Italian plan to ban lab-grown food criticised as misguided

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

The Italian government has approved a draft law that would ban food grown in laboratories, including artificial meat, as it seeks to “safeguard our nation’s heritage”.

Under the ban, which needs to be passed in both houses of parliament, those who produce, export or import food grown from animal cells would face fines of up to €60,000 and risk having their manufacturing plants closed.

Coldiretti, Italy’s biggest farmers’ association, has lobbied for the ban, arguing that homegrown produce needs to be shielded from “the attacks of multinational companies”.

The production of cell-based food, which supporters argue avoids the need for animals to be killed and is better for the environment, has not yet taken off in Europe, and it is expected to be years before such products appear on supermarket shelves.

Italy’s move to ban the practice is “based on precautionary principles”, the health minister, Orazio Schillaci, said during a press conference. “[Because] there are no scientific studies yet on the effects of synthetic foods. We want to safeguard our nation’s heritage and our agriculture based on the Mediterranean diet.”

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Italy’s rightwing government led by Giorgia Meloni promised to protect Italian food from technological advancements when it came to power in October.

Francesco Lollobrigida, the minister for agriculture and food sovereignty, said the aim of the bill was to “protect our culture and our tradition, including food and wine”. He said: “Laboratory products, in our opinion, do not guarantee quality, wellbeing and the protection of our culture, our tradition.”

The opposition and animal rights’ groups have criticised the move. Riccardo Magi, the president of the small leftwing party Più Europa, said the government had “created a new crime”.

“This time they are taking it out on synthetic food and prefer to continue with their reckless prohibition instead of doing research and developing a technology that could allow us to pollute and kill less,” Magi said.

Although there have been advances in cultured meat in recent years, production remains small. To date, Singapore is the only country to have allowed the sale of cultivated chicken, while two companies in the US have been granted regulatory clearance to produce lab-grown chicken.

European countries including the UK, the Netherlands and Spain have announced investments in the research and development of cell-based foods.

“Italy is essentially a complete outlier here,” said Alice Ravenscroft, the head of policy at the Good Food Institute Europe, an NGO helping to build a more sustainable food system. “What we’re seeing across the rest of Europe is that other governments are eager to unlock some of the benefits of cultivated meat and are therefore being supportive.”

Ravenscroft said Italy’s reasons for the ban “seem extremely misguided”. “It’s important to stress that cultivated meat has a lot of potential benefits and the passing of such a law would essentially shut Italy off from these,” she said.

Citing research, Ravenscroft said cultivated meat could cause up to 92% fewer emissions than conventional meat, reduce air pollution associated with meat production by up to 94%, and use up to 90% less land. “We could satisfy demand for meat while protecting the environment,” she said.