Regulation

Florida Man bans cultivated meat


Last week, Florida became the first American state to ban cultivated or lab-grown meat. This is because, according to Governor Ron DeSantis, cultivated meat is part of a sinister World Economic Forum (WEF) plot. ‘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,’ DeSantis announced on signing the bill into law. This ban marks a turning point. An idea that began life as a 4chan meme has culminated in a law in America’s third-most populous state. It comes after a similar prohibition by Italy and proposals from other states like Alabama, Arizona, and Tennessee.

The forced-to-eat-bugs idea is a subset of the broader WEF ‘Great Reset’ conspiracy theory that emerged during the pandemic. These critics believe that the organisation behind the annual talk-fest at Davos is some sort of emerging world government – and must be stopped at any cost.

As usual, there is a grain of truth. During the pandemic, WEF launched a ‘Great Reset’ manifesto. It was full of cringe-inducing rhetoric about the need to ‘emerge from this crisis a better world’ and proposed standard left-wing talking points about stakeholder capitalism and a global wealth tax.

Davos speakers have also discussed the potential benefits of bug protein and lab-grown meat. But to suggest that the WEF has the power, let alone the desire, to “force” people to eat bugs or cultivated meat is patently absurd.

In any case, ideas should be judged on their merits, not whether or not somebody thought them a good idea at Davos. Cultivated meat is an alternative protein product produced in vitro using animal cells. It can taste, look, and smell the same as conventional meat. Singapore became the first country to begin allowing sales of the product in 2020, and it is now on verge of commercialisation in the United States.

I wrote in my paper, Bangers and Cash, published last year by the Institute of Economic Affairs, that:

‘Cultivated meat is a ground-breaking technology that could help alleviate many of the concerns associated with livestock farming. It has the potential to significantly help the environment by cutting down carbon emissions and land use; to improve human health by reducing the risk posed by disease; and to improve animal welfare by reducing industrial livestock farming. It can even achieve all these important goals without taking away consumer choice or reducing the quality of diets and enjoyment associated with meat consumption.’ 

The paper also discusses reforming the EU-derived ‘novel foods’ framework, which risks being too slow and cumbersome to allow the technology to develop. My subsequent interview with the head of an Oxford-based cultivated meat start-up, Ivy Farm Technologies’ Richard Dillon, revealed that if the UK doesn’t reform the regulations, the company could be forced to relocate to the US.

As far as I have seen, nobody in this space is seriously suggesting that conventional meat should be banned or that people should be forced to eat anything. The central idea is about expanding choice, particularly in the face of calls for heavy-handed regulation or a ‘meat tax’.

Cultivated meat is by no means a guaranteed success. The technology exists but is still in its infancy, with a significant technical effort required to reduce costs and scale up to commercial viability. We also can’t know whether consumers will accept it, considering the potential ‘ick’ and unscientific claims about artificiality (see GMOs).

Two top-end restaurants, one in Washington, DC and the other in San Francisco, served cultivated meat last year. Both have since taken it off their menus. Cultivated meat has not even been trialled in Florida, let alone forced down anyone’s throat. You could argue that it’s a ‘slippery slope,’ something that could happen someday, but that would take quite a gigantic societal transformation.

Perhaps the real issue here is insecurity on behalf of the meat sector. Interestingly, in the statement announcing the signing, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Wilton Simpson added that ‘Lab-grown meat is a disgraceful attempt to undermine our proud traditions and prosperity, and is in direct opposition to authentic agriculture’. Democratic Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman came out as a surprise defender of DeSantis’ ban, saying that, ‘as a member of [the Senate Agriculture Committee] and as some dude who would never serve that slop to my kids, I stand with our American ranchers and farmers’.

This explains the ban in simpler public choice terms. There’s an existing industry that sees competition down the line and does not much like the idea. It’s not unprecedented, it is just another case of a sectional interest getting a political victory rather than through competing on equal terms.

The public choice explanation (farming interests) and the ideological explanation (anti-WEF conspiracy theories) are not mutually exclusive: they reinforce each other. We get a ‘bootleggers and baptists’-type coalition of people who support the ban on ideological grounds and people who support it for more mundane (and cynical) financial reasons.

Florida has been ranked as having one of the lowest regulatory burdens in the United States and called a ‘model for regulatory reform’. ‘Florida Man’ has become a byword for wild and unpredictable liberty-loving behaviour. Yet here we are, with a governor wanting to fight a culture war and placate an interest group seeking to stifle innovation and choice. It’s hardly a recipe for freedom and prosperity.

 

Matthew Lesh is the IEA's Director of Public Policy and Communications. He regularly appears on television and radio, and has written dozens of opinion and feature pieces for print and online publications such as The Times, The Telegraph and The Spectator. He has provided extensive commentary and written various papers and submissions about the Online Safety Bill. He is also a Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute and Institute of Public Affairs.


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