Italians have an intimate relationship with their agriculture, which is known to produce many good foods. Farm animals are also part of this relationship, albeit a complex one. In the Alpine province of Belluno, for example, citizens can adopt a cow from a cooperative, from which they then receive cheese and butter. On the other hand, as elsewhere, people prefer not to know too much about the specific stages of the food chain, such as what happens in the slaughterhouse or when calves are raised.
Whatever the nature of the liaison between humans and animals in Italy, the government in Rome has now sent a strong signal in favor of preserving its agriculture and animal husbandry: it is banning the production of laboratory meat. A corresponding decision was taken by the cabinet of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni on Tuesday evening.
According to the now highly satisfied farmers' association Coldiretti, no other country in the world has yet issued such a ban. The corresponding bill should soon make its way through the parliamentary bodies. On the proposal of the "Minister of Agriculture and Food Sovereignty", Francesco Lollobrigida, the production and distribution of synthetic food and feed products is to be prohibited.
There is no approval in the EU yet either, though research projects are underway. If European approval were to be granted, Italy would probably not be able to resist imports because of the principle of free movement of goods in the EU. Production on Italian soil, on the other hand, is now ruled out.
The Italian government is invoking the precautionary principle. According to Health Minister Orazio Schillaci, there is "no scientific proof" that the consumption of laboratory meat has no harmful effects. Tough penalties could be imposed for violations, such as fines of 10,000 to 60,000 euros or up to 10 percent of the annual turnover of the companies involved. Tax breaks and subsidies - including from the European Union - are to be blocked for up to three years.
The Coldiretti agricultural association spoke of a historic event and expressed its hope that other countries would now join the ban. The lobby group had collected half a million signatures against lab meat in recent months, including Prime Minister Meloni's signature.
There are currently no concrete plans for lab meat production in Italy, but the politically right-wing government wants to take precautions. Politically, this fits with its line of defending Italy's traditional values. Already railing against the recent approval of insect meal in the EU, Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini said in his famously woodsy way.
"When people eat well, they do well; when they eat insect meal, synthetic meat or cheese without milk, they do badly," Salvini said at the Italian chefs' association championships. But Italy then had to agree to the sale of insect meal. In four decrees, the government recently issued precise regulations on labeling, description of ingredients and dangers for allergy sufferers.
In the case of lab-grown meat, however, the government does not want to give in. Italian culture and tradition must be defended, Agriculture Minister Lollobrigida told Parliament. Italy is concerned after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved laboratory-produced chicken fillets from the companies Upside Foods and Good Meat for human consumption. The president of dairy producers, Paolo Zanetti, spoke of "unscrupulous investors"; they would "promote a product that is an enemy of the environment under the pretext of protecting the environment."
On the contrary, lab-grown meat is seen as a promising solution in the fight against factory farming and climate change. It avoids methane emissions and animal suffering, and saves on water and land consumption; however, the energy input is still considered very high today.
In many countries, however, research and development are making progress; in Singapore and Israel, restaurants have synthetic meat on the menu. In Australia, researchers are even working on breeding muscle proteins with DNA from the extinct mammoth. In Germany, the federal government is providing financial support for a research project to produce cell-based meat without using fetal calf serum.
Italy is now closing its doors to this technical progress with its ban. The arguments of some animal welfare groups are barely getting through. The organization Oiopa Italia accuses the government of only following the interests of farmers. Synthetic meat could be the solution, not the problem - through "animal welfare-friendly production, ecological sustainability and food safety," the organization informs. Lab-grown meat represents an alternative to meat production "without cruelty," it said.
It may also be of interest to those who have not chosen a vegetarian or vegan diet, it adds. The organization cites a study by Nomisma, an Italian consulting firm, which says the global market for in vitro meat has already seen investments of 1.3 billion euros.