Marjorie Taylor Greene pulls lab-grown meat into the culture wars

U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) holds a news conference about her suspended Twitter account and the impending sale of Twitter at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. April 28, 2022. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

When Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., used part of her Memorial Day weekend to insinuate that the government is monitoring your movements to make sure you're eating "fake meat that grows in a peach tree dish," and not a real cheeseburger, the internet reacted as you'd expect. Jokes. Memes. Mockery of the congresswoman's pronunciation of "Petri dish."

But those in and around the world of "fake meat" - whether meats grown from stem cells in bioreactors or processed from plants to mimic meat - reacted much differently. Some suggested Greene was off in her own universe, disconnected from the bipartisan efforts to diversify the country's meat supply for the potential benefit of the environment, animals, food security and human health.

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Others, however, suggested Greene was expanding the culture wars into the esoteric world of alternative meats as a way to stoke fears about what the future might bring to conservative communities: a kind of "great replacement theory" but for beef, pork and chicken. Some say her baseless claims around the subject of alternative meats, like those around vaccines and the presidential election, will become talking points among mainstream conservatives, especially those from agricultural states.

"I think that her position on alternative proteins . . . is actually quickly becoming very standard, especially within the GOP," said Jan Dutkiewicz, a policy fellow at the Animal Law and Policy Program at Harvard Law School.

"There's already this discourse around the fact that meat is all-American," Dutkiewicz added. "It's a sign of freedom. ... It's related to supporting American farmers, American ranchers, American traditions. Where alternative protein seeks to disrupt that, it becomes a really easy target."

Dutkiewicz, who studies conventional meat production and the alt-meat industry, noted that politicians have already railed against efforts to cut back on meat consumption or reduce the impacts of animal agriculture. Such as when then-Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, held up a hamburger during a 2019 news conference, saying that if the Green New Deal went through, "this will be outlawed." Or when Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, introduced a bill in 2016 that would ban "Meatless Mondays" at military mess halls. Or when Nebraska Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts proposed a "meat on the menu" day last year.

"While meat is one of the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat, there are radical anti-agriculture activists that are working to end meat production and our way of life here in Nebraska," the governor said in a release.

Greene's comments, part of a Facebook Live segment, were not far removed from Ricketts's statement, at least in terms of bottom-line messaging: that someone wants to take away your traditional meats.

The U.S. government, the congresswoman said, wants "to know if you're eating a cheeseburger, which is very bad because Bill Gates wants you to eat his fake meat that grows in a peach tree dish. So you'll probably get a little zap inside your body, and that says, 'No, no, don't eat a real cheeseburger,' " Greene said.

By invoking Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft and an investor in alternative meat companies, Greene was relying on a well-worn political playbook, Dutkiewicz said.

She is "basically riding this wave of critique, which I think ultimately aims to appeal to a specific constituency that is conservative in the sense of being afraid of change," he said. "Here you've got Silicon Valley or Bill Gates investing in these novel products which are somehow nefarious or worse for you or seek to undermine the American way of life or American agriculture."

Greene's office did not respond to a call seeking comment. But what she might not know is that America's largest food and meat producers - companies such as Cargill, Tyson Foods and ADM - have invested heavily in alternative meats, said Bruce Friedrich, founder and chief executive of the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that works to create a "world where alternative proteins are no longer alternative."

"All of these companies are involved in both plant-based meat and cultivated meat, and it has everything to do with the bottom line," Friedrich said. "So I think that the worst thing that can happen for alternative proteins is to have it conflated with anyone telling anyone else what to eat. It's literally the opposite of that."

Cultivated and plant-based meats, Friedrich said, are about giving consumers more choices, not less.

Andrew Noyes, head of global communications and public affairs for Eat Just, the company behind the plant-based Just Egg, suggested that politicians on both sides of the aisle see the potential of alternative proteins.

"When we talk to lawmakers and staffers about cultivated meat, issues like job creation, innovation and American competitiveness are top of mind, regardless of how red or blue the district is that they represent," Noyes said in a statement.

Greene's antipathy toward lab-grown meats can't be attributed to campaign cash: Her coffers aren't lined by Big Meat, although top donors to her 2022 campaign included Paul Hofer, an owner of Hofer Ranch in California, who gave $7,900, according to data from Tassos Paphites, chief executive of BurgerBusters - which owns 80 Taco Bell franchises around the country - was another big giver, with donations totaling $6,000.

Greene's attempt to drag alternative meats into America's culture wars comes at a sensitive time for the industry. Nine years after a lab-grown hamburger made its debut in London to lukewarm reviews, the cultured meat industry has made a lot of progress - including a taste test in which experts couldn't tell lab-grown chicken from a conventional bird - but it's still far from large-scale commercial viability.

In 2020, Singapore became the first government to grant regulatory approval to a lab-grown product, a chicken nugget that Good Meat, a division of Eat Just, grew from stem cells. The nugget was first served in December 2020 at a Singaporean restaurant.

Since then, China, the Netherlands, Qatar and other countries have started to lay the groundwork for a future of lab-grown meats. The United States, meanwhile, gives mixed signals about alternative proteins. State and federal lawmakers have proposed or passed laws to limit how companies can label and market their mock meats, potentially hurting the commercial viability of the products. At the same time, the U.S. Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration continue to work out rules on how to regulate the forthcoming multibillion-dollar industry.

There's a concern among insiders and advocates that without more government support, the U.S. alternative-protein industry, currently considered the world leader, could cede ground to companies in other countries where officials are pumping money into innovation. Pointed commentary from politicians such as Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., and Greene might not help, as they steer the debate away from alternative protein's potential merits and into a stultifying culture war.

But Dutkiewicz, the Harvard researcher, doesn't think Greene and Massie are trying to influence legislation as much as they're planting tribal flags.

"There's sort of a conservative zeitgeist they're tapping into," he said. "They're signaling a sort of an allegiance to American traditionalism and opposition to coastal elites and opposition to technological disruption of ways of life. It's more signaling a worldview."

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The Washington Post's Emily Heil contributed to this report.

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