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Ron DeSantis Says Letting People Buy Cultivated Meat Is Like Forcing Them to Eat Bugs: Florida's Protectionist Ban on the Nascent Industry Sacrifices Conservative Principles in the Name of a Culture War That Politicizes Everything

: Jacob Sullum on

It is not yet clear whether the alternative protein products known variously as "lab-grown," "cell-cultivated" or "cultured" meat will deliver the environmental benefits touted by their boosters or when they will be appealing and cheap enough to be competitive with conventional poultry, beef and pork. But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis already has made up his mind, deeming these products so repellent that selling them should be a crime.

When he signed the nation's first ban on cultivated meat last week, DeSantis said he was "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." That bizarre, Orwellian spin, which portrays legal restrictions on consumer choice as a blow against authoritarianism, illustrates how right-wing virtue signaling -- in this case reinforced by protectionism -- compromises conservative principles by turning even activities as mundane as a trip to the supermarket into a political issue.

The technology, first developed in 2013, that revolts the governor uses cell samples to grow meat in bioreactors, obviating the need to raise and slaughter animals. Worldwide, more than 150 companies are working on such products, but they have been approved for sale only in Singapore and the United States, where their distribution so far has been limited to chicken sold by restaurants in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

DeSantis nevertheless claims to think the threat posed by this nascent industry is grave enough to justify its criminalization. His reference to mandatory bug eating, bewildering on its face, goes to the meat of his complaint.

As DeSantis tells it, a "global elite" is conspiring to stop people from eating good, old-fashioned meat based on dubious environmental concerns, leaving consumers with icky alternatives that include insects as well as "fake meat." As evidence of that conspiracy, DeSantis cites a 2021 World Economic Forum article describing insects as "a credible and efficient alternative protein source," which he says reflects "the World Economic Forum's goal of forcing the world to eat lab-grown meat and insects."

The article says nothing about "forcing" anyone to do anything, and the WEF, as a private organization, has no power to do so. But for DeSantis, the association between progressive Davos jet-setters and alternative protein is enough to justify the prohibition of federally approved food products.

Although the Yale-educated, Harvard-trained lawyer's populist pose is hard to take seriously, he evidently thinks it will appeal to Republican voters gullible enough to accept his equation of coercion with freedom. DeSantis is also playing to entrenched economic interests, as reflected in his promise to protect "100% real Florida beef" produced by "local farmers and ranchers."

One of those Florida ranchers is Dean Black, a Republican state legislator who represents a district north of Jacksonville. "Cultured meat is made by man," Black explained in defense of Florida's ban. "Real meat is made by God himself."

 

Black conceded that "our astronauts may need" what he called "Frankenstein meat" one day, and "if you go to the moon, if you go to Mars, you should be allowed to get it there." But he added that "you sure as heck shouldn't be able to get it anywhere in this country," and "you won't hear a cattleman like me advocating for it."

The governor's reasoning is essentially the same as Black's: Because I do not like these products, no one should be allowed to buy them. That attitude is hard to square with DeSantis' description of Florida as "an oasis of freedom" with a "business-friendly environment."

Speaking against the cultivated-meat ban, Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando) defended "the free market," "personal choices" and "competition," decried "protectionism" and "corporate capture," and praised "disruptors" who drive innovation. "We should refrain from controlling markets and choosing winners and losers," she declared.

These are supposed to be Republican issues. But Republicans like DeSantis have lost sight of them, blinded by a culture war that politicizes everything.

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Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @jacobsullum. To find out more about Jacob Sullum and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

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