The new Italian government, under far-right leader Giorgia Meloni, has raised the specter of a threat to traditional food values by proposing the world’s first ever national ban on the production and marketing of cultivated meat—meat grown from stem cells in a bioreactor—and is considering another on insect-based protein. The draft law, which aims to prevent non-conventional food from appearing on Italian tables, suggests a fine of up to $65,000 for violations by retailers or producers. Never mind the fact that cultivated meat is a nascent technology, years, if not decades, away from mass-market availability. Meloni’s gastro-nationalist sop may appeal to the agricultural vote in this food-obsessed country, but if passed into law, it could end up exacerbating the bigger threat to Italy’s food system: climate change.
Europe is warming more than twice the global average, and two-thirds of the continent, including Italy, has been hit by the worst drought in at least 500 years—one made three to four times more likely by global warming, according to climate scientists. Having just come through a second warm, dry winter, northern Italy is already suffering parched soils that threaten this year’s rice and wheat crops. Rental villas in Tuscany have already been told to keep their swimming pools empty this summer in anticipation of even greater drought conditions.
Animal agriculture is one of the worst climate offenders, responsible for 14% of global carbon emissions. In its most recent report, the United Nations climate agency states that slashing emissions from meat production is critical for climate action and has long urged wealthy nations to cut down on meat consumption; another recent study notes that the food sector alone could add nearly 1°C to global warming by 2100. But asking citizens to stop eating meat is a political dead end, no matter the country. Meat alternatives could offer a more palatable solution. Peer-reviewed research shows that cultivated meat emits up to 92% less carbon gas equivalents than conventional beef production while using up to 90% less land—freeing up space for the more sustainable farming practices beloved by traditional agriculture enthusiasts. It also requires less water, leaving more for crops—and swimming pools.
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Banning cultivated meat and other protein alternatives before the industry even gets going risks curtailing vital research into sustainable food sources when it is most vital, says Alice Ravenscroft, the European policy head for the Good Food Institute, an alternative protein advocacy group. “The passing of such a law would shut down the economic potential of this nascent field in Italy, holding back scientific progress and climate mitigation efforts, and limiting consumer choice.”
Upon introducing the bill to the Senate on March 27, Francesco Lollobrigida, the country’s Agriculture and Food Sovereignty Minister, suggested that so-called “synthetic” foods were a threat to small food producers, the environment, Italian food culture, and even human health. Yet cultivated chicken produced by California startup Good Meat has been available in Singapore since 2020, and both Good Meat and California rival Upside Foods successfully passed the United States Food and Drug Administration’s rigorous pre-market safety review. A new report from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization also says there’s no evidence that cell-cultured food poses greater dangers than conventional meats. And the European Union’s Food Safety Authority says that cultivated meat and seafood “could be considered a promising and innovative solution … for fair, safe, healthy and environmentally-friendly food systems.”
Even if Lollobrigida’s bill is passed by the Italian parliament, it wouldn’t be able to protect Italian dining tables from future imports of cultivated meat produced elsewhere in Europe once they pass E.U. regulatory approval, due to EU trade laws. But it would damage Italian innovation, says Stefano Lattanzi, CEO of Italian cultivated-meat consortium Bruno Cell. Italian companies and research institutions have made substantial gains in the development of alternative meat and dairy products. The proposed law has sent a chill through the industry, he says, putting investors on hold and slowing the return of Italian entrepreneurs who went abroad in search of better opportunities. “I expected some resistance from consumers, but this frontal attack from the government” makes no sense, he says. “We are working on solutions for a climate-changed future.”
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The proposed law is less about food sovereignty and more a particularly Italian version of a political dog whistle, designed to win support by inflating Frankensteinian food fears with spurious health claims and false threats to tradition. “Here in Italy we are fanatics with our food. So when politicians use the word ‘synthetic’—which is incorrect because cultivated meat is real meat—it is something like blasphemy for us,” says Lattanzi. For that reason, he hopes, the proposed bill may have already served its purpose—rallying the base—and will not be successful in parliament, where the opposition is already gearing up to block its passage. But the proposal has strong support from Coldiretti, Italy’s 1.7 million-strong farmer’s association, despite the fact that drought is far more a threat than the distant proposition of cultivated meat’s challenge to conventional production.
What would help the Italian agriculture industry, as well as the climate, is a shift to more sustainable farming practices and diets. But asking for radical change is less politically palatable than, say, vilifying a potential solution. That approach is short-sighted. Cultivated meat is only one of several answers to the question of how we feed the world on a warming planet. Innovators will have to work hand in hand with traditionalists to solve for sustainability. This is not the time to favor one over the other in pursuit of political gain.