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Lab-Grown Meat Should Not Be Illegal

Lab-Grown Meat Should Not Be Illegal

Garth Brown |

In the past few weeks politicians from both parties have come out in support of bans on lab-grown meat. They object to it on the grounds that it is potentially unsafe and gross. As a farmer and fan of real food, I am sympathetic to the impulse to outlaw it. It’s hard to see how doing away with livestock to instead grow meat cells in giant metal vats could be a good thing. But sentiment alone isn’t a sound basis for legislation, and after quite a bit of thought I’ve come to believe prohibitions against lab-grown meat are misguided. Here’s why.

Is it safe?

The question of safety is vexed. Lots of smart scientists are confident our bodies would see no difference between lab-grown meat and the real thing. I haven’t heard a really plausible reason it would be dangerous, and in certain respects, like bacterial contamination, it would likely be safer than industrial meat. At the same time, I’d be hesitant to eat it myself, and I would not want to make it a staple of my diet. But does this concern rise to a level that would justify an outright ban, without evidence of harm?

While I think it would be prudent for the FDA to require at least a couple real world studies before signing off on the sale of lab-grown meat, the current set of rules allow all sorts of novel ingredients to enter the food supply with minimal oversight. Given this, its hard to see why lab-grown meat should be held to a higher standard than other foods. For example, if I had to bet I’d guess microplastics present a more acute danger to human health than lab-grown meat.

This isn’t the protection farmer need

It’s important to be clear-eyed about exactly what lab-grown meat would be replacing. Most farming in industrialized countries has the continuous mistreatment of animals built into the system. Pigs and chickens in particular often spend their entire lives in a state of distress. It’s easy to imagine lab-grown meat putting a lot of small farmers out of business, people who really do take good care of their livestock, but factory farming has already done this. Farms like mine are a drop in the bucket compared to industrial agriculture. Lab-grown meat would be replacing one industrial product with another, and in doing so it would eliminate lots of suffering.

In other words, a ban on lab-grown meat would be a boon to JBS and Cargill, but would do nothing good for actual farmers, especially not small farmers. Banning lab-grown meat would not do anything to stop the steady consolidation of farms into corporate entities.

Lab-Grown Meat is a Distraction

A funny thing about all the Sturm und Drang over lab-grown meat is that not one company has a product ready for the market. I won’t go through all the arguments, but there are good reasons to believe that it remains decades or more from commercial viability. We can argue about bans endlessly, but whether or not they pass has exactly zero real world impact for the foreseeable future.

So besides my instinct that laws should not be arbitrary, my biggest objection to lab-grown meat legislation is that it is a distraction. The food system is broken and the farm bill is a boondoggle. Far better than arguing about some distant, notional future would be to try to fix a few things in the present.