Why do DeSantis and Florida lawmakers have a beef with lab-grown meat?

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TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis had thrown his weight behind legislation to ban what he and Republican colleagues are calling “fake meat” – beef, chicken, pork and seafood grown from animal cells cultivated in a lab.

“You need meat, OK? We are going to have meat in Florida,” DeSantis said at a recent news conference while blasting corporations for forcing “woke” ideology on consumers. “You can’t have fake meat. It doesn’t work.”

But lab-cultivated meat isn’t grown, researched or sold in Florida, and it isn’t fake. The federal government has approved it for sale after years of testing but has licensed just two companies to sell it so far.

So the day Floridians could see it is a long way off.

“This is going to feed people on their way to Mars,” House bill sponsor Rep. Danny Alvarez, R- Hillsborough County, told the members of a committee.

So, why do DeSantis and lawmakers have such a beef with cultured meat?

They’ve said it’s to protect Florida’s cattle industry, but they also appear to be serving up a fresh batch of red meat hot off the grill for their conservative base.

“In some ways, this is similar to other issues DeSantis created or fanned controversy that the average Floridian wasn’t concerned with until DeSantis brought it up,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. “He is creating an issue he can exploit for political gain.”

Hardline conservatives may oppose it for ideological reasons, he said. “The pro-meat industry is ideologically not fond of plant-based foods” and other alternative sources of protein.

“And it’s the type of issue that taps into people’s fears and concerns about big technology and Artificial Intelligence – think of this as edible AI,” Jewett said.

The legislation by Alvarez and Sen. Jay Collins, R-Tampa, would outlaw the manufacture, distribution or sale of cultivated meat in Florida, and make it a second-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail.

Collins’ bill, SB 1084, has its second committee stop Thursday before the Appropriations Committee on Agriculture, Environment, and General Government.

In a previous committee meeting, Alvarez has pointed out there is a huge economic element with over 15,000 cattle ranchers in Florida. He also said he wasn’t claiming cultivated meat was unsafe, just that enough wasn’t known about it, despite its federal approval and decades of product research and testing.

Democrat Rep. Joe Casello of Boynton Beach sees cultivated meat as a potential economic engine for Florida.

“The price of meat today, you can’t buy a good ribeye anymore, you just can’t afford it,” Casello said. “This is the wave of the future whether we ban this today or not it’s going to come. This could really solve some real issues and problems, and be good for Florida’s economic welfare.”

So far, however, the process of making it is too expensive for cultured meat to be commercially viable.

Researchers don’t see it as a competitor to cattle ranchers but as an additional tool to meet the challenges of feeding a growing world population. Scientists say 783 million people worldwide are currently facing food insecurity, a number that will grow as the population approaches 10 billion by 2050.

“Believe it or not, we are in a food arms race currently,” said Rene Vinas, a board-certified toxicologist for Berkeley, Calif.-based Upside Foods, one of the two companies licensed by the FDA. The other is Eat Just.

“We are going to see the global demand for meat and various forms of protein double by 2050,” Vinas said. “The agricultural industry is not going to meet this demand alone. We need these types of food innovations to feed Floridians.”

This ban would make Florida less competitive, and without this innovation meat prices will ride to levels unaffordable to the average Floridian, he said.

Cultivated meat also is free of disease-causing bacteria like E.coli, relatively low in cholesterol and fat-free, and it doesn’t contribute to greenhouse gases.

“Cultivated meat is a safe and healthy way of producing meat and has the potential to be an important part of Florida’s future,” said Leo Larrahondo, director of manufacturing at San Francisco-based biotechnology company Mission Barns, which uses cultivated pig fat drawn from live animals. Mission Barns is still awaiting federal approval to sell its product.