.Right Wing Takes a Swing at Lab-Grown Protein

In an era where the political arena is dominated by candidates who serve up the juiciest slices of red meat to the masses, it may be inevitable that technology to produce new forms of meat—red and white—would become fodder for grandstanding.

When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill last month banning the sale of lab-grown meat in his state, many people figured it must be due to pressure from the meat industry.

After all, there are about 1.5 million head of cattle in the Sunshine State, ranking it at No. 18 among the 50 states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The state is also no slouch when it comes to pork, poultry and seafood.

And those industries are no slouches when it comes to lobbying politicians.

In reality, industry pressure was only part of the equation, and a relatively small part.

As can be seen in the rhetoric of DeSantis and other politicians and pundits across the country who have recently begun assailing lab-grown meat, right-wingers are doing with the issue what they now do with every issue: using it as a goofy “culture war” wedge to scare their conspiracy-minded constituents and appeal to the male panic that drives so many of them.

“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 brayed when signing the bill into law. He cited the World Economic Forum as part of that “global elite,” using a paranoid-right shibboleth to cement the idea that sinister forces are secretly running the world.

Of course, nobody is “forcing” anyone to eat lab-grown meat (or, for that matter, bugs). Lab-grown meat isn’t anywhere close to being available in stores, and even when it finally is, it will likely be many more years before it’s widely popular, if it ever becomes so at all. And even then, “force” will likely not be employed against American consumers.

Born by the Bay

Josh Tetrick, CEO of Alameda-based Eat Just, thinks this is a “smart” strategy on DeSantis’s part, though he also thinks it’s insane and cynical. “DeSantis knows exactly what he’s doing,” Tetrick says. “The Republican Party knows that saying ‘George Soros controls the world’ and ‘everything is decided by a Jewish cabal in an underground bunker’ is the way to win primary elections.”

To be fair, DeSantis mentioned neither Soros nor the Jewish faith in his remarks, but he and other Republicans regularly refer to Soros when they’re weaving their conspiracy theories, especially ones involving the “global elite.” It’s a loud, constant dog whistle for them.

Lab-grown meat, conceived as a way to reduce the enormous toll that animal agriculture takes on the environment, is produced by removing cells from an animal or a fertilized egg and placing them in a growth medium made up of nutrients inside a bioreactor where they grow into meat. The easiest (and least expensive) meats to produce are ground beef and chicken, but it’s also possible to make more “structured” products like steaks and fish filets.

Eat Just so far is focused on chicken. The company, once called Hampton Creek, was founded in 2011 and within a few years had become a major producer of plant-based products including eggs and mayonnaise. (It grew alongside Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, makers of meatlike products made from plants.) It also is developing lab-grown meat products and actually started selling them in Singapore in 2021.

TRY LOCAL A trio of chicken dishes from Eat Just, based in Alameda.

The Bay Area is home to a whole bunch of companies that are working on such products. Two of them, Eat Just and the Emeryville-based Upside Foods, got final USDA approval last year to begin selling lab-grown chicken in the United States.

But that doesn’t mean the products will be available any time soon. Lab-grown meat (one of its many other names is “cultivated meat”) is years away from being available to the general public, mainly because of the expense. Costs have fallen over the past several years. In 2013, the first lab-grown burger cost $325,000 to make. A few years later, lab-grown beef cost about $18,000 per pound to produce. In 2017, that was down to $2,400. Now, according to the Good Food Institute, a burger made from cultivated meat is selling for $35 in Israel, and chicken made by Eat Just is selling for $17 in Singapore. 

Market Contraction

By 2030, GFI estimates that prices for cultivated meat will be competitive with some conventionally produced meats.That might be optimistic. Much depends on whether production scale can be ramped up, and on what kinds of regulations are imposed on the industry (outside of outright bans, that is). It also depends on whether cultivated meat can live up to its promise of helping to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and slow global warming. That promise has come under serious doubt over the past couple of years.

That doubt has contributed to a recent contraction in the industry. The conservative assault on the cultivated meat only began in earnest in recent months, after the federal government’s initial approvals. And as it was happening, the cultivated-meat industry, after years of taking in huge amounts of capital from the likes of Bill Gates and Richard Branson, as well as many venture capitalists, started to see investments dry up and companies run into trouble. Just this month, SciFi Goods of San Leandro shut down because of “challenges in the fundraising market,” according to its CEO, Joshua March. Finless Foods, a producer of lab-grown seafood, recently laid off a bunch of people. Eat Just, though its plant-based business is apparently doing well, has had trouble paying its bills and has been the target of several lawsuits from vendors, according to an investigative report by Wired last November.

Conservative nuttery and its resulting bans have had little to do with these problems (nobody was selling cultivated meat in Florida, or in Alabama, which also recently banned the products), though of course it’s not helping. A big part of the industry’s strife is that development is way behind where it was forecast to be just a few years ago (which happens with pretty much every new technology). Another big part of it is that “everybody’s investing in AI now,” says Po Bronson, managing director of the San Francisco-based IndieBio, a venture-capital firm that has invested in Upside Foods.

So investor money is being shifted away from a promising (if not yet fully proven) technology that could help solve some of our worst environmental problems and toward a technology that is wrecking the Internet, stealing people’s work and harming the environment.

The environment was the main driver of lab-grown meat in the first place. Animal agriculture, all told, is responsible for somewhere between 15% and 20% of greenhouse-gas emissions, thanks largely to the use of fertilizer to grow feed and to the methane produced by cow burps (yes, you read that right). Early on, some advocates declared that lab-grown meat could reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint by 92%.

It turns out, though, that cultivated meat’s footprint is itself pretty huge. Or anyway, it can be. The research is kind of all over the place, but one study conducted by U.C. Davis last year got a lot of attention. Researchers there concluded that the energy consumption of lab-grown meat is often greater than that of conventional meat production by “orders of magnitude.” The industry countered that the study focused on techniques (having to do with using pharmaceutical-grade growth media, which takes a lot of energy) that have been widely used by producers, but which are now being phased out. The researchers themselves acknowledged this, and noted that if the industry were to get completely off using purified media, energy use could plummet. But the technology still wouldn’t be as green as early promoters had claimed, at least not for some years. Much will depend on how the industry is regulated.

Wokeness Woes

The environmental promise of cultivated meat remains, however, and that helps explain why right-wing loons are coming for the industry now. We’ve seen this movie before, with plant-based meat products.

That industry, too, is hurting after some years of wild growth. A lot of that can be explained by the fact that plant-based meats just don’t appeal to a lot of people; even if they’re tastier than the soy burgers of yesteryear, they don’t really taste like real meat. But it can also be explained by a conservative backlash.

“Many consumers associate plant-based meat substitutes with veganism, animal rights activism and left-wing politics,” wrote Texas State University professors S. Marek Muller and David Rooney in an op-ed published by the Houston Chronicle last month.

Impossible Foods’ CEO Peter McGuinness last December blamed his company’s recent woes on—wait for it—“wokeness.” Sounding much like Tucker Carlson immediately after being thwacked across the noggin with a frying pan, McGuinness declared that Impossible’s eco-oriented branding was not only “woke,” but “there was a bicoastalness to it, there was an academia to it…and there was an elitism to it—and that pissed most of America off.”

“Most?” Really?

DISHING IT UP Yellowtail medallions atop butternut squash bisque from BlueNalu.

Anyway, somebody should tell McGuinness that his pandering to backward Americans—who, various political-science studies suggest, amount to no more than a third of the population—would be more believable if he were to edit his LinkedIn page. There, he declares Impossible’s mission to be to “positively impact people and the planet by making delicious nutritious meat from plants with a fraction of the environmental footprint of meat made from animals.” Also, he lives in New York, though he might be a few miles inland. It all sounds pretty woke.

While McGuiness is way off on how many people were enraged by Impossible’s green packaging (he ordered it changed to red—really), he’s not wrong about how that relatively small population thinks. His anti-“wokeness” positioning is dumb, and is surely desperate, but it’s based on a real phenomenon: a good portion of the American population is terrified of any kind of change or difference, and it equates anything having to do with environmental concern (or just “concern” in general) with soft-hearted liberalism, and even with questionable sexuality.

And nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than it is with meat, which Americans, and men in particular, equate with masculinity in a very weird but very real way.

Eight years ago, a staffer at the Good Food Institute sent a public letter to In-N-Out Burger asking them to add a veggie burger to its menu. It was just a publicity stunt, really: The staffer knew In-N-Out has always been very reluctant to change its menu (also, the company is owned by kooky conservatives). But she didn’t know that she would be inundated with hate mail from dudes who were enraged by her simple request. Among the least-offensive epithets they applied to her were “candyass,” “gender-free” and “soft vegan nerd” (there was a lot of racist stuff, too).

Meat and Masculinity

In America, this kind of male panic is expressed via topics having to do with meat because “it’s all tied up with patriarchy and nationalism,” says Sparsha Saha, a lecturer on government at Harvard University who specializes in the politics of meat. The marriage of hypermasculinity and authoritarian sentiment is a global phenomenon, but in America, meat comes into the picture thanks to the country’s westward expansion, when we killed nearly all the buffalo, exterminated a lot of Native Americans and then settled the West with giant cattle ranches.

“Men eat much more meat than women do,” says Ingrid Newkirk, founder and president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a big supporter of cultivated meat. She finds the backlash against lab-grown and plant-based meat to be “amusing” and “passé,” but also deeply disturbing. A Brit, Newkirk notes that, while there is surely lots of backwardness and male panic in Britain, it’s not expressed through meat the way it is in the states, where, she says, “cowboy culture” is so dominant.

PETA got in very early with cultivated meat, way back in 2008 when it offered a $1 million bounty to the first company that made a commercially viable product. Is it weird that PETA is in favor of meat of any kind? Not really, when you consider that its whole mission is to reduce animal suffering, and meat grown in a lab knows neither pain nor joy. Has Newkirk ever tried the stuff? “Oh, lord no!” she said with a blurt-laugh. “The only way that would happen would be if someone said, ‘I will kill this cow unless you eat this.’”

CRUELTY FREE Chicken tenders from Believer Meat.

But that doesn’t mean she thinks nobody should eat it. The bans in Alabama and Florida, and those being considered in several other states, all of them red, amount to a “chest-beating exercise,” Newkirk says. While it might cause headaches in the short run, “I can’t imagine it will stick.” In this, she agrees with Tetrick, who predicts the measures “won’t survive court challenges.”

The question is, how much political mileage will these politicians get out of it? Saha speculates that DeSantis et al. have noticed the farmer protests in Europe, and are trying to forestall similar crises in their states. “The last thing they want is to have tractors lined up outside their doors,” she says.

That might help explain the timing of the American backlash against cultured meat in particular. Upon reflection, it seems odd that they waited so long. After all, cultivated meat is pretty much the perfect target for politicians playing to an anti-science, conspiracy-minded, male-panicked audience.

Canceling Innovation

In media coverage about the bans, there is rarely any mention of the central hypocrisy on display. DeSantis and other Republicans present themselves as freedom-lovers, and they constantly complain about liberals supposedly trying to run their lives. But here, they’re banning a product without even pretending to have a legitimate, legal reason to do so. They’re not saying cultivated meat is unsafe or harmful in any way except—theoretically and in the distant future—to ranchers, fishers and poultry farmers. One hopes that the judges who will ultimately rule on the constitutionality of these bans will recognize that you can’t restrict the sale of something just because it scares you, or because you think it runs counter to your “way of life.”

The right wing isn’t 100% behind these bans. The Heritage Foundation, though normally reliably in favor of every nutty reactionary sentiment that gets traction on Fox News, supports alternative proteins, as does Utah Sen. Mike Lee. But the fact is that the backlash to plant-based and cultivated meat products is almost entirely a right-wing phenomenon.

FIRST BITE Avant Meats served up fish maw at a tasting event in 2019.

In the cases where conservatives support the products, or at least defend the right to make and sell them, economics and the rule of law seem to be the guiding factors. Making cultivated meat illegal runs grossly afoul of both.

The bans might not do a lot of long-term damage, but they are “trampling on consumer choice and criminalizing agricultural innovation,” says Pepin Andrew Tuma, GFI’s legislative director. “At a time when American farmers and manufacturers face stiff competition around the world, states can either support new initiatives that create thousands of good-paying jobs, or they can play politics and police the foods people eat. When they’re done with distractions and political theater, we hope these public servants will remember their former affinity for free markets and free speech.”

Similarly, Sean Edgett, chief legal office of Upside Foods, called the bans “reckless.” Banning the products “ignores food safety experts and science, stifles consumer choice, and hinders American innovation,” he said. And “it makes politicians the food police.”

Sounds a lot like “cancel culture,” doesn’t it?

1 COMMENT

  1. It’s a shame that the “what constitutes a healthy diet” has become politicized. I lean left but that hasn’t affected my diet. I do follow the lo-carb/keto con carne diet-fixed my health issues (pre-diabetes, weight, systemic inflammatory pain, etc). The people I am in contact with run the spectrum of the political morass. You might want to read Nina Teicholz thoroughly well researched book “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet”. There is really big money behind the food fight.

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