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Why Ron DeSantis and John Fetterman Are Beefing with Lab-Grown Meat
May 10, 2024

Why Ron DeSantis and John Fetterman Are Beefing with Lab-Grown Meat

Reading Time: 4 minutes

This Is the Latest (and Dumbest) Addition to the Culture War, Just in time for National Beef Month., Ron DeSantis bans lab-grown meat: This is the latest (and dumbest) addition to the culture war.

We’re just a couple of weeks into National Beef Month, folks, and this year’s has already been a doozy—for reasons that have nothing to do with Congress’ perpetually stalled farm bill, the bird flu infecting cows and their milk, or even the escalating feud between Drake and Kendrick Lamar. Rather, we’ve got beef playing out between advocates for ‘real beef’ (steak and burger patties from live cows) and those literally invested in ‘fake beef’—or meat that does not originate from some cramped industrial farm owned by a Koch brother and is instead developed in a specialized facility (or grown in a lab, if you will), with blood cells cultivated from living animals.

Throughout the past year, Republican lawmakers from agriculture-heavy states (e.g., Alabama, Arizona, Tennessee) have targeted cultivated beef as another red-meat culture war issue, debating legislative restrictions on lab-grown meat as a way to ‘protect’ traditional livestock factories. But the issue didn’t really broach the mainstream national conversation until Beef Month 2024, when two particularly well-known politicians staked their brands on the issue: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who recently signed the nation’s first official local ban on cultivated meat in a stand against the ‘global elites‘ (classic), and Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman, who regretfully pronounced his alignment with ‘Crash-and-Burn Ron‘ on the issue. He later doubled down on his opposition to the ‘pro–bio slop caucus‘ on Wednesday, after a Vox article highlighted his bizarre cross-state bipartisan alliance with Meatball Ron. Now it’s gotten to the point that even Canadians are discussing whether to adopt such bills for themselves.

The large-scale beef over what’s beef [Biggie Smalls voice] certainly makes for a weird, engaging sideshow, like all of our politics these days. Still, it’s worth emphasizing that almost everything about the political panic over cultivated meat—its colorful characterization as ‘slop,’ the fears that it poses a threat to rural cattle ranchers, the conspiracizing over some alleged worldwide plot to replace Real American Meat diets with glorified test-tube mixtures—not only misrepresents and misunderstands the true nature of lab meat but, even more wretchedly, inflates a non-problem into time-wasting furor.

Really, I cannot be more blunt: There is no reason at all, whatsoever, for anyone—not even cattle ranchers—to be worried about lab-grown beef. It’s not just that the cultivated-meat industry is hardly viable; it’s that the whole project was already self-imploding long before any state legislators started crafting their bills. The focus on this expensive science experiment serves only to draw attention away from the real-world factors actually affecting the hyperconsolidated agribusiness sector, along with your dinner plate.

Food enthusiasts all over the world have been attempting to produce various iterations of lab-grown meat since the 2000s. A motley coalition of animal-welfare advocates, environmentalists, anti–fast food activists, and government scientists has worked to address growing public recognition of factory farming’s unconscionable harms: the livestock made to suffer in torturous stables, the farmworkers forced to withstand inhumane conditions, the children who contract foodborne illnesses from tainted products, and a quickly heating planet ravaged by nonstop carbon and methane emissions as well as dwindling water supplies.

By the 2010s, successful innovations in cultivated burger patties, steak, and chicken coincided with the zero-interest-rate-era startup boom, and money from planet-conscious celebrity investors like Bill Gates, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Jeff Bezos poured into new companies (Eat Just, Mosa Meat, Aleph Farms, Upside Foods fka Memphis Meats) that promised to further this lab-tested revolution. It definitely didn’t hurt when companies like Impossible and Beyond gained brief success in selling plant-based fake meat to aspiring vegetarians, or when the Biden administration approved lab-grown meat products for retail sale.

But there have been many, many, many problems along the way. It was difficult to match the familiar flavor profile of poultry. Scaling cell-derived meats to mass-production levels also required heaping amounts of energy consumption and intensive labor. This is due to the fact that the cells used for meat development need to be fed heaping amounts of amino acids and glucose, and the facilities in which these cells thrive require ample amounts of electricity. Several lab-created meats also called for the use of fetal bovine serum, which meant that—surprise!—animals were still being killed in order to produce an alleged ‘no-kill’ protein.

It proved impossible to sustain these businesses as venture capital money began to dwindle and once-hyped companies failed to deliver on their deadlines and promises, coming up empty when it came time to stock their output on the supermarket shelves (and neglecting, of course, to make back any of the cash with which they’d been lavished). At this point, only a few restaurants in the entire country serve any dishes with cultured meat, and the remnants of the industry have no viable path to steal market share from the ranchers who take care of our burping cows.

Going into this year, one could have safely assumed that this ‘world-changing’ sector had finally done itself in. When compared with the scientific and financial messes that cultured-meat companies currently have, other problems—like the Trump-era government petitions from cattlemen associations requesting that cell-cultivated meat not be regulated like standard meats—seemed pretty quaint. But, in an era when all politics is nationalized and fueled by cheap echoes of yesteryear moral panics, you can’t keep a hot culture war down.

It’s understandable, when their own governor traffics in lies about the specter of lab-grown meat eaters, that small Florida cow ranchers would worry about the potential impact on their industry—especially in light of reduced revenue from their operations, and less cattle stock on hand. But it’s not lab-meat companies that are to blame for their current woes; those issues are actually a result of the corporatization of American agriculture.

A 2022 federal government study found that just four beef-packing conglomerates control 82 percent of the market, giving them the power to lowball independent cattle wranglers on auction and sale prices for their output. Thanks to Tyson, JBS, Cargill, and National Beef, it’s harder than ever for noncorporate cattlemen to make a living from their profession. It’s also difficult for Congress to pass any legislation to break the hold these juggernauts have on the meat industry, considering their potent lobbying apparatuses and their undue influence on regulatory agencies.

So what can you actually do to help farmers when you’re a fire-breathing politician with an agriculture-loving voter base? Easy—you latch on to a nonissue and frame it as a bold stand on behalf of the heartland, despite all evidence to the contrary. Congrats, then, to DeSantis and Fetterman for their empty attacks on an already drying-up industry and their savvy lies about why they’re doing this for the People. Just politics as usual.


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