Populism in Italy scores a blow against cultured meat

‘Anti-scientific and anti-Italian’ cultured meat was prohibited from being sold by lawmakers in Italy, a rare setback for what has seemed to be a steady rise in interest in the sector.

In a decision that will have raised eyebrows among investors in the still-nascent cellular agriculture sector, Italy last week became the first country to completely ban the production, sale or import of cultivated meat or animal feed.

While only Singapore and the US have so far approved the sale of cultivated meat to consumers, several other jurisdictions are still carrying out assessments and there has been no real signs of a significant swing against the technology.

The sector has had a fair bit of momentum behind it in recent years, thanks to the Singapore and US regulatory decisions, and with China including cultivated meat and other alternative proteins in its most recent five-year plan for agriculture.

But events in Rome this year serve as a reminder that the road to widespread adoption is not going to be smooth.

Italy, of course, has a populist government, and this ban is seemingly designed to appeal to certain segments of its base, with the BBC reporting that supporters of the ban from the farming sector condemned opponents who back the technology as being “anti-scientific and anti-Italian”.

And should the European Union approve cultured meat in due course, the Italian ban would likely be challenged and probably superseded in any case.

But it is still a noteworthy sign, forming part of the same lineage that saw genetically modified crops vilified decades ago with little room for nuance in what became an acrimonious debate.

Investors who have made conviction bets on the sector will not be too deterred, as backers believe consumers will eventually come around, even if for many the idea of eating a steak grown in a bioreactor pales as an alternative to the real thing today.

Price will be a determining factor, along with quality and safety, of course.

As Jim Mellon, founder of UK-listed agtech investor Agronomics, told us in 2022: “It may take time for it to become cheaper than conventionally farmed food but we believe that the tipping point is not as far away as some people might think.”

Decisions like those taken in Italy last week will not help, and show how exposed agriculture as a sector can be to regulatory issues, thanks to the keen interest that politicians will always take in ensuring their populations do not go hungry and have access to safe, high-quality food.

The start-ups in cellular ag will have to continue making their case along those lines – and the backing of patient capital will help them to do it.