The Italian government has just done something many American farmers and ranchers probably wish their government would do.
Italy banned cultivated meat, the kind grown in laboratory bioreactors from stem cells. Under a law enacted last month, cultivated meat cannot be produced or marketed in Italy. (https://www.foodnavigator.com/…)
Agriculture Minister Francesco Lollobrigida, grandnephew of the actress Gina, said Italy was proud to be the first country to impose such a ban. Which, if any, will be the second is unclear.
Many other countries are allowing, even encouraging, the technology to be developed. Singapore is the only country where people are currently eating cell-based meat, but the USDA and FDA have approved two kinds of cell-based chicken.
For regulators in most countries, including the U.S., the paramount issue is food safety. Were they to nix a proposed cultivated-meat product, it would be because they found it less safe than meat raised the old-fashioned way.
Italy's ban grows out of somewhat different concerns, concerns that may be of more interest to American farmers and ranchers. Italy is unashamedly trying to protect its food traditions -- and its farmers.
"We protect our food, our food system, to maintain the relationship between food, land and human work that has accompanied us for millennia," Food Navigator.com quoted Lollobrigida as saying. "We must protect our workers, our agricultural entrepreneurs and our citizens who have the right to eat well."
What Italy isn't protecting is its infant cultivated-meat industry. Instead, it's putting it out of business. Italian farmers lobbied hard for the measure. They are eager to see their high-tech competitors squelched.
In some countries, including the U.S., appeals to food traditions would have fallen flat. The government would have said, in effect, "We're not going to dictate one kind of food over another. As long as the food is safe, let the market decide."
In Italy, though, food traditions are strong. It was in Italy, remember, that the "slow food" backlash against fast-food restaurants began. As an Italophile -- my wife and I travel to Italy frequently and I have been studying the language for years -- I appreciate those traditions. The food in Italy is just plain wonderful. Viva la cucina italiana!
As a believer in free markets, though, I don't think Italy needs to choose between its agricultural and cultivated-meat sectors. It can have both. If the traditions are really that strong, and I think they are, many Italian consumers will reject cell-based meat.
Then, too, critics note that Italy imports nearly 60% of its beef. Why not replace some of those imports with a local high-tech product?
In addition to the ban on cultivated meat, Italy's new law takes aim at another farmer bugaboo, plant-based meats. The law forbids them from being labeled with meat-related terms like "tofu steak" or "vegan salami."
The cultivated-meat ban is far more important. That's because, first, it's an outright ban and second, in the long run cultivated meat has more potential to win consumer acceptance than plant-based. Granted, it may not achieve that potential; the technology is still evolving and the product is still too expensive. But cultivated meat is closer than plant-based to the meat people are used to eating.
In anticipation of the law, Italian cultivated-meat researchers have reportedly been leaving the country and investment in the sector has dried up. Still, the new law may not end up being the final word on the subject.
That's because Italy is a member of the European Union. The EU could, at the very least, block Italy from banning imports of cultivated meat.
Free trade between member countries is the EU's founding principle. Only in the unlikely event that the EU itself bans cultivated meat should Italy be free to keep out exports from EU countries. Several European countries are promoting the technology.
In effect, the EU can preempt local law to the extent that it erects trade barriers between member countries. It's analogous to how Congress preempted the states from passing GMO-labeling laws a few years ago by passing its own.
Should the EU make import bans illegal, you have to think Italy would then reverse the law and allow local production, as well. In that case, Italian farmers would end up no better off than farmers elsewhere, at least legally,
They might, however, have an advantage in the market. A democratically elected government could not have enacted this ban were there no popular support for it. In the end, Italy's food traditions might not need legal protection.
Urban Lehner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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