scale.

But it’s just the kind of issue Republicans (and Democrats in swing states) love, one that casts them as the defenders of the honest, traditional, and manly, while mainstream Democrats are supposedly the advocates of weird and vaguely effeminate ideas. Why would you let some egghead scientist make you a steak? Real men want to know that their meat was killed in the most unpleasant circumstances possible.

Then there’s the climate angle: While Republicans may not exactly be pro-climate change in their rhetoric (policy choices are another matter), they are eagerly anti-anti-climate change, in the same way they’re anti-anti-racism. Just as they wage the culture war by opposing efforts to undo racism, they can do the same by opposing efforts to address climate change, shifting the conversation from the real problem onto the supposedly oppressive efforts to solve it.

And solving climate change is one of the rationales for cultivated meat that has helped attract venture capital to the startups trying to make it a reality. Global demand for meat has risen steadily for decades, and will continue to grow as incomes increase (generally speaking, the wealthier a country is, the more meat its citizens consume). In 2022, humans slaughtered 300 million cows, 1.5 billion pigs, and an incredible 75 billion chickens. Advocates of lab-grown meat sell it as a way to mitigate both that almost unfathomable carnage, with all its attendant animal suffering, and the enormous climate effects of meat production.

And unlike plant-based meat substitutes, lab-grown meat would satisfy the human desire to consume genuine animal flesh. There’s almost certainly a limit on how many people will want to eat Impossible Burgers and “Chick-n” tenders, no matter how good they taste. But since cultivated meat is still meat, advocates say any carnivore should be happy to bite into a lab-grown steak — which is why it’s so important for certain politicians to convince them that doing so would make them some kind of hippie.

I’d submit that politicians like DeSantis don’t actually care whether anyone sells or eats a cultivated pork loin. The point is to convince people that they are under siege from the powerful forces of wokeness, who want to steal your gustatory freedom after they confiscate your guns and force your children to change genders.

The invocation of bug-eating is a key tell. When DeSantis tells people that “the global elite” wants to force you to eat bugs, he’s referencing a conspiracy theory that the average person may not have heard of but is widespread on the right. Bill Gates and other leftist puppetmasters, the theory goes, have a plan to enslave us all and force us to eat bugs for our protein.

One of the benefits of associating bug-eating with a different food you want to discredit is that it produces feelings of disgust, which social psychologists have long known are more powerful for conservatives than for liberals. As Tucker Carlson once said, “Eating insects is repulsive and un-American. And of course, therefore, in the eyes of the left, it must be awesome.”

Here’s the counterpoint, thought: One might also think that this is an issue of basic liberty. Cultivated meat might or might not become widely consumed as an alternate food source, but if it does, as long as it’s safe you should be able to eat it if you want to (and the same ought to go for bugs). We can say with a fair bit of confidence that there will still be old-fashioned lamb chops and roast chickens available for all of our lifetimes.

But as an opportunity to create another front in the culture war and remind voters that politics is all about identity, it’s too good for Republicans in Florida and Alabama, and maybe other states to come, to pass up. If there’s a woke hippie conspiracy afoot to rob you of your testosterone and make you slave to the global elite, they want voters to know they’ll be on it. Even if it’s imaginary.

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Paul Waldman profile image

Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is an MSNBC columnist, co-host of the Boundary Issues podcast, and author of The Cross Section, a newsletter about politics. His latest book is White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy.

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